Milwaukie's Dark Horse Comics is now a juggernaut, with its feet wet in Hollywood (Hellboy, The Mask, American Splendor) and a whole world of licensing (Aliens vs. Predator, Star Wars). But 30 years ago, it was just a dream by founder Mike Richardson and a comic store called Pegsasus Fantasy Books—now Things From Another World. On July 23, 1986, Dark Horse published its first issue of Dark Horse Presents, featuring the brutal Black Cross and a weirdly arty comic called Concrete. In honor of Dark Horse's 30th anniversary, WW asked artists and early staffers to share memories of how the company got started.
Bob Schreck, Dark Horse editor-marketing director, 1990-97
Mike Richardson had his dream. And, you know, he had this thing about horses. Pegasus was his comic-book store, and Dark Horse was, eventually, his comics-publishing empire and film division.
Jacob Pander, writer-artist, Exquisite Corpse, Girlfiend
They knew the culture. They understood inherently that pulse of what somebody comes into the comic-book store is asking for and what their wish fulfillment would be.
Arnold Pander, writer-artist, Exquisite Corpse, Girlfiend
In 1983 or '84, there was this kind of collective of artists and writers—some of the core pre-Dark Horse creative people—who had get-togethers with live art and live models, almost like drink-and-draw socials. They had this magazine they would print for themselves. It was almost like they ran it off on a Xerox machine.
They had this comic book sort of coming up but couldn't talk about it. So, it was all was sort of percolating. And, then, in 1986, Dark Horse Presents launched and come onto the scene really strong with Black Cross, which was Chris Warner's book.
Diana Schutz, Dark Horse editor, 1990-2015
I was hooked on Paul Chadwick's Concrete: a thoughtful, provocative read.
Matt Wagner, writer-artist, Grendel
They originally had a splash with Boris the Bear and that sort of thing, but I was never much of a funny animal guy.
Shannon Wheeler, writer-artist, Too Much Coffee Man
Dark Horse Presents was just amazing. It felt like an indie comic, but it was professionally done. They were reprinting some of the Europeans–I was really into Moebius—and then The Mask started coming out. And Bob the Alien. I loved Bob the Alien.
Jacob Pander: Mike Richardson sensed that indie comics could be a hybrid between Marvel and the more contemporary stuff like Fantagraphics. That's where Dark Horse really filled a space for creatives like ourselves who grew up reading Spider-Man and Iron Man but also Zap and Heavy Metal—merging the traditional with the alternative and finding that sweet spot that wasn't strictly superheroes or something really raw.
Schreck: A few years before, independent publishers scattered around the country had started publishing peoples' works in a way that would allow creators to still own their characters – whereas, with Marvel and DC, you worked for hire only. There were all these various companies – Comico, before that Fantagraphics, Eclipse Comics, Now Comics, First Comics – and the market was regaining its old heat. So, we all became a big crazy family. There very few distributors, then, boom, there were seventeen, and we all would meet at these distributor shows. Maybe 87 or 88, I guess Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley decided to attend one of the meetings. I remember guiding them through some of the ropes because they weren't quite up to speed about what exactly went on.
Schutz: At the time, Dark Horse seemed dedicated to providing more interesting, more adult fare to the market. There was an emphasis on good stories that, as a reader, I really appreciated. Dark Horse also provided an opportunity for creators to own their own work. And though Dark Horse was hardly the first publisher to do that, it was still a relatively new option for creators at the time, and, politically, one that many of us believed in pretty strongly.
In 1990, as competitor Comico folded, Mike Richardson courted two of its key players, Diana Schutz and Bob Schreck.
Schreck: There was Marvel, which was the number one company in sales. There was DC, which was always number two. We had come on to Comico, and together —my ex-wife Diana Schutz and I, together with the owners—helped them to win several awards, sell a lot of books, and become the third largest publisher of comics.
Wheeler: When you're young, you just think that things last forever, and so I thought that all companies would last. Comico. I thought Valiant would be around. Anything and everything I thought was kinda immortal.
