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Investing in the future of Africa: The story of These Numbers Have Faces

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These Numbers Have Faces (TNHF) is more than an investment in higher education – it is an investment in the future of Africa.

In, 2008, CEO and founder Justin Zoradi had a vision to invest, equip and empower the next generation of Africans. He began to lay the foundation for TNHF — a Portland-based, non-profit that invests in the continent’s future leaders.

Justin’s story began in 2005, when he graduated from Westmont College and left the sandy coast of SoCal to pursue Peace and Conflict work in Belfast, Ireland. He spent the year working with youth in low-income neighborhoods, helping to mitigate the recruitment of young people by terrorist organizations. A big part of Justin’s job included leading 80 students from Belfast to South Africa, where he spent the summer playing soccer, and came face to face with the challenges young Africans face.

The challenges he witnessed created opportunities in his mind.Branden Harvey Photography (120 of 383) alice edit

The beginnings of a nonprofit

Currently boasting six of the ten fastest growing countries in the world, Africa is undergoing enormous growing pains. Youth unemployment and ethnic conflict issues are massive. It takes 170 percent of a family’s annual income to send a student to university in Sub-Saharan Africa.  As a result, only 5 percent of the university-aged population is enrolled. This is a landscape in which children, especially girls, don’t have opportunities to pursue higher education and career paths that could advance their communities.

Justin felt it was unjust that so many young, capable individuals didn’t have the opportunity he was afforded – an education that allowed him to improve his own life and make positive, transformative impact.

After finishing his work abroad, Justin moved to Portland, Oregon, with twelve of his friends, and enrolled in Portland State University (PSU) as a graduate student studying Peace and Conflict Resolution. His moment of truth occurred after class:

“I was sitting on a bench in the park blocks…and I got this really strong sense. It was a really intense spiritual moment — and it was ‘Justin, are you going to deny for others what you demand for yourself?  Are you going to take opportunities for you and not allow other people that I legitimately care about, who I felt were my friends — to have some of those same opportunities?’ And that kind of broke me in a real way.”

Justin immediately headed to Powell’s Bookstore and bought the book, How to Start and Build a Non-profit Organization. “It wasn’t very helpful, it was kind of crap,” he admits, “But it was that symbol — I’m not just going to talk about this stuff — I’m actually going to take action.”

Branden Harvey Photography (52 of 383) iranziThe name “These Numbers Have Faces” came to Justin as he tried to finds ways to reach people in Africa. His research led him to countless statistics, piles of data, and pie charts stained red, showcasing the real challenges Africa faces: war, AIDS, and famine. “But that wasn’t my experience there,” Justin insists, as he recalls the juxtaposition between his travels and his research. “My experience was meeting talented young people who wanted to change the world. It didn’t feel fair to me that the Western media had portrayed them all as these sad people. You see all those images of kids with flies on their faces and I just kept saying to myself, ‘These numbers — they’re real people. These numbers have faces.’ And that’s why we called it that. I wanted something that was a little bit unique — something that people would say, ‘Jeez Louise — what does that mean?’”

The program started out as a scholarship fund for kids and has evolved into a loan program, as the organization has grown exponentially. In 2010, they had raised approximately $33K in funding. They doubled in size between 2014 and 2015 reaching $1.2 million and have now directly impacted 344 African kids, and while TNHF is headquartered in Portland, Oregon, it has a core international hub in Rwanda. This hub allows the organization to do engagement year round.

The organization currently supports kids in four regions, and is now focusing its attention on Africa’s Great Lakes Region — an area that is affordable, and where children speak English. “We found a genuine excitement and passion in places like Rwanda and Kenya — of young people that are ready to take over and who want to make a difference,” Justin explains,  “Some want to become doctors and many want to start their own companies. We’ve been kind of caught in their tractor beam of excitement in these areas and we feel this is the best place to be operating.”

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Engaging bright minds to create bright futures

So, how does one get into the program?

