Dark Horse appears to be increasing their list of titles at a gradual but steady pace, with some laudable caution but what seems to be a specific agenda to build on their successes rather than simply allowing those successes to maintain their reputation over time. Many readers have been following the publisher’s works since their inception in 1986, and know they’ve had their rocky patches, like any other publisher, but there seems to be increasing momentum in the past couple of years that is carrying Dark Horse to a new level of productivity and reader appeal. How have they accomplished this? In part, the financial success they’ve managed to achieve over time giving them more flexibility for introducing new titles now must be due to the diversity of their output.
Licensing characters for comics has provided a strong backbone for the company during lean times, with titles like STAR WARS and BUFFY top of the list. Then there’s also the contributing energy of a rise in creator-owned projects in the past five years that gives Dark Horse the opportunity to attract these more individualistic projects. Take Matt Kindt’s MIND MGMT, for instance, as an extreme example. It’s now on the New York Times Best Sellers List, and individual issues are already collectible less than 12 months into publication. Dark Horse can attract creators like Kindt who are happy with the leeway given to their own artistic vision, and Dark Horse’s proclivity for allowing more creator input can pay off for them in the end. If they were purely focused on creator-owned concepts, they might experience greater impact at the hands of instability in the market, but holding onto licensing makes sure that long running titles continue to bring in revenue for them. Then there are the earlier and long-term creator owned projects that are still cementing their reputation and profits like Mike Mignola’s HELLBOY and Frank Miller’s SIN CITY. With those long running and multi-trade volume titles comes movie tie-ins and Dark Horse’s skill in making sure that the comics creators get a fair deal when their works are made into films. Then there’s also Dark Horse’s Manga output, drawing in readers from many cultures and simply providing what readers want in quality art and storytelling. Dark Horse has never been afraid to have more than one area of specialty under one umbrella.
Is some of their success due to avoiding superhero content? As fans may remember, there was a superhero universe at Dark Horse in the 90s, but it eventually petered out and was abandoned. In retrospect, that seems like a smart choice. They allowed room for the experiment, and kept it running as long as possible, but when it became clear that it wasn’t working for the publisher, they consolidated and reconsidered what they were demonstrably good at, and that was genre comics and licensed books. They are now a bastion of horror and sci-fi comics, with plenty of sub-genres in between, and that’s only growing in the context of their newer titles. MIND MGMT is a spy thriller, but it’s also about psychics, Francesco Francavilla’s THE BLACK BEETLE is a noir series with a proto-vigilante superhero, but its also given to strange occult artifacts. What’s the common denominator in these recent titles and their success? Art, though not art alone. Presenting beautiful artwork will sell some comics, particularly to those who are big fans of a specific artist. But any reader knows that a comic with great art and poor storytelling just wears thin over time and won’t keep flying off the shelves. So maybe it’s disingenuous to say “art”, and instead, judging from these two examples, we might use a word like “auteurs”, or more simply, creators.
BLACK BEETLE and MIND MGMT are created in art and story by the same person in each instance. The unique vision of the artist-writer is producing a remarkably strong book that is, quite simply, not like anything else out there. In this way, Dark Horse is not only encouraging creativity, they are counting on it to stand out in the competitive comics market. But it’s not a new thing in Dark Horse’s history. They hit a particularly winning combination with the artist and creator of HELLBOY, Mike Mignola. In the early days of HELLBOY, Mignola functioned as both creator and artist for some time, though working with writer John Byrne, laying down the HELLBOY universe visually and narratively to the extent that art styles of contributors to the Hellboy universe now often still express visual homage to Mignola. Dark Horse learns from its experiences and attempts to apply those lessons to their decision making over time. They seem to resist big, sweeping changes like we see large publishers scrambling to implement in favor of organic, gradual expansion.
Obviously, Dark Horse are a major presence on the market right now, but does that mean that they are in some kind of “golden age” or nearing one? There are plenty of wide-ranging definitions of what a “golden age” might be, anyway, so there’s vast room for argument about using that term. But some of the features that suggest a golden age are an increase in productivity that contains substantial continuity to earlier phases, and the ability to express core features of identity more fully than in the bumpier origin phases. Looking at Dark Horse’s new titles, from the upcoming THE TRUE LIVES OF THE FABULOUS KILLJOYS (a sci-fi epic), AKANEIRO (a Japanese retelling of Red Riding Hood), and BREATH OF BONES (a Golem comic), they are still pursuing that brass ring of high quality art, which at times goes far beyond the artwork you’ll find in the mainstream, and compelling concepts in the hands of strong storytellers. But they are doing it with a wider and wider raft of titles. It’s continuity in their methods with increasing success that has begun to hit a tipping point that makes it seem like a sudden surge.
What about expressing core features more fully? We can see this in the resurrection of earlier Dark Horse projects that had moderate success but not the explosive appeal they are capable of now. The biggest example of this is DARK HORSE PRESENTS. Bringing back the anthology was a big risk in an era where readers are very wary of throwing money around too liberally on books they may not like. On the other hand, it has the economic appeal of an anthology providing a wide range of reading experiences in one volume. The anthology magazine is one of the most defining features of Dark Horse’s earlier days, and successfully running it since 2011 to the point that it’s nearing its 25th issue is very impressive and helps reaffirm Dark Horse’s identity over time. There’s another aspect to the anthology that suggests Dark Horse’s mission: bringing in new and diverse talent, not necessarily out of a deep desire to promote good work, though that may be the case, but because readers want new things even if they read long-established titles too. More than that, the health of the comic industry depends on it. While there’s nothing wrong with reading SUPERMAN, reading a totally new concept by an artist and/or writer you’ve never heard of gives readers a sense of adventure and discovery. While the common sentiment among readers seems to be that they’ve seen everything in comics now and there’s nothing left to read or keep them interested, DHP proves otherwise, and new titles from Dark Horse prove otherwise. This keeps comics alive for readers who are jaded, and looking for something new to pique their interest.
Dark Horse is showing symptoms of a golden age confidence and mentality, but probably would never be arrogant enough to claim that they are nearing such a creative milestone because cautious optimism has done so much to bring them to where they stand today, with emphasis on “cautious”. In human terms, in only a few years, they’ll turn 30 and that also says something about reaching the prime of their capabilities with the confidence to plan and accomplish their most ambitious projects and have a hand in shaping the trajectory of comics even more fully. For readers, it’s all roses because a wider array of choice means a bigger chance of discovering new titles that become part of their lives in a significant way. It’s also good for creators, who may make their debut in DARK HORSE PRESENTS, go onto a full series, and build from there, getting a foothold in the industry they might not have otherwise been able to reach. It’s a good time to be Dark Horse and a good time to be a Dark Horse fan, and it might get even better given the momentum we’re seeing right now.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.