SDCC 2011: Talking To Mike Richardson About 25 Years Of Dark Horse Comics

Transcription by Katrina King. Katrina could defeat Aliens and Predators and Hellboys, oh my!

Twenty-five years ago Mike Richardson began publishing Dark Horse Presents, the debut title from the then new company Dark Horse Comics. From that humble beginning, the Portland-based publisher has gone on to become the third biggest comic book publisher and launching names such as Mike Mignola and Paul Chadwick into the spotlight. Known as a haven for unique creator-owned comics as well as high quality film and TV tie-ins, Dark Horse has resurrected the book that started it all with a new 80-page edition of Dark Horse Presents. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con I sat down with founder and publisher Richardson to talk about Dark Horse’s beginnings and publishing philosophy.

POP CULTURE ZOO: 25 years ago a well known comic store owner named Mike Richardson started publishing a comic book anthology. What was your vision for Dark Horse comics then?

MIKE RICHARDSON: Well, it was a couple things. Obviously the vision, once we started it, was to get the best creators in the world and offer a deal that they hadn’t had before, which was basically control of the properties they created. So rather than signing the back of a check and signing everything away, they would enter into a partnership with the publisher. And if they got tired of the publisher, or the publisher somehow didn’t live up to his end of the deal, they could leave. I was a commercial artist when I started the company, so I actually was on the side of the artist, against myself as a business man sometimes. So I started Dark Horse. The other thing is, is that we wanted to do comics ourselves. A friend of mine, Randy Stradley was working with the LA Times and I called him and said we’ll do this, you wanna come up and get involved? And he said sure. So a lot of the early books and stories we did were written by us. Never imagined that we’d end up in a business like we have now.

PCZ: Not in a booth like this…

MR: Right.

PCZ: I think one of the things that has really impressed me about Dark Horse is a lot of the names at the top, and even some of the creators are the same names that were there 25 years ago.

MR: Yeah, well, I mean, people talk to me and they say what do you plan to do when you retire? And I’m like, what? Retire? What does that mean? I mean, I love what I do. I like what goes on in the culture. I like to be involved in the comics, obviously we’re involved in the comics, the films, we make toys, you know we’re very pop culture. And now with the digital revolution that’s going on it’s even more exciting because of the new technology, there’s new ways to present comics and there’s new ways to make comics even a richer experience. So it’s all very exciting. So.. go … do what? Go fishing? I can’t fish. My attention span’s too short I gotta get out. My friend took me fishing, I made him pull over after about a half hour and let me out. I can’t sit there and do nothing.

PCZ: I think it’s very obvious with Dark Horse and where you started you definitely love comics, and why would you ever give that up?

MR: I wasn’t chasing money, I was trying to do the things that I loved to do. And that led to comics, being involved with comics, that led to film, to toy collecting, I collect toys. I mean it’s all an extension of things I was interested in at one time. And of course, when you have a good vision for your company, you end up working with good people. And we have so many great people at Dark Horse that are really terrific. I mean, people that have come out of their own businesses, or other disciplines to be at Dark Horse. My executive vice president Neil Hankerson was a restauranteur and now he’s a comic guy.

PCZ: Nice, so you convert more all the time! One of the things in particular about you that’s impressed me; there are a lot of comic book companies and a lot of the owners or publishers of those at some point end up being more of the mouth piece or just have their name on it. But you keep your fingers in it.

MR: Well, I keep my fingers in it to a point where some of my editors would probably wish I’d step back a little bit, but it’s not gonna happen.

PCZ: Was there any other reasons, other than it just being the 25th anniversary, you decided it was the time to bring Dark Horse Presents back?

