Dark Horse President Mike Richardson talks penning "Cravan"

Fri, August 19th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
George A. Tramountanas, Staff Writer

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If you were a comic book creator in search of a publishing company, what qualifications would you hope the publisher had? Well, you might want an established company with experience - one that's been around awhile. It could also be helpful if the publisher has actually run a comic book store, so they know how retailers think. Even better, maybe the company is run by someone on the creative side, like an artist or writer. And it definitely couldn't hurt if the publisher has had success in turning their books into Hollywood properties.

While several publishers may have two or three of the qualifications above, one company that definitely meets all four or these criteria is Dark Horse Comics thanks to its president and founder, Mike Richardson. As the head of a company that's been around for almost twenty years, Richardson has successfully run a chain of comic book stores, written several comics ("Boris the Bear," "Star Wars: Crimson Empire," "Aliens: Newt's Tale"), and has successfully translated several of the company's books to film ("Timecop," "The Mask").

And as busy as he is running one of the bigger publishing companies in the industry, Richardson still managed to find the time to write the graphic novel "Cravan" which will be hitting shelves this fall. CBR News contacted Dark Horse's president to talk about this project, the direction of the comic industry, and his company's plans for the future.

CRAVAN

The graphic novel Richardson has written is solicited as, "a true story about the most interesting person you've never heard of: Arthur Cravan." In talking with the writer, I learned about a character who loved to continually shock and surprise people. Cravan was known as an artist, an art critic, a forger, a publisher, a boxer, and a rebel; however, his most lasting legacy is one of being a mystery.

As most people haven't heard of Arthur Cravan before, this begs the question: how did Richardson end up hearing about him? He explained, "I ran across Cravan while I was in college back in the 80's. I was an art major and just happened to be studying the Dadaist art movement and was also a fan of Mohammed Ali. There was a play out about (boxer) Jack Johnson, and I stumbled across Cravan's name as a Dadaist who had fought Johnson in an exhibition bout in Spain."

As a matter of fact, "Cravan is credited as being one of the founders of the Dadaist art movement. Basically, he was against the rich owning all of the art and wanted to create art that couldn't be owned."

Other interesting tidbits about Cravan: "he was Oscar Wilde's nephew; he was thrown out of Germany; he was a stoker (someone who shoveled coal) on a steamship that he jumped in Australia; he became friends with Trotsky when Trotsky was raising money for the revolution; and he had a side business as a forger of Picasso and other famous artists of the day. He also created one of the most famous critical art magazines of his day that created great outrage."

However, the outrage the magazine caused was nothing compared to the controversy Cravan caused at the 1917 Expo in New York City. "An art exhibit was going on with the works of all the leading artists of the day. DuChamp put up an inverted urinal (a famous moment in art history), but they wouldn't allow him to display it. Cravan, who was scheduled to speak about art to the ladies of New York society, heard about it before he went on, so onstage he went into a rant and stripped naked. The police came and hauled him off in chains to Sing Sing Prison."

Cravan's passion encompassed much more than just art - he also had a famous love affair with Mina Loy who was a huge celebrity at the time (she was a well-known poet). The two eventually went to Mexico together because Cravan wanted to escape the scrutiny he was under due to his relationship with Trotsky. After staying there for awhile, he decided it was time to move on and sent Mina Loy ahead of him to Rio de Janeiro. What occurred next though seemed very peculiar to Richardson, and influenced the book's ending: "So now this guy (Cravan), who had been trying to hide from everyone, suddenly made a very public demonstration of leaving Mexico in his own ship. He loaded it up in a very public display and then sailed off and was never seen again.

"However, Arthur Cravan (whose real name was Fabian Lloyd), went by dozens of aliases throughout his life and delighted in obscuring his own history. He had disappeared numerous times before this and his friends would bet when he'd show up and where he was at. The last time he was seen, people didn't believe that he had really died. They thought it was him staging one last grand disappearance so that he could live without the scrutiny of government officials wherever he went."

This leads us to the most controversial aspect of the book - Cravan's supposed ending.

Some people have linked Cravan with B. Traven, a very mysterious author who wrote several books, including "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Richardson explores this speculation in his story's ending, and explained a few of the more interesting coincidences. "Traven wrote the book 'Death Ship' (whose main character was a stoker on a steamship), and Cravan was a stoker too. They were born about the same year, they both came from Germany, and Cravan had gone under aliases like Travers and Taven, so Traven doesn't seem too far away from either of those aliases."

While Richardson realizes some readers may not find this conclusion plausible, the writer feels this is the kind of ending Cravan would enjoy if he were still around. "It's the perfect ending for our book because Cravan delighted in obscuring his own identity and would do anything to make sure that the facts about himself weren't clear. So even the inclusion of the Cravan note at the end of the book is in the spirit of Cravan - creating confusion about who he was."

The artist on this project is Rick Geary, who in some ways served as Richardson's muse. The writer told CBR News, "I always thought about doing Cravan as a graphic novel, but I could never think of a way to do it until I saw Rick Geary's Henry Holmes book about the Chicago mass-murderer ('The Beast of Chicago' from the Treasury of Victorian Murder series). I thought the format that he used and the style that he had would be perfect for a semi-historical graphic novel about Arthur Cravan.

"The nice thing about being publisher is I have good access to great talent. I've worked with Rick for years. It was just a matter of it occurring to me that the style he used on his book would be perfect for this kind of material."

As mentioned earlier, many creators have to search for their publishers, and after that, they still have to jump through all kinds of editorial hoops. Richardson is thankful to be spared from these struggles. "I own the company, so I can publish pretty much what I want - the perfect writer's deal. Of course, I don't pay myself anything, so it's not that perfect."