Students must apply online, which often means saving money to take the bus to the nearest Internet cafe and spending a couple hours filling out the application. The acceptance process is extensive, consisting of the application, a phone interview, an in-person interview, and a home visit. Thus far, the program has spread primarily via word of mouth with the occasional presentation at select high schools. The selection process begins with a cutoff of year-end exam scores — and ends with the brightest minds accepted into the program.

“By keeping it more exclusive, we get extremely high talent — extremely high caliber kids. We use the phrase diamonds in, diamonds out as a means to get top quality when they come in and then they go through our whole program.  We find that they’re just so much more prepared and excited going through.” And it’s working, as 800 students applied for 30 spots in Rwanda in 2015.

One of their greater challenges is getting girls to apply to the program.  This is an interesting problem given Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in Parliament in the world — 64 percent of their government is run by women.

“I mean women are the secret weapon if you want to see justice, if you want to see peace, if you want to Branden Harvey Photography (1 of 383) jessicasee economic growth, women are the place to invest,” he says. Yet only 12 of the 120 kids who applied from refugee camps this past year were girls. “These families are impoverished and looking at short term gains rather than long term benefits of investing in their children’s education.”

Most of these young women aren’t able to make it through high school.Yet the long-term benefit of investing in a woman’s education is palpable. One of their scholars, a young woman named Skovia told TNHF that her family had arranged for her to marry a man for 20 cows. Justin confirmed this from her father on a visit to Rwanda. She joined their program and now her family recognizes the benefits of higher education as a long-term investment. “She can potentially benefit her family forever,” says Justin.

Once the students have been accepted there are six main fields they focus in — business, medicine, law, science, technology, and engineering. TNHF has also set up an organic mentoring relationship between older kids in the same field as the younger kids. A first year law student would be paired with a 3rd year student to aid them through the strenuous process. In addition, students pay it forward through community impact projects. Each student must complete 50 hours of community service each year.

TNHF also has a five-year plan for graduates to repay their loans in small increments based on when they find work. “When they pay back their loan that money is going directly to a young person who is 3-4 years behind them.” TNHF has had 22 students graduate in South Africa, 10 in Rwanda and 12 are graduating in Uganda this May.

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Creating a sustainable and impactful organization

TNHF is funded by approximately 1,000 donors comprised of investors, family foundations, grants and corporate relationships.

“We have a relational focus from our students and our staff in this office.  We have about an 85 percent retention rate in donors every year. We work hard at making folks feel connected and a part of our whole mission. I want them to feel like they are alongside us, traveling with us, making this stuff happen side by side.” In Africa they film videos with students — constantly showing donors the impact their investments have made on these students’ lives.

However, TNHF continues to face unique funding challenges — a major one being getting people to recognize the power of investing in young adults.

“When people want to give to Africa they want to give in commodities — they want to feel like ‘I built a well, I gave these nets, I provided food for 500 kids’ — and those are important. But convincing people to invest in young adults is a big hurdle. “We always joke that we would be 10 times bigger if we did baby photos of our kids because they’re just so cute. People want immediate results — and for us to say invest in this kid now and in 5 years, in 20 years, I’m going to show you what that investment did — for many folks that’s not what they want.”

But even with those known challenges, TNHF continues to  work on building leaders who will make a positive contribution to their communities – a long term investment.

“Our work is not to serve a million kids a year. It’s that we deeply invest in the lives of these young people and work hard to ensure that they become young people of character and of vision to help them become the next leaders in their own countries. And that is really our main goal.”

Branden Harvey Photography (274 of 383) arnold scovia geraldIn the fall of 2015, TNHF launched Accelerate Academy, a new entrepreneurial mentorship/training program. Three-hundred and fifty individuals applied for the program and 27 were selected for a year-long intensive program based in Rwanda. On expanding, Justin said, “I think that we hit really hard on the education side of things, and now to be able to add on to a business creation side is great, because you need both. We need kids who are going to be doctors because they have massive health challenges. And then we need kids who will start companies…You can have all of the talent and the financial backing and the rest — but that mentoring is the most critical thing.”

