Dark Horse Comics has always had an independent streak, but this Fall, they’re waving their indie flag extra high with a new wave of books aimed at the growing audience for original graphic novels and Web comics. Dark Horse Originals is not a new imprint (it’s been around since 2009), but as editor Brendan Wright put it, many of these titles have been “percolating” for several years. The range of materials also reflects the greater opportunities open to creators and the expanding range of style that comics readers now accept.
“Dark Horse has always published books that were more challenging, literary, and experimental—along with series that have huge mainstream appeal like Star Wars, Aliens and Buffy,” said Dark Horse editor Phillip Simon. “This is our opportunity to put the spotlight on certain titles and cross promote a growing line of more literary works.”
The line-up includes:
· The Best Of Milligan & McCarthy: Older work such as Skin and Rogan Gosh by Peter Milligan (Hellblazer) and Brendan McCarthy (Judge Dredd). (September)
· Smoke/Ashes: Alex de Campi’s much-anticipated Kickstarter-funded sequel to her 2005 action/drama series about a reporter and an assassin who run afoul of a cabal of powerful politicians bent on controlling the world’s oil supplies. (September)
· Sin Titulo by Cameron Stewart: While going through his grandfather’s belongings, a young man finds a photograph that sets him on a bizarre adventure. (October.)
· Bandette by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover: A cat burglar merrily thumbs her nose at the rich and powerful. (November.)
· Bad Houses: Prose novelist Sara Ryan’s first graphic novel teams her with the award-winning creator of Finder, Carla Speed McNeil for a story about a small town teen who tries to cope with her mother’s hoarding habits, and inadvertently discovers a web of secrets hidden in her town’s past. (November)
· Sabertooth Swordsman: a merrily hallucinogenic adventure romp by first-time graphic novel by Damon Gentry and Aaron Conley. (November)
· Monsters! And Other Stories: Brazilian newcomer Gabriel Duarte presents an anthology of wordless stories in a Pixar-like style.
With its eclectic mix of different genres, art styles and audiences, the latest wave of Dark Horse Originals present one of fall’s most distinctive lines, one with a far more indie bent than usual for the publisher. “If you like books from Fantagraphics or Top Shelf, then these are the Dark Horse books that are in your wheelhouse,” says Wright, editor of Sabertooth Swordsman and Bandette.
“Dark Horse Originals titles aren't strictly Web comics or even original graphic novels,” Simon told PW Comics World. Bad Houses was picked up after originally being developed at Vertigo. Ningen's Nightmares by J. P. Kalonji, published in April, was an original pitche that was “approved ahead of time as a DHO book.” Some, like Bandette and Sin Titulo were Web comics first, but “when they came to Dark Horse to be collected, something about the work led us to see them as something unique that would benefit from being a part of the DHO line.”
Astounding Villain House was originally serialized in the Dark Horse Presents anthology series, a route which several other books have taken. It also represents an element in many of the Original titles: humor. “You’ll find a lot more humor than you’d usually find in the other books in our line,” said Wright. “Humor, for whatever reason, hasn’t always been an easy sell in the comics market. Bandette is really funny. Astounding Villain House is hilarious—I think it’s one of the funniest comics we’re publishing this year. For example, there’s a story about a woman who has a history of only dating super villains. She’s on a regular date with a normal guy and she’s looking back on how terrible all those dates were.”
For comics creators, Dark Horse Originals offers a sweet spot that includes the creative freedom of indie publishing but with the editorial and production support and marketing clout that one of North America’s largest comics publisher can provide.
“Dark Horse supports creators,” explained de Campi, author of Smoke/Ashes. “There are several publishers out there that are producing good independent graphic novels, but almost none pay an up-front page rate. They often take 50% of the film and publishing rights, or they don’t provide much editorial and marketing support. [Dark Horse] gave me editorial support for my book. They provided useful and constructive feedback for me and my artists—they’re not just traffic managers.”
Smoke/Ashes was originally envisioned as a Kickstarter-funded project, but it hit a snag. “I was one of the first high profile Kickstarter projects that went haywire,” she says. After raising over $32,000 to create/publish Ashes, the sequel to Smoke (her 2005 series with Igor Kordey originally published by IDW), de Campi parted ways with Jimmy Broxton, the artist originally contracted to draw Ashes. De Campi then “managed to take lemons and make lemonade” by getting 10 different artists to draw different chunks of her 250-page book, including a few fan favorite creators like Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra: Assassin) and Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil).
The production and promotional support from Dark Horse, has enabled de Campi to fulfill her promises to her Kickstarter backers, and then some. Instead of just publishing Ashes, de Campi is putting out a new 450+ page edition of the complete story, and Kickstarter backers will be receiving an exclusive, hardcover edition of the book with a special slipcover case.
If she had stuck to her original plan, de Campi could have self-published Ashes, but “not as easily, not as fast and not with the same quality,” she says. For example, “I would have had to pay twice as much for printing.” It also gave her the benefits of full distribution to both comics shops and bookstores. “Without Dark Horse, this book would only be available in the 17 stores that supported my Kickstarter. Now, it’ll be available in all stores that Dark Horse distributes to via Diamond.”
Another plus for creators with Dark Horse Originals is the flexibility offered regarding retaining the rights to their stories. For Tobin and Coover, choosing Dark Horse to publish Bandette, which was already an Eisner Award winning fan favorite, was easy. “I'd have to say that we went with Dark Horse because I feel very comfortable with a company that mixes [strong distribution] while treating creators as individual people, rather than indistinguishable dots in a greater matrix,” says Tobin.
“I think it's very important for companies and creators to understand that the role of traditional publishing is changing,” he continues. “Dark Horse has my back (and their back) in that regards, being very open to letting me keep rights that traditional graphic novel publishers would have made a play for.” For example, Tobin and Coover were able to retain the film and television rights to Bandette. They also retained control of the digital publishing rights to this series, since their original publisher, Monkeybrain Comics has an exclusive deal with ComiXology.
“In the old world of comics publishing it would have been impossible to say, ‘Here, publish this, but you can only have print rights," says Tobin. “But the world is changing, and I think it's better for everyone, because happy creators make for better creations.”
While this emphasis on the Dark Horse Originals imprint is relatively new, editors Wright and Simon point out that this spirit has been a part of Dark Horse’s DNA for a long time.
“If you look at Dark Horse's history, we've been doing these types of books alongside more ‘pop culture’ kinds of comics for decades,” said Simon. “Now we're really celebrating that unique side of Dark Horse Comics and putting some of the more literary, one-of-a-kind titles together in our Dark Horse Originals line.”
In addition to many more titles that are in the pipeline for Spring 2014 release (to coincide with Stumptown Comics Festival in April) and beyond, sharp-eyed readers may notice the Dark Horse Originals label will start appearing on some older titles too. “Some older Dark Horse titles will eventually be ‘relaunched’ with new editions that will sport the Dark Horse Originals logo and officially become a part of the line,” explains Simon. “Titles that were essentially Dark Horse Originals before our publisher thought up a name for the line.”
“Dark Horse Originals is kind of a non-line—the stories come from everywhere and are about almost anything,” added Wright. “The one thing that they have in common is that they’re very individual, distinctive works and that’s what so exciting about them.”