The Dark Horses of Dark Horse Comics

xwrs-wedgeSome of my earliest memories of Star Wars fandom are of searching my local comic book store for trade paperbacks of X-Wing: Rogue Squadron. Huge book stores were still in vogue back in the nineties, so odds were good that the only thing between me and whichever novel I’d decided to read next for my Great Bantam Catch-Up of ’97-’99 was a quick trip to Media Play or Borders. Catching up on the comics was another matter—something “mainstream” like Dark Empire wasn’t too hard to track down, but there were at least six trade collections of XWRS already in print by the time I got around to it, and a couple more on the way—and that’s not counting the first story arc, The Rebel Opposition, which wasn’t collected until the first XWRS Omnibus several years later.

For sixteen-year-old me, just figuring out which TPB came next was something of a challenge; actually finding the damned thing in tiny little Seeley & Kane’s a couple blocks from my house was far more uncertain. I eventually managed, of course, but if those trades hadn’t been out there, I’d have stood virtually no chance of finding the original issues, meaning I wouldn’t have had another shot at reading the series until the aforementioned Omnibus set much, much later.

All this is to say that it’s incredibly heartening to see the announcement this week of Marvel’s first Star Wars “Epic Collection” TPB, including much of Dark Horse’s post-Revenge of the Sith material, some of which is less than a couple years old. Regardless of the Legends banner on the front, Dark Horse’s Star Wars catalog includes some of—no, many of—the best SW stories ever told, and I’m thrilled to know that the comics license changing hands doesn’t mean new generations of fans will lose access to that material; at least not all of it.

But at the same time, my gut reaction to the announcement was unease. Dark Horse’s final original Star Wars issue, Legacy Vol. 2 #18, came out that same day, and while it’s true that DHC never owned the material they’d been creating these past 23 years, the speed with which Marvel is slapping their own logo on some of it and kicking it back out the door just feels…unjust. Whether Marvel’s greater resources will result in a greater Star Wars line remains to be seen, but one thing that’s safe to say is that they were doing fine without it. Dark Horse reps have been quick to point out that Star Wars was primarily a passion project for them, and wasn’t as big a chunk of their bottom line as many assume, but it’s still hard to see the little guy (as DHC’s very name is happy to cast them as) buckle under the weight of the superpower.

So with those last few Star Wars issues on their way, I spent the past month or so boning up on the rest of Dark Horse’s catalog, in the hopes of finding a series or two to start picking up in lieu of my usual Star Wars purchases. Expanded Universe fans already know DHC’s quality standards and willingness to take chances on offbeat material, but those practices apply to the whole company, not just the SW line, and the least I could do was give them another chance to keep my business.

In the end, I came up with a few favorites to recommend—and I invited my fellow comics buff Ben Crofts to add some picks of his own.

Here’s to Dark Horse—and especially Star Wars editor Randy Stradley—for a generation’s worth of excellent work. Their time with Star Wars may be over, but I’m not going anywhere.

Ben: Grandville (A Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard Scientific-Romance Thriller)

Yes, if you did not pick it up from the subtitle in brackets, then abandon all notions of genre restrictions immediately. The work of British writer-artist Brian Talbot, Grandville is a wonderful steam punk, anthropomorphic alternative history set at the turn of the century in 1900. It is, at times, quite a gonzo ride, with Talbot weaving all manner of comments on the society alongside a healthy smattering of satire.

There is perhaps one cardinal rule in these stories that all its villains casually break and regret: Don’t fuck with the badger! The badger in question is Inspector LeBrock and you can get a Wind in the Willows homage in how Talbot depicts him. LeBrock is far from an idiot bruiser, but if need be? Yes, he can duff up anyone and everyone.

