The Best Part: Ringing in the New with Dark Horse’s Mike Richardson
Who better to talk about the future of the comics industry than someone who’s been inventing the future of comics for nearly four decades now? To wrap up this year, we sit down for a full session with Dark Horse Publisher and President Mike Richardson.
We don’t get to the best part up front, that comes over time. But getting to the best part begins with an “obviously.”
It’s a throwaway, but Mike Richardson says “obviously,” and it speaks volumes. On the other end of the line, I can hear the winter come creeping, cold and frost, and snow. It’s not that wonderlandy sense of winter yet, the kind filled with Elves and Reindeer and free goodies. It’s just winter, this winter before another. And against the coming of the cold, Mike MikeX says “obviously,” drawing a breath on each end to emphasize that this “obviously” appears between parenthesis.
We’re talking about Mike Mignola whose iconic Hellboy earlier this year celebrated its 20th anniversary. The question was about the unprecedented success of the character and the character's world and setting. Hellboy seems like one of those great characters that just always needed to happen—son of one of the Lords of Hell, and destined to usher in the Apocalypse, Hellboy’s always bitterly opposed his own origins and destiny. Being raised by a Defense Department black budget ghosthunting government agency, the Bureau for Paranormal Research & Defense, has allowed Hellboy to adopt an “average joe” All-American outlook. And in this way, Mignola has expanded on the thematic wrestlings of writers like Poe and Lovecraft who mix the naturalism of Mark Twain or Walt Whitman with older European horror tropes like Mary Shelley or Lord Dunsany.
So, 20 years ago, or earlier, when Mike first approached Mignola, was there any thought, even the possibility that Hellboy my explode the way it did, spinning off at least four independent stories? Mike answers, but I stick on that parenthetical “obviously.” It’s that obviously that speaks volumes.
“Well in the case of Hellboy, all those years ago, I’ve seen Mike’s (Mignola’s) work at several other companies,” Mike replies, “He wasn’t as well know as he is now, obviously, but I saw something in what he was doing and started chasing him. Back in those days we used to target artists and writers to come to Dark Horse. Not that we don’t do that now, but that started early on.”
Mike continues, “And I chased Mike for quite a while and he would always say things like ‘Why are you so interested in me.’ He’s very self-effacing. And I would say, ‘You’ve got a create something on your own, and bring it to Dark Horse.’ And eventually he said, ‘I’ve got something but you probably won’t want it.’ And I asked him what it was, and he said ‘It’s Hellboy.’ And I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ And he was sort of surprised, he expected me to be surprised by the title.”
The parenthetical “obviously,” speaks to how much Mike is self-effacing in his own right. Mignola’s career exploded, in part, because of the business model that Mike employed for Dark Horse from the very beginning. That Hellboy’s creative and critical success is at least in part, partnered with commercial success.
Mike continues mixing memory with personal insight, “Over the years I found that Mike is very steeped in certain types of source material. Obviously there’re the Lovecraftian elements, and other horror elements that have helped him build his universe. And he’s taken both history and these sources that he draws from for inspiration, and trimmed them into something very much his own.
“I think that he’s the epitome of what we were looking for when we started Dark Horse. And that’s a creator who does create his own universe with his own vision and his own style—something completely his own. There’ve been a few really success creators that we’ve worked with who’ve been able to do the same thing. People like, obviously Frank Miller (Sin City, 300) and Eric Powell (The Goon) have created these huge worlds. Paul Chadwick of course with Concrete.
“And our guess our approach is once we find these people, we see where they’re going and we give them the space they need to continue to create, as long as they feel inspired to stay and work on their creations and develop these worlds.
“In Mike’s case I know he has a plan to end that particular story, I don’t know how long it will take him to get there, but he seems to know where it’s going. He says he knows where it’s going. So we’re all just going to wait and see what happens. He’s just been so brilliant at creating this story that I for one can’t look away from it. I have to continue to follow it and see where it’s going. I have to follow the character.
“The interesting thing when you talk about transmedia is that Mike has created his world, and even though it’s crossed over for instance into films, the films are a different animal than the graphic novels. There’s something very different, and Mike understands that. He understands that the comic series is the comic series and the movies are the movies. The two things are based on the same character. But the real world is Mike’s writing and art.”
Mike picks up on transmedia and properties that have crossed over from one medium into the next, from an earlier strand in the conversation. We first referenced transmedia by talking about one of Dark Horse’s newer projects, The Strain, a transmedia venture that sees comics and a TV show spin out from a series of three novels. It’s with Mike talking about Hellboy and the transmedia that Hellboy’s been able to effect, that I’m lead to a deeper appreciation for the long march Dark Horse has had through its nearly four decades of history. Since the early ‘90s there there hasn’t been a half-decade that Dark Horse hasn’t made a meaningful impact on the comics industry.
