Mike Richardson’s Dark Horse Comics empire has put the sleepy town of 21,000 on the map.
MILWAUKIE, ORE. — IT’S A three-block stroll from the leafy banks of the Willamette to Main Street here, but on most lazy afternoons, it’s so quiet you can hear the river’s lulling drone the whole way. As one local said the other day as he walked toward the malt shop on Main: “It’s like this town got to about 1959 and said, ‘This seems good, we’ll stay here.’ “
Unless there’s a remake of “Stand by Me” in the works, it’s hard to imagine this town grabbing the attention of distant Hollywood and its Bluetooth brigades of executives and agents. But it has managed to do that very thing because mild-mannered Milwaukie has a secret identity. The “Dogwood City of the West,” it turns out, is also “Dark Horse, U.S.A.”
Dark Horse is a pop-culture content company that has grown so steadily over the last 20 years that it currently occupies six separate storefronts along Main Street, and with 150 employees, it’s now one of the top five employers in the town of 21,000. Dark Horse made its mark as an upstart, indie publisher of comic books, but now its ventures go well beyond that, which is why its founder, Mike Richardson, hops a flight to Los Angeles every week to tend to Hollywood pursuits.
“Hellboy 2: The Golden Army,” which opened as the No. 1 movie in America last weekend, is the latest Dark Horse property on the screen, joining the florid parade that includes “300,” “The Mask,” “Sin City,” “Time Cop” and “Alien vs. Predator.” In May, Universal Pictures and Dark Horse announced a three-year production and distribution deal. That’s not especially shocking in this era — Marvel Studios, born from a comic-book company, delivered its first film that month, the massive hit “Iron Man,” followed by “The Incredible Hulk” — but for Dark Horse, the Universal deal is a validation of its long, quirky odyssey. “This,” Richardson said, “is a major moment in our history.”
That history reflects the personality of both Richardson and the place where he grew up. Richardson is a big man in this small town (literally: He’s 6-foot-9), and the small town is very much in him. In the 1980s, when New York City was still considered the only place to publish big-time comics, Dark Horse shook up its industry by luring star writers and artists with unprecedented deals that gave them ownership of their work and a share of profits. The nimble little company with a fondness for edgy work became the Miramax Films of comics. Eventually, Hollywood types noticed and came dangling option money.
“I told them, ‘That’s great, but I want to produce it,’ ” Richardson said. “I got laughed at and I got cussed out and I got called an idiot. They were shocked. One guy told me that if I didn’t take his deal I’d never get a chance to work in Hollywood. I said, ‘OK, great, I’ll stay in Oregon and do comics. That’s what I like to do anyway. You go back to your world. I’ll stay here in mine.’ “
Richardson knows his world and seems to be in tune with his times. Marvel and DC have household-name heroes that yield bigger films, but almost every one of them is based on characters created before 1970. Marvel has long billed itself as the “House of Ideas,” but since the Reagan years that title might rightly belong to the Oregon upstarts.
The company is making a big push on MySpace now looking for readers as well as new talent. Dark Horse is “the place I wanted to be and the place where you can find the most sophisticated stuff, but it also has a sense of comics history,” says Gerard Way, lead singer of the band My Chemical Romance and writer of “The Umbrella Academy” comics for Dark Horse.
Credit card and a dream
LIKE AN esteemed indie-rock label, Dark Horse has tilted national attention toward nearby Portland and stirred up a scene that is a comic-book creator and publisher’s dream. All of it started, though, with a $2,000 cash advance on a credit card that was pretty much maxed out.
That’s how Richardson opened up a comic-book store in Bend, Ore., on Jan. 1, 1980. After he paid off that debt, he borrowed more to start a publishing company. The first comic book was “Dark Horse Presents” in 1986. He hoped to sell 15,000 copies, but quadrupled that number.
That first book featured Paul Chadwick’s character Concrete, which was a jolting departure from mainstream superhero comics of the day. It told the tale of a political speechwriter whose consciousness was mysteriously transferred to a hulking, stony body. Instead of fighting villains, he struggled with grief and wrenching confusion as he embarked on a philosophical journey.
The Concrete stories have continued only sporadically through the years, but they remain Richardson’s most prized baby. He’s made more money off other work, but Concrete is a compass point for Dark Horse with its sublime outsider tale and nontraditional notion of comics.
Richardson grew up adoring comic books and Famous Monsters magazine, and he sometimes earned the wrath of nuns at his parochial school for tucking them into his textbooks. He bought his comics at a pharmacy on Main Street in Milwaukie, which is gone now but not forgotten — the old building where he bought “Mystery in Space” and “Challengers of the Unknown” is the headquarters of Dark Horse now.