What makes these books work – and they really do make the case for graphic novels most effectively – is Talbot’s sublime execution of it all. Each page is wonderfully constructed, matched perfectly to the part of the story it’s telling. Each book is its own self-contained epic, only using around 100 pages at a time. If you think that’s insufficient, think again! The economy of Talbot’s story-telling is superb, but he never sacrifices anything for it. Instead he weaves in depth, character, allusions and sharp comedy to create a very substantive piece of work. You will laugh and you will learn and you will be entertained.

One of the advantages graphic novels have over the monthly comics model is they are freed from the restrictive timetable of the latter. This is how these books can exist – each one takes one to two years to produce! It is not quick, easy work – anyone who thinks quality like this can be created quickly needs to go home and re-think their opinion! Talbot’s art style is of the most deceptive kind – all perfect lines. It looks so simple, much as Jeff Smith’s Bone does, but just try mimicking it. You’ll come a cropper before you know it.

Published in the US by Dark Horse Comics and the UK by Jonathan Cape, the printing of these volumes is superb. Oversized hardbacks with excellent binding – the paper size and quality really allows Talbot’s work to shine. To date there are 3 Grandville books – Grandville, Grandville: Mon Amour and Grandville: Bete Noire, with a fourth Grandville: Noël due in November. Talbot has said there’ll be around five volumes in total.

If nothing else has rendered you the least bit curious about this, doesn’t the notion of a gun-toting badger cop do it?

Mike: Pariah

If you’re like me, the phrase “From the Academy Award-winning producer of Shrek” doesn’t exactly scream for you to take a comics project seriously. Furthermore, my initial Google searches for producer Aron Warner’s series Pariah led me to a flashy but ultimately not very helpful official website, giving me the distinct impression that Pariah was simply the flash-in-the-pan vanity project of a slumming Hollywood mogul.

Further confusing me was the fact that despite being only twelve issues in total, the series is technically in its second volume; so when I took my first stab at actually reading “Pariah #1″, it turned out that I was reading the first issue of the second volume—picking up immediately after a cliffhanger, no less. Despite having a major turning point in the story spoiled for me, I remained curious enough that I eventually went back and read the first volume, which seems to have been released as a webcomic at first, but is now collected both in print and digitally.

Pariah tells the story of the vitros, a group of hundreds of children and young adults who were the result of experimental testing—you guessed it, in vitro—in an attempt to cure an unspecified genetic disorder. In the process, the children were gifted with superhuman intelligence, and crucially, absolutely nothing else. The best thing about Pariah is that it’s set only about ten years from now, meaning that both the society and the science feel very real—the only real sci-fi conceit here is the vitros themselves, and everything else it throws at you spills out of that. Warner and the series’ official writer Philip Gelatt also make the smart decision to tell the entire first volume and much of the second from the perspective of various vitros, humanizing them despite the fact that they’re operating on levels beyond human understanding. Without spoiling too much about where the story goes, suffice it to say that the vitros, most now in their teens, quickly become a major new force on the Earth, and the existing major forces don’t take kindly to that.

Can a couple hundred geniuses fight off the entire planet? That hasn’t been resolved yet, but there’s still one issue to go in Volume 2 (and hopefully more beyond that, but nothing’s been announced as far as I could find), and I’m anxious to see where it ends up.

Ben: Lone Wolf and Cub

Previously issued as 28 pocket-sized volumes, this series is being re-issued in larger Omnibus editions of around 700 pages at a time. They are a quite astonishing value and the format is not restricted to just this title.

The story has been told in film as well as comics: Set in 1600s Japan, the Shogun’s executioner, Ogami Ittō, is set up by his enemies for a crime he did not commit, the murder of his wife, and goes ronin. He gives his infant son a choice of life or death and, with the kid choosing life, goes on the road as a wandering assassin, while seeking revenge on the entire Yagyū clan.

