Dark Horse Heroes

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Go Boy 7 #1 ™ & © 2003 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. (Cover art by Francisco Ruiz Velasco.)
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Ghost #2 ™ & © 1995 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. (Cover art by Adam Hughes.)

Dark Horse Heroes

(pop culture)

Mike Richardson, owner of a successful chain of comics shops in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area, was dissatisfied with the caliber of material being produced in the mid-1980s, and invested in a highly risky venture: publishing his own comic book line. Dedicated to producing quality projects with diversified subjects, and to giving major publishers Marvel and DC Comics a run for their money, his tenaciously named Dark Horse Comics charged out of the gate in 1986 with its black-and-white anthology series, Dark Horse Presents (DHP). Paul Chadwick’s Concrete and Chris Warner’s Black Cross were featured in DHP #1, two nontraditional strips featuring non-traditional heroes. True to Richardson’s vision, those stories were miles above standard B&W fare and rivaled the quality of the best comic books then being published by the majors. Concrete and Black Cross helped Dark Horse define a template that would direct the path of the company’s heroes to follow—a nurturing of creative’ vision and a drive to be different.

Richardson, abetted by editorial second-in-command Randy Stradley, expanded the Dark Horse line in the late 1980s with licensed titles, continuing the sagas of Twentieth Century-Fox’s Aliens and Predator movies in best-selling comic books. The promise of lucrative royalties lured top talent to these upstart’s books, and before long, big-name creators anxious to break free of the corporate restraints of Marvel and DC Comics were bringing their personal wares to Dark Horse.

John Byrne, a fan favorite from his work on X-Men, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and Superman, came knocking on Dark Horse’s door, in 1992, with his original superhero concept The Next Men. This series, an homage to Marvel’s X-Men, featured a quintet of mutates who flee from the top-secret “Project Next Men” and struggle to adjust to the real world while avoiding their pursuers. Byrne followed his thirty-issue stint on Next Men with his short-lived Fantastic Four pastiche, Danger Unlimited. The new comics company IDW began reprinting John Byrne’s Next Men in 2008, and subsequently published new Next Men stories by Byrne.

Also in 1992, Dark Horse picked up Grendel, Matt Wagner’s bleak but compelling study of aggression that originated in the late 1980s at Comico the Comic Company, for a lengthy run of irregularly published miniseries and one-shots. On two occasions, Wagner’s creation encountered the Dark Knight in DC/Dark Horse Batman/Grendel crossovers. Grendel is in development as a movie, with a release date yet to be unannounced.

Eccentric cartoonist Bob Burden transplanted his bizarre superhero comic books The Flaming Carrot and its spinoff Mysterymen Stories to Richardson’s company in the mid-1990s. The latter property became a movie produced by Dark Horse Entertainment: Mystery Men (1999) featured a band of low-rent superheroes, including Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), the Shoveller (William H. Macy), and the Spleen (Paul Reubens). Despite its impressive cast and a wickedly satirical script, Mystery Men tanked at the box office. Another established independent superhero series that temporarily relocated to Dark Horse was Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus, a critically lauded science fiction concept—inspired in part by Rude’s fascination with the television cartoon Space Ghost—which featured the exploits of an intergalactic executioner. Similarly, Mike Allred’s snappy beatnik-hero concept, Madman Comics, was picked up by Dark Horse in the mid-1990s and stayed there until late 2000.

Creator Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, the story of an orphaned demon, debuted at Dark Horse in 1994. Mignola’s stylish, shadowy rendering and his flair for having fun with dark subjects struck a chord with readers. Numerous Hellboy miniseries and specials have appeared, as has some merchandising, and director Guillermo del Toro’s live-action feature Hellboy, starring Ron Perlman (of TV’s Beauty and the Beast), was released in April 2004—just in time for the character’s tenth anniversary. A sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, was released in 2008.

Dark Horse had made a name for itself publishing other people’s characters: creator-owned series and licensed titles (Godzilla, Terminator, Tarzan, Star Wars, and other properties joined Aliens and Predator). When Richardson, Stradley, and their editorial staff decided to produce superhero comics all their own, they were determined to create superheroes unlike any other publisher’s.

Dark Horse’s first company-created superhero—the Mask—first appeared in Dark Horse Presents #11 (1987), quite early in the company’s history. A twisted, graphic melding of Bugs Bunny and the Terminator, the original Mask is actually poor schmuck Stanley Ipkiss, who buys a bizarre ancient mask and gains Looney Tunes-inspired superpowers, and then uses these abilities to slaughter his tormentors. The Mask made repeated appearances, with other unlucky souls gaining the artifact and its dangerous properties, before heading to the big screen (albeit in a watered-down, family-friendly incarnation) with The Mask (1994), a film co-produced by Richardson, with Jim Carrey in the lead. The Mask was a summer box-office hit, and an animated series and loads of action figures followed.

