By Hervé St-Louis
February 3, 2008 - 22:35
CBB: Do you see yourself more as visionary or as a project manager involved in the day to day activities of your companies?
CBB: The reason I asked the first question is that unlike head publishers or editors at other comic book companies, I don’t recall any vocal stand on issues in the comic book industry and beyond. Do you prefer to be a background mover of things or a cheerleader?
Richardson: Actually, you haven't been paying attention. I've been extremely vocal over the years regarding such issues as creator rights, the industry's rights with regard to the first amendment, collector gauging in the marketplace, and an assortment of other issues. I've also been very public in my support of the CBLDF.
I'm interviewed pretty regularly, including mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times, so I'm not sure of the reasons behind your impression. Of course, if the issue at hand is "Who's better: DC or Marvel," I probably am silent. With regard to the later part of your question, I don't anyone considers me in the background. I'm actively involved in every area of my company.
CBB: What kind of management best suits a company like Dark Horse Comics? Is a freestyle laisser-faire attitude with strong editors better or is a strong vision and well defined objectives broken into smaller achievable bits, accounted for frequently, better?
Richardson: Dark Horse tends to develop strong editors who are able to bring strong ideas and viewpoints to the books and projects they work on. This is an approach that makes for strong relationships between editor and creator and, as a result, better books. All of the titles we publish go through me. I'm personally involved with some individual books and creators more than others, but I need to approve every title before we publish it. Once a book is approved, it can take several different courses. We've found that the best method for our licensed books is to work with a writer (and artist) to create a story direction and plan. With creator owned titles, the process is different. Creators such as Frank Miller, Mike Mignola, Joss Whedon, Steve Niles, etc. come equipped with strong visions for the books they create. The editor's job can be different with a creator owned title as opposed to a licensed title. In the end, considering your original question, I think that some of both of the approaches you mention is called for.
CBB: You’ve managed several companies before. How hard is it to manage a media company like Dark Horse Comics?
Richardson: Of course, it has its challenges, but I'm happy and excited to be doing what I'm doing. At this moment in time, Dark Horse is on the brink of amazing growth and opportunities. We've spent years building our company in the right way, and now we're about to see our efforts pay off.
CBB: Now I know you won’t answer this question, but I’m pretty sure several head-hunters have tried to recruit you over the years. Have you had the opportunity to share your managerial experience as a media company publisher as say an MBA lecturer or something involved with executive training and public speaking tours?
Richardson: I'm constantly approached with an number of offers and types of offers. The problem with seriously entertaining any of them is that I love what I do. I'm determined to see Dark Horse grow, and not just in the comics market. If an offer comes along that I do consider, it will be because it will help Dark Horse and its goals, as well as being consistent with our values.
CBB: Would the comic book industry benefit from more straightforward approaches to business than the current artistic dominated style?
Richardson: A strong business plan is essential for the long term health of any company. Financially healthy companies make for a strong industry. It's no different in the comic industry. Either of the approaches you mention can prosper with planning and execution. In our industry it often seems that companies created solely as business ventures have not faired well. Likewise, those built entirely on the sales and charisma of a single artist or artists, without the advantage of a solid business base, have not done much better. Dark Horse has found a nice balance between both essential components, and as a result, prospered. The fact that we're turning twenty-one underlines that fact.
CBB: I’m not clear on the details myself, but I understand that you use to ran a series of comic book stores in the Portland Oregon area before you founded Dark Horse Comics. The time also corresponded with the boom and bust of the 1980s. How hard was it to create a comic book publishing company then, as compared to now?