MR: It seemed like a good moment to do it, but I’d been thinking about it for a long time. In fact, no sooner had we ended the original Dark Horse Presents that I started thinking about it, but, you know, you look for the right moment. I felt that maybe we were missing some of the energy we had had earlier on. Because as you grow, corporate forces, as much as I try to keep them at bay, they just infiltrate your company. You have so many people working, and you’re trying to make things work on a schedule, and there’s reasons companies turn that way. I felt, just personally, that we needed to rejuvenate the whole line in the company and the energy in the company. We were built on the energy of Dark Horse Presents. The creators came in, they tried things out, some of them became books, some of them became very successful books, and that drove our company for a long time – the books, and properties and IP’s that came out of Dark Horse Presents, particularly those by individual creators. So, when I’m thinking how to revitalize our company, I’m thinking this was the vehicle that started it and this is the vehicle that can be the key to new properties and finding the new talent. A lot of the big names now were just brand new talent when we started Dark Horse. It’s sort of intimidating for a creator who’s brand new to say “Look, I’ll commit to this brand new series.” But you can do an 8 page story or two 8 page stories, or three 8 page stories and see that you like it and move on and use it as a launching pad for something that might become much larger. Which, Hellboy and Concrete and many great series did just that.

We’re a different company now, so we can do an 80 page, perfect bound, full color, really terrific comic. And the interesting thing is now, I can go to the big names over the years, and they say yes immediately, they want to do it. Neal Adams, I’ve been trying to get Neal to do something for us for 25 years, Neal’s now doing his own work with Dark Horse, in Dark Horse Presents and other projects that we have as a result of him getting involved in Dark Horse Presents. Every major creator that I’ve asked to be involved said yes immediately, which is gratifying, and the new creators coming up know Dark Horse Presents. They remember reading it, they like it, and they want to be involved. They want to have the success of people like Frank Miller, Mike Mignola, Paul Chadwick have had with their creations.

Last year at this con, I went down artist alley and found one of the artists for one of the big two, I won’t say which one, who works on one of the big books, I said, “I really think you’re talented, I’d like you to work for Dark Horse.” And they said, “Why? I work for -insert name of one of the big two.” And I said, “Well, let me ask you a question: Do you know who did Superman 10 years ago?” He said, “No.” I said, “Do you know who did Spider-Man 10 years ago?” He said, “No.” I said, “Do you know who did Batman 10 years ago? The biggest title?” He said, “Why are you asking me these questions?” I said, “Just bear with me, can I ask you a couple more?” He said, “Yeah, but why are you asking me?” I said, “Just bear with me. Do you know who did Sin City 10 years ago?” He said, “Yeah, Frank Miller.” I said, “Do you know who did Hellboy 10 years ago?” He said, “Yeah, Mike Mignola” I said, “Do you know..” He said, “Stop.” And he handed me his card.

That’s the thing, if you’re talented, you can make a decent check working on somebody else’s property. Or, if money’s your motivation, you can make a lot more creating your own characters and content and controlling what happens to it yourself. Mike and Frank are great examples of that. We all know 300, Sin City, Hellboy. Those creators are in control of their futures and themselves because they chose to go a different route. And there’s so many talented people out there that I don’t think really believe that that happens, but it happens a lot. And if you’re really talented, and really good, that’s the way to go. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

PCZ: That’s a terrific philosophy. I think what blew me away with the new Dark Horse Presents, is as you were announcing stories and talent, I’ve been reading comics long enough and I’m old enough, that the names were just like, “All these guys are going to be in one book? This is insane!”

MR: That’s what I’m trying to do now, I’m trying to put great new names as well as old names. More heavily weighted with some of the big established names, but as we go it’s going to be an even mix. Lots of surprises. Some of the new creators I’ve come in contact with and found, will blow peoples’ socks off. Amazing stories. Amazing art. And so there’s a whole new batch of creators waiting to make a big mark on the comics market, but it’s also, again, people like Neal, and Howard Chaykin, Jim Steranko and those people coming back on the market and showing why they are who they are. By the way, one of my favorite artists sort of decorates the book, and that’s Jeff Darrow, who’s guest spotted all through the book, and that’s so much fun. You can have as much fun with one of Jeff’s drawings as another artist’s entire story.

PCZ: Did you ever think 25 years ago, owning a comic shop, you’d be working with these guys one day?

