The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 305 | Game On: Dark Horse Comics bets big on its video game licenses

Leaving Proof 305 | Game On: Dark Horse Comics bets big on its video game licenses
Published on Tuesday, May 10, 2016 by
In today’s post: A discussion of how Dark Horse Comics is using its video game publisher partnerships and its expertise in creating licensed comics to rebound from the loss of the Star Wars license.

It’s now been a little over two years since Dark Horse Comics announced that it was set to lose the Star Wars comics license to Marvel Comics, and a year and change since Marvel started publishing brand-new Star Wars titles and reissuing former Dark Horse Star Wars books under the Marvel banner.

In that time, we’ve seen Marvel (predictably) benefit from parent company Disney’s revival of the Star Wars film franchise—the publisher’s Star Wars-branded titles are among its biggest and most reliable sellers (Star Wars #17 and Darth Vader #17 and #18 were the three top-selling Marvel titles in the direct market for March 2016, according to distributor data).

Dark Horse, on the other hand, hasn’t exactly had a great run in the months since Darth Vader and friends made the trek back to Marvel’s New York offices. It’s perhaps safe to say that the Oregon-based publisher’s ambitious bid to relaunch its in-house stable of company-owned characters with the Project Black Sky campaign has failed to pay off. An ugly controversy has swirled around one of its most senior executives and the way management has handled the situation. And two months ago, BOOM! Studios actually passed Dark Horse for fifth place in retail and unit market share (whether this is a sustainable trend or a one-time occurrence due to the strong direct market orders for the debut issue of BOOM!’s licensed Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers series remains to be seen).

Avatar: The Last Airbender has emerged as one of Dark Horse's most successful licensed titles in the post-Star Wars era.

Avatar: The Last Airbender has emerged as one of Dark Horse’s most successful licensed titles in the post-Star Wars era.

It hasn’t been all bad for Dark Horse, though. Last year, the company finally made its titles available on comiXology after years of being the lone holdout among the top North American publishers. Creator-driven Dark Horse titles such as Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook’s Harrow County, Adam Warren’s Empowered, and Brian Wood’s The Massive provide hope that the publisher might eventually secure a corner of the “indie” market currently dominated by Image Comics. Its licensed Avatar: The Last Airbender serial graphic novels consistently appear in the New York Times paperback graphic books bestseller list and the company’s manga division is benefiting from the current industry-wide rebound in manga sales. Hellboy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Serenity, and Conan paperbacks and hardcovers sell reasonably well in the book market. And perhaps most importantly in terms of its ability to recover from the loss of the Star Wars license, the company is leveraging its history and strength as a packager and publisher of commercially successful and critically well-received licensed comics to make inroads in the gamer market.

A few years ago, I tried to make the case for the tie-in digital comic book as a viable medium to serve as an extension of (or even an alternative to) the video game cutscene. Comics require fewer resources to create than full motion animated video while still offering the same potential as a tool for exposition and forwarding the game’s narrative. “Graphic novel-style” interludes—what are basically digital minicomics—have long been a video game cutscene design staple. Why not further expand digital comics’ role in video game storytelling?

The most basic approach to fully integrating digital comics in a video game’s narrative delivery is to use the comic as a means to recreate an idealized, non-interactive “playthrough” of the game in sequential art form. But while straightforward, the approach does raise the question of why anyone would want to “read” a video game when they can just play it themselves or watch a “Let’s Play” video of someone else playing the game. (Here’s something to chew on for those of you unfamiliar with the“Let’s Play” phenomenon on YouTube: As of 2014, the leading “Let’s Play” video maker was making anywhere between $140,000 and $1.4 million a month from ad revenue generated by YouTube’s partner program.)

Other creators, recognizing that any attempt to recreate gameplay on a static page will always be a poor imitation of the real thing, take the approach of creating the video game tie-in comic as a prologue or epilogue to the game, or even a bridging chapter between two installments in a video game series. In some cases, the comics serve more than just as the video game narrative’s connective tissue—they also provide a substantial portion of the lore that is otherwise only hinted at in the game.

It is this second approach that seems to be the dominant mode in which Dark Horse’s creators are working. In fact, many of Dark Horse’s current video game based comics are written by directors and writers who were directly involved in the creation of the games they reference, ensuring a seamless integration of the narrative across media. These creators include Rhianna Pratchett (Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider), Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us), Mac Walters (Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2), Brian Reed (Halo 4, Halo 5), Chris Schlerf (Halo 4), David Gaider (Dragon Age: Origins), and Christofer Emgard (Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst).

Dark Horse has also sought to staff many of its video game tie-in comics with proven comics professionals such as Paul Tobin, Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, Larry Hama, Faith Erin Hicks, Corinna Bechko, Daniel Way, and Mariko Tamaki. There is also one particularly notable example of how players became directly involved in the creation of a comic: Dark Horse’s EVE: True Stories is a graphic novel retelling of an actual, non-scripted, player-driven, in-game event that had major ramifications for the EVE Online MMORPG community.

And yet for all that Dark Horse is doing right with its video game-based comics and for all the polish and professional craft that goes into making them, a mainstream market breakthrough remains elusive. The publisher’s comics and art books based on The Legend of Zelda, Mass Effect, The Last of Us, Halo, Dragon Age, Plants vs. Zombies, Tomb Raider, Mirror’s Edge, The Witcher, and Uncharted have mostly been well-received critically and many do well in terms of paperback and hardcover reprint sales, but even when taken in aggregate, they do not fill the void left by the loss of the Star Wars license. Perhaps more creative distribution and packaging approaches should be considered for this to happen, such as directly integrating the comics into remastered or premium Game of the Year (GotY) editions of the games or marketing the comics as a means for unlocking extra playable in-game content.

One also has to consider whether the market’s seeming resistance to video game comics has less to do with the quality of the comics and more with entrenched reader behavior. Historically, video game-based ongoing comics have never really been all that popular outside of manga adaptations/spin-offs and outliers such as the 1984 Atari Force series published by DC Comics, the Tomb Raider series published by Image Comics from 1999 to 2006 (the series’ first issue was the best-selling comic of 1999), and Archie Comics’ long-running Sonic the Hedgehog. There’s no real precedent for a video game comic franchise becoming a commercial juggernaut on the level of the Star Wars comics.

Still, it just takes one major hit to turn that conventional wisdom on its head. Whether or not that hit will emerge from Dark Horse remains to be seen, but if it doesn’t happen for the publisher, it won’t be for a lack of effort or quality.

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