Richardson: Dark Horse Presents #1 was pasted up on the counter of one of my stores in Oregon by Randy Stradley and myself. We had no real expectations at the time, simply hoping to make a great comic. We raided a fan publication we belonged to, APA-5, for talent. Crossing our fingers and hoping against hope that we could sell 10,000 copies in order to break even, we were stunned when the book sold over 50,000 copies. At the time, Kevin and Peter's Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles had created a sensation. Suddenly black & white comics were the rage and we decided to launch a second title immediately. Randy and I brought on a local artist, Jim Smith, and we created the first issue of Boris the Bear with our motto, "We reserve the right to arm bears." Once again, we hoped to sell 10,000 copies and break even. The first issue of Boris topped the 80,000 mark, and Dark Horse was off and running. As we expanded, we tried to keep the quality of our books consistent. When "Black September" arrived several years later, the strength of our line kept us in business. At that time, there were something like nineteen comic book distributors, and it was easier to gain traction and attention in a marketplace that was growing and eager for new titles. Today we have one distributor burdened by a massive number of titles and I think it's much harder to get a book or line of books noticed. God knows that many have tried and failed.
CBB: How fast was Dark Horse Comics’ growth?
Richardson: We had hoped to reach 5% in 10 years. In fact, we hit 10% in 5 years. We actually purchased remodeled several buildings to accommodate our ten year plan and we were out of room in two years.
CBB: How exactly did Dark Horse survive the 1980s’ bust?
Our books were much superior to most of the black & white titles that were flooding the market. As simple as that.
CBB: Did Dark Horse Comics help create the bust or was it already well on its way when it happened?
Richardson: Well, since we were one of about 250 companies publishing black & white comics during the boom, I suppose we contributed to the glut. Because so many companies had jumped in to the market, and I use the term 'companies' loosely, and because so many of the books being offered were just plain awful, the bust was coming irregardless of Dark Horse's existence.
CBB: It seems today that Dark Horse Comics rarely invites new creators into its stable of published comic books as opposed to before, where Dark Horse was synonymous with great creators. Is this more a perception or an evolution of talent recruitment?
Richardson: I'm not sure what you mean by this question. We've never stopped bringing the best creators in the world to Dark Horse. For instance, over the last year alone we've introduced Gerard Way's Umbrella Academy and Nicholas Gurewitch's Perry Bible Fellowship to the comics world and overwhelming success. Established creators including Rick Remender and Arvid Nelson have brought their creations to Dark Horse. Even mainstream icons such as LeRoy Neiman are releasing books through us. This in addition to those creators who have worked with us for years: Mike Mignola, Frank Miller, Eric Powell Stan Sakai, Matt Wagner, Steve Niles, and on and on. So, like I said, I don't quite understand the question.
CBB: How do creators get published at Dark Horse Comics?
Richardson: We find them or they find us: submissions, conventions, word-of-mouth, referrals, internet, etc.
CBB: One issue that has had me perplexed about Dark Horse Comics’ business model is about its creator owned contracts. I am of the opinion that the creator-owned dogma that so many creators and pundits preach is not necessarily good for the fortunes of a comic book publisher and therefore, comic books on a long term basis. I do not believe that creators are the best person to make business decisions about their properties. I believe that publishing rights should remain with a publisher, even if the copyrights are owned by the creator.
Richardson: The ethic behind our company is that creators should have the right to own and control their own original creations. We enter into negotiations that clearly spell our which rights are granted and for how long. Most creators are happy to leave the issues related to the actual business of publishing a book to us. In light of the actual performance of publishers over the history of comic books, and taking into account the history of their treatment of the creators they've worked with, I can't agree with your last two statements. Over the history of the comic book industry I don't think you need more than two hands to count the number of companies that have lasted more than twenty years. We're one of them, so our approach must be a sound, from both and ethical and business perspective.
CBB: Does Dark Horse Comics retain the rights to perpetually publish a comic book series previously or are the rights transferred with the artists, if he /she decide to leave?
Richardson: We publish a specific comic book creator's work as long as he/she wants us to publish it.
CBB: In the 1990s, everybody was talking about Dark Horse. Many saw in this company, hopes for change in the comic book industry. What is it about how Dark Horse does business that prompted so many to see the publisher as a saviour?
