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