Schreck: Basically, Comico went under thanks to us going on the newsstand, and the newsstand is just corrupt … I had already gotten to know Mike Richardson through the distributors shows and the San Diego Comic Convention, and, when everything was over with Comico, he flew us up from California on a rainy March afternoon, took us to the top of Washington Park so we could look down on the city from the amphitheater, and said, "Yeah, let's do this."
Schreck: He flew us up from California on a rainy March afternoon, took us to the top of Washington Park so we could look down on the city from the amphitheater, and said, "Yeah, let's do this."
Arnold Pander: Suddenly, all these really great books that were with Comico—like The Rocketeer and Grendel and Jonny Quest—migrated over to Dark Horse.
Schreck: We were the No. 3 publisher within…a year?
Steven Birch, Dark Horse graphic designer, 1989-1993
I'm sure that was a pretty hefty step down from Marvel and DC, but, yeah, we were third.
Matt Wagner: At that point, Dark Horse was a tiny little closet of its current incarnation.
Schutz: My sense of Dark Horse in the mid-'80s was that it was a very promising company, but, man, they could not get their books out on time!
Birch: I remember some of the ads. They looked like they were done by somebody who shouldn't be doing ads. But they were just scrappy, you know?
Schutz: There were a dozen of us working there: Schreck and I were employees Nos. 11 and 12. Aside from the receptionist, I was the only other female employee. Certainly the only female editor. In fact, the day before I started, Mike had the guys take down all their Playboy (or whatever) pinups.
Beeson: We had a long relationship with Betty Page, right? With her estate? And, Bunny Yeager, one of her original photographers, wanted a piece of that action and attached herself to me somehow. So, she would keep sending me posters of her in bikinis from her heyday and sign them with X's and O's. She would call me, and we would have long conversations. That was a very sweet part of the job, actually.
Wheeler: Converse had flown me out to Vancouver for a tennis shoe commercial, and, during a layover in Seattle on the way back, I rented a car and drove to Portland with Al [Doghead] Columbia and Ed [Captain America: The Winter Soldier] Brubaker. We were all so drunk. "Dark Horse is only three hours away? Let's go! I've never been!" It was just spur of the moment – we left at 4, got there at 7 or 8, and Bob Schreck gave us a tour. I was just amazed. 'Oh my God, we're here at Dark Horse, this is the coolest thing ever.'
Birch: I'd been getting burned out working punk and metal shows for Monqui, and [a friend] had been periodically saying I should come by and make some ads for Dark Horse so I went in, met a couple people, and started working as a freelancer. Turned out I was a real good fit, but, a few months before that, I got arrested at this stupid fucking Satyricon riot and became one of what was called 'the Satyricon six'. Also, I'd recently fallen over this chair with one of my bandmates and slammed into the sharp edge of a table. So, just when they wanted me to come on full time, I had to let them know – with black eye and all these stitches down the side of my face – that I would have to physically go down to check in with the parole officer every fucking Friday. To their credit, they said 'cool, no worries.'
Schreck: It was really one office behind and to the side of the small retail store on that very same corner where the actual office is—not down the block where you see the Predator standing.
Jacob Pander: You walk into the lobby and there's a monolithic concrete statue.
Schutz: I don't remember when the statue appeared, though I do remember the time some dick tried to steal it. He had Predator hanging out the back of his open car trunk, like no one would notice.
Chris Beeson, Dark Horse product development manager, 1997-2003
I think Dark Horse basically was downtown Milwaukie for a long time.
Birch: There was not shit there. Lunch meant we were gonna go to Pietro's.
Wheeler: As soon as I started having to FedEx them artwork every week or two, I was, like, "Milwaukie? What the hell? And why is it spelled wrong?"
Schutz: I'm not sure anyone had even heard of Portland back then.
Arnold Pander: I feel like a lot of people discovered Portland through Dark Horse.
By 1989, Dark Horse had begun making comics based on the space-horror movie Aliens, and quickly moved on to Predator. Aliens vs. Predator couldn't be far behind.
