When Mike Richardson was a kid, he used to walk into the same store in Milwaukee, Oregon, a suburb of Portland, and buy comics off the rack. It was a weekly event, one that many can relate with, and one that began a life-long love of the industry. As an adult, Richardson returned to that exact location and fulfilled a dream when he bought the land to open what would become the headquarters of Dark Horse Comics. It wasn’t quite that simple, there were a few thousand steps along the way- and a few decades in between — but Richardson eventually managed to realize his dream of creating an independent comic book publisher, where artists could be free to create without the fear of losing their properties to a corporate entity.
Birth of a Dark Horse
The result is Dark Horse Comics, a company that has managed to carve out an impressive niche in a world that is dominated by the long tenured heavyweights with deep pockets and big corporate owners: Marvel and DC Comics. And while the Dark Horse name may be at least passingly familiar to people that aren’t into comics, odds are the story of Dark Horse is not. And that is a shame.
Dark Horse first began in 1986 as an offshoot of the Oregon-based comic retail chain, “Things From Another World.” Since then, Dark Horse has grown to become the third-largest comic book publisher in the US, and holds the distinction of being the largest independent comic and manga publisher in America. The company has over 350 properties under the Dark Horse corporate umbrella that includes, among others, Dark Horse Entertainment which is responsible for the movie hits Hellboy and Sin City, to name a few.
When you first enter the headquarters of Dark Horse Comics, the first thing you notice is the silence. Not in the monastery sense, just in the contradiction that it illicits from your mind’s eye. Dark Horse is a business — one based in entertainment — but still a business. The offices are filled with very skilled, very talented people there to do a job. They need to be smart, and are constantly forced to find creative ways to keep up with companies like DC that have massive budgets and the benefit of a parent company like Warner Bros. to bank roll them into taking chances that smaller publishers like Dark Horse cannot afford.
This stands in stark contradiction to the images of a Willy Wonka-like playground for comic fans you might expect, with oompa loompa-type guides, walking you over rivers of comics as people swing from harnesses overhead to simulate flight, with a break room that serves as a raucous, Mos-Eisley-like den of inequity, full of comic fans arguing over what physics make Superman fly faster. Obviously that is ridiculous… sadly.
Opening the Door to Adults
But that is the first lesson you need to understand when dealing with Dark Horse, or any companies in the comic industry. There is a preconceived prejudice, inherent in many of us, that refuses to see the comic book industry past the immature goggles that our childhood experiences force upon us. Until recently– you can probably make a good case that the shift began sometime in the 80’s — reading comics was the providence of the young. The industry was slanted that way, and the fanbase accepted it as such, not counting a small niche following. It wasn’t until people like Richardson (and several other visionary writers and editors like Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Matt Wagner to name just a few of dozens) tried to expand the field to include an older, more mature demographic.
Once the door was opened to allow an older, smarter fanbase, the industry began to see massive growth potential into new fields. The acceptance of that simple fact, that comics could be for more than kids, changed everything.
Dark Horse was among the pioneers of that new movement, with titles slanted to a more mature crowd. The flash of the superheroes were replaced by the intelligence of characters like the assassin(s) Grendel, and the soul-searching Concrete. A new avenue for storytelling had begun to take shape, and Dark Horse was among the first to capitalize on it.