The program will culminate in May with a Shark Tank style pitch-fest at the Accelerate finale with actual investors. Impressively, of the 27 individuals, eight have already started companies that are currently making sales in Africa.

TNHF also offers a corporate paid intern program that has doubled in size, with four students working in the U.S. during the summer of 2015 and eight coming in 2016. Corporate partners include Amazon, an engineering firm in Texas, and a few companies in Oregon including Allion USA — and the Portland Timbers hosted several of the interns. The students from last year’s program made enough money during their three-month internship to fully pay back their loans. This is impressive given the average income in Rwanda is 700 dollars per year and the loans were for thousands of dollars. “Then to go back home and have Amazon at the top of their resume — that’s a game changer for them.”

One of Justin’s proudest moments occurred when one of the young interns spoke at a corporate gathering at a Law firm in Portland last summer. “He gets up there and he brings it — crushes. These are the poorest people on the planet, and he’s here wearing a jacket and a tie and he’s fundraising for us in ways that I never could. I was watching him do my job and hearing his account of how terrific the program had been for him. And then to see him share about what his experience had been like here — that was something that you just dream of…He was exuding the character, the passion, the confidence, the leadership — and to think that had we not met him in his refugee camp — he’d be in that dirt hut carrying water. And yet here he is crushing it in front of these big time executive types.”

justinJustin’s vision for “These Numbers” ties directly with the best piece of advice he received as an entrepreneur: that his work will be incomplete.

“This idea that the work is meant to be incomplete is liberation actually. Because what it means is that what I’m starting right now, from 2010-2016 isn’t about me. I’ve been called to this and I’ve been able to mobilize people and we’ve done great stuff.   But this is going to extend beyond me. And when you understand that it enables you to walk into work every day and go ‘right, I’m going to do something small and I’m going to do it well, and I’m going to work hard at it but I don’t have to reach this high pinnacle mark today.’ And there’s freedom in that.”

Justin believes entrepreneurs should look for their moment of obligation. “I had a moment of obligation sitting on that park bench…There’s something about wanting to solve the greatest challenges of the world — wanting to meet real needs and I’m not saying that has to be something global justice based. The best entrepreneurs have something personal tied into why they do what they do. That is the fuel when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. And I want people to go on that search for meaning because that is the highest human good. If we can wake up in the morning and be like I have meaning today because I get to work on this — that is what happiness is all about.  I think that it’s all about finding that moment of obligation and then pushing through that. I’m surprised that I actually have that in me and that fire isn’t dying. It’s only getting greater.”
For more information, visit www.thesenumbers.org,  like them on Facebook and follow on Twitter and Instagram

 

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Learning through fun and games

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There’s no shortage of things one could say about Jeff Tunnell, founder, creative director and managing partner of Spotkin, a Eugene-based startup focused on educational game development. He is a successful entrepreneur, founder of tech-based startups, electronic game pioneer and an educational game visionary whose goal now is nothing less than to “change the world.”

But perhaps few things say as much about Tunnell as this: Those who know him don’t doubt he can accomplish exactly what he says.

“I know a lot of serial entrepreneurs with high batting averages, but none like Jeff Tunnell,” says Brett Seyler, founder of Americana Game Studio, based in San Francisco. “To have achieved this in the insanely dynamic and challenging field of video games is still more astounding. In fact, I’m not aware of anyone else who’s ever done it.”

After three decades in the electronic gaming industry, Tunnell launched Spotkin in 2011. The goal, according to Tunnell, is ambitious, to say the least.

“We are four or five guys in an office who think we can change the world,” he says, “and we are absolutely going to do it.”

Old School success

Tunnell is one of the few people who can make such ambitious claims and remain credible, largely because of a proven track record of success that dates back to the groundbreaking games of the 1980s.

“There’s a book that was published a few years ago called Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good by a Silicon Valley journalist covering startups,” Seyler says. “The title of this … is a kind of general sentiment I hear repeated in conversations down here. In Jeff’s case, it’s something like ‘Three Times, You’re Michael Jordan.’”