What makes it work is the approach taken by Koike and Kojima, which is to represent the era accurately. Due to this Ittō is indeed a harsh man, the outlook of the samurai was unyielding in what it demanded of both the world and those who wish to hold it. The politics of 1600s Japan are also exceedingly vicious, with various rivalries being waged with murderous intent. It follows therefore, if Ogami Ittō is to be who the reader backs, then his adversaries need to be the scum of the earth! And they are. But the reader is never allowed to forget who Ittō is or was, he was an executioner, he is an exceedingly lethal individual, who is entirely at ease with killing one or many, but rarely as a first resort.

What impresses too is the variety of stories that are spun, along with a varied assortment of villainy to match. You would have thought that a guy killing people would get old hat after a while, but it doesn’t. There are stories where the question that hangs in the air is not: Who’s getting killed? But rather: When? However it all goes down, one point remains paramount above all: They all deserved it!

Mike: Mind MGMT

If my description of Pariah sounded interesting to you, Mind MGMT is kinda like taking some of the same concepts and feeding them psychedelic mushrooms. The series, produced entirely by Matt Kindt (author of DHC’s recent SW mini Rebel Heist, which deserved more attention than it got) is about the titular government organization, which is basically the psychic CIA. With a history stretching back roughly a century (and some elements much further than that), every bit of Mind MGMT is jam-packed with extra detail that adds shading and context to its main plot and functions as added value for the $3.99 issue price. Nearly every issue includes multiple one-to-four-page backup stories detailing everything from the history of the organization to the origins of specific agents who may not even show up in the main story for months yet (if ever) to what certain characters were doing between the gaps of earlier issues—and in addition to all that are untold numbers of hidden clues and bits of text that enrich the reading experience and add further depth to the narrative. Even the book itself is presented as a piece of its universe, with individual pages bordered by the outlines of Mind MGMT field report forms.

The main story revolves around Meru, an investigative journalist seeking to penetrate the web of mystery surrounding Mind MGMT—and naturally, with a secret history of her own. The more she learns (about both), the more she suspects she’d rather not know, but something in her subconscious compels her forward nevertheless. Indeed, my favorite thing about the series is how expansive Kindt’s interpretation of psychic abilities becomes as you go on—how many different applications they can have, and how much more colorful it makes what could otherwise be a run-of-the-mill “trust no one” spy thriller.

Another thing Mind MGMT has in common with Pariah is that the art might be a deal-breaker for some people. Kindt’s work makes up in vibe what it lacks in polish, and his use of rough shapes and watercolors gives the book a feel very unlike most modern comics—though not too unusual for fans of Cam Kennedy’s art in Dark Empire. If you’re expecting polish and/or realism, this might not be for you, but if you’re a fan of Kennedy, or Powers‘ Michael Avon Oeming, I suspect you’ll find something to appreciate here—and the same goes for Brett Weldele’s work in Pariah. Mind MGMT is 25 issues into its stated 36-issue run, so you’ve still got plenty of time to catch up via the trades—though some of the aforementioned bonus features are only available in the individual issues, so like Meru, you might want to start hunting.

Ben: Blacksad

Blacksad is a European series created by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, with the latter on art duties, which Dark Horse is translating. There have been two oversized, hardback collections so far: Blacksad, collecting the first 3 albums, with a second, Blacksad: A Silent Hell collecting the fourth album, plus 2 short stories and a making of feature and a third, Blacksad: Amarillo, is due in October, presenting the fifth album.

Where most anthropomorphic tales simply have animals acting human, Blacksad decides to do it a little differently by asking what animals would fit certain occupations, thus John Blacksad, our hangdog, perpetually weary, often beaten-up, down-on-his-luck, private investigator is a cat. Curious, inquisitive, but with the claws to fight his way out of trouble – or try and fail – if need be.

The second collection, A Silent Hell, is especially notable for raising to a zenith a thing comics do all the time, but few notice because it isn’t really used all that often. Comics work as a sequence, you read the panels, get a story, turn over the page and the story continues. What smart creators do is to work into their story the moment the page turns over to surprise the reader. A Silent Hell has just such a moment in a chase sequence that cannot be spoiled, just know you will not have seen anything like this…ever. And it is not content to just whack the reader in that way, no it then builds on the whack with more incredible imagery.