Beeson: Mike Richardson had his toes in the movie industry, and I think he realized there was money to be made licensing some bigger commercial properties like movies and television.
Schreck: Dark Horse had already announced Aliens vs. Predator by the time we got there, but, after almost two years, it hadn't come out. Fortunately for Dark Horse, every time they resolicited [comic stores], the sales went higher. AVP No. 1 ended up selling something like 450,000 copies.
Arnold Pander: Why Dark Horse was really able to survive and do all of these great experiments was having those licensed books—having Star Wars, having Aliens, having Predator—and that was kind of their bread and butter for a long time.
Wagner: That's adaptability—a foot in the licensing camp and a foot in the independent creator's camp. Mike was already a businessman. A lot of guys in the '80s got into pushing comics due to their sheer love of the medium, but it didn't necessarily mean they had any business savvy whatsoever.
Wheeler: My comic is a stupid comic called Too Much Coffee Man, and it appeals on the lowest level—someone says, "Oh, I like coffee," and they'll buy my comic. So, I've never been snobby in that way. Going to Dark Horse as they started arranging licensing deals for Aliens vs. Predator…I don't know, I liked Aliens vs. Predator. I like aliens. I like predators.
Schreck: The James Bond book, the very first one, was really beautiful. It looked great. It read great. Ian Fleming's agent couldn't have been happier. And … it did okay, but not as I think we expected at the time. You gotta go with your gut, do the very best you can, and let the chips fall where they may.
Wagner: They've worked with some of the biggest franchises available—Star Wars for many years, Terminator, Aliens, Predator, and the list just goes on and on—but they've also worked with me and Frank Miller and Mike Mignola. They're really clever, hitting the high end of both ends of that dichotomy.
Schreck: Star Wars was a great story. Originally, Marvel licensed Star Wars and hired two people to do the book. When one of them found out there was a discrepancy between the contracts, he refused to do the work, and, rather giving the guy an equal amount, Marvel said the hell with it – we'll just let this go. Mike Richardson very smartly contacted Lucasfilm for the license to do the Indiana Jones books which allowed us to develop a relationship, and we ended up with the very same Star Wars book because Marvel wouldn't budge on the price paid to the one creator. I'm sure Mike put a big bag of money in front of Lucasfilm as well but it paid off in droves—a huge, huge seller, I think over 300,000 copies.
Birch: They're just so good at licensing stuff. Most comic companies buy a franchise and just have hacks shit out a bunch of books, and they're basically just selling a title like Star Wars as much as they can before it all peters out. Mike's whole take was, "We''ll get this and then make stories that are as good as the movies we love. This is gonna be a top A+ book in our eyes." That's always been his attitude. Even the Alien stuff he wanted to be a companion—really well-written and well-illustrated.
Wagner: The first thing I did for Dark Horse was a painted Terminator book. It was called Terminator: One-Shot and featured a pop-up in the middle—you open it and the Terminator rears up out of the book riding a motorcycle and shooting down a cop. It was Mike's idea. He just got this bee in his bonnet. I don't know, he really wanted to do the first comic book with a pop-up.
Here's the tragic part. Later, Dark Horse lost the license for the Terminator, and somebody else republished all of the material in a six by nine omnibus format. And, that two-page spread, they just cropped out the pop-up so instead of the main image of the villain on her motorcycle, there was just a bunch of cops shooting up in the air. It was just horrible—really bad.
Schutz: In any business, the idealists are pitted against the realists. Having been a victim of a company that had gone bankrupt … I understood accountant-think to some extent, but, by the same token, licensing wasn't really what I'd signed up for. Luckily, after a few years of Predators and Terminators, I was allowed to work pretty exclusively with creators on their own personal projects.
Wheeler: I've always wanted to make a living through comics. On a personal level, I didn't see a problem. I felt like there was an integrity to it. There are sell-out companies out there where you see it and you smell it. I avoid them, I always have, but Dark Horse, even though they do the commercial stuff, a lot of what they do is just so … weird.
