From Complex Magazine (Jun/Jul 2006)
By Noah Callahan-Bever. Illustration by Eric Powell
As Bad Boy and Death Row dominated ’90s hip-hop, Marvel and DC ruled the comic book industry in the ’80s. However, the big two got an, er…, dark horse challenger in 1986 when Bend, Oregon, comic shop owner Mike Richardson: , then 36, launched Dark Horse Comics. By offering editorial freedom and creator ownership, Richardson lured legends Frank Miller and Mike Mignolia, who then published classics Sin City and Hellboy, respectively. But it’s been Richardson’s Hollywood success-producing nearly 20 films, including The Mask and Timecop-that has kept Dark Horse at the forefront of graphic entertainment for two decades. In addition to overseeing Dark Horse’s titles, Richardson is currently producing the vampire thriller 30 Days of Night, starring Josh Hartnett, and Hellboy 2. Get off the jock-ey!
How has the view of comics changed since 1979, when you opened your first comic shop?
Mike Richardson: Back in the ’70s, here’s how adults purchased comics: You drove outside town and parked across the street of a 7-11 at midnight, ran to the comic spinner rack, pulled out as many as you could, got ‘em in a brown paper bag, and then prayed no one saw you. So, when I opened my shop, I decided it was going to be different. We advertised on the radio, had signings, and drew as much attention as possible. Comics weren’t just for kids anymore.
Is that why you started Dark Horse?
Mike Richardson: That was part of it. When we had signings, I heard the same complaint from all the creators-they had signed away the rights to their work. And I found out it had been like this since the ’30s. Siegel and Shuster created Superman, made a few hundred dollars, and were fired off the book. So it occurred to me that if a company offered to be a partner and let the creator retain trademark and copyright, and paid competitive page rates with Marvel and DC, creators would want to come.
Signing Sin City’s Frank Miller in ’90 would be like an indie label signing Eminem today. How did it happen?
Mike Richardson: When we had our first meeting, I brought along a complete profits-and-losses statement, which showed where every penny went. I said, “You tell me how much you want, and that’s the deal we’ll make.” Frank looked at it and said, “Meet me here tomorrow,” got up, and left. He came back the next day and said we had a deal. Marvel and DC had only given him three-line statements-just sales, returns, and his share. I actually offered him 90 percent [of the profits], but he said, “No, that’s not fair.” He took much less. So, nobody gets more than Frank. That’s why we didn’t make a deal with Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and the Image guys-they wanted more than Frank.
How did you get into Hollywood?
Mike Richardson: Studios started calling me wanting to option our rights, and I said I wanted to produce. That went nowhere for a long time, but then Larry Gordon, the former president of FOX and founder of Largo Entertainment, said, “Hey, if you want to do movies-let’s do movies.” So we developed Dr. Giggles. It was a low-budget horror film but made money for the studio, so they were happy. Then in ’94 we had back-to-back No. 1 movies with The Mask, which launched Jim [Carrey] and Cameron [Diaz], and then Timecop.
Despite comics’ recent success in Hollywood, the print genre is struggling. Why?
Mike Richardson: So many of the comic shops confine themselves to Marvel and DC, who are good at what they do, but that’s not going to grow the industry. Andrew Vachss did a book with us called Another Chance To Get It Right that was held up on Oprah. Over 150,000 people tried to call in to buy it. The sad thing was that we got many complaints because people went to bookstores and comic shops, and they didn’t have it. A few years back we partnered with Spike Lee and made Colors in Black, a critically hailed anthology series by black authors. And again, the distribution was difficult. That’s the problem-if it’s not superheroes, shops don’t take the book.
So what’s the solution?
Mike Richardson: If you asked someone 10 years ago who would be the least likely person to pick up a comic, they would’ve answered, teenage girls. Well, there are Japanese comics for teenage girls called Shoujo. Because American publishers weren’t interested, one company was able to license a ton of Shoujo at a good price and make it available in bookstores-because comic shops basically didn’t want them-and guess what? They’re the biggest selling comics over the last three years! Now every bookstore has racks of Shoujo. If you publish stories for a wide variety of people, you’ll get a wide variety of readers, and that’s it.