Tunnell founded and attained successful exits for Dynamix, GarageGames, and Pushbutton Labs.

“He has an incredible amount of energy, drive, and vision,” says Tunnell’s first business partner, Damon Slye, who teamed with Tunnell in Eugene in the 1980s to launch Dynamix. “In the early days we always felt we were the underdogs trying to catch up to some of the larger studios.”

It didn’t take long for the pair to learn they could not only compete but lead the way. Slye recalls a time when a Dynamix flight simulator went head-to-head with a major gaming company.

“We were concerned their product would crush ours in the market,” Slye says. “Despite the competition, Red Baron became a huge success both financially and critically. That’s when I realized we were now market leaders.”

Sierra On-Line bought out Dynamix in 1989. Tunnell stayed on for the next ten years and helped release a string of notable success like Trophy Bass and Pinball, he says.

The Incredible Machine

In 1993 Dynamix released one of the better educational games ever produced, according to various game websites and reviewers, called The Incredible Machine.

The Incredible Machine“By accident we made one of the most educational games of all time,” Tunnell says.

The game used similar visuals and audio to virtuosos of that era like Donkey Kong, but it was educationally focused. Tunnell and team based the game on simple notions of physics with logic that could be proven and replicated. Its appeal also tapped into the intrinsic interest many have in solving puzzles with logic.

The magazine Computer Gaming World called The Incredible Machine “one of the most innovative and deceptively addicting products to pass this way in quite a while … a well-oiled imagination machine with a very broad appeal.”

Its appeal stood the test of time. A recent YouTube review channel called “Lazy Game Reviews” likened The Incredible Machine to the famous game Tetris, calling it “timeless. They just got it right the first time.”

Democratizing tech

Eventually Tunnell and some engineers from Sierra broke away and founded their own company called Garage Games, which had its own unique educational component. The company built games that helped others make games.

Garage Games“Our whole mission was to democratize technology,” Tunnell says. “We built up a huge community. I was trying to stand up for the Indies and telling them what I think they can do.”

Seyler, who was studying at the University of Oregon before starting to work at Garage Games, says the company’s “frugal, yet still hyper-competitive culture, combined with world-class engineering talent, gave the company ample runway to tackle very difficult problems in game development and support a community of hundreds of thousands attempting to make games in their own right.”

He credits Tunnell with creating the culture that allowed others like himself to thrive, including hiring a twenty-something intern, Seyler’s college friend Josh Williams, as the eventual CEO. Williams had already experienced entrepreneurial success, but Seyler credits Tunnell’s mentorship and faith for helping Williams thrive and, as a result, helping them all become incredibly successful.

“I don’t know very many people Jeff’s age who would have handed over the reins of his company to a kid in his mid-20s who just happened to be incredibly hard working and brilliant,” Seyler says.

Making the greatest hit greater

After the successful sale, Tunnell launched Push Button Labs, which became another successful startup, eventually being bought out by Disney.

Orc from Mighty KnightsNext came Spotkin with its ambitious goals and its focus where Tunnell began: educational games like The Incredible Machine.

“It was the game I worked on that I liked the most,” Tunnell says.

Contraption Maker, the first product on the technology platform that Spotkin has built over the past three years, is also the “spiritual successor” to The Incredible Machine, according to Tunnell.

Spotkin’s games, Tunnell says, are first and foremost good games. They aren’t built by researchers and educators but by people who know how to make entertaining games. He admits he can’t yet pinpoint exactly why a game can make such an impact on child. He just knows it does, just as it did with The Incredible Machine.

“What if we build a thousand games likes that? I honestly think what we are working on…” he pauses to collect his thought, “it’s basically… it’s huge.”

An open playbook

Despite the lofty ambition Tunnell is forever pragmatic, having seen every twist in this rapidly evolving market. Indie programmers, like indie movie makers and singers and other artists of various ilk are in fashion these days. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier. In fact, it’s harder because the competition is far broader.

