A quick glance around the office of Dark Horse Comics president and publisher Mike Richardson will tell you -- he's undeniably passionate about comics. Its walls covered in original art from various Dark Horse projects across the years, along with licensed products, newspaper clippings and movie posters, Richardson's office is a historical vault of his company's history, and one character in particular holds a special place among the dozens and dozens of items: The Mask. Whether it's a replica of the green mask on top of Richardson's coat rack, or a framed newspaper piece about the movie behind his desk, it's easy to see the character's importance to Richardson and the publisher.
His love for The Mask is certainly justified -- created by Richardson in 1982 and popularized in comics by John Arcudi and Doug Mahnke, the character became a mainstream phenomenon thanks to "The Mask" film starring Jim Carrey. Though it's been quite some time since the character was seen in comics, Dark Horse is set to bring him back in November for "Itty Bitty Mask" by Art Baltazar and Franco, a series in the same vein as the duo's "Itty Bitty Hellboy."
"We love the work that Art and Franco had been doing on the 'Itty Bitty' comics," Richardson told CBR News. "In fact, we're planning a whole line. We've been talking about reviving The Mask, both in film and in comics. We've had a couple of false starts. The Mask has become something bigger than when we started. Of course, everyone remembers the original movie with Jim [Carrey] and Cameron [Diaz]. It's shown constantly on television, so there's that impression that people have of the character. There's also the comics version of the character that isn't necessarily the yellow zoot-suited film Mask."
Richardson, his voice soft but determined, went on to describe the "Itty Bitty" program as "the perfect vehicle to bring the character back."
"We can have a lot of fun, and it doesn't have to be canon," he said. "It's a fun comic, where we take the 'Itty Bitty' concept and apply it to a well-known character."
Throughout the interview, Richardson, clad in a Hawaiian shirt and black baseball cap, was engaging in conversation, eagerly discussing Dark Horse's plans to bring The Mask back to comics. "Itty Bitty Mask" is the latest in a number of different incarnations of the character, and though the original series had a dark edge, Richardson is confident that the "Itty Bitty" version will stay true to the core character while appealing to a new audience that may not be as familiar with the source material.
"The idea behind doing an 'Itty Bitty' version basically presents the character to a younger audience no different in content than 'Itty Bitty Hellboy,' where the original series is not intended for younger readers," he explained. "Hopefully, you introduce the character, you keep its name out there, you keep the comic book out in front of readers, and as they grow and continue to read comics, it's a character they're familiar with.
"Just as we're doing with the 'Itty Bitty' series, you're seeing the same things done in other areas of entertainment," he continued. "For instance, the 'Teen Titans Go!' show features comical, super-deformed versions of the characters that really have little to do with the original concept. The tone has been changed and the characters, already established, are seen in a different context. [The Mask] has evolved from the beginning. It's not the same character as originally conceived, so this is just the latest step in bringing the character out in front of people. Hopefully, people will have fun with it."
"Itty Bitty Mask" is just the first move by the publisher to bring the character back to comics. For a while now, Richardson has stated Dark Horse's intent to focus more on its company-owned characters, an initiative already well under way with Dark Horse's superhero line. And, according to Richardson, the "Itty Bitty" program is a good way to get the ball rolling on some of the other characters that may have fallen by the wayside.
It makes perfect sense to use the "Itty Bitty" line to relaunch The Mask; "Itty Bitty Hellboy," for each month of its five-issue run, was consistently in the top ten bestselling single issues from Dark Horse according to Diamond's sales reports. Given the success of "Itty Bitty Hellboy" and the pedigree of Art and Franco, "Itty Bitty Mask" will most certainly appeal to the growing audience of younger comics readers. But when it comes to re-introducing the adult version of the character, Richardson is looking for something very specific.
"I've wanted to bring it back, I've wanted to capture all the elements that people think of when they think of The Mask, but at the same time, maybe make it a little darker, a little bit different tone than we've had before," he said. "John Arcudi and Doug Mahnke had a great run on it, probably the definitive run on the character. They combined the humor with a dark edge, and we're looking for something along those lines. We want it to be right."
Dark Horse has had talks with some talented writers and received a few treatments, but nothing has stuck just yet. "Because of my own expectations, I guess -- I've probably been unfair to them. I want them to know exactly what's in my head even though I don't know what's exactly in my head," he joked, cracking a smile. "We're looking for the right tone, maybe capturing elements of previous incarnations, but at the same time, maybe a little different. I'm looking for some originality while capturing some of the things that made The Mask interesting -- not just in the comic book, but in the film. It may not be an easy task and I may end up doing it myself. I don't know."
The comic marketplace is markedly different from the days when Dark Horse debuted Arcudi and Mahnke's first "The Mask" 4-issue limited series in 1994. The increased reliance on the direct market and a plethora of available material -- both in digital and print, corporate and creator-owned -- bring a new level of challenges to reintroducing a character.
"There's more competition than ever," Richardson acknowledged. "It's no secret that [comic book] sales have been dwindling for several decades now, so it's harder and harder to create a hit in the world of pamphlets [single issues] in the direct sales market. There's so much competition.
"[Comic book single issues] were invented at a time when that particular process of delivering content was state-of-the-art," he continued. "It was aimed primarily at newspaper readers, and then later at kids. Comics didn't have that great of a reputation as far as an entertainment medium. These days, I think the readership has changed. The average comic book reader is more likely to be between 25 and 35 than 8 and 12. It's a very different audience, and that audience would rather have a trade, a collection, a graphic novel than a pamphlet with 22 pages of story that comes out every 30 days over the course of a year. It's not the most efficient way of telling a story. As a result, many people wait for the trades, and for Dark Horse, over half our business these days is trade. I think that's a result of people wanting a book on a shelf rather than a pamphlet in a box."
All that said, "The Mask" has a number of advantages going for it. "The film never stops playing, so people know who the character is," Richardson said. "In a world where franchises and branded entertainment seem to be more important than ever, that's a great advantage for a character when we're trying to sell comics or sell products based on that particular character. The disadvantage, of course, is that there's more competition than ever."
Additionally, Richardson noted that the evolution of the industry into different types of media -- including digital and the original graphic novel -- places "The Mask" in a position to reach far wider across the market than it did in the 1990s.
"We've seen a great evolution in comics, we've seen the technology change," he said. "For 'The Mask,' we have more ways to sell it, so that's a definite advantage, even in a time when sales are dwindling in the traditional pamphlet market."
As for Richardson, he's remains busy not only as the head of Dark Horse, but as a creator. His graphic novel, "The Atomic Legion," debuted in early 2014, and he's got plenty of other projects on the fire.
"I just finished a series called 'Father's Day,' and I'm just about to start a new series, reuniting with Jason Alexander, who worked on 'The Secret' with me," Richardson said. "We have a new project called 'Echo' that we're about to start on. I wrote a story called ' Deep Gravity' long before the movie 'Gravity' came out. There's a lot of pressure to change the name, but to heck with it -- I'll keep the name and people can think what they want to think. I wrote a long outline for the story, and it's being adapted right now. More 'Atomic Legion,' we had a lot of fun with it -- but probably more, at least in shorter stories, maybe in 'Dark Horse Presents' -- a lot of stuff."
"I think it has the potential," he said, swinging the topic of conversation back around to The Mask's Itty Bitty incarnation. "Again, it depends on whether or not we deliver on expectations. Most people know The Mask through films, and they're going to have expectations when they pick up the book. It has to deliver on expectations. It's a tough tightrope to walk in trying to satisfy and yet trying to make it not feel like we've been there before."
"Itty Bitty Mask" debuts November 12.