Earlier, Mike spoke about exactly that, Dark Horse’s long march through history, before getting to The Strain, “We started out very early on with licensed properties. We took an approach that probably wasn’t in vogue at the time, which was to literally try to create sequels to the films. For instance with Aliens, Terminator and ultimately with Star Wars. So we were very involved in working and plotting with the writers on those particular books. We had a very successful run on those books. Of course Star Wars went for over 20 years, but we’ve recently reintroduced Aliens, timing it with Prometheus. So our approach has continued.
“I think when we went off track some years ago, with some of our properties that began as films or other media, was when we sort of abandoned that approach to let each writer go where they wanted to go. I think there needs to be some kind of oversight on continuity in these properties, that keeps consistency and keeps fans happy and keeps fans on a continuity thread, I guess you’d say. Something that keeps that continuity with the movies, and in the case of The Strain, with the novels. Obviously with The Strain Guillermo (del Toro) and Chuck (Hogan) they did the story in novels, and were very careful in what direction they went with the work. And of course (writer) David (Lapham) and (artist) Mike (Huddleston) have done a terrific job with the (comic)books. Because the novels laid groundwork, the evolving series in the comicbooks already have their blueprint story-wise. So it makes the job a lot easier. As you can see in the television series, and the comics, they pretty much echo the stories, and the print in the three novels.”
Then, almost as if offering a meditation on what he just said, Mike offers, “Well, one of the things we think that, make these types of stories interesting is the fact that they could actually happen. We try to ground them in some type of reality. And I think that this approach makes these types of stories more frightening or makes them closer to home. So adding an element of “this-could-happen” I think is crucial to the making of a good horror story, in the case of The Strain for instance.”
By the time I return to the present moment of the interview, with Mike speaking about Hellboy, the conversation is enriched by the years of history. But even that is not the best part. Mike references the expansion of Hellboy into various media. Hellboy was one of Dark Horse’s earliest expansions into transmedia, even before the term itself entered into the popular imagination.
Mike continues, “A character like Hellboy is a great opportunity to try different things. And the films were successful, that spawned a discussion with Sam Register (currently President at Warner Bros. Studios) who was at Cartoon Network at the time, and was such a big fan, was hoping he could do something. And the people at Starz were hoping they could do something. So basically what we did was create a premiere of the animated film, two of them actually, that would premiere on the network. That would then be released as DVD films.
“So there’re actually four Hellboy films, and the tone of the animated films is different than the tone of the feature films, which is different from the comic series by Mike. Although they’re all based on the same character, and you recognize that same character throughout. In fact in the animated films they used the same cast. All these are recognizable as Hellboy, but each having his own tone. Obviously because of the media it’s being presented in. Then they’re things like Itty Bitty Hellboy that just came out recently. And the novels. Hellboy is just such a rich character, and it’s just such a rich world to display and to try different things.”
The response begs a different question. Dark horse has for the longest time, almost since the very beginning of the company, been involved in transmedia. With projects like the original Terminator and Aliens comicbooks, and transitioning The Mask onto film giving Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz their first breakout roles on the big screen. What about the principles and the values and the “design” ethics that Dark Horse approaches such projects with? And beyond that question, how do those values and “design” ethics drive the real gambit of any popculture venture—the test for which is how long the character or setting remains in the popular imagination. Comics publishers coming up in the ‘90s have had to contend with the longevity of DC characters that stretch back to the ‘40s and Marvel characters that stretch back to the ‘60s.
Surely these values show in projects like Hellboy, where the character works as well as the iconic character, as it does in the specific medium if finds its. Reading Hellboy in the comicbooks makes for a great comicbook, watching Hellboy on the animated movies makes for a great animated film. And yet, Hellboy’s always that iconic Hellboy we’ve come to know and love.
When the answer comes, it feels like the best part of that interview. And it is, at least it is, up until this point. Mike MikeX launches into a considered reply that is equal parts poignant and perspicacious.
He offers, “Right, look, Marvel and DC have had what, 60 or 70 years head starts with their characters so y’know, any company that tries to launch a new and lasting character or title is up against it from the beginning. But there’s something interesting that happened with Dark Horse, and maybe other companies, but I’m not aware of them, at least not to our extent. I was asked this same question in an interview one time, ‘How do we expect to compete with Marvel and DC?’ And I pointed out that if you look at if you look at our first year, 1986, I think we’ve introduced more lasting characters than either one of those companies. If you look at the lists, look at the characters created after 1986, I think we’ve competed quite well with them. It’s still hard to get these books launched, even harder these days, in the comicbook market. But some of these properties transcend the comics market and reach out into the world.
