July 1, 1986: A local comic-book publisher introduces the world to Black Cross...

FRESH HORSES: The book that began Oregon's comic industry.

In the golden age of comic books, blockbuster characters seldom walked alone. Superman was the cover boy for Action Comics when he first appeared in 1938, but he was accompanied in the anthology by a precocious athlete named Pep Morgan and a two-bit crook named Sticky-mitt Stimson. Batman's debut a year later, in Detective Comics, found him sharing the spotlight with a musclebound hunk named Slam Bradley.

When Oregon's own Dark Horse launched in 1986, native son Mike Richardson chose the long-abandoned anthology-comic format to make its presence known. And while the cover boy for Dark Horse Presents No. 1—Black Cross, who bore equal resemblance to the Punisher and Bono—never found Superman-level stardom, Dark Horse Presents debuts like Paul Chadwick's whip-smart Concrete and Frank Miller's edgy Sin City changed the landscape of comics, and made Portland a center of the industry.

"Dark Horse in general, I think, is the reason Portland is such a comics town," says Jason Leivian, owner of Floating World Comics. "It was the attractor that brought so many artists out here."

In an era when Marvel and DC were still living in the shadow of one-dimensional superheroes and Cold War-era censorship, Dark Horse, headquartered in Milwaukie and now the third-largest publisher of comics in the country, was something new.  

"It was a place where a quirky indie strip like Bob the Alien could run alongside a mainstream thriller like Aliens, and I fell in love," says Philip Simon, who discovered Dark Horse Presents in grade school and is now an editor there. The diversity was no accident: Dark Horse gave creators complete freedom within their comics and let them retain ownership of their characters. The formula worked: The company had gigantic hits with The Mask, Hellboy and Sin City even as Marvel struggled, making only one movie in eight years.

By the time Sin City debuted in 1991, Simon says, "Comics hit a moment when a creator at his prime met a company that could finally give him the freedom he needed to produce his best work."

"Dark Horse Comics is a huge presence in the comics market," says Ron Randall, whose Trekker series was a rarity for its strong female protagonist. "I first moved back home here from the East Coast just as Dark Horse was starting. There were maybe a half-dozen comic professionals in the area. Now there are dozens and dozens of us. That influx began as a trickle just as Dark Horse opened shop and has turned into a flood of writers and artists from all over the comics landscape."

Dark Horse Presents ended its first run in 2000, after 14 consecutive years of publication. It has returned multiple times. The latest volume, a compact 48-page monthly comic, debuted in August.

Casey Jarman is a Portland writer and editor who has worked at Willamette Week and The Believer magazine. He is a co-founder of Party Damage Records.

From the Archives:

Dark Horse's pioneering Trekker comic, April 9, 2014

Crime journalist Phil Stanford's Dark Horse series, September 26, 2012

A review of Dark Horse's Bottomfeeder, December 27, 2006

1974: Mt. Hood Freeway Killed    

1975: Soccer City, USA  |  A Vet Shuts Down Nuclear Power 

1976: A Home for Refugees  |  Intel Changes the Economy 

1978: Bill Walton Sits Down

1979: Busing Ends in Portland Schools | Oregon Wine Gets Famous

1982: Courts Pave Way for Nudie Bars | The Other Daily Paper Folds

1984: Satyricon's First Show | A Bartender Becomes Mayor | The Air Jordan Saves Nike

1985: First Female Police Chief Ousted | Wieden+Kennedy's Most Important Ad

1986: Dark Horse Comics' First Issue 

1988: Inaugural Oregon Brewers' Fest | Rise of Hate Groups

1989: NW Rowhouses Burn  |  Gus Van Sant's Portland Hits Screen

1990: Our First Great Restaurant  | Oregon's Longest Tax Revolt

1991: Cleaning up the Willamette

1995: Bicyclists Sue Portland

1996: Vera Katz Builds a Wall | March to Save City Nightclub  | Powell's Rebuffs Amazon

1997: Path Cleared for Pearl District

1999: Stumptown Coffee Opens  |  Fight Club Hits DVD

2000: Largest Union Pension Fraud Ever

2003: Fred Meets Carrie  |  Suicide of Elliott Smith

2004: Gay Marriage Legalized (Briefly)  | Goldschmidt Exposed  | Eastside Portland Rises

2006: The Death of James Chasse Jr.

2008: Our Fanciest Restaurant Ever Bombs

2009: Sam Adams Admits Lying

2011: Occupy Portland 

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