Dark Horse: My Favorite Publisher of 2008

Funny thing, horses.

Oregon. The home of our friends The Decemberists. Little People, Big World. Sally Struthers. Shanghai tunnels. Ayers Rock, I believe. The end of The Oregon Trail. So, probably also the many graves of people who died of dysentery on said trail. But most important to today’s special comment is Dark Horse, one of the most successful comic book companies in these United States, perhaps the largest independent comic company after Marvel and DC. But if they’re not first in sales or in household recognition, they have become, without question, my favorite publisher of 2008.   

While my selection for most valuable publisher doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of the entire staff of iFanboy and may not coincide with your own either, it certainly ought to. Reflect and coincide, that is. In as much as it’s entirely accurate, which you’ll see in the paragraphs to come. That’s how editorials work.  

2008 was more a prolonged game of Tetris than a year, for all its blockbustery. Epic heaped upon epic with each passing month and creators endeavored to tell some of the most audacious stories in the medium’s history. But in a year of earth(s) shattering events, pointed ears and secret switcheroos of the flesh, of gods old and gods new, and Electric Kool-Aid Batman Tests, the most consistently entertaining comics came from a candidate who can only be described as… Dark Horse. Mind you, this isn’t a political selection, a loogie hocked against the establishment purely out of event fatigue. Capes are getting their due, and I’m reveling in the brash choices being made, the sharp jabs at the creative bellows, breathing new life (or death) into characters who’ve been rollicking across the rooftops for decades. It’s not about that. There are exciting things going on in Oregon as well, and for my sweetly-sought-for dollar, their books are the surest bet. In an informal poll of my memory banks, it’s the books like Hellboy: The Crooked Man, B.P.R.D. (including original recipe, War on Frogs, and 1946 varieties), Conan the Cimmerian, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Serenity, Fear Agent, Gigantic, Solomon Kane, and The Umbrella Academy which have delivered the goods on a regular and unfluctuating basis. And I’m eager to storm their archives for even more properties like The Goon, The End League, and yes, even Star Wars

(EDIT: And Usagi Yojimbo as well! Thanks, Andrew, AKA WinTheWonderBoy.)

In broad terms, Dark Horse relishes in a heady blend of horror and science fiction, probably best known for Mike Mignola’s occult comedy Hellboy and franchise titles like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and yes, Star Wars. They’ve also been making use of the official Robert E. Howard license (to my delight). If we’re to look at the cliche of Marvel as representing “your” world and DC representing a heightened kind of mythic world, Dark Horse is, I dunno, the underworld. If you’re one for gallows humor, there is a life after Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith. And it’s this dichotomy of weirdness and mirth that won me over in the last year. 

There are trappings of these genres, embraced by Dark Horse, which truly lend themselves to this medium. While writers and artists of mainstream superhero comics (which I stress that I adore zealously) have been toiling for years to escape the over-wrought and flamboyant styles of the 90s, downplaying the sex and violence for a more sophisticated storytelling mode, horror and science fiction comics are defined by reckless abandon and experimentation. I won’t deny that each month I discover more and more artists using a fresh and exciting technique in mainstream books (and that’s to be lauded from ramparts) but this practice is still often viewed as risky and reserved for special occasions. It’s seen as more special than it really should be. Because diverging too far from the model could alienate the readership. There’s also an issue of economy of time and of clarity. So we’ve grown accustomed to serviceable scripts and renderings, which is a necessity in serialized storytelling on this scale. And when things like economy enter into the picture, what’s lost is authorship. That unique stamp. That spirit and heart of a work. When I pick up a new limited or ongoing series from Dark Horse, I’m almost always looking at a new and thrilling world furnished by something out of the ordinary. There’s something freer about these books. It’s that allure of the unfamiliar. And we see this with new books from Oni and Image and Icon and Vertigo as well, but I can’t help but notice that it’s Dark Horse with the uncanny track record. At least with me. What we’re looking at is the halfway house between the big dogs and the underdogs. A really reliable mutt. You can come to expect a level of time-tested quality, but what you don’t expect are all the other qualities which come with it.

