Known within the comics community as the king of licensed properties, Dark Horse Comics has become a major force within an industry once dominated by the "dynamic duo" of DC and Marvel Comics. Over the course of its 17-year history, the company has explored a number of different publishing genres, releasing horror titles, sci-fi epics, and popular manga reprintings. The publisher has even garnered attention from Hollywood movie moguls thanks to the comics-to-film fad currently sweeping Tinsel town.
But through it all, the company's publisher, Mike Richardson, has never lost sight of why he started Dark Horse Comics in the first place his childhood fascination with the medium itself.
CINESCAPE: How did you get into the business of comic books?
MIKE RICHARDSON: I enjoyed comics as a kid. I read SUPERMAN and BATMAN, and was there for the beginning of the Marvel explosion. I collected them before there was such a thing as a comic collector and sort of fell away from them during high school, but when I was in college I was drawn back to them by artists like Mike Kaluta, Barry Windsor-Smith and this whole new wave of comic art and comic artists that arrived during the early '70s. So that sort of pulled me back into comics and I looked at them differently then as a kid. I was looking for different types of things from them. When I started my business, I still felt that comics weren't generally delivering what I was looking for and had this idea that maybe we could do them better. So we decided to start a comic book publishing company. Even though I knew nothing about it, I learned quickly.
CINESCAPE: When was that?
RICHARDSON: That was 1986. In 1980, I had started a retail store and we actually met a number of writers and artists. One of the things that they would all mention when we would have them in the store for signings was that they didn't own or control their own creations. So the concept of Dark Horse Comics was that writers and artists would share in the control and ownership of the properties that we published. We sort of subscribed to a Bill of Rights for Creators and that's sort of how the company started. We drew top talent like Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, Mike Mignola, John Byrne and the leading talents of that particular time.
CINESCAPE: Were you at all intimidated by the big publishers like Marvel and DC?
RICHARDSON: No, we liked to get in their face. The idea was there's a different way of doing things. Companies like Image and some of the others that came after very clearly wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for Dark Horse offering the creative rights situation to the creators that left the big companies. While there had been creator owned companies before us, the big difference between Dark Horse and those other companies was that not only did we offer the creators the right to own and participate in the profits from their own creations, but we also offered them page rates that competed with the big companies. So a creator didn't have to starve to create his own book. Previously, it would've had to have been a labor of love for a creator to do a book that he owned. We came in and said, "No, we're going to pay you the same kind of rates you'd get at a big company and you'll have the added benefit of at least being involved in the ownership depending on the type of project we were doing of your own book."
CINESCAPE: Were you looking for a particular genre of comics (i.e. superhero books, science fiction, etc.)?
RICHARDSON: Basically, I was looking for books that interested me. When we were looking for the right project to start out with, I came across Paul Chadwick's CONCRETE and I immediately knew that was the book I wanted to launch my company with. And we did, and it was a huge success and it was promoted by a number of people. I know Harlan Ellison at the time got behind that particular project. We received a lot of critical acclaim for the early books that we published, titles like CONCRETE, MR. MONSTER, THE FLAMING CARROT and a number of books that shared some elements with the characters of mainstream comic book companies but were different would probably never be published by those companies. And the funny thing was, after we achieved great critical success those companies started trying to rein in the properties we were publishing trying to persuade the creators to bring them back to their company.
CINESCAPE: At what point did you decide to begin publishing licensed properties?
RICHARDSON: While we were receiving critical acclaim, we weren't seeing some of the sales numbers we wanted. So we decided one way to gain a higher profile for the company was to take well-known characters that you'd find in motion pictures and do comic books based on them. We chose the movies that we'd like to see sequels to. The first of those was ALIEN, of course, and that was a tremendous success for us. We followed that up with PREDATOR again a tremendous success for us. And then, of course, we put the two together for ALIENS VS. PREDATOR, which sold billions. So because we started licensing movie characters, the studios sort of found us and started paying attention to our own characters the characters we were publishing with our original creator base. They started calling us and asking to license the properties, and we basically were aggressive in that we wanted to be involved as producers. So we went for a couple of years where nothing really happened and then around 1989 two things happened. First of all, I met Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin who said, "Let's do movies if you want to do movies." Second, we brought THE MASK into New Line Cinema. We had actually had offers for more money at bigger studios, but Mike DeLuca promised me we'd make it if I brought it over there. So I believed him and he kept his promise.
CINESCAPE: It sounds like there's still a real appreciation for the root of your business the comics.
RICHARDSON: Yeah. Obviously, we love the making movies part, but comics are my first love. We love to create great properties and find great properties, and Dark Horse Comics is the soul of our company. Right now we're in the midst of a big talent search and we're finding some amazing things. We're trying to get back to our roots as a publishing company and find new creators and amazing properties, and we're having some success. I can tell you that certainly the reaction to the program has been overwhelming. I've gone through hundreds and hundreds of submissions and I have a big container full of submissions waiting for me because I have promised to go through them all myself.
Check back for part two of our "Publisher Profile" as Richardson discusses Dark Horse's move into feature films.