Happy Birthday, Dark Horse

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Dark Horse really is the perfect name to describe the Portland-based publisher. Rising out of the small press boom of the mid-1980s, Dark Horse was just one of many publishers looking to make their mark on the industry. Today, Dark Horse is consistently ranked as the 3rd or 4th largest comic publisher in North America, known for their successful licensed titles, as well as original works – the product the company was founded on - and a strong manga line.

Dark Horse Comics was founded in 1986 by Portland, Oregon businessman, Mike Richardson. A life-long fan of the medium, Richardson felt that comic books weren’t living up to their full potential and, using profits raised from selling his chain of comic book shops, he founded his own publishing company. Dark Horse’s first comic was Dark Horse Presents, debuting in July 1986. Featuring a lead story of Chris Warner’s mercenary story, Black Cross, as well as work by Randy Stradley, Randy Emberlin and Paul Chadwick, DHP was an anthology title. Over the years, the book would be a proving ground for titles, including Chadwick’s Concrete.

The first Concrete series began Dark Horse’s run of original titles with a March 1987 debut. Chadwick’s protagonist was an everyday man whose brain resided in a giant stone body. The story of this character’s extraordinary life quickly received acclaims, winning a Harvey Award for Best New Series, and continues (albeit infrequently) to this day. 

On the heels of this successful original series, Dark Horse debuted their licensed books – first with Godzilla, King of the Monsters Special in August 1987, followed by Aliens (July 1988, by current Superman/Batman scribe, Mark Verheiden) and Predator (March 1989). All three proved to have staying power for the company, spawning a plethora of spin-offs and sequels. Despite the successes of each of these titles, the book that may have had the largest impact for the fledgling company was the result of a brainstorming session that combined to licenses – Aliens vs. Predator. Released slightly before Predator 2 (featuring a cameo of an Alien skull onboard the Predator ship), Dark Horse brought the two species into conflict a full 14 years before the movies would. 

The 5th anniversary of Dark Horse Comics proved to be an exciting year, with a major addition to each the original and licensed properties. In the pages of Dark Horse Presents Fifth Anniversary Trade Paperback, Frank Miller debuted his hard-boiled urban crime series, Sin City. The first full Sin City story, later re-christened The Hard Goodbye, was serialized beginning with Dark Horse Presents #51, continuing for 13 parts. The violent series has continued through a succession of mini-series and short stories, and was translated to film in 2005. 

The other major debut that year was of Star Wars, a property that had been very successful for Marvel Comics in the 1980s. Since the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi, the widespread popularity of Star Wars had dwindled, but between the releases of Dark Horse’s Dark Empire and Timothy Zahn’s novel, Heir to the Empire, the property once again flourished. Star Wars continues to be a major part of Dark Horse’s line, having been re-invented several times over the past decade as new chronology has been introduced through the prequel films. 

Through the 1990s, Dark Horse continued to expand their line. Some of the brightest and best in comics came under the Dark Horse banner including Matt Wagner (Grendel in 1992), Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo in 1996) and Sergio Argones (Groo in 1998). In addition to established properties, many creators debuted landmark works such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy (first appearing in 1993, and with his own solo comic in 1994), Frank Miller’s 300 (1998) and Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey (1998). Dark Horse also has established a strong presence in manga entertainment with series such as Kosuke Fujishima’s Oh My Goddess (1994), Shirow Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell (1995), Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal (1996) and their own anthology series, Super Manga Blast (2000). Continuing their dominance as a successful publisher of licensed products, Dark Horse brought Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the world of comics in 1998. 

In 1992, Richardson expanded Dark Horse into filmmaking with the creation of Dark Horse Entertainment. The first two releases from DHE, The Mask and TimeCop, both made strong impressions in 1994. Subsequent films have met with mixed reactions, but have all filled unique niches at the box office – Barb Wire (1996), Mystery Men (1999) and Hellboy (2004).

In 1993, Richardson also experimented with moving Dark Horse into a more traditional comic book form with the Comics’ Greatest World imprint (later renamed Dark Horse Heroes). The line, which survived in one incarnation or another until 1998, was a “traditional” super hero shared universe, not unlike the Marvel Universe or DC Universe. Despite the inclusion of many top creators, the only of the Dark Horse Heroes that tend to be remembered are Barb Wire and Ghost. 

As Dark Horse has neared two decades in existence, the publisher has continued to play a dominant role in the comic book market. In 2000, they secured the rights to both Lone Wolf and Cub and Akira. In 2001, Joss Whedon developed a Buffy sequel exclusive to Dark Horse, Fray, which also introduced a key element for the series finale of the Buffy TV show. The classic barbarian hero, Conan, made a high profile return in 2004, while Eric Powell’s creator owned title, The Goon, has proved to be a continuous hit. 

Most recently, in celebration of their 20th anniversary, Dark Horse released Dark Horse Twenty Years 25-Cent Issue, a pinup book showcasing the many significant characters and creators that have already been part of Dark Horse’s long history. 

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