Richardson: You mean everyone isn't still talking about us? We haven't changed our approach. Last year was the best year in our history from a financial perspective. We feel we are the future of the industry and that's how we approach the marketplace. If you look at our history carefully, you'll see that we have, and continue to have, a tremendous effect on the comics industry. Our creator owned policies changed the way Marvel and DC dealt with creators and provided the spark for companies such as Image. Our approach to licensed books certainly changed the way publishers viewed and produced these titles. We've been a pioneer in bringing on-line strips to the printed page. We want to be ahead of the curve. The other companies can continue to live off characters (and I admit, I love 'em, too) created for the grandfathers of todays readers. We'll continue to look for the next Mike Mignola . . . or Gerard Way.
CBB: These days, it seems that Dark Horse Comics has settled into a niche it knows well. New publishers are constantly trying to chip at the corners of that niche by offering a mix of licensed properties and original contents in comic book format. I’m not certain the product mix is right for many of these publishers. Is there something about the mix of titles that gives Dark Horse its edge against these other publishers, are you better at execution or just lucky?
Richardson: It doesn't have anything to do with luck. We've created a publishing mix that works. I think everyone agrees that it's suicide to try and compete with Marvel and DC by launching a line of super-heroes, As a result, they look at us and our line. It's no coincidence that many of the publishers out there trying to copy our approach once worked for me. The bottom line is that publishing a line of comics today is a tricky mix of talent, marketing, and publishing savvy. We seem to have gotten pretty good at it, but it's not so easy to imitate as some would think. It also seems that because of the attention comics have received from Hollywood, some publishers have gotten twisted around backwards. Dark Horse has had great success adapting comics to film (believe it or not, more than twenty projects in just a dozen years) because we have great books with great stories and characters. We publish a comic because we think it will make a great comic. If we can take the project to film, all the better. A number of companies have begun publishing comics just so they can sell them as films. Not a good idea. If you publish great comics, the other opportunities will come.
CBB: For years, Dark Horse Comics was seen as the Third Publisher. But it seems that the pie chart has not been favourable to Dark Horse or any other publisher outside of DC and Marvel Comics. Is the Third Publisher billing still a sustainable ideal or counter to your company’s strategy?
Richardson: Naturally, we'd like to increase market-share, but the pie chart you mention is an illusion. It doesn't include re-orders or bookstore sales, both of which are very strong for Dark Horse. The truth is, we've been able to remain profitable for our entire twenty years. Other companies have come and gone. We all know about the financial troubles experienced by Marvel despite their share of the pie. If we continue to produce quality work, the pie chart will take care of itself.
CBB: There have been many comparisons with other publishers such as Image Comics, Valiant, even Ony and Top Shelf. What, according to you is the real Dark Horse Comics? What do you wish the public, and your peers would recognize you for?
Richardson: That is a group of very different publishers, and aside from the fact that we all publish comics, I'd guess that the only reason that we're mentioned together in any discussion is that none of us are Marvel or DC. With that said, I think Dark is recognized for its willingness to respect creative talent, work toward the highest level of quality possible on every book or product we produce, and the fact that we have a very human feel to the company. If you deal with Dark Horse, and you have a problem, you can call the owner. I'm not sure that's true at any of the other companies with significant market-share.
CBB: Are Things From Another World, Dark Horse Entertainment and Dark Horse Deluxe all part of a larger Dark Horse Inc entity or are they separate but related companies?
Richardson: Separate, but related by ownership.
CBB: The one area where Dark Horse Comics has had success is in licensing properties from Hollywood and other media centers to create comic book and collectible products from them. Is this successful licensing reach generated through a buying team or is it fostered through personal contacts in the entertainment industry?
Richardson: There is no "buying team." It has been fostered from the beginning through personal relationships and the fact that the quality of our licensed projects is acknowledged as the best.
CBB: How much does the Dark Horse Deluxe arm of the business bring to Dark Horse Comics in general. Specifically, is the ability to generate merchandising revenues important in the current entertainment industry?
Richardson: Dark Horse Deluxe is a growing division of Dark Horse Comics. It is a natural extension of the comic line and gives us complete control of the products we are interested in seeing produced. It also gives the creators we work with the chance to be personally involved with the toys and collectables based on their characters.
CBB: Is the comic book based market segment for merchandise spin-offs saturated or is there some growth left?
Richardson: There's always room for quality product.