Wagner: I've always toed the line between the mainstream and the indie. I have the stuff that I do, and then I like going and playing with the more established toys that the other guys own. I've always just kinda viewed it as a band doing cover songs of their favorite artists, y'know? You just step in, give your version, and then go on to your own material again. It's paying homage to the stuff that inspired when you were an up and coming creator.
Arnold Pander: They created a new model – a creator friendly environment. This was a place to fulfill interests and passions that other companies wouldn't facilitate without a lot of caveats so suddenly Dark Horse found itself in this unique position of having people like Frank Miller suddenly interested in working with them.
Schutz: Frank Miller's 300, painted by his then-wife Lynn Varley, used a "blackline" process, which allowed her to paint over the inked art in places. When she sent in the watercolors for the very first issue, I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of her color work over Frank's line art that I actually wept! The only other time that's happened was at the Louvre!
Schreck: When Frank Miller stepped out and started doing his own material with Sin City, he owned it, and that opportunity wasn't available at Marvel or DC. Smart as a whip, Mike sat down with Frank and actually showed how it all works: "Here's the marketing budget, this is how much it costs to print the book, this is what paper costs, and this is how I do it.' Mike offered him a great deal, and I think Frank actually pushed back and said 'I don't want that great of a deal. I want you to really participate.'
Wagner: Mike has always been a real advocate of creators rights, and he said all the right things about creative freedom, ownership, how they would not step on my toes, and everything a creator likes to hear.
Wheeler: They've never pressured me to do anything I was uncomfortable with. When I would go to Mike and pitch ideas – 'I have a sci-fi story, I have one about the 60s, and then there's this Too Much Coffee Man thing" – he was always very encouraging and positive about whatever I was interested in. So, y'know, crap! I had to actually do something!
Schreck: There were scuffles – a couple of bad days here and there – but, in general, I know Mike's intention was to play fair, treat everybody great, and pay them as well as you can.
Jacob Pander: Since we were in the same town, we'd just roll by to drop off pages each time we did a batch. Around 1990, we were about to pitch our book The Dissident, which was then called Triple X. The day we actually had to go out to Milwaukie and negotiate contracts, I was working as a prop assistant for My Own Private Idaho and had to go out to the Gun Room on Foster and get two revolvers—real guns, that we had to have with us because you couldn't just leave them around. So, I pick up Arnold, and we come in with this silver case. Somebody makes a joke, I pop the case open, and there were these two old school Smith & Wesson's. Then, right at that moment, Mike Richardson walks out of his office asking if we were ready for our meeting. And, the same guy goes – 'they brought guns!'
Arnold Pander: Let's just say we made a deal.
Dark Horse's wild success in licensing also led to rumblings in Hollywood as the company opened an entertainment division in Los Angeles—which eventually made the Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask in 1994.
Birch: The first movie thing[Dark Horse Entertainment] did was the horrible, horrible Dr. Giggles.
Schreck: Before The Mask, [the film studios] would pat Mike on the head, say 'that's nice', and send him scooting along out of the office. Dr. Giggles wasn't exactly an epic.
Birch: We had to do ads for [Dr. Giggles] and knew it was a piece of shit. When we went to the premiere, we sat in the front row and just got super drunk – probably ten or twelve of us that worked at Dark Horse passing around a bottle of Sapphire gin. I almost feel that Mike kinda knew it was going to be bad, but you gotta get one under your belt and show that you can put out a movie. After that, you'll have a lot more control, and you know more what you're doing. And, the next one was The Mask. I don't know how it holds up now 'cause I haven't seen it since then, but, at the time, we were like … fuck, that came out of Dark Horse!
Schutz: I'm honestly a little surprised that Frank Miller's Sin City movies, co-directed by Robert Rodriguez, haven't been even more successful than they are. Conversely, after working with the late Harvey Pekar for ten years as his editor on American Splendor, I would never have believed that a brilliant movie could be made from that series… or that Harvey himself would be in it!
