Pulp pics embrace dark side

How self-made indie comic publisher Mike Richardson conquered H'wood

Launching at a time when its competition was focused primarily on conventional spandex-clad superheroes, Oregon-based indie imprint Dark Horse Comics has built its reputation over the past quarter century on a different model entirely: darker and more iconoclastic, creator-driven fare.

“They’re responsible for the revolution of mainstream comic genres,” says writer-director-producer Guillermo del Toro, who helmed Dark Horse’s “Hellboy” adaptation and is producing a comic series for the label. “They created comics that have a fresh new slant on genres that were tried and true, with memorable characters that people like me adore, like Concrete, Hellboy and the Mark.?At the same time, they are great supporters of alternative and more adventurous comics.”

But Dark Horse’s print product represents a mere fraction of what the company has achieved over the past 25 years, moving into film versions as early as 1992’s “Dr. Giggles” through its Dark Horse Entertainment division.

Ask Dark Horse founder and creator-in-chief Mike Richardson what kind of comics make the best movies, and he says, “Personally, I’m always drawn to a story where a regular person finds himself in an unusual situation, then (you) watch how they solve it.”

Richardson could just as well be speaking about his own experience. In 1980, while working as a commercial artist for a wood products manufacturer, he took a $2,000-limit credit card and opened Pegasus Books in Bend, Ore., population 17,263. Just 29 at the time, Richardson began networking with the artists and writers who visited his small comicbook shop, offering them rare ownership of their work with compensation on par with giants Marvel and DC Comics if they agreed to publish with him. Through a comics APA (amateur press association), in which illustrators published and critiqued each other’s work, he recruited such founding artists as Paul Chadwick, Randy Stradley, Chris Warner and Mark Verheiden.

From the company’s inception in 1986, Dark Horse stormed the comic and graphic novel worlds with groundbreaking projects from some of the sector’s top talents, running a strong third place in the direct sales market off and on since shortly after its 1986 launch. “We didn’t want to do exactly what Marvel and DC were doing,” Richardson says. “We had a lineup of characters that looked like superheroes, but oftentimes there was something very different, Concrete being the best example. It’s a very personal and unique strip.” (Chadwick’s tale of a speechwriter with a brain encased in concrete has tackled such unconventional topics as farming, celebrity and the environment.)

Six years later, after receiving a call from producers Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin, Richardson debuted DHE, expanding his operations to include bigscreen adaptations of some of his most popular titles, including “The Mask,” “Timecop” and “Hellboy,” ultimately landing a three-year first look deal with Universal in 2008.

Although film adaptations of “Batman” and “Dick Tracy” had proven successful at the box during Dark Horse’s early days, it would be years before comicbook culture went mainstream. If Hollywood put up any resistance to the company’s edgier, more grown-up aesthetic, however, Richardson didn’t notice.

“From 1992 on, we’ve optioned almost 90 properties and produced more than two dozen film and television properties,” he says. “So for me, it’s always been busy — but yes, during that time I was aware everyone else was getting the idea.”

Years before “dark” and “edgy” became catchphrases for comic projects, Dark Horse built its brand around material that felt more gothic and grown up than the competition. In the past decade, as print titles “300” and “Sin City” became bigscreen blockbusters (both created by Frank Miller, one of the company’s early writer-artists), that Dark Horse-driven aesthetic fueled a mainstream flood of comic- and graphic novel-based films, while the company’s pioneering creator-owner model helped pave the way for such Hollywood-friendly outfits as IDW Publishing, Radical Comics and Oni Press.

Unlike some of the competition, however, Richardson doesn’t develop comics for the purpose of selling them as film projects. “It’s sort of a backward philosophy,” he says. “It’s a rough business model to count on making films to fund your publishing.”

Richardson should know: Despite many hits, Dark Horse has had its share of misses. With a note of sarcasm, Richardson recalls how Hollywood viewed him as a “genius” after “The Mask” and “Timecop” scored big at the box office — an achievement, he points out, that the company followed with the “infamous” Pamela Anderson bomb “Barb Wire.” (“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Richardson jokes.) And his Universal first-look deal recently expired without generating a single film.

The future looks brighter these days: The U-produced supernatural action comedy “R.I.P.D.” starts shooting in September, and Dark Horse has a number of projects placed at other studios. The company is also closing a Fox deal and negotiating for another U project. “We’re probably more aggressive right now, in the last three months, than we’ve been in years,” Richardson says.

Rather than simply piping its pulp product onto screens, Dark Horse has been instrumental in innovating tie-ins and cross-promotional opportunities across divisions. In 1989, the company pitted two popular sci-fi franchises head-to-head in its first “Aliens vs. Predator” comic, which later gave rise to a series of videogames, novels and films.

“They really started to synergize the two mediums, amending the mythology of film properties through the growth of comicbook series that allow the fans to commune with the characters of ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Buffy’ and many others, including long-lost titles from the ’70s,” del Toro says.

Among the company’s savvy expansions over the years, Dark Horse Digital, the M Press book publishing imprint and the Dark Horse Deluxe toy division helped revenues reach $30 million last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“There were some good ideas and projects we brought in the door that didn’t make sense as a comic or graphic novel,” Richardson says. “It came to me later on that we really are a content company and some content makes sense in other forms. Anywhere a property can be exploited in the best sense of the word, we want to be in that space.”

Meanwhile, Richardson has expanded his film credits beyond comicbook adaptations, earning a 2008 Emmy as a producer on the John Landis-directed docu “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.”

“It’s hard to make a really good movie, and I think that depending on costumes and superpowers, we run the risk of creating a cynical fan base — unless you have a good story,” says Richardson, who strives to deliver properties that stand apart from the increasingly common superhero fare. “With all these moves being planned, it’s good for me, but it’s hard to say all of them are going to maintain a certain level of excellence.”

But if there’s one thing Hollywood has learned over the last quarter century, it’s not to bet against the Dark Horse.

Pulp pics embrace dark side | What’s next for Dark Horse | Studio deal put brakes on slate | Comic-Con stunts hit the streets
Variety’s coverage of 2011 Comic-Con

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