Dark Horse, as I’ve mentioned, is the home to original series (some longstanding and others entirely new) as well as franchise adaptations. Two different animals, each with their own unique training challenges. And I think it’s balanced here. And I think the collective of writers and artists and letterers and editorial know what they’re doing and care about what they’re doing. Hellboy was once a brilliant showcase for Mike Mignola’s visual storytelling. It has expanded outward into a wider universe where he continues to mold the myths and folktales of many cultures through his own art and the art of people like Richard Corben, Duncan Fegredo, as well as the teams of filmmakers Tad Stones and Guillermo del Toro. And that’s just Hellboy proper. In 2008, the cast of the offshoot B.P.R.D. was illustrated by Guy Davis, Paul Azaceta, Herb Trimpe, John Severin, Jason Shawn Alexander, Jason Armstrong, and Ben Stenbeck. Josh Dysart and John Arcudi co-wrote a number of these books in 2008 and have helped to establish my favorite continuity cluster in comics. It would have been a terrific year for Hellboy, even if there hadn’t been a movie (which I enjoyed quite a bit).

 

 


And let’s not forget the new worlds being forged by Gerard Way & Gabriel Ba (The Umbrella Academy) and Rick Remender and his ragtag team of “scientists” (which is the perfect way to describe artists like Jerome Opena, Eric Nguyen, and Eric Canete). Way is still finding his, well, way, but his ideas are so exciting. Given time, he’s going to create some thrilling comics. I truly believe he’s a master in the making. Remender ranks among the creators I admire most in the industry. He’s devastatingly inventive and has expressed such a passion for storytelling and  appreciation for the artistic talent he’s working with. Just give a listen to his Talksplode episode. Or, better still, pick up Gigantic and Fear Agent and The End League. We don’t rally for such books simply because they need more attention but because they deserve more attention, and you deserve to spend you attention on things which are delightful. 

Adaptations, be they book to screen, screen to book, book to other kind of book, screen to other kind of screen (let alone stages) are tough to pull off. They come with expectation, a pre-installed audience to contend with, and usually another writer’s style to marry with thine own. There’s a stereotype related to franchise adaptations in comics. They’re awful. But that’s not so much true these days. Literature to comic? Conan the Cimmerian and Solomon Kane are worthy of your time. I’ve written about Conan before, but Scott Allie and Mario Guevara’s Solomon Kane will surprise you. It’s Robert E. Howard’s thinking man’s adventure story. Pious and devastating, Kane is the Jonah Hex of  the Black Forest. It has the creepiest mood, and it’s one of the hidden treasures of 2008. One of the more popular books on the shelves is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.What more needs to be said than “racist Dracula?” Whedon’s treating this book as a continuation of the television series, which continues to be a ridiculously exciting concept. Just recently, the creators of Pushing Daisies mused that they might continue their story in comic form, undoubtedly due to the overwhelming reaction to the Buffy comics. That’s thrilling, because comics are being evaluated as a serious alternative to an arguably broken Hollywood system. If not broken, then imperfect. Comic readers are now seen as a receptive audience, a savvy audience, and the community is a sanctuary for ideas which have been deemed too unusual for prime time. Comics aren’t for the scraps anymore. They’re a refuge for good taste, for big and bright ideas, and for new and exciting stories. So, what better time to be the company at the forefront of adaptation? Which I hope you’ll agree is an art and not a synonym for bastardization. Not less than, but equal to other means of conveying story.

And so, submitted for your approval, and ideally, your further investigation, I give you Dark Horse, my selection for best publisher of 2008.

 

 


And I looked, and behold a Dark Horse, and his name that sat on him was Paul Montgomery. And he looked good.  Hit him up at paul@ifanboy.com. You can also find him on Twitter.  

Comments

  1. Good article Paul. Dark Horse is a great publisher. But you forgot about Usagi Yojimbo its one of the greatest books on the stands.

    I haven’t heard about the Pushing Daisies musing, very interesting.

  2. Fantastic open.  That right there got a belly laugh.

  3. Dark Horse is from my home town of Milwaukie, Oregon (a suburb of Portland). I love having both great creators like Bendis, Rucka, and Remender (to name just a few) and a great comic book company.

    I’d add Fear Agent to the list of great books Dark Horse is putting out. 

  4. I really enjoyed a ton of Dark Horse books this year, and I’m looking foward to even more in 2009.  I have to say that Dark Horse’s production is what has me giddy this year.  They have some of the best quality books out there, with great paper, coloring and overall appeal.  When I buy a Dark Horse book, I’m excited because I know its going to just look gorgeous.

  5. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @grigs – Fear Agent’s in there.  No way I’d forget Fear Agent.  

    Is Ayers Rock as vast as it seems in postcards?   

