Ah, Dark Horse Comics, where would we be without you? While the big publishers like Marvel and DC soak up all the attention up front, Dark Horse has quietly sat in the back room at comics conventions, playing to a hipper crowd. One of the most diverse publishing portfolios out there, Dark Horse is the American geek dream come true: founded by a comic shop owner in Milwaukie, Oregon in the mid-1980s.
While still a relative newcomer, the company benefits from observation. Founder Mike Richardson has an uncanny eye for offbeat niches going unfilled in our collective fiction culture. This kind of responsive creation helped them survive the Great Comics Crash of the 1990s (the license for the Star Wars franchise didn’t hurt either). Also, check out the slideshow of that guy’s office! Anybody who is both a Peanuts and a Betty Page fan, you know they have to have a good soul.
For this week’s geek shopping list, we’re going to find items that celebrate any and all manga and comic franchises in which Dark Horse Comics has had a hand. Try to close the newsfeed and bask in some escapism with us.
Whether you’re snuggled in a glacier waiting for a couple siblings from the waterbending tribe to free you, or you’re soaring across the land on epic adventures, you’re always better off with a cuddly flat-tailed flying bison at your side. Dark Horse Comics has published the Avatar: The Last Airbender comic series, which tell the continuing adventures of Aang, Appa, and the Avatar gang under license from Nickelodeon.
What got me started thinking about Appa was the news coverage of the American insurrection attempt, January 6 2021. The news kept focusing on this dude that social media quickly christened:
OK, that’s very clever and all, but really we have the wrong character. Appa is closer to this guy’s gig:
Hear me out: Appa is a better model for this guy’s costume than Chewbacca because, and I cannot stress this enough, CHEWBACCA DOES NOT HAVE HORNS! Case rested, jury cross-examined.
Of course we can’t pass up Dark Horse’s most popular original franchise. Hellboy, the little orphan demon boy who learned to adapt to captivity, is a unique offering here as a custom minifig. Just in case you need a character to occupy your Lego Hell diorama, and yes, people have made those:
Hellboy is part of a larger universe with several spin-off series, such as B.P.R.D., the “Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.” That’s what the series really has going for it; it manages to tie together WWII, Rasputin, and an X-Files-type government organization and make it all somehow coherent.
Sunnydale High School Sweatshirt from Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Forgot this one, didn’t you? The beauty of a Sunnydale High sweat is that, to the uninitiated, it appears to be any generic sweatshirt from any American high school. We’re sure some of you smartasses out there have gotten away with listing Sunnydale as your school on your resume and nobody noticed. But to those fans in the know, it’s a fantastic inside joke. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was huge in its day, and Dark Horse Comics smartly grabbed the license to publish the comics adaptation of this Millennial classic.
Say it with us: “It’s not our fault!” We can’t help but revisit the original “Lovely Angels,” Yuri and Kei, W3A agents who always get their bounty, even if they have to blow up a galaxy or two to do it. While modern anime fans may dismiss the Dirty Pair for being “Amerimanga,” Dark Horse put their best writers on the team and produced a witty satire of action fanservice girls, every page crammed with hip cyberpunk humor.
“Ey-YEW! His brains went down my top!” – Sorry, but Yuri and Kei were the first Japan-derived comics I got my hands on as a kid, and are why I pursued that avenue into manga proper. They’re a guilty pleasure, but oh, what pleasure!
In the not too distant future, you may find yourself employed at a certain institute (just another face in a red jumpsuit) where your boss decides that you’re expendable enough to conk on the head and shoot into space. Come to think of it, maybe they even do that at some corporations right now. I mean, it’s not like Elon Musk publishes his employee payroll online or anything. Anyway, if you’re cosplaying Joel (classic mid-90s years) or just want a hard hat to protect your noggin from concussion damage when you’re working at the Satellite of Love, you want this hard hat. And now, because you’re already humming it, you can see the hard hat in action in one of the versions of the MST3K theme tune:
And yes, Dark Horse took the daring step of publishing Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic, because this franchise is made out of audacity in the first place.
Other Noteworthy Titles of Dark Horse Comics
There’s a lot of curios and ephemera knocking around in the Dark Horse cabinet. Seek out these titles if you’re in their core fandom or just want something unique.
Fight Club 2
A 10-issue series written by Chuck Palahniuk and illustrated by Batman alumni Cameron Stewart, this is the closest you get to continuing the story of The Narrator, Tyler Durden, Marla Singer, and the rest of the Project Mayhem crew. Fight Club, a definitive work of gothic Americana, will never have a proper sequel and arguably doesn’t need one, but the event of its creation is itself rare enough to warrant notice.
The Firefly TV series may never get another chance in the limelight – can you imagine trying to recast and restart the series today? – but comics are easier to produce, so this is your continuation of the Firefly universe, named “Serenity” for FOX-copyright reasons. They might cancel your favorite turn-of-the-century sci-fi TV show, but they can’t take the sky from you!
The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects
You’ve probably heard of the title and dismissed it as a needlessly attention-grabbing bit of pandering. No, The Amazing Screw-On Head is actually a lovable steampunk homage to Victorian-era fantasy heroes. It’s about a sentient robot with a head that re-sockets into whatever body is needed for the job at hand, who works as a secret agent for US president Abraham Lincoln. The series was opted for a pilot on the Sci-Fi Channel in 2006 but never picked up. Shown above: That pilot. You don’t dare watch that and come away not converted into a fan.
So, in summary: Dark Horse Comics, a worthy label which doesn’t always get the attention it deserves in geek media. It’s like the indie craft beer of comic labels; small sales volume, but practically a factory for manufacturing cult fandoms.
We didn’t even have room to go over the Star Wars titles, but that’s its own blog post for a later time. For now, it’s enough to browse over the titles of this most curious publisher.