“So many people want to be involved in this,” Tunnell says, “But this is a really, really hard business.”

Contraption MakerSeemingly always combining education with business, Tunnell blogs about his successes and failures with equal openness. He has posted several changes they’ve made at Spotkin as well as missteps so that others can learn from his mistakes. One example is Spotkin’s shift from making mobile apps to software development for the personal computer.

“There are a million and a half games in the app stores,” he says. “It’s just too hard to get noticed. So we decided to come back to PC and prove our product works.”

He blogged about these changes, carefully chronically his struggles, including a detailed description of his failed plan to take a game called QuickShooter and dominate the app store market. His blunt assessment of their struggles make for compelling business reading.

Eugene’s stature

In large part because of the influence of Tunnell and Slye and others who worked with them over the years, Eugene has emerged as a pocket of excellence for game makers, a virtual remote location of the Silicon Valley if you will.

Tunnell, Slye, Seyler, Garage Games’ CEO Williams and others connected to the businesses were Oregon residents. When they became successful many simply didn’t want to leave. Soon they were attracting hundreds of others with similar interests to the city.

“There are 200 to 300 professional game developers in Eugene now,” Slye says. “It’s the largest game development community between Seattle and San Francisco. Eugene is more affordable than the Silicon Valley, and is a better place to raise a family. People who are here are here to stay.”

One downside is the lack of funding in Oregon compared to the wealth in the Silicon Valley, which leaves many of the startups looking out of state for capital, Slye, who is president of another startup MadOtter Games, says.

“I’d like to see this change,” he says, adding that there are numerous opportunities with great products and potential for investors. “We’re looking for some now.”

Educational games can thrive

Tunnell says two factors ensure Spotkin will succeed. First, educational games have incredible power when done properly. Second, because they aren’t often done properly, the opportunity to succeed in this billion-dollar industry remains untapped. Monetizing the investment remains a crucial part of Tunnell’s plan at Spotkin.

A bigger problem is the educational system in general, Tunnell says.

“We spend trillions a year in education, and name someone who thinks it is working?”

Spotkin has developed a technology platform that makes what Tunnell calls “smart games for kids.” The opportunity is “huge,” Tunnell says more than once. Rapid advances in technology like new software, apps and mobile devices all open possibility for new educational games. All of which circles back to Tunnell’s simple, yet lofty plan to forever shape the educational gaming market and how we approach education in this country.

“We don’t need to make billions of dollars, we don’t need to be the types of guys who I think are strangling education these days. We don’t have to be greedy. We can change things and still make a good living. A small number of people can change the world and change the way things are happening. We can do it.”

For more information, visit http://spotkin.com/, follow Spotkin on Twitter, or like Spotkin on Facebook.

A knight in shining armor, on a Dark Horse

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Mike Richardson has stopped the interview to take issue with the reporter’s cell phone and audio recorder.

“This is what you need,” he says, holding out the latest iteration of Apple’s iPhone. He snaps a photo of his visitor and touts its resolution and color quality.

“The older you get, the more you have to point out to people that you’re staying on top of things,” he jokes.

No one doubts that Richardson is on top of things these days. As founder, president and publisher of the Milwaukie, Oregon-based Dark Horse, the Oregon-born maverick has built a multi-million dollar entertainment empire by doing business as anything but usual.

Presenting… Dark Horse

Founded in 1986, Dark Horse has made its mark on the industry with a roster of edgy characters and gripping storylines that have transcended traditional comic book frames into films, television, merchandise and more.

DHP3 #7 REGULAR CVRThe creepy, kooky family includes creations like The Mask, Hellboy, Sin City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Conan, Star Wars and many more—making Dark Horse the third-largest comics publisher, trailing only DC and Marvel.

