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In early January, Marvel Comics announced that it had reacquired the license for producing comic books for the Star Wars franchise, beginning in 2015. This wasn’t an entirely surprising development since both Marvel and LucasFilm are now owned by Disney. However, it was a blow to Dark Horse Comics, which has been home to Star Wars comics since 1991. Currently, Dark Horse publishes about six different comic books (varies from month to month) for the Star Wars franchise, and some of them are quite popular. However, I don’t believe that the loss of Star Wars will defeat Dark Horse. They only need to look at some of their other competition to find ways to thrive.
In many ways, it’s unfortunate that Dark Horse had to lose the Star Wars license since it’s been a good relationship for both sides. Star Wars has given Dark Horse a blockbuster franchise that will sell comics. At the same time, Dark Horse has done well to make sure that the comics being produced for the Star Wars lines have a high bar of quality. The original Star Wars: Legacy comic by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema was heralded as one of the best Star Wars expanded universe projects ever. The second volume of Legacy by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko is also top notch. Likewise, the Star Wars title being written by Brian Wood, which is set immediately after Episode IV: A New Hope, has received many accolades from fans and critics.
Of course, Marvel has a history with Star Wars outside of Disney’s ownership. When the original trilogy was making fans across the world in the late 1970’s, Marvel Comics had the license to create the Star Wars comic books. Those comics were well liked by many, and there’s no reason to think that Marvel won’t again make outstanding Star Wars comic books. If you like having different voices from different publishers, though, you’ll want Dark Horse to come through this well.
While losing Star Wars will definitely hurt sales in the short term, I think Dark Horse Comics can come out of this a stronger company by investing in innovative creators and other licenses. Two of the other major smaller comic book publishers (at least compared to Marvel and DC) are IDW and Image. IDW has done well at licensing many different types of properties while Image has been releasing groundbreaking series by many of the top writers and artists in the comic book world today.
If you look at the properties for which IDW creates comics, it’s a long list of popular franchises: Transformers, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Doctor Who, My Little Pony, among others. IDW has also made a name for itself through its reprints of historical comic book collections, such as the “Artist’s Editions.” However, IDW also tries out original series and had a major hit with Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez.
On the flip side, Image Comics doesn’t focus on licenses. Their company’s directive towards creator-owned properties makes them a great spot for creative new projects. Titles like Saga, Black Science, Pretty Deadly, Sex Criminals, East of West, The Manhattan Projects, Fatale, and others have made Image into the leading publisher of the most creative projects, taking a spot that once was occupied by DC’s Vertigo line.
I think Dark Horse can succeed if they combine these approaches. Besides Star Wars, Dark Horse has previously done well with their Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Conan the Barbarian franchises. Perhaps there are other properties that would lend themselves to comics. Dark Horse created a prequel comic for the smash video game The Last of Us called The Last of Us: American Dreams. They are also produced Mass Effect: Foundation, an adaptation of the popular Mass Effect sci-fi video games, and a few Halo comic books. If there doesn’t seem to be agreements to be made in the realms of movies or television, perhaps Dark Horse can make successful licenses with other video game adaptations.
Dark Horse can also look to Image and push their creative series more. They already house a very strong anthology series Dark Horse Presents, which published a number of comics that were later selected to the Best American Comics 2014 edition. They have also the critically-acclaimed series Mind MGMT by Matt Kindt and other short series like The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys by Gerald Way, Shaun Simon, and Becky Cloonan. If Dark Horse gave a few more top level or up-and-coming creators free reign, even if on a limited series, they might have even more buzz on their hands.
Dark Horse has made a concerted effort to push their superhero line, Project Black Sky. It’s too early to tell if that will be successful. However, I think Dark Horse might be wise to not try and beat Marvel and DC at their own game. There are only a handful of really popular superhero titles outside Marvel/DC while there are many popular non-superhero titles. I’m not saying that Dark Horse shouldn’t explore Project Black Sky, but they shouldn’t bank on it being a huge hit.
Dark Horse is making a publicity push to highlight its year of projects calling 2014 the “Year of the Horse” (coinciding with the same year in the Chinese calendar). The company emphasizes that 2013 was very successful. I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy many projects that Dark Horse Comics has published over the years, so I really hope that the company comes out of this even stronger. Fortunately, the creators the current Star Wars series know they will be ending and can build their stories to big finales. For Dark Horse, though, maybe this is just the start of a new and better period of their history.