The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 210 | On Dark Horse losing the Star Wars license

Leaving Proof 210 | On Dark Horse losing the Star Wars license
Published on Wednesday, January 8, 2014 by
Marvel’s acquisition of the exclusive Star Wars comics publishing license has us mulling Dark Horse Comics’ past, present, and future.

It’s been a week now since Marvel officially revealed that it will be the exclusive holder of the Star Wars comics license after Dark Horse Comics’ license expires at the end of 2014. Disney, as readers may well remember, purchased Marvel in 2009 and Star Wars company Lucasfilm in 2012, so this wasn’t wholly unexpected. There was also the disarmingly personal open letter response from Dark Horse Comics president Mike Richardson, and I’m still processing what this all means as far as implications for the publisher and the industry in general.

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Marvel was the first publisher to hold the Star Wars comics license. (Pictured: Star Wars #1, cover-dated July 1977)

On one level, I will admit to feeling ever so slightly blasé about the whole affair. As Richardson himself wrote in his message to the press, all licensed comics publishing deals eventually expire. Sure, Star Wars is one of the biggest licenses out there in comics, but let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this move for the property is some sort of new process. We’ve seen this type of license migration between the two publishers before, and it was mostly in the opposite direction: Marvel, of course, originally held the comics license to Star Wars from 1977 to 1986 before it landed with Dark Horse in 1991. Dark Horse also briefly handled the G.I. Joe license from late 1995 through 1996, after Marvel’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero series ended (IDW currently holds the comics license to Hasbro’s toy soldier line). Marvel, through its now-defunct Epic Comics imprint, published the English edition of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira from 1989 to 1995 before Dark Horse got hold of the North American publishing rights in 2000 (Kodansha, through distributor Random House, now controls the North American publishing rights to Akira). Let’s also not forget that Marvel published licensed comics featuring Robert E. Howard’s Conan from 1970 to 2000 before Dark Horse scooped up that license in 2003. Viewed against the background of prior licensed comics history, there’s nothing particularly novel or startling about the Star Wars license’s move in and of itself.

Still, I can’t help but feel for Richardson and the Dark Horse Star Wars editorial and creative teams on this one, not just because they are clearly ardent fans of the property and Marvel’s gain is about more than just lost business to them, but also because Dark Horse really did change the complexion of the licensed comics genre with its Star Wars comics. It seems like a sour end to the narrative that the company is losing the license after all the work it has done these past 22 years to make Star Wars the comics property it is today, and that it won’t stand to benefit much (if at all) from Marvel’s parent company Disney ramping up the production of the next installment in the Star Wars film franchise. (I say this, even as I acknowledge the fact that neither Marvel nor Dark Horse had any way of knowing beforehand that Disney would eventually end up owning Star Wars within three years of its acquisition of Marvel.)

The industry impact of Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics
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Dark Horse Comics helped change long-standing negative reader and industry attitudes towards licensed comics with the quality of its Star Wars comics and its general approach to licensed works and adaptations. (Pictured: Star Wars: Legacy #0 by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema, cover-dated June 2006)

Before Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics came along in late 1991, “tie-in comics,” whether they were based on toys, movies, TV shows, games, and novels were, for the longest time, regarded as a creatively and professionally inferior subset of the medium. As G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama recounted at the 2012 Inkpot Awards ceremony, many comics creators back in the 1980s viewed a stint on a licensed comic as “bottom of the barrel”-type work—the pay rates were considerably less than that for a typical comic book job, since a percentage of the licensing fee would be taken off of the creative team’s cheques. It can also be argued that the perception existed among readers that many licensed comics just weren’t very well-made, had no meaningful impact on the source material, or that they didn’t measure up against some vague metric of integrity, as if other work-for-hire comics were somehow an inherently purer expression of the art form. As Robot 6‘s Graeme McMillan noted in 2010, that attitude still exists among some members of the contemporary comics readership, but the fact that today’s best licensed comics are held in comparable critical regard as the rest of their work-for-hire brethren can be directly traced to Dark Horse’s work with the Star Wars license. Richardson took the view that his company wasn’t just an adjunct to Star Wars novel publisher Del Rey as far as contributing to the Star Wars‘ Expanded Universe canon, but an equal partner working in a different format. Pairing that vision with top-flight talent (many of whom worked on the Del Rey novels and with LucasBooks) resulted in comics that are as influential and enriching to the greater store of Star Wars fiction as any of the novels and modern animated and video game spin-offs.

It’s a testament to the success of that approach that it has served as the ideal model for the creation of today’s licensed comics, not just for other licensed titles published by Dark Horse such as its line of “Buffyverse” comics and the smash-success Avatar: The Last Airbender serial graphic novels, but for licensed titles published by other companies as well—prominent licensed comics publishers IDW Publishing and BOOM! Studios clearly understand the value of making licensed materials that are an integral part of the overall source fiction and the wisdom in getting creators experienced in handling the core properties in other media to work on the comics spin-offs alongside comics industry veterans.

Dark Horse, moving forward
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In recent years, Dark Horse has found success with other licenses to rival that of its Star Wars comics. (Pictured: Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise, Library Edition)

As bad as it all looks now, the outlook isn’t all that negative for Dark Horse going forward. Star Wars might have represented a significant piece of its business in new comics and trade paperback/hardcover reprint collection sales—Star Wars comics and books accounted for around four to six percent of its 2013 revenue—but the recent and continued success of its other licensed titles will take out a lot of of the sting of the loss of Star Wars. Its various Conan- and Buffy-branded titles keep trucking along. Dark Horse Books’ English edition of The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia closed out 2013 as one of the top ten best-selling books of the year globally, an impressive feat for any publication, never mind an art/process-focused book. The aforementioned Avatar: The Last Airbender serial graphic novels have charted several times in the Nielsen Bookscan Top 20 list for bookstore graphic novel sales in the past 18 months, more than any extant Star Wars trades or hardcovers in the same time period. The comics based on Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain novels might yet reap outsized commercial rewards for the publisher if the currently in-production The Strain TV series becomes a breakout hit, similar to how the record-breaking sales of Image Comics’ The Walking Dead and Kodansha Comics’ Attack on Titan were bolstered by the popularity of their respective TV adaptations. Dark Horse also has licensed comics partnerships in place with a number of video game developers and publishers—it’s probably worth mentioning that I consider last year’s The Last of Us: American Dreams miniseries by Neil Druckmann and Faith Erin Hicks the best video game-based comic that I’ve read in recent memory.

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Juice Squeezers #1 by David Lapham.

In addition, the publisher is continuing to expand its line of creator-owned titles—Greg Rucka’s Veil, David Lapham’s Juice Squeezers, and Jonathan Maberry’s Bad Blood are just three of the most prominent “creator-driven” titles Dark Horse has slated for 2014 debuts—and changing the common misconception that the Dark Horse original comics creator complement is little more than “Mike Mignola and friends.” Dark Horse’s revivification of its “in-house” properties, ranging from “Comics’ Greatest World” refugees like Ghost and X as well as third-party properties it has acquired outright like Captain Midnight and Brain Boy, might yet yield the mainstream superhero comics success that has continued to elude the Milwaukie, Oregon-based publisher in all its years of operation.

Will losing the Star Wars license hurt Dark Horse? Indubitably, and there will almost assuredly be follow-on effects beyond the immediate loss in revenue. That being said, the publisher has the creative and commercial resources to not just weather the setback, but come back from it stronger, with a more diverse publishing catalog, ultimately less dependent on any single license or property to buoy up its business.

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