Today, Dark Horse employs about 150 people, including employees at four Things from Another World retail shops, and works with nearly 1,000 other artists and writers. Its Dark Horse Entertainment television and motion picture division, which has produced 28 films and TV series, has a dozen more projects in development, including Dark Matter, a 13-episode series based on the graphic novels that will air in spring 2015 on the SyFy network, and Tarzan, coming to the big screen in summer 2016.

This year may go down as the best in company history—no small feat considering that it accomplished the same in 2013 with a 25-percent increase in revenues.

Bookstore and digital sales have been strong, buoyed in part by stories based on video game properties like The Legend of Zelda. All-ages titles based on the popular game Plants vs. Zombies, written by Eisner-award winning author Paul Tobin, have caught on faster than a zombie invasion, selling over 500,000 copies in the past year.

The merchandise division Dark Horse Deluxe caught lightning in a bottle with the official Game of Thrones character figurines, of which Richardson says they can barely make fast enough to keep pace with demand.

buffyOther plans include expanding its stable of contributing “mainstream” authors. Fight Club 2, a 10-issue sequel, will be written by author Chuck Palahniuk, while an upcoming edition of Dark Horse Presents will include a story by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. Meanwhile, the Joss Whedon “Whedonverse,” which includes longtime favorites Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel & Faith, Serenity, and others, continues to expand, as do the Japanese manga publications and partnerships.

Even now, on the eve of losing his highest profile license, Richardson sets his sights higher.

Origin stories

“In this country—underline that—you’re going to eat, and you’re going to have a place to stay,” Richardson says. “It might not be the best place to stay and it might not be the best food you could find in the best restaurant, but you can eat and you can sleep.” And therein lies freedom to pursue your dreams.

A Milwaukie, Oregon, native, Richardson earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Portland State University in 1977, where the 6’ 9” student lettered in basketball alongside basketball legend Freeman Williams (whose 3,245 career point total trails only Pistol Pete Maravich among all-time NCAA Division I men’s players).

When Richardson’s wife, Karie, became pregnant, he took the somewhat unconventional step of quitting his job as furniture package designer—and encouraging his wife to leave hers as well.

“I quit because I didn’t want to work for someone else.”

Together they moved to Bend, Oregon, where Richardson leased a 400-square-foot retail space. He worked construction jobs building houses while getting his store ready.

Pegasus Comics opened on New Year’s Day, 1980, even though he was still getting the space ready.

“My wife said, ‘Why don’t you be open while you’re doing this?’ So I walked over and flipped the sign around to ‘Open.’”

Our hero’s journey

Like many small business owners, Richardson struggled at the outset.

A month in, his landlord offered to let him out of the lease “because how could I make money in comics?” Late that winter, his friends staged an intervention, where they tried to get Mike to take his old job back. He was not deterred. “It didn’t matter. I knew where I was going. Every day was better than the last day and every week better than the last week.”

Richardson treated the store like a real business “rather than a hobby shop” and advertised on television and radio. He focused on building cash flow and expanding his business. He learned accounting. In the meantime, his wife worked as a waitress to support the family.

“I didn’t take home a regular income for seven years—I put it all in the business. We lived in a duplex that was the cheapest one I could find and socially, when we met new people and they came to our place we never saw them again. I didn’t care—I was into building my business.”

Creator rights

From those early days, Richardson would fly in comic book artists for in-store promotions, and then take them out to dinner.

“They all complained about the same thing: They’d create these characters but they didn’t own them.” This was nothing new, Richardson says the practice harkens “clear back to [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster—they created Superman—got paid a few hundred bucks and were let go a few years later out their own door.”

Frustrated by a lack of quality content available to comic sellers, Richardson decided to try something different.

“We offered creators complete ownership over their material—and we paid them Marvel and DC rates.”

His comic book company launched in 1986 with the anthology Dark Horse Presents #1.

The issue introduced Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, a speechwriter who transforms into a one-ton creature (a seven-foot-tall likeness stands just inside the entryway at the Dark Horse offices). The early catalog generated sales, buzz, and industry awards, and Dark Horse was off and running. His logo, a black knight chess piece, confirmed his status as an outsider to be reckoned with.