“You mention Hellboy and Sin City, and you talk about the films that have been based on those characters and properties. There are others on the verge of transcending in the same way. If you look at even some of our earliest characters like the Mask—there’s not been anything outside of comics based on the Mask for a number of years. But I would guess that pretty much everyone you ask would know exactly who you’re talking about if you talk about the Mask. People still ask me, “Is there going to be another Mask movie,” despite the unfortunate second film.
“But you create these characters and once they move into the popculture consciousness, they’re there forever. And I think that that’s not necessarily the intent when we start these things, what we’re worried about and what the creators like Mike are worried about, is creating a great comic and a great story.
“I can say from our standpoint, it comes from a genuine passion for these comics and these characters and the desire to make great books. And not necessarily to sell a million, although obviously we’d like to do that. But we’d like to create great books we can find an audience for. The kinds of books people can pay attention to an enjoy, and the kinds of books that do have the ability to last over decades.
“I think we have been able to do that. And there’re other companies doing that now. You have to look at Walking Dead as something that’s going to be around, even after the television series. It’s moved into the popculture consciousness in a very real way. So our goal is to find those titles that resonate with us, those titles that we love. And then to put them out in a way and make people aware of them and try to keep them around. Obviously media is a big help. Once a comic gets turned into a film or television series, simply that gives the idea a wider reach than the comic series.”
We segue into talking about talent development. Dark Horse has always had a rich history of not only pursuing but also developing talent. Right through the ‘90s and onwards, Dark Horse have opened their doors to submissions from just about anyone. And even now, there’s the ongoing publication of Dark Horse Presents, the company’s anthology magazine that puts new talent together with established creators.
Mike addresses the idea behind the anthology magazine directly. “Well I can say that in the past we’ve always looked at new talent, we’ve had at talent contests. We’ve looked at books by people who submit who’ve been completely unknown and have sometimes never even worked in comics before. But when we look at their work and see what they’re trying to do, we find something of interest. These days we’re still looking for these types of projects. Basically our incubator lives within the pages of Dark Horse Presents. With that publication we have a nice mix of established creators and also give a place to creators who are not so well known, who might benefit from being in an anthology book with well-known and established creators. This gives these creators and exposure they haven’t had before.
“We’re looking for new artists all the time. And we find some amazing ones that for some reason or another have never worked in comics. That’s an ongoing process. And we’re looking for places where maybe we can get new talent published without always having to commit to a four or six issue series, which turns out to be very expensive. So we have that vehicle which is Dark Horse Presents. And we ask these creators to do either, could be a single or multiple chapters in a series, for the anthology magazine. So if we think someone is talented we try to find a place for them and try to keep them working with Dark Horse.”
We try to find a place for them and try to keep them working with Dark Horse… That really does sound like the best part, a commitment by Dark Horse to incubating new talent, to ensuring that there will always be comics. It sounds like waking up early and still hanging up until after your hot chocolate to open the presents—allowing the anticipation to build to a crescendo. That it turns out that this isn’t the best part, this isn’t even the part before the best part.
Mike continues, talking about market pressures in a way that aren’t market pressures, but market opportunities. “We’ve always tried to stay ahead of the curve, even in a market that’s always evolved. People are noticing it more these days, because they think the changes are extreme. But since we’ve been in it, since I’ve been in it as a retailer in 1980, and moving on from there, way back when I was in my twenties the comics market has continued to evolve. It’s never stopped evolving and that’s going to continue at maybe a faster pace, because of the introduction of the electronic element.
“But it’s a different market than what it was decades ago. It’s an older market, and it’s fewer kids, which has caused a change in the material. And we’ve also seen a change in the type of reader who picks them up.
“It’s always a change in the way comics are distributed. I said it before, when I was buying comics as a kid you could find comics everywhere. You found them in your drugstore in your variety store, even in your grocery store there were comicbooks. Even in your bus station there were comicbooks. You went to an airport, a train station, wherever you went, there were comicbooks. You couldn’t turn around and there they were.I went to a parochial school, they shipped Treasure Chest comicbooks into the school.
“So comicbooks were everywhere you looked. And obviously that hasn’t been the case in recent years. When comics have such large distribution system, and when you see them everywhere, naturally sales are going to be higher. The distribution channels shrink, and people have less access to those books, obviously sales are going to shrink along with the distribution. We saw a continuing decline in distribution over the years. To the point where I think at one point over 80% of all comics were sold in comic shops. The fact that I’ve tried to point out since digital first became an issue was that digital wasn’t going to be the demise of comics, which had already been declining decade by decade, it was going to be the element that revitalized comics.
