While Marvel and DC still continue to dominate the world of comic books, many smaller publishers have been taking advantage of the medium's growing popularity — and the major shift towards creator-owned projects — to raise their profiles. Dark Horse Comics has been around for 35 years, but has lately made big moves in the industry, bringing on high-profile creators as well as new voices as the industry goes through major change. That ambition was on display at New York Comic Con in Thursday's viritual panel "Dark Horse All-Stars."
Super-stars Brian Michael Bendis, Jody Houser, Roye Okupe and Scott Snyder were on hand to talk the comic landscape, how it's changing and what's next. Bendis and Snyder, two of the biggest names in the industry, have recently inked deals with Dark Horse to do creator-owned work, while Okupe's YouNeek Studios is now under the company's umbrella. Houser has helped Dark Horse maintain its grip on licensed comics with her storytelling in the Stranger Things and Critical Role universes.
Snyder on disruption
"I love that Dark Horse is embracing the wide-open frontier aspects of [the comics industry] and welcoming in new voices and taking risks and all of that," Sydner said, especially in light of what he called a volatile time for the industry. "There's a lot of excitement around independent, creator-owned comics in all kinds of ways."
Snyder has stepped back from his decade-long run with DC (where he rebooted Batman during the New 52 era and created the pivotal Dark Multiverse arc) and just launched a line of creator-owned digital comics with Comixology. The various series, with big-name artists like Greg Capullo, Francis Manapul and Francesco Francavilla, will be collected in print editions from Dark Horse next year.
"I couldn't be happier with my time there," Snyder said of his DC stint, but "it was a great time to walk away for a bit." And he knows what you're thinking: Does the exodus of high-profile talent to creator-owned endeavors spell doom for The Big Two? "I know it's scary and there's a worry about if the old systems are changing [at] DC and Marvel," he acknowledged. "But they're going to be fine. Theses superheroes have 80, 90 years of legacy behind them, and people will always love them. But there's a great energy behind young readers coming in and wanting things that's theirs."
In addition to working with high-profile co-creators with his Comixology/Dark Horse projects, he's also eager to mentor up-and-coming talent into the industry. "I feel young and new, even though I'm an old man in comics," he said with a laugh. "I feel reborn in a lot of ways to be able to kind of take some risks and fall on my face and then also promote other people that have got a lot of great things to say."
Bendis' Jinxworld move
The prolific Bendis, who is perhaps best known for launching Ultimate Spider-Man and co-creating Miles Morales and Jessica Jones for Marvel, and is currently writing DC's Justice League series, is bringing his Jinxworld imprint to Dark Horse. First up is the sci-fi miniseries Joy Operations, drawn by Stephen Byrne, which debuts in November, followed by the return of his Pearl and Cover series, which he started at DC.
He talked about how much he enjoys the collaborative process of creating new characters and stories. "The actual art of creating is sometimes different than the craft writing," Bendis said. "Building something from scratch and what's behind it, and then teaming up with someone to bring your energies together — and I'm going to sound like a Portland hippie here, but I can't help it — but when you are teaming up with someone or someones and everyone is bringing their energy together in a collaboration, if it's working, you build something that you couldn't have built on your own or reach a height you couldn't get to on your own."
YouNeek comes to Dark Horse
Okupe has spent the last six years building his YouNeek Studios, which tells the stories of African superheroes he created with African artists. In January, Dark Horse acquired the rights to distribute YouNeek's library, and has started releasing volumes of Okupe's earlier work this fall, including E.X.O. The Legend of Wale Williams, Malika and Iyanu.
"At YouNeek Studios it's really about bringing in African creators and also African artists and exposing them to a mainstream audience," said Okupe, who was born in Nigeria and moved to the U.S. at age 16. He said he is frequently met with surprise that there is so much talent coming out of Africa. "My vision and my goal is to get to a time where it's not a shock that these types of stories, this type of quality can come from the continent and people from the continent or in the diaspora from the continent like myself."
A major factor in changes comics are going through has been the pandemic, which put incredible strain on the industry. The panelists admitted it was a challenging time. "I remember last year when all the comic shops were closing for an indeterminate amount of time and books were going on hold, and there was a lot of initial worry how is the industry going to pull out of this," Houser said. "So many people operate on narrow margins. But the thing is, when times get hard, that's when people need stories the most. They need to have that outlet. Knowing that all of us were contributing in some way to making a really hard year a little bit easier for people that means a lot."
And the consensus was that the current wave of creativity, distribution models and expansion of points of view are helping the industry regain its health. The options readers have now will surely lead young readers to come up with even more new ideas in the future. Said Okupe: "Change sometimes is uncomfortable, but positive change in the long run is better for everybody involved."