Own your work

Not long after, Richardson inked a deal with Frank Miller, one of the biggest names in comics, best-known for his work reinvigorating franchises such as Daredevil and that other Dark Knight, Batman. Miller’s work led to the seminal series Sin City, and helped attract other A-level talents like Mike Mignola.

“You can own it. We’ll pay you to produce it. And we’ll be partners in it. If you decide to leave, you can leave.”

That’s the pitch Richardson makes to artists and writers who crave financial independence and creative control.

“I’ll go up to a creator from one of the big two [DC/Marvel] and ask what they’re working on. ‘Oh, Spider-Man.’ Well, why don’t you do something for Dark Horse?”

“They ask me why they would do that, and I ask them, ‘Who did Spider-Man ten years ago?’ They don’t know. ‘Who did Sin City 20 years ago? Oh that’s Frank Miller. Who did Hellboy 20 years ago? That’s Mike Mignola.’ And the light goes on.”

Today, many companies in the industry have followed this approach.

“If you have the talent to do it, you should be out creating your own material,” Richardson says.

The Force will not be with you, always

Many Star Wars fans rejoiced at Disney’s $4 billion 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm, Ltd., which signaled new hope and new films for the venerable franchise. The announcement from Disney, whose holdings already included Marvel Comics, even included the long-awaited release date for Episode VII.

For Dark Horse, it signaled the beginning of the end to a two-decades-long partnership with George Lucas, during which time it had published multitudes of properties related to the Star Wars universe. (A framed thank-you note from Lucas hangs in the Dark Horse lobby.)

The transfer of rights to Disney and Marvel takes place in January 2015. Aside from running closeout specials on Star Wars merchandise, Dark Horse has set its sights on backfilling the loss with deals Richardson was hustling to make while at New York Comic Con this October.

He acknowledges the outsized presence of The Force in his catalog, but hastens to point out that this represents only six percent of the bottom line—an amount that entails a tremendous amount of work and energy to maintain.

“I’m not happy about it, but these big licenses coming in will more than make up for Star Wars.”

Aliens and Predators and BRAAIIINSSS

Licenses have been a way of balancing creator-owned content almost since the inception of Dark Horse.

“Our diversity is what has kept us going,” Richardson says. “Trust me: I’d like a Batman or a Superman. But our Batman is Hellboy. Our Superman is Sin City. Our Spiderman is The Goon.”

Those properties build up faithful and sustaining audiences over time, but in the meantime, Richardson saw a need to fill a financial and creative gap.

“Let’s take our favorite movies and make sequels in comic book form.”

Aliens Fire and Stone TPB 4x6The idea was simple enough, but in the late-1980s, movie tie-ins were typically low-budget cash-grabs that did little to extend storylines or expand imaginations. Then came Aliens, Dark Horse’s follow-up to the Ridley Scott blockbuster, and soon thereafter, Predator. These series sold hundreds of thousands of copies while engaging new readers with the comic book form.

With Dark Horse at the helm, the company pushed the properties even further, creating an unholy mash-up: Alien vs. Predator, selling sold copies “in the millions” Richardson says, and the AvP franchise was born.

This fall, Dark Horse announced the latest AvP installment. This time, the “A” is for Archie and his pals Jughead, Betty, and Veronica who will face off against “P”—which is still the Predator.

“If Archie approves some of the covers I’ve seen, I’ll be shocked,” Richardson laughs.

Shocking, indeed.

Today, these property licenses are big business for books, comics, and merchandise at Dark Horse. Other big sellers include Tomb Raider with Lara Croft, Plants vs. Zombies, and even Tim Burton’s “Tragic Toys for Girls and Boys,” a line of figurines designed by the iconic filmmaker.

Despite comics’ traditional status as “low culture,” Richardson has always approached the form as worthy of craft and quality. When a coloring shop once returned an issue with sub-par results, he called the owner to complain. “What do you care? It’s only comics,” the owner replied. “That was the last job he ever got from me,” Richardson says. Instead, he spent the money to bring coloring operations in-house, building a system from scratch.

