ICv2 recently caught up with Dark Horse CEO Mike Richardson.  In Part 1 of the interview Richardson talks about the current marketplace, the impact of the end of Borders, changes in the manga market, and the last year at Dark Horse.  In Part 2, Richardson talked about the company’s film projects, including R.I.P.D.; its new motion comics program; its Trolls program; and its digital initiatives.  In Part 3, Richardson talked about its Webcomics publishing; whether Kickstarter is going to replace publishers; and plans for 2012, including an update on Frank Miller’s projects.

What’s your assessment of the comics market in 2011 and first quarter of 2012?
I think we've seen a resurgence of comics sales this year, which should put to rest some retailer concerns that digital sales were going to kill floppy sales.  Some of the months we had big increases in sales of the floppies and at the same time big increases in the digital sales, so maybe digital really is helping to bring some interest into comics.
What do you attribute the resurgence in sales to?
I can't say for sure, but certainly the DC New 52 brought more people to retail stores last year, and maybe the people are feeling better about the economy, and maybe digital does have a positive effect on the brick and mortar stores.
It’s interesting to note that at the same time that we’re hearing this good news, it's sort of disturbing to see that Marvel's number one selling comic in February was at #11—less  than Aquaman—so that's shocking.  I think it sold about 63,000 copies (see "Top 300 Comics—February 2012").  X-Men has always been the gold standard since I’ve been in the business, so to see it down that low was pretty shocking.
The loss of the Borders chain was one of the biggest changes on the book side in the past year.  What impact do you see?
I think losing Borders really hurt the manga sales quite a bit.  They were the chain that really invested in manga.  Certainly we felt the impact, and you saw a number of companies impacted or even go out of business.  Luckily for Dark Horse our manga sales have always been aimed at the direct sales market even more than the book market.  I guess we weren't as impacted as some other companies because our titles did fine; obviously we saw a decrease because of the loss of Borders but they held their own, and we’re actually adding a number of exciting titles this year.
The loss of mall stores like Waldenbooks removed a place where kids were first getting exposed to manga.  There's been some movement of manga to digital formats, but manga in the U.S. has been slow to go that way.  Where do you think is the best place for new readers to find manga, and where will those readers buy manga on an ongoing basis?
I think you're touching upon a larger question.  The manga phenomenon of the last decade sort of proves the point that there are markets for different types of comics out there, but what's lacking is the distribution.  The problem has always been how to get your materials into the right hands.  I've talked for years about Andrew Vachss' book, Another Chance to Get it Right.  They put our number on the screen for about eight seconds on the Oprah show and we got about 150,000 phone calls trying to order the book.  We didn’t have anywhere near the number of books, and then people went into the stores and we heard that they couldn't find it because it was mainly in the comic shops.  So it wasn’t that there wasn’t a market for that book, it was that we couldn’t get it into the distribution system in a way that allowed people who wanted it to find it.
The shojo (Japanese comics aimed at teenage girls) phenomenon was an example of the fact that if you have the right books in the right distribution chain, they'll sell.  The last person you would have found in a comic shop during the 90s and the 80s and probably throughout the early part of the direct sales market was the teenage girl.  Statistics showed that comic shops were populated by males; I think the numbers were at one time 85% male and very few teenage girls.  But once shojo showed up in chains like Borders, teenage girls showed up.

The bigger issue is how to we get comic material into the right distribution channels whether it be mass market, traditional chain bookstores, the independent stores, or the comic shops.  We can access those but how do we get our products to the readers?  That’s where we have the opportunity with digital to make new readers, because we’re going to have greater access than ever with our content.  The statistics show that we're going to have about 1 billion tablets out there in the hands of consumers by 2016, and if we can get 1% of those people, obviously that could be as much as ten times the existing market.  You would expect that some of those people would come in and look for the books in a physical format.  And Amazon gives those people a shot who can’t find a comics shop or book store that carries it to find it.  Amazon is becoming the big monster in book publishing.
About a year ago Dark Horse did a small layoff to right-size for the year.  How did Dark Horse come through in 2011 and what are you looking forward to in 2012?
We came through well.  The whole layoff thing was so overblown.  You don't like to lay anyone off, but you prepare for the worst and the economy was tight.  Not that any layoff is insignificant, but three of the people were part time workers in the warehouse and suddenly there's news that we’re having this massive layoff.  One of them didn’t work in the office, one worked in another state.  It was unfortunate that it was portrayed the way it was.
We had some big successes; for instance, people were talking about the Janet Evanovich program we had last year, which got a lot of attention.  We sold 35,000 trades to readers who I guarantee were not traditional comic book readers, which was the whole point of the program.  That seems like a good number, but somehow that got portrayed during that whole layoff period as being related to the layoffs.  They were unrelated and the Janet program was a big success.
Did Dark Horse take a receivables hit on Borders or was loss of sales the primary impact?
It was the loss of sales.  We didn't take a big receivables hit.
Click here to go to Part 2.