MR: You know, I never really thought about it that way. I’ll tell you a story. Early days of Dark Horse, I called John Bolton, I’m a big admirer of his work. I told him I wanted him to work at Dark Horse, a new company. And John told me, “Why would I work for Dark Horse? I don’t know who you are. I’m happy where I’m at.” Which sort of irked me, and John and I are very good friends, now. I said, “John, let me tell you something. Not only are you going to work for me, your whole family is going to work for me.” And he says, “Yeah right.” That was the end of the conversation. About 6 years later, we were here at San Diego, and I walked over to John, I said, “John, who’s your latest book for?” And John said, “Well, it’s for you.” And I said, “Where’s Liliana?” his wife. And he said, “Well, she’s writing you a Dark Horse UK book” And I said, “But what about your sons..” And he said, “They’re over helping…” And he looked at me and he said “You bastard!” Because he remembered I had said that. So I guess the idea is you get the idea in your head and you just try to push forward. So it’s not that I never thought I would, but I never thought I wouldn’t. You know what I’m saying? So you just keep pushing forward, and you try to work with the people you can, in any kind of endeavor. The biggest talent is no different than the guy you wanna help design your shelves and your book store. They’re just people doing what they do and that’s the way I look at it. I’m not afraid to ask anybody to do anything.

PCZ: Dark Horse has also had success having long term relationships with licensed products such as Star Wars and Aliens vs. Predator. What was your thinking or philosophy when you went after these properties?

MR: We wanted to have long running characters and well known characters like Marvel and DC did, but it takes a long time to have long running, well known characters. Up until that point, movie comics were sort of thrown out there, not very well done. Sometimes they were pretty sloppy in the approach. No vision for an overall title, just try to sell the comic based on the logo on the front of the comic. We had a very different idea. We thought we could use these characters and get more attention for the company, but we picked movie properties we really liked, and we would create sequels to the movies, and then we’d go out and get the best staff and talent. For instance, we got Aliens, and we brought our buddy Mark Verheiden who was just breaking in, just getting going on his own career, and we brought him up to Portland and we sat down and we plotted the greatest sequel we could think of to an Aliens movie. Then of course, we put it out there, and it changed the way licensed comics were seen after that. That Aliens six issue series sold hundreds of thousands of copies, we followed up with another series that was even more popular. We picked up another property and that was Predator, which was coming from Fox also, sold hundreds of thousands of copies of every issue. Trying to figure out what to do next, we put the two together got an Aliens vs Predator which has sold over a million. So it was just a matter of being fans and connecting to fans of different film properties. Knowing what they like, knowing what they wanted to see, because we wanted to see the same thing. And then, bringing that all to bear in a story, in a sequel to a movie. We brought the same approach to Star Wars. Dark Empire was literally the movie that comes after Return of the Jedi. Fans love it just like we love it. We want to read those, I want to read those things! I want to make those things. The comics that I make, the toys that I make or the movies that I make at least start out as the comics, toys and movies I want to have or see.

PCZ: Anything you’re going to be writing any time soon?

MR: I’m looking at a couple things. I’m working with a Disney artist by the name of Bruce Smith called The Atomic Legion. And I’m also working on the next Star Wars book, the third chapter of Crimson Empire, sort of explaining some stuff from the first two, and bringing a new turn in those particular characters.

PCZ: Well, thank you very much for your time.

MR: Sure. Great talking to you.

OUR SDCC 2011 COVERAGE IS BROUGHT TO YOU BY:
Jenny Hanniver, Lorelei Miller, The Nord Family, Kyle Winters, Angela Dean, Erik Bruhwiler, Spencer Fornaciari, Teresa Everett, Katrina King, Jayson Peters, Michael Eshom, Renata Kanclerz, Kimberly Potts, @timegeek

About Joseph Dilworth Jr.

Joseph Dilworth Jr. has been writing since he could hold a pencil (back then it was one of those big, fat red pencils, the Faber-Castell GOLIATH. Remember those? Now that was a pencil!). As editor-in-chief and instigator of this here website he takes full responsibility for any wacky hi-jinks that ensue. He appreciates you taking the time to read his articles and asks that you direct any feedback, criticisms, questions about life directly to him by clicking here.