In 1986, at the vanguard of the black & white comics boom, Mike Richardson launched Dark Horse Presents #1 and Dark Horse Comics was born. Thirty years later, still publishing from Milwaukie, Oregon, Dark Horse has weathered the rise and fall of hundreds of publishing rivals to stake an impressive claim on comics shop real estate alongside “The Big Two,” as well as fellow upstart independent publisher Image Comics. This Saturday is Dark Horse Comics Day, and comic shops around the around the country will be joining in the celebration.
Although the company’s bread & butter has been its excellent licensed property-based series, such as Aliens, Buffy, and, until recently, Star Wars, there are a wealth of creator-owned gems in the DHC catalog. This weekend, when you’re out perusing the racks, look for some of our favorites.
Concrete by Paul Chadwick
Chadwick’s Concrete made its debut in that very first Dark Horse Presents, and his short stories appeared in a number of that anthology’s issues over the next few years. These are the stories of -, a political speechwriter whose brain was transplanted into the body of a hulking stone-like giant. The genius of the comic, and the reason it became such an important breakthrough for the medium, is that every story follows a genuinely human response to this one bizarre character development. What would it really be like if you were suddenly seven-feet of near-indestructible alien construct. How would the world, completely unaccustomed to things like billionaire weapons designers with flying exoskeletons or the unexpected effects of radioactive spiderbites, react? How do you live? How do you love?
Chadwick’s art is some of the most affecting, tender linework you’ll ever see. And the fragile beauty of his brushstroke underscores the guiding premise that we often take for granted our most human of actions and reactions. Speaking of fragility, if you need one collection to get started, check out Concrete, Vol. 3: Fragile Creature, which collects the mini series of the same name, as well as some of his earlier short stories.
Sin City by Frank Miller
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Frank Miller has been a creative force in the comics industry since he first broke in with Marvel in the late 70’s. With Sin City, arguably his finest work, Miller revitalizes crime comics, a stagnant genre in the medium since it was supplanted during the superheroic Golden Age. The first appearance of what became the initial Sin City storyline occurred during another Dark Horse anniversary. The Dark Horse Presents Fifth Anniversary Special, published in 1991, featured the first installment, and the story continued, monthly, in the pages of that anthology over the next year.
Miller’s iconic style on this book is so visually striking, it became a focal component of Robert Rodriguez’s 2005 film adaptation. But a true appreciation of the work comes on the printed page. Miller might be the best at black & white composition since Alex Toth, and the hardboiled starkness of this series wonderfully complements the seedy world that lives entirely in shades of grey. All the stories in the Sin City world have some merit, but new readers should definitely start with the first volume, and make their first introductions to Marv, Dwight, and Gail.
Hellboy by Mike Mignola
Mike Mignola is another master of mood and champion of shadow. In 1993, Mignola, a horror buff and monster movie aficionado, brought his Hellboy creation to Dark Horse in a San Diego Comic Con special, and followed that up a year later with his first limited series, Hellboy: Seed of Destruction. This initial arc, adapted for Guillermo del Toro’s film, tells the story of a demon who was summoned to earth by Nazis during the first World War… and then put on the straight and narrow by a daring band of occult-savvy fascism fighters. In the present day, Hellboy is one of the most valued operatives of the B.P.R.D., or Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, whose extraordinary caseload has spun into several successful independent series of its own.
Although the Hellboy property has been in capable hands for over twenty years, with a number of different writers and artists taking the charactersfrom one spooky adventure to another, Hellboy initiates should begin with the first limited series, Seed of Destruction, illustrated by Mignola and written by the incomparable (and fellow Dark Horse “Legend”) John Byrne. This is the book that inspired the first film, and showcases the wonderful blend of chilling horror and deft humor that has made Hellboy a fan favorite for over two decades.
Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai
Stan Sakai’s anthropomorphic samurai rabbit actually pre-dates Dark Horse, making his debut in Thoughts & Images’ Albedo anthology in 1984, later moving to Fantagraphics’ furry anthology Critters in 1986. Fantagraphics continued to publish the ongoing adventures until 1997, when Sakai packed up the katanas and moved to Dark Horse.
Despite the obvious inconsistencies in character representations, one of the best things about Usagi Yojimbo might be the meticulous research and cultural accuracy that has been a hallmark of the series for over thirty years. Expect an education on Japanese feudalism, as well as insight into folklore and mythology, all while developing an appreciation for an ever-expanding cast of characters and storylines that are worthy successors to the Kurosawa legacy. The first Dark Horse volume, Shades of Death, is an excellent starting point.
MIND MGMT by Matt Kindt
One of the newest gems in Dark Horse’s catalog is MIND MGMT by Matt Kindt, who has also just begun releasing the equally excellent Dept. H. This ongoing spy series, which debuted in 2012, pits a true-crime writer on the trail of a mysterious government organization of psychically powered operatives. Kindt is a master cartoonist, and the story’s panoply of twists and surprises becomes truly effective because of his brilliant use of dialogue and visuals. The series has a planned run of 36 issues, with the final issue expected to release later this year. Start with Volume 1: The Manager, and get caught up before the rumored film version becomes a reality.