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THE COMIC INDUSTRY AND SUPERHERO BOOKS

More and more lately, the comics industry has seen the return of the variant cover and the mega-crossover - two things that led to the comic book market "crash" of the 90's. While CBR News had Richardson on the phone, we decided to ask his thoughts about the current state of the industry and where he believes it's heading. The president of Dark Horse said, "I think, in general, the direction the comic industry is heading is the same direction as all entertainment seems to be heading - and that's in the direction of the big corporate well-known projects. However, it's the small projects, the creator-owned projects that win awards.

"For instance, at the Eisner awards, these people give speeches about how great (working on smaller projects) is. The problem is it feels like they're not always supported in the marketplace. We do many of those books, and the sales are much smaller than the big Star Wars events. I understand it from a retailer standpoint because they're trying to stay in business, so it's up to us to try to persuade them why they need to carry these other types of books. That's our job. Retailers have to be especially careful about what they spend their money on these days, and so it's understandable what's going on.

"Our goal has always been to publish a wide variety of material with the belief that a wide variety of material has the largest and best chance of bringing a wide variety of people into the marketplace. The marketplace is not going to grow on the backs of superhero books, as much as we all love those."

If, as Richardson suggests, the market can't rely on superheroes to grow its business, what group of readers should the industry be targeting? He replied, "One of the things that's happened recently that's also fueling graphic novel growth is something that's unforeseen: the introduction of teenage girls into the market by Shojo Manga. That's the biggest single element fueling graphic novel growth and getting bookstores to pay attention. So on one hand, it's not exactly the type of books we (Dark Horse) have done in the past. But on the other hand, here's a phenomenon that demonstrates what we've always said, which is if we do the right kind of material, customers will come.

"The fact is that the last people you would ever expect to become the biggest movement in comics is teenage girls. And this is coming from comics that have been out in Japan and available to American publishers, including myself, for years. But no one took a chance on it until TOKYOPOP started publishing it and had tremendous success."

Richardson expanded on this idea and said, "The real growth in the comic market as shown by the sales of Shojo is not superheroes. People who want to read superhero books know where to get them, and the people that want them go there. There's not like some hidden clientele for superhero comics. That market is well-served. It's trying to figure out how to serve the much larger market out there with comic material that they'll be interested in.

"I always point to one book of ours in particular as an example of this: we had Andrew Vach's book 'Another Chance to get it Right' held up by Oprah on her show for about six seconds with our phone number under it, and we got 150,000 phone calls trying to buy the book. But all the people who went to traditional bookstores to buy that book couldn't get it because none of them had any. If you figure that most people aren't going to call, we could've probably sold half a million books that week if bookstores had taken a position on it. So it just shows that there is a market out there, it's just a matter of figuring out ways to get the right product to the right market."

While on the subject of superhero comics, the publisher also brought up Dark Horse's largest foray into the genre: Comics Greatest World. Longtime fans will recall this line of books from the company that introduced several characters into the hero universe, including "X," "Ghost," and "Barb Wire." Richardson commented on the line and what happened to these books.

"We had planned our launch into superheroes for several years. Unfortunately, by the time we actually launched them (in 1993) - and we spent about a million dollars to launch that line of books - it became the time for everyone else to launch theirs. What people generally don't realize is that our books were tremendous successes. We sold up to a half million of each of the early titles. We were extremely happy with it. It was reported in some of the fan magazines that we failed - we didn't. We sold huge, giant numbers with those books. Unfortunately, with all the craziness that was going on with all the different titles, there was too much competition for shelf space at that time. We decided to cut down to our strongest books, which were 'Ghost' and 'X,' and they ran for years."

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As a matter fact, Richardson added that "X" is being revamped right now and a "Ghost" film project in the works. And while we were on the topic of Dark Horse's plans, the publisher had plenty to tell CBR News along with some exclusive news.

DARK HORSE'S PRESENT AND FUTURE

"We just acquired the rights to - and you'll be the first to know - 'Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser,' (by Fritz Leiber) which fantasy fans will know. He's been out of print for some time," Richardson said. Regarding other current events at the company, he added, "We have a character that we just sold to Disney - 'Go Boy 7.' And obviously, we're very excited about 'Conan' and we're planning to launch some Conan spinoffs. We're also in the process of building some new lines that we've got some 'name' people for."

Dark Horse is one of the older publishers in the comic book industry. As such, we asked Richardson what the secret was to their longevity. "We have our own company philosophy. Our goal has always been to build our line and have a variety of types of books - lines of books - so that we can grow our reading market. We don't try to cater to the collector's markets, we don't try to go with the fads, we don't try to put two tons of books out and see what flies.

"Our philosophy is to find strong material and try to then build related strong material around it so you have the ability to market groups of books to certain readers. And so far, it seems to have been pretty successful. Next year will be our 20th anniversary and I think, in the history of comics, you can count the companies that were profitable for twenty years, or even existed for twenty years, on less than ten fingers."

Richardson concluded the interview with a few comments regarding the company's future. "We're hoping to grow. We have a whole program to find a new wave of new creators like we did when we first started. We've got some of the strongest licensed materials that we've ever had - 'Serenity' has sold out and it appears the second printing is shipping sold out. We're bringing in more of the well-known 'name' creators on projects. We started publishing genre novels, and we have a book publishing division now that's not graphic novels. So we're looking to continue to grow. We've just got through with one of our best years ever, and this year looks to be our best year ever."

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