  6. I currently read only Rex Mundi from Dark Horse, and that because it transferred over from Image where I first read it.  Unfortunately it is coming near to the end, but before the Johnny Depp movie (hopefully) comes out, check this book out in trades.  It is not a DaVinci Code clone like many detractors like to say- detractors who’ve probably not read the book or they’d know better.  It would be neat if they looked into stories in other parts of their world or did some prequel material showing how the history of the world diverged from our history.  There’s lots of storytelling room which is one of the books best traits.

     

  7. The end league sucks. Not because it is bad. but beacause it is too good at what it does. it depresses you to hell. You need to read at least 15 hours straight of Owly or Billy Batson to wash away the darkness.

  8. You left off Empowered, which is my favorite book on the stands these days. Adam Warren is doing spectacular work on that book. 

    Check it out. 

  9. i’m with BC1…  the only Dark Horse i am reading is Rex Mundi…  i love it though…  i highly recommend trying the first trade…  there will be 6 trades when it is completed…  4 more issues to go…

  10. It honestly feels like Image has stood out for me in 2008. What with Walking Dead and Invincible hitting their 50th issues, plus Kirkman being named a partner at Image, his big milestones alone show how far Image has come. Plus they released tons of new titles and are responisible for publishing the majority of Johnathon Hickman’s work, which has been pretty ground breaking. Image also never feels like their catering to any specific demographic; while Dark Horse has a majority of "horror" books, Image runs the gambit of books like THE SWORD all the way to I KILL GIANTS. Even thought I love Dark Horse books (Buffy among all), I’d have to say Image had a bigger year.

  11. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Your wish, my commands.  Usagi Yojimbo, Rex Mundi, and Empowered have been added to my reading list.  Rex Mundi actually has been for a while.  Thanks, guys.  

    @BenBugenig – I think Image has had a remarkable year as well.  But it goes back to track record for me.  While Image had some tremendous highs (like Phonogram, Four Eyes, Sub Glam, and Frank Frazetta’s Creatures), they also produced some books that I didn’t enjoy.  There really aren’t any Dark Horse books that I haven’t liked, and I picked up a lot of them.  So this is purely subjective.    

  12. Actually, Ayres Rock is in Australia’s Northern Territory. Perhaps you were thinking of Rooster Rock? Or maybe Fort Rock?

     Anyway, thanks for the plug. Even for Star Wars.

     

  13. The last issue of Usagi Yojimbo, #116 was fantastic.  Usagi wasn’t in it, but it was a single story in the issue, and a great example of what’s good about the book.  Check that one out Paul.

  14. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @RandyStradley – I’m excited to check out DH’s Star Wars titles, including Star Wars: Legacy (which I hope to write about soon).  My reluctance with the Star Wars books had everything to do with understanding the continuity and not any kind of snobbery on my part.  The Boba Fett Mighty Mugg on my nightstand can attest to that.  It’s just such a huge genre unto itself that I find it kind of daunting.  We’ve been asked about SW comics before, as it’s a topic we’ve never covered.  I do hope to rectify that.  

    Also, I can’t believe you killed Chewbacca!  😉     

  15. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @josh – On it.  I have no idea why I haven’t read Usagi before.  It’s undoubtedly something I’d really enjoy.  

  16. @Paul – Star Wars: Legacy is crack in comic form

  17. Paul… you made a good call and all. 

     I made it a priority to check out DH more in 2008.  Now, I’m reading six books on the regular. 

  18. Paul, I started checking out a bunch of Dark Horse stuff this year, mostly because of your ceaseless endorsements. I started with Fear Agent and it is one of my top 10 favorite titles of the year. I even bought almost all the back issues for half price, though much of those were published under Image, so we’ll ignore those for this article. Then I picked up the first three issues of Soloman Kane because the concept just sounded sweet (and it is). The first isue of Gigantic was fun, though I ahven’t made it to the store to get the second yet. I’d never read any Hellboy or BPRD stuff but when I saw all five issues of Lobster Johnson at a half priced book store I decided to check out the character and I am very glad I did. Continuing on that track, I picked up the first two Hellboy trades.  Dark Hourse should send you checks like Kirkman sends to the other guys.

     

    Now, should I read the rest of Hellboy and BPRD stuff in any particular order or does it not matter?