Browsing the digital racks

“Every generation has an affinity for the technology of its time. The rest of us can grab onto it, but never understand it the way they can, and maybe never see the same kind of potential.” These digital natives don’t just live with this technology, “They live inside it.”

That’s Richardson’s roundabout way of explaining his ongoing pursuit of digital platforms for comic books.

The days of picking up the latest in a comic series at the corner drugstore have long-since passed. The market for these “floppies”—32 pages with two staples—has given way to more immediate content online and omnibus collections that can be read more like a novel.

As a publisher and a retailer, Richardson sees this digital step as inevitable, and one that other companies will have to take eventually. Rather than joining some 75 publishers on the industry-leading Comixology platform, Dark Horse spent a considerable sum to create its own digital storefront and app.

Leading the charge

Richardson doesn’t fear getting ahead of the curve on this. Dark Horse fully embraced the social media network MySpace as a platform for original content back in the late-2000s (those stories have since been collected and anthologized in paperback).

His goal is nothing short of “the entire Dark Horse library available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, in every deliverable form of distribution in existence, in every country in the world, in seven languages. If people want to anticipate what we’re going to do in the future, that’s our grand vision.”

And with improvements in technology, this creates a better reading experience anyway, says Richardson. “Comics readers today are more likely to be 25 than 12, and they’d rather have a book on a shelf than a comic in a box.” His preference? “I like it both ways.”

While Dark Horse has made an industry-wide impact with its focus on creator rights, it’s also had a pronounced impact regionally. When it began in Portland 28 years ago, “there was no comic books industry” out here, Richardson says. Dark Horse drew a crowd of creators for the coloring, lettering, illustration, writing and more, and many of those went on to create their own companies or characters.

Meanwhile, interest in comics continues to grow nationally as well as here in Oregon. Portland’s own Rose City Comic Con has ballooned from just 4,100 attendees in its first year to approximately 20,000 in its third, while the DIY ethos of comics and publishing, as a form for storytelling and creative expression, fits within the rising maker movement as well as the ecosystem of content creators working in the digital space.

Still working

atomic-legionWhat’s most surprising about the fact that Mike Richardson still writes is that he has time to do so. But, this is the man who first envisioned The Mask, among other characters. On his desk is a copy of The Atomic Legion, a new collection that he’s written, chronicling the adventures of a familiar-yet-forgotten set of superheroes.

He also finally completed Ronin 47, a retelling of “Japan’s Alamo,” that he has researched and studied off-and-on for 20 years, including visits to temples and graves. Working with longtime Dark Horse collaborator Stan Sakai, the two produced the five-issue series, which was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2014.

Richardson stays busy outside of work. Although he’s never illustrated any of Dark Horse’s comics, he’s taken up drawing again. He’s trying to improve his electric guitar skills. His basketball team won the championship at the 2013 World Master’s Games in Turin, Italy, and he finished restoring a 1973 red Corvette that he spent three years finding parts for.

He’s a grandfather now (or in his words, “father with daughter with daughter,” and when asked how long he plans to stay at Dark Horse: “Right now? Until I’m dead.” He clarifies: “40 years.”

“I’m a storyteller,” Richardson says. That defines what he does, and the ways in which he does it. He encourages others to take the same kinds of chances because, well, why not?

“The odds of anybody being alive are infinitesimal—if you calculate the odds, you’ll see that it’s impossible for you to sit here. And to be here, in a time when we can live a decent life, when most people in history didn’t get that chance? We are so lucky.”

“I just want to take advantage of that to do something and leave something behind that means something. Let’s inspire people. Let’s do great things.”

“That’s the fight.”

For more information, visit http://www.darkhorse.com, follow Dark Horse on Twitter, like Dark Horse on Facebook, or follow Dark Horse on Instagram.

(Image courtesy Erik Urdahl/PSU. Used with permission.)