“Because, suddenly comics are in front of people again. And when you have the number of people that digital comics, for instance, can be distributed to, it seemed only obvious that even a small percentage who saw or would pick up the digital deciding to look for the actual physical copies would be a huge boost to the traditional comicbook format, and their sales.
“So digital is a way it’s going to go, there’s no way to stop it. The kids that are growing up now are much more comfortable reading the book digitally than the generation before them. They live in that world, the live in a world of computers and handheld devices and readers. Video games are only a step away from comics, of course.
“So they have an affinity for that distribution method. Much like people of my generation understood television in a way that our parents never could. We were the first television generation. We got it. And there was an innate ability to understand it and use it and watch it that didn’t exist in the generation before us. So it’s the same way with this new generation. They have an innate ability for this new medium.
“So as much as we try, we’ll never be able to catch up with them. Distributing comics in that method is here and it’s here to stay and it’s only going to get larger and larger. For those of us who publish in the traditional pamphlets we have to figure out ways to compete, to keep our books interesting to keep people coming into the stores.”
It’s powerful sentiments from Mike Richardson. Personal memories enlighten and enliven the present, and hopes for the future. This really does feel like the best part, Mike talking about the future. About how to be ready for a very different kind of tomorrow. But it only feels like the best part, because the real best part, is what comes next.
“Moving from distribution to who reads out comics—studies have shown that comics are clearly read by an older audience than they were decades ago. A 35 year old comics reader would much rather have a book on a shelf, than a pamphlet in a box somewhere. And as much as I love those pamphlets, those comicbooks I grew up with, when you think about it, it’s not really the best way to read a story. 12 parts, 22 pages a month over the course of a year, that’s not nearly as satisfying as sitting down and reading a book with a complete story.
“So you’ve seen the growth in the importance of the graphic novel over the years, and at the same time you’ve seen sales on the pamphlets decrease. And despite the spikes we have because of certain hits, it’s still a gradual decline that continues. Meanwhile though, we’re seeing increased sales of graphic novels. For Dark Horse, our sales in bookstores have outstripped our sales in comic shops. It’s surprising to me, but I guess that’s where the market’s gone. But I guess not so surprising when you think about it.
“But we’ve also seen in bookstores one of the few growth areas are graphic novels in the bookstores. We’re seeing the change even in the bookstore market where the big mass chains are suffering. And some predictions say that it’s going to be the small book shops that take over the territory they once held before the big booksellers can into existence. So we’re going to see changes in the distribution, we’re going to continue to see new forms of distribution electronically or digitally however you want to say it. We can’t even anticipate where the market’s going to be in ten years, the technology’s changing so fast.
“And then there’s other formats we’re using that we’ve had some technology that’s state of the art, motion comics, that we’re developing that’s for distribution maybe online or maybe in some other way. This literally takes comics not in the line of traditional motion comics where you see stiff figures move across the screens. But something much more fluid and much more entertaining. Without using anything but the comicbook itself. It’s possible to manipulate the images on a page, and you come up with something very different—somewhere between a comic and an actual animation. It’s something very interesting that we’re doing, we’ve started testing online. You can go on Youtube and see some of our characters using this technology.
“So you don’t know where and what’s going to come out of the material we’ve created. Just as long as Dark Horse is involved, we’re going to be on the cutting edge. Trying to think of where the market’s going to go and how books are going to look and be distributed. It’s certainly something we’ve always done. You know, we’ve been in existence for some time now. I think very few comic companies in the history of the industry have lasted as long. I think it’s our diversity and our approach. Certainly other companies have come along have tried to copy our model.”
We round out the conversation by stirring up old memories and recalling them fondly. I ask if Mike remembers those old motion comics, nothing but flash animation really, that Dark Horse put out on their website some 10 years ago now. Specifically if he remembers the Hellboy story, “A Christmas Underground.” He does. Those were fun but they’re dated now. Time to evolve into something new.
And that’s the real best part—not the warm glow of the past as it keeps out the cold. But a mind like Mike Richardson’s who has a deep appreciation for what comics once were, and a deep understanding of how that past came to be. And more than that, a deep commitment to continually evolving the medium and the industry of comics so that, no matter how much things change, the comics that come will be the equal of the comics that were. Genuine, comics, stewardship.
Artwork in order of appearance: Hellboy, Sin City, Concrete, The Goon, B.P.R.D. and The Strain.