  19. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Andrew – I’d suggest reading Hellboy and BPRD in chronological order.  It doesn’t matter as much with Hellboy, but BPRD is almost entirely linear.  While Hellboy stories seem unrelated, the recent arcs have referenced older ones and a rich mythology has developed.  Glad you’re enjoying the excursion into Dark Horse territory.  I endorse ceaselessly for a reason.  😀

  20. All things in the Hellboy Universe, whether it is Hellboy or B.P.R.D is well above some of the best stuff to come out last year. War of Frogs, 1946, and The Crooked Man; I dare say, is just as good if not better then what Marvel and DC put out in 2008.

    Tis a shame I only read Hellboy comics for Dark Horse….cause to be honest nothing else they publish really catches my eye…Well maybe except for Fear Agent.

  21. @Paul, mos def good sir.

    And I really need to start reading Usagi Yojimbo, are those collected at all, or could I hop right in?

     

    …yeah, there was a pun there.

  22. One more vote of confidence for Rex Mundi. I have read a few of the trades and plan to catch up soon.

    The world presented in that book is fascinating – imagine the Western world if the Protestant reformation had failed, the U.S. Civil War ended in stalemate, and WWI never took place. The story about the Church’s aracana is a terrific dessert, but the world of Rex Mundi is the meat.

  23. Great article. Paul. Thoroughly enjoyed it, and will give a few more of those Dark Horse series a try (Remender’s already got all my money, but I’ve always meant to try Usagi Jimbo and The Goon).

    Tangent: Pushing Daisies was easily one of the best TV shows I’ve seen recently. Of course, I only discovered this a few days after it’s cancellation was annouced, but geeeeez. I bought Mom season 1 for Christmas and we watched them all over the next few days — it’s brilliant! Everything from the writing to the acting, direction etc. Absolutely beautifully crafted adult fairytale. It deserved a lot more then just 2 seasons. When I get upset about that though, I just quietly remind myself that’s more then Firefly ever got, and try to stiffen the ‘ol upper lip and rewatch Season 1’s finale one more time.

    That’d be fantastic if they continued it with a comic book, though. I’d definitely check out the first arc.

  24. Remender is quickly becoming a fav of mine.  I’m really digging Gigantic so far.

    Speaking of favorite Dark Horse writers… could someone pull Paul Chadwick out of the Matrix so he can write a new Concrete mini?  Please?

  25. Paul, thanks for a great roundup. It’s terrific to have someone look at what we’ve done, see just what we were aiming for, and sum it up so nicely. We had a huge year, despite the down economy, and we’re looking at how to make 2009 even better. Thanks for spreading the word.

  26. You haven’t read The Goon?  For shame!  You will thoroughly enjoy it, especially the issue with Hellboy.  Greatest crossover ever.  Beware The Communist Airborne Mollusk Militia!

  27. Completely agree.  While my heart belongs to the DCU, I feel that DH is the better company, not only for the original books that they publish–HELLBOY/BPRD, THE HOWARD BOOKS, GOON, FEAR AGENT, AND USAGI–but also for their wonderful reprint projects.  The CREEPY/EERIE and BORIS KARLOFF books seem like they were made just for me.

    I’ve been buying DH books since CONCRETE #1; they’ve always been the class of the Independents.

  28. Good old Dark Horse

     

  29. Grendel: Behold the Devil, also from Dark Horse this year, also excellent (well it started in 07, but you get the idea).

    Was it you who liked Sky Doll Paul?  Or was that Romo?  ANyways, whoever did should really enjoy Empowered. 

  30. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @CAM – It was Gordon who wrote about Sky Doll, but I do want to check it out.  As well as Grendel and Empowered.  See, I’m only scratching at the surface.  Dark Horse has something for everybody. 

  31. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @ScottAllie – Thanks.  It would have been a complete oversight to ignore how many stellar Dark Horse books I’ve read over the past year.  Very glad to hear that 2008 was a great success for you guys, and genuinely excited for what DH has in store for 2009.  And, of course, wonderful work on Solomon Kane.  I really do love it.  

  32. Definitely check out GRENDEL, the Behold the Devil mini that ended a few months ago was fantastic and next we are supposed to get a mini series with GRENDEL PRIME.

     He’s a cyborg! 😀 

  33. great open. i LOVE some of the Dark Horse ones. They did the Serenity ones so im in love with those and i want more!!

  34. I love the Tom Wolfe reference.  Great book.  Make that a graphic novel

  35. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Elwood416 – The guy who wrote MILK is actually writing an adaptation of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.