Many comics fans lead what might delicately be called an internal life, but Richardson was passionate about sports as well. He was an art student as well as a basketball star at Portland State University. He still plays: Fresh from his 58th birthday this month, he is in training for an amateur basketball tourney in Australia.
Richardson is soft-spoken and, by all accounts, exceedingly calm in temperament. With his jarring height, eager handshake and Oregon residence, Richardson made plenty of Hollywood types smirk. “People who think he’s just this ‘Aw shucks’ guy, Big Mike from Oregon, they found out he’s not a guy who can be taken in,” says Lawrence A. Gordon, the Hollywood producer who became a partner and mentor for Richardson.
Gordon, who had already had such huge hits as “Die Hard,” “48 Hrs.” and “Predator” under his belt, was ready to help make Dark Horse a player. That led to the 2004 film “Hellboy” and its recent sequel.
“This is a guy that has had a lot of success, but his name is never mentioned,” Gordon said. “He was way ahead of the curve on comics in Hollywood.”
Richardson has written some of the bestselling comics in Dark Horse history, and none echoed more than “The Mask,” which yielded the 1994 hit film that made stars of Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz and catapulted New Line Cinema to higher strata in Hollywood.
The turning point for that movie was casting the impish, shape-shifting title character that has similar qualities to Plastic-Man, Mr. Impossible and other rubbery oddballs Richardson had read in the comics he bought as a kid. It was Mike DeLuca at New Line who had an up-and-coming actor in mind.
“At first they wanted to cast Rick Moranis and then Martin Short, but they weren’t right,” Richardson said. “Then Mike called and said, ‘Do you know the white guy on ‘In Living Color’ on TV?’ He sent a tape of Carrey in a skit spoofing ‘My Left Foot” with him in a wheelbarrow. I couldn’t stop laughing.”
“The Mask” was No. 1 at the box office until it was edged out by “Time Cop,” a sci-fi movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme that was based on — another Dark Horse comic book written by Richardson.
“After that, we had a lot easier time in Hollywood,” Richardson said.
Dark Horse has had two dozen films or television shows based on characters from the company’s library. There are three films projects now underway: “Emily the Strange,” “R.I.P.D.” and, to Richardson’s delight, “Concrete.” There have been some misfires — among them “Mystery Men” and “Barb Wire” — but there’s talk now of a “300″ sequel and another “Hellboy” film would seem natural, if director Guillermo del Toro’s schedule allows. (He’s working on a film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.”)
The trademarks of Dark Horse films are elements of the fantastic and antiheroes with outsized, outsider spirits. In other words, they are pure Dark Horse.
“You never exactly know what’s coming from Dark Horse,” Richardson said. “We’re across all genres. As far as films, it’s probably a genre film, but that’s not even certain now. We published a novel — not a graphic novel, a traditional novel — by Ursula Bacon called ‘Shanghai Diary.’ It’s her true story about an 11-year-old escaping Nazi Germany. What it is, is a great story. That’s why we published it.”
Dark Horse’s white hat
KNOWING THE comic-book industry’s long history of trampling the very people who created all the best franchise properties, Richardson decided that Dark Horse would treat artists better and become a destination for true talent.
“Dark Horse became a real force, and for creators in the field it led to more money, more of a presence in Hollywood,” said Frank Miller, who had been a work-for-hire superstar at DC and Marvel Comics.
Miller’s arrival at Dark Horse was a watershed moment, one that Richardson compared to a Hollywood studio locking in Martin Scorsese as a director. Miller certainly delivered. His nihilistic crime tales in “Sin City” and the battlefield epic of “300″ be- came event releases in comics and went on to Hollywood success.
It’s been an odd show-biz life for the big man from the little town in Oregon. The callers from California area codes don’t mock him anymore, and when he flies down from Portland, he isn’t treated like a rube.
“I remember when I first started going to L.A., I would go down a lot to Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s cigar party that he had every month at his restaurant in Santa Monica,” Richardson said. “I must have gone 15 times. He’s a very nice guy, and he would come around to all the tables. He would never remember my name. ‘Ah, comic book guy, good to see you, how you doing, comic-book guy.’ “
And now? “Oh, there’s just too many comic-book guys now in Hollywood, they couldn’t call me that. People had to learn my name. And they have. It’s nice.”
– Geoff Boucher
HOT STREAK: Despite big-screen successes with films such as “Hellboy 2,” far left, and “Mask,” center, Dark Horse’s home base in Oregon has managed to retain its throwback appeal. Credit, from left, Universal and Fox.
ON CAMPUS: Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson with two of his company’s characters in a store window on Main Street in Milwaukie, Ore. Credit: Robert Durrell / Los Angeles Times
AT HOME: Mike Richardson, owner of Dark horse Comics, enjoys a drink at Main Street Soda Fountain where he used to hang out as a kid in Milwaukie, Ore. Credit: Durrell / Los Angeles Times