Brand-new superhero universes flooded comics shops in the early 1990s, the result of a speculator-fueled sales boom. Dark Horse entered this competition for market share in 1993 with its boastfully named “Comics’ Greatest World” (CGW), which situated new heroes in four distinctive environments: Arcadia, an art deco-in-spired Mecca for mobsters; Steel Harbor, a bombed-out urban landscape overrun by superthugs; Golden City, a picture-perfect megalopolis governed by superheroes; and Cinnabar Flats, the sparsely populated, Southwest desert location of an interdimensional vortex and a top-secret military installation. Sixteen titles (four in each environment, bargain-priced at one dollar each), were released to introduce the cities and their stars.

This baptismal gimmick was succeeded by a quartet of ongoing monthly series, each deeper in content than the standard superfare. Catalyst, Agents of Change, set in Golden City, dealt with the woes of a utopian gated community, including the U.S. government’s suspicions over its autocracy and an influx of persistent would-be immigrants. X, the Arcadia title, was a violent study of a lone vigilante’s efforts to unravel the city’s corruption. Out of the Vortex, based in Cinnabar Flats, focused on the dubious motivations of an extraterrestrial called Vortex who emerged from the region’s strange whirlpool, as well as the military’s efforts to take advantage of alien nanotech-nology. Finally, Steel Harbor’s Barb Wire starred a hard-hitting, motorcycling lady brawler.

Other series and specials were released to help strengthen Comics’ Greatest World, featuring superheroes cut from a more cerebral cloth: The Machine, featuring a horrific tech/flesh fusion; Motorhead, a heavily tattooed, muscle-bound bar bouncer haunted by voices implanted into his head; Titan, an arrogant superman with few mental gifts; Mecha, a freewheeling iron man; Hero Zero, a teenage boy who morphed into a Japanese-robot-inspired giant (he even fought the King of Monsters in Godzilla vs. Hero Zero); Division 13, an X-Files-esque task force; Agents of Law, a Catalyst sequel with Golden City leader Grace deposed from her own city; and Ghost, a moody series involving a sexy, gun-toting wraith butchering Arcadia’s bad boys.

X, written by Steven Grant, was a modest hit, and Steel Harbor’s “babe on wheels” became a movie star—in the ample (and heavily exploited) form of Pamela Anderson—in Barb Wire (1996), a poorly received movie borrowing the comic’s tag line: “Don’t Call Me Babe!” The one success of these Dark Horse heroes was Ghost. Initially scripted by screenwriter Eric Luke (Explorers), with lushly rendered covers and interior art by comics’ most celebrated “Good Girl” artist, Adam Hughes, Ghost ran through 2000. Dark Horse produced a Ghost action figure and three crossovers involving the character: Ghost/Batgirl (with DC Comics), Ghost/Hellboy, and Ghost and the Shadow.

Despite Dark Horse’s valiant efforts, the comics industry became glutted in the mid-1990s and imploded. After a 1994 attempt to reimagine “Comics’ Greatest World” as “Dark Horse Heroes,” the titles (save Ghost), were can celed, one by one. As a result, Dark Horse continues in the 2000s as a smaller, more tightly run comics machine, counting the Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchises, Hellboy, and American-distributed Japanese manga series like Ghost in the Shell as its most successful properties. In 2003, Dark Horse launched a new line of superhero titles under its “Rocket Comics” imprint: Go Boy 7, Hell, Syn, Galactic, Lone, and Crush, youth-oriented concepts with contemporary themes and in-your-face characters. Given Dark Horse’s persistence and flair for originality, Rocket may very well succeed where CGW didn’t.

In Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the early days of the comic book industry, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), protagonists Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay create a comic book superhero called the Escapist. In 2004, Dark Horse began publishing the comic book series Michael Chabon Presents the Amazing Adventures of the Escapist. This series purportedly presented Escapist comics stories that were published over the decades in the fictional world of Chabon’s novel. Of course, the sto ries were actually created in the present by Chabon and various comics writers and artists, including a tale by the late Will Eisner that teamed the Escapist up with his creation the Spirit. In 2006, Brian K, Vaughan wrote a comics miniseries called The Escapists, a metafictional sequel to Chabon’s novel, about an attempt to revive the Escapist in contemporary comics.

Gerard Way, co-founder and lead singer of the band My Chemical Romance, writes the award-winning superhero comics series The Umbrella Academy, which he co-created with artist Gabriel Ba. Raised and trained by an alien known as the Monocle, now deceased, the Academy members include Spaceboy, the Kraken, the Rumor, Seance, the Boy, the Horror (also now dead), and the White Violin, who becomes a supervillainess. Dark Horse started publishing the original miniseries in 2007 and the second in 2008. —ME & PS