Schreck: Robert Rodriguez really loved the Sin City graphic novel. He practically grew up on it. Actually, for about three years, Mike Allred [Madman, iZOMBIE] had tried to get them together … and I think I spent a year and a half before finally figuring out how to get Frank to talk to him. As his editor, Frank would call me and I'd usually call him right back to answer him, even if it was something outside of comics … so, if it was personal, I stopped returning his calls, and he knew why …
The next time I talk to Frank, maybe a month later, he's on his cell in Texas shooting the first scene to Sin City. That's how the movie actually happened. It was my torturing Frank. But, yeah, I love the first Sin City, and I think the second one's even better, because I'm in it. Toward the end, I get my head kicked in by Jessica Alba.
The Milwaukie headquarters also underwent rapid expansion in the early nineties.
Jacob Pander: Dark Horse suddenly ramped up their employees and did an entire remodel. It was like walking into an airport terminal. There were multiple offices, two floors, and you really sensed how huge Dark Horse had become.
Schreck: We had a lot of fun times, especially in those early days. For the first year or so, we'd work all day and eventually go down to this crappy little bar right down the street for some beers. Mike Richardson usually paid the whole tab, and we'd just sit and talk and draw and exchange ideas. We did that almost every weeknight for quite a while.
Schutz: By the mid-'90s, the company was no longer the cozy little family it had been. Maybe even before that. I think once we hit 40 employees, that's when the rolls of toilet paper started disappearing.
Schreck: When you have a company grow as quickly as Mike had, there are growing pains. I just got frustrated in my editorial position and quit. I couldn't take the bureaucracy anymore. They eventually got things together and moved on from that time, but I just had to get out.
Birch: The first year or so I was there, it was real tight, like a family. We brought in more people, and Mike ended up buying this whole giant building to build us a space, which was awesome—it's all new, everything worked. The problem comes when you go from 14, 15, 16 people up to 100 in a very short time. They hired a number of middle people [who] didn't know what the fuck they were doing, and everybody in the art department knew it. Pretty much every designer quit or was fired over the next couple years. [The company] obviously figured it out, but that was real rough for a lot of us. Man, I loved that job.
Wagner: That's the problem with big corporations. They tend to become somewhat soulless. I think Dark Horse has fairly well managed to avoid that trap. They are still in many ways a small-town company, and I think that's much to their benefit that they keep it homey and welcoming to both talent and their administration.
Schutz: Mike is the single most important reason for that company's success. If and when he finally steps down, it'll be interesting to see how that changes things. He's been the captain of that ship right from the start, and I find it tough to imagine how it would survive without him at the helm.
Schreck: I know one thing—as long as there's air pumping through Mike's lungs, Dark Horse will be there. You'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who knows more about comics and has more of a love of comics than Mike. He loves all sorts of mediums, visual mediums, and keeps reading books. He's constantly taking in all of these things to stay on top of what's happening in the world. 'Look what I discovered over here in the corner! This would make a great comic!'
Wheeler: Mike Richardson genuinely loves comics, and a lot of the decisions he makes are terrible because he loves comics. He'll publish somebody like me—underground, indie. I don't draw as well, and he's really been super-supportive. He doesn't have this idea about what comics are. You'll see this weird new comic, and wonder … why is he doing that? It's really neat.
Jacob Pander: That was an amazing period of time where there was a lot of momentum in the industry. You could get paid as an indie creator to do creator-owned books, and the way [Dark Horse was] mitigating risk through licensed projects enabled them to put money into these passion projects and take risks on making an environment where artists could do something meaningful, something challenging and thoughtful …
At the end of the day, you've got Mike Richardson, but there were a lot of these editors fighting for books really, you know, out there. The trick with doing original content—there's no built-in audience so, every time you put out a new creator-owned book, you're asking the world to jump in and be a fan. It's always a give and take—the practical no-brainer versus the unknown – but that's the essence of a dark horse, right?
Arnold Pander: There are a few companies that champion the notion of creator-owned work, and Dark Horse is still out there pushing that. The internet's truly the Wild West, and Dark Horse understands the Wild West because that's what they were born out of. When a company like that succeeds and evolves, a part of its DNA is that rebel spirit, and I think that's what we're still seeing today.