DARK HORSE COMICSPrimary Product: Comic Books
Producing Since: 1986
Noted For: Hellboy, The Mask, Concrete and much more
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In politics, a "dark horse" is a candidate whose late entry into a campaign is a surprise to almost all observers, but who nonetheless wins. The classic example is the 14th President of the United States, Franklin R. Pierce, who hadn't even considered himself as a candidate until the 1852 Democratic National Convention, where the exhausted delegates nominated him on the 49th ballot just because he was the only possibility they could all agree on, but then went on to win the general election by a large margin. The definition in the comic book field is similar. Dark Horse Comics was a small company that was scarcely noticed by the major players when it entered the industry in the mid-1980s, but which quickly achieved greater market share and critical acclaim than relative "giants" such as Eclipse (Zot!, Airboy), First
(Jon Sable Freelance, American Flagg) and Pacific (Captain Victory, Starslayer) and even gave behemoths like Marvel and DC serious competition.
Like many 1980s start-up comics publishers (e.g., Comico, which was responsible for Mage, The Elementals and more), Dark Horse began its operation with a comic book named after itself, designed as a catch-all title it could use to establish a newsstand presence without overburdening itself. Unlike most, that title, Dark Horse Presents, lasted more than 150 issues, and launched dozens of series, including The Next Men and Sin City. Its first successful launch, appearing the very first issue (July, 1986) was Concrete, by Paul Chadwick.
Dark Horse Comics was an outgrowth of the Portland-area comic book retailing activities of Mike Richardson, which started in 1980, soon after Richardson finished college. He had definite opinions about comics, and thought most of the ones he was selling ought to be better. One of his regular customers was Randy Stradley, who wrote a couple of stories for Marvel about that time. They'd talk about what they'd publish if they had a company of their own. In 1986, Richardson started one, using profits from his successful stores, and brought Stradley in as editor.
Within a few months, Dark Horse was publishing Concrete as a regular title, and others, such as Black Cross, Trekker and Mindwalk were on the horizon. A couple of years later, they were experimenting with licensed material, such as Godzilla and Aliens. Other properties they licensed during the next few years include Predator, Conan, Droopy, Star Wars and Tarzan. Tho both Aliens and Predator are 20th Century Fox properties, it was in a Dark Horse Comic book that the two monsters first met.
Dark Horse has become a popular publisher for cartoonists to bring their creations to. Usagi Yojimbo, Grendel, Groo the Wanderer, Marshal Law and Jingle Belle are just a few of those that have been picked up by Dark Horse, after successful runs elsewhere. Home-grown properties at Dark Horse include The American, Hellboy and The Mask.
In 1993, the company followed industry trends and made an attempt to create a character set to compete with the Marvel and DC Universes of interrelated characters. Despite modest successes like Ghost, who stayed in print for the rest of the century, and Barb Wire, who if nothing else, at least got into a movie, "Comics Greatest World" fizzled.
But it also experimented with overseas comics. From 1989-93 it published Cheval Noir ("Dark Horse" in French), which exposed U.S. readers to the works of Philippe Druillet (Urm the Mad), Francois Schuiten (Zara), Jean Giraud (Lt. Blueberry) and more. Starting in the '90s, it reprinted manga, such as Kosuke Fujishima's Oh My Goddess, Hiroaki Samura's Blade of the Immortal, Goseki Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub and Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy. In 1998, it even put out an edition of Star Wars in manga form.
Nor are comics the only media Dark Horse has dabbled in. It's also produced films like Timecop (which also appeared in comic book form), cold cast statues of properties such as Bone and the Universal Studios monsters, and prose books such as a biography of Will Eisner (Hawks of the Seas).
It would be appropriate to end most profiles of small-grown-large publishers with a "from humble beginnings " observation. But in this case, it wouldn't be precisely accurate. From the very start, Dark Horse Comics became a major player in the modern comic book industry.
Dark Horse Comics articles in Don Markstein's Toonopedia: