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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.)