30 Years of Dark Horse Comics & Films
On Saturday, June 4, comic book shops across the world will celebrate Dark Horse Comics’s thirtieth anniversary. Dark Horse Comics emerged in 1986 just as the light was being snuffed out for mainstream alternatives to the Big Two, and with a wildly different publication model: Rather than trying to own everything Dark Horse touched, Richardson conceived a system that let creators own their properties. We think of that as something that ought to be self-evident today, but a key reason we think that is because Richardson dared to do it…and proved that it worked. He also proved that there was an audience of comic book readers who were hungry for something other than superheroes.
The relationship between comics and film goes back to the beginning, with early illustrators exploring ways their static cartoons could become animated. To supplement the creator-owned books, Dark Horse also sought out the licenses for some prolific medium-friendly movie properties. Though Dark Horse didn’t invent the idea of licensed comics (ask older people you know if they remember comics based on old TV westerns), there was something different about their approach. It wasn’t enough to have a recognizable brand on the cover; Dark Horse’s writers and artists explored the universes created on-screen and brought their own ideas to those universes. Much of our approach to cross-media synergy for storytelling universes evolved from Dark Horse.
Though Dark Horse didn’t invent crossovers or shared universes, these storytelling conventions certainly evolved through the publisher’s limited series. Worth noting, for instance, is that even though Marvel had printed more than a hundred Star Wars comics, it wasn’t until Dark Horse revived the franchise with 1992’s Star Wars: Dark Empire by Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy that even the term “Expanded Universe” was coined to refer to Star Wars stories told in comics, novels, and games.
In 1987, Dark Horse secured Godzilla, and 1988 entered into a relationship with 20th Century Fox that brought the Aliens universe to comics, followed the next year by Predator, as well as adaptations of The Abyss and Big (marking the first appearance of a Tom Hanks character in comic books!). Though we never got an Abyss/Big crossover, Dark Horse did orchestrate the marriage of the Aliens and Predator universes. Fans who’ve only watched the movies may believe the genesis was the appearance of an Alien skull in Predator 2, but in fact, it was a story in their flagship anthology book, Dark Horse Presents, issues #34-36 (cover dated November, 1989-February,1990).
For movie fans who would like to see what some other franchise crossovers look like that are considerably less likely to ever make it to the screen, Dark Horse Comics also explored such combinations as RoboCop vs. The Terminator (1992), Tarzan vs. Predator at the Earth’s Core (1996), Predator versus Judge Dredd (1997), Aliens vs. Predator vs. The Terminator (2000), and Judge Dredd vs. Aliens: Incubus (2003).
The relationship between Dark Horse and Hollywood has been wholly symbiotic as well, with the publisher creating a film and television division, Dark Horse Entertainment, shortly after its launch. Its first original film, Dr. Giggles, was released in 1991. It was their next production, though, that put a whole lotta butts in seats in 1994: a big screen adaptation of The Mask (first appearance: Dark Horse Presents #10, as “The Masque”, in a story written and illustrated by Mark Badger).
The Mask is, in many respects, the perfect microcosm of Dark Horse. It’s a concept that almost had to have originated in comic books, because who other than comic book readers in the late 80’s would have embraced such a thing? Younger people take for granted that such ideas can be successful in various mediums today, but it wasn’t always that way.
The Mask was also the centerpiece of Jim Carrey’s breakout year hat trick. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was a surprise hit that February, but it was The Mask that cemented Carrey’s box office credential, dominating the back end of that summer’s box office and going on to be #9 for the entire year (source: BoxOfficeMojo.com). Just as The Mask had to have begun as a comic book, it pretty much had to be Carrey to bring him to live action movies. Younger people may also take for granted that CGI can make anything work, but that also wasn’t always that way. Carrey underwent some of the most elaborate makeup ever devised for movies, and somehow under all that managed to command the screen as both the hapless Stanley Ipkiss and as the outrageous Mask persona. The Mask also introduced audiences to Cameron Diaz and made “Sssssssmokin’!” a catchword.
The most successful films to originate from Dark Horse Comics, though, are those based on the works of Frank Miller. Robert Rodriguez brought Sin City to the big screen in what represented a dramatic paradigm shift away from loose adaptations to more stringent fealty to the source material. The dialogue is as Miller wrote it, and the shots are framed and blocked to match the panels from his pages. After years of readers wondering why Hollywood kept taking good ideas and botching them, Sin City was a turning point. It demonstrated that a successful, well-made film could, in fact, be made by directly following its source material and not by dismissing the things that made it interesting or unique in order to sanitize it for film.
Zack Snyder followed a similarly earnest approach when adapting Miller’s 300, his stylistic interpretation of the famed Battle of Thermopylae. Box Office Mojo shows 300’s total box office gross at a whopping $210,614,939, a feat once thought unreachable for a movie based on a comic book. It finished at #10 for the overall 2007 box office.
Despite the box office success of these and other movies (such as Guillermo del Toro’s adaptations of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy films), President Mike Richardson has always kept the worlds of comics and films separate. As head of Dark Horse, he’s taken each story that has come to him for what it is, not what it could become in another incarnation. The writers and artists who have told the stories he’s published for the last three decades haven’t created those stories as backdoor pitches to Hollywood.
There is one somewhat arguable exception that seems to prove the point. In 1992, Dark Horse published a four-issue limited series written by former Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer from a screen story he had called Virus. Its visuals were beyond the reach of Hollywood at the time (remember; that same year was when we first saw liquid metal in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and everyone was agog), but the comic book medium doesn’t have those kinds of creative restrictions. Four years later, with visual effects finally capable of handling Pfarrer’s story, Dark Horse produced a film co-written by Pfarrer from his own original story. This wasn’t a case of Pfarrer using comics to get Hollywood’s attention, though, but rather telling his story twice in each medium. As previously noted, creators owning their work may seem the obvious default to us today, but it wasn’t at the time. It was Dark Horse’s pro-creator business model that made possible.
Until this year, 300 stood as the highest-grossing R-rated film based on a comic book. It was dethroned by Deadpool, which, though not a Dark Horse comic or film, merits some serious consideration in the conversation about the publisher’s legacy to this point. Deadpool was, by all accounts, a surprise hit. Longtime readers were surprised it was even being made, and then everyone was surprised when it kept bringing in more money. It defied conventional wisdom of what movie-going audiences really wanted, we were told. It tested preconceived ideas of where the boundaries were between comics, superheroes, movies, and mass audiences and showed them to be far more malleable than has been long recognized.
To give Dark Horse Comics credit for Deadpool’s success would be too simplistic and would erase the people who worked on that character over the years as well as those who worked on the film. But as this admittedly concise survey of their thirty-year history has hopefully illustrated, Dark Horse has had a tremendous influence on how the relationships between comics and movies — and those between reader and viewer — have evolved.
If you aren’t familiar with your local comic book shop, Dark Horse Day would be a great occasion to rectify that. There will be an exclusive Dark Horse Day Sampler comic, featuring Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Aliens vs. Predator, Frank Miller’s Sin City, and The Umbrella Academy. For further details, visit darkhorse.com. Will you be celebrating with your favorite Dark Horse film? Be sure to tell us in the comments what yours is!