CBB: How does news of an upcoming Dark Horse Deluxe property, like say Star Wars statue reach the potential collector who is not part of the comic book collecting demographics?
Richardson: Putting aside the direct sales market. There is a rather large group of toy and hobby shop stores that look for product not sold in the big chains. We see large internet sales, and also have a staff of sales people who create outreach programs and attempt to place product in the mass market locations.
CBB: Mangas are seen as the new saviour of the comic book industry and cash cow to some. To Dark Horse Comics’ credits, you have had a real involvement in the publishing of Manga series and have one of the largest library of such material. What prompted you to publish mangas in the first place?
Richardson: I've always been interested in Japanese culture, at one time collecting Japanese children's books. I became aware of manga while in college and began pursuing titles almost from the day I started Dark Horse. Unlike many of the other publishers today, Dark Horse's interest is due to a love of Japanese manga and interest in Japanese creators. We have the longest running manga series in America, as well as being the company with the longest continuing manga publishing schedule.
CBB: Were the Dark Horse Star Wars comic book series officially accepted as cannon from the beginning, or did the company have to prove its worth before obtaining the status?
Richardson: Cannon was not an issue when we started publishing Star Wars. At the time, as hard as it is to believe, there was very little of anything related to Star Wars being published. Our Dark Empire series roughly coincided with the Timothy Zahn paperbacks and the frenzy was on. When we actually started discussing continuity with LucasFilm, the concept of what belonged as canon was discussed and the Dark Horse stories were included.
CBB: Although Dark Horse Comics had been developing the World Greatest Heroes for years, it arrived the same summer everybody in comic books was pushing new universes and continuities. Though the product line was superior too much of the material in 1993, it failed to reach the right audience. What can you tell us about World’s Greatest Heroes?
Richardson: We had always wanted to launch our own super-heroes. We decided to wait until we were established before entering territory clearly dominated by Marvel and DC. The fact that we launched our own "universe" at the same time as a million other companies (or so it seemed at the time) was a pure accident. Despite a false report by Wizard that the launch was unsuccessful, the books were actually fabulously successful, all selling well into the six figure range. We followed up with a second launch a year later which was also successful. Of course, we were done in by the glut of company "universes." I think we had the most unique approach to our own super hero world, which was a giant, science fiction "mystery box," as J.J. Abrams would say. Stick around and you'll see relaunches of several of the most popular characters, including X and GHOST.
CBB: Cheval Noir was a daunting project. It was publishing serialized strips from the world’s best cartoonists. It seemed to me that the direct competition for such a series was Heavy Metal and Métal Hurlant, Negative Burn or even Casterman’s À Suivre, at the time. Was the public that read Dark Horse comics prepared too stepped in the world of international comic books or was the series just too early for regular North American collector?
Richardson: The series, which I edited, was a direct result of my interest in comics creators from other countries. My first exposure to comics outside was in France's METAL HURLANT, a forerunner of HEAVY METAL. Individual issues were expensive at the time, but we really gave readers their money's worth, The series ran for fifty issues over more than five years. Not bad for any series, so I think the North American reader (as opposed to collector) was more than fine and responsive to it.
CBB: What step have been taken so that Dark Horse Comics be able to fulfil orders of comic book and trade paperbacks based on Dark Horse-related movies in the future?
Richardson: Interesting question, probably fueled by the 300 trade controversy. We are always on top of the trade situation when one of our books is released on film. With regard to 300, we had over 100,000 unsold copies in the marketplace when that specific article appeared saying the book was out of print. In addition, we actually air freighted books in so that no retailer had to wait long to receive copies. One of the comics industry's leading retailers replied to the alleged situation by saying he could get all the copies he needed. The HELLBOY film generated a different problem. We made a point of anticipating orders by contacting selected buyers and then printed several times the number. Surprisingly, that number sold out almost immediately. We reprinted several times the re-order number. That sold out before it shipped. We do the best we can in these situations, but we can't order an infinite number of returnable books.
CBB: Fanboy question. Will you ever publish the second volume of the Venus Wars?
Richardson: Never say never.
CBB: Thank you very much.
Richardson: You are welcome.