The European comics model is to produce an album, varying in length between 48 and 104 pages, with perhaps 1-2 years between them. This model therefore seeks to encourage creators to make the most compact, high impact product they can. Blacksad embodies this very well, as it tells each of its stories in 48 pages at a time. There are no arcs as such, just one, well-told story with truly excellent art that wastes no space at all and demands the reader pay attention.

So, give it a try, it’s quite hard to dislike Blacksad’s trenchcoat-wearing, ciggie-smoking, suit-sporting moggie PI!

Mike: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Okay, let’s close this out with a nice, easy one. Are you a fan of the original Avatar series, what with the bending and such? Are you a fan of the current sequel series, The Legend of Korra (which just concluded the best season ever, but that’s another topic)? Do you have even the slightest interest in seeing what happened between the two shows, or are you curious about the franchise but not ready to commit to 60-100 episodes of material? Are you a fan of awesome things? If any of these sound like you, I invite you to consider one of Dark Horse’s other Expanded Universes.

Consisting thus far of three three-part series (each “part” is a digest-sized trade analogous to the Star Wars Adventures books) titled The Promise, The Search, and The Rift, DHC’s Avatar books continue the story of the original series (spoiler alert) past the end of the Hundred Years’ War—but rather than being facile “further adventures of Aang and Co” stories, each book genuinely advances the story of the characters (to the point that they’ve even aged a bit), picking up loose threads from the show like the fate of Zuko’s mother and Toph’s discovery of metalbending. And when they’re not focused on developing ATLA’s cast into mature young adults, they’re slowly developing the world itself into the version we see two generations later in Korra.

In particular, the first story, The Promise, tells the story of a Fire Nation colony within the Earth Kingdom whose residents have lived there for generations and had families with Earth citizens—so with the war over and the nations at peace, what becomes of a child of two kingdoms? Not only does the story sew the seeds of the fully-integrated Republic City of Korra’s time, but it’s remarkably complex stuff for what’s ostensibly a childen’s franchise. The writer, Gene Luen Yang, works closely with series creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino and takes many cues from both their internal continuity (including ideas from current episodes of Korra) and their excellent use of real-world history and design, to just as great effect as the original series ever did. And the two-woman artist team, who go by Gurihiru, duplicate so perfectly the look of the show (while adroitly capitalizing on the benefits of the comics page) that it’s easy to forget you’re not still watching it.

The first two series are currently available both from Dark Horse Digital and in awesome oversized and annotated library editions; the third volume of The Rift doesn’t come out until November, but it’s a safe bet it’ll get its own library edition sometime next year. While those are great for serious collectors, I’m hopeful that the entire run will eventually warrant an omnibus set—and I’m especially hopeful that said run will last for many years to come.

6 thoughts to “The Dark Horses of Dark Horse Comics”

  1. Gene Yang is the Kevin J Anderson of Avatar.

    Mind MGMT looks and sounds really good, and while I’m disheartened that Dark Horse’s TPB habits have bitten it in the rear, it might be a cool thing to assemble at conventions.

      1. Not including everything in the TPB. This can range from leaving out covers, to ditching backup stories and other parts of the narrative. The first I really became aware of it was when I learned that KOTOR had some backup in-universe news broadcasts that only appeared in the floppies.

      2. I haven’t bought the SW TPBs in a long time, but with Mind MGMT Matt Kindt specifically sought to create content just for the original issues–he said that he’d stopped buying individual comics himself and it was an attempt to value-add in a way that would’ve appealed to buyers like himself.

  2. One point to add for those who are unaware, DHC’s Library Editions are double-size, hardback editions, often starting at – but not restricted to – 300 pages. They have excellent paper quality and binding and DHC, somehow, flog them for an RRP of $50, for which you can get a significant discount online. DC or Marvel would easily sell the same volumes at an RRP of $100 or more.

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