In Milwaukie, a suburb of Portland, Dark Horse has been publishing comics for the past 30 years. Randy Stradley, v-p of publishing, founded the company with Mike Richardson in 1986. Dark Horse puts out an average of 350 comics per year. The indie publisher also operates Dark Horse Digital, an e-book store, and has added mainstream novelists such as Chuck Palahniuk—Dark Horse will serialize a graphic novel adaptation of Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Dark Horse has 120 employees with an additional 45 working for its retail arm—Things from Another World—which has four store locations: Beaverton, Milwaukie, Portland, and Universal City.
Fantagraphics is a Seattle-based comics publisher celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The company currently has 15 employees and puts out 75–85 titles per year. Fantagraphics is primarily known for comics and cartooning-related books, but it publishes art books and literary fiction, including works by National Book Award–nominee Stephen Dixon. The publisher also has had a public storefront gallery space for the last 10 years, and while the gallery space doesn’t bring in revenue, it breaks even and provides a way for Fantagraphics to advertise its presence to the community at large and hold events.
Former Dark Horse employee Bob Schreck founded Portland’s Oni Press with Joe Nozemack in 1997, with the goal of publishing stories that they felt were being overlooked. “At the time there weren’t a lot of nontraditional comic book genre stories,” Nozemack says. “We looked for books we thought had the potential for a large audience, that might have been getting overlooked because they weren’t traditional comic books.”
Oni moved into licensing, including such properties as Kevin Smith’s Clerks and The Blair Witch Project. It also moved into kids books and graphic novels, particularly those aimed at girls, a readership that it felt was overlooked by other comics publishers. Nozemack emphasizes that, over the past 10 years, there’s been a huge growth in female comics readers: “Sandman kind of helped bring in the first batch of female readers, and then the manga boom definitely helped, and now all the movies and TV shows and cartoons that have been much more friendly to the female audience.” On the topic of diversity in comics, Nozemack says, “Comics have always had a diverse group of characters, but I think now what we’re seeing is more openness from publishers to hire diverse artists and writers as well.”
Oni has a film and production arm, Oni Entertainment, that has brought films, including Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, to audiences. This year marks the launch of a new adult imprint, Limerence Press, and Oni continues to look for ways to expand into new outlets.
Nozemack says that when he moved to Portland from Houston, starting a business was “really easy because the cost of living was pretty low.” An influx of newcomers since then have led to surging rents, but there’s also a silver lining: a larger consumer base. “The extra population that has come here has helped as well,” he says. “I think it’s part of why we pretty much have a comic shop in every neighborhood in town.”
Paizo Publishing, based in Redmond, Wash., is one of several companies in the region started by former employees of Seattle’s gaming and trading card giant Wizards of the Coast. Paizo began by publishing magazines that supported Wizards’ Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. When the terms of Paizo’s license with Wizards ended in 2007, Paizo decided to focus on being a game publisher. Their main product is Pathfinder, an RPG that was launched in 2009.
According to Erik Mona, publisher and chief creative officer of Paizo, 95% of the company’s products are books and game accessories that support the Pathfinder game. Paizo also has an extensive outreach program called Pathfinder Society. “If you think of it in terms of World of Warcraft, which is a massively multiplayer online game, we consider Pathfinder Society a massively multiplayer off-line game. There are 65,000 players in that campaign,” Mona says. Pierce Watters, director of sales at Paizo, adds: “We have organized play in every continent in the world except Antarctica. Well, we have people playing it there, but they have trouble reporting the results.”
Mona notes that the PNW is host to a strong gaming community, speculating that people in tech careers often have personal interests that tend to fantasy, sci-fi, and gaming in general. “Tabletop gaming as a whole has really exploded in the last five or six years, and the PNW is an area of major interest,” he says.
In 2017 Paizo is launching a new RPG complementing Pathfinder called Starfinder—a fantasy science-fiction role-playing game. “Since the beginning, people have asked us when we are going to do science fiction,” Mona says. “My business philosophy is when people ask you for something, they’ll probably trade you money for it.”