Neon colors. Big hair. New wave music. Arcades. Indiana Jones. Full House. Transformers. Care Bears. Blockbuster stores. The 1980s introduced a lot of trends and media, many of which remain popular today. The decade also marked a lot of historical events, like having the first woman on the Supreme Court, the Challenger exploding, and the Berlin Wall falling.
This isn’t a “revisit the 80s” column, but while we are glimpsing back to the past, let’s go back to the first year of the decade. A man named Mike Richardson opened a comic book shop in Oregon. As his store took off, in 1986, he decided to get into the comic book publishing business as well. While initially focused on created content, by the following year, the company translated and published its first manga title, Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
This publisher is still around today: Dark Horse Comics.
Dark Horse Comics
Over the years, Dark Horse has continued to release content based upon its own IPs as well as work with other companies like Disney and Square Enix. Dark Horse Manga titles have included Berserk, Trigun, and Appleseed, and the company formed partnerships with CLAMP and Crypton Future Media. In 2006, Dark Horse was the third largest comic publisher, well behind giants Marvel and DC Comics. While they still bill themselves as such, Nowadays, though, depending on the analysis, Dark Horse could have fallen to somewhere between fourth and sixth place.
In 2018, a Chinese investment firm led by a former Disney China executive bought a majority interest in Dark Horse. Vanguard Visionary Associates’ investment was recently revealed to own about 80% of Dark Horse stock, with the remaining 20% held by founder Mike Richardson and another Dark Horse executive, COO Neil Hankerson.
According to the press release about the deal:
“The new venture will allow Dark Horse to fully finance development of properties from Dark Horse’s extensive content library as well as cultivate original ideas and acquire material for film and television, then co-finance the production of those projects. The deal will also focus on bringing the company’s award-winning publications and product lines to new international markets, particularly China.”
Dark Horse has continued along, and in June 2021, they revealed a new division with the goal of creating video games as well as partnering with companies to develop titles based on Dark Horse properties. Dark Horse is currently soliciting offers, and they plan on working on “older and less established IPs as gaming first IPs” in-house while other developers tackle larger properties. No games have been announced yet.
Fast forward six months. Bloomberg reported Dark Horse was mulling a sale, likely to some kind of TV/streaming company so that a new owner could create new video content based upon Dark Horse’s catalog. Netflix was eyed as a possible buyer, as they have a first-look deal with Dark Horse and have collaborated on The Umbrella Academy and more. Disney was another name tossed around, as back in November, a new line of Star Wars comics and graphic novels from Dark Horse was announced for 2022. Dark Horse hadn’t released any new Star Wars series since 2014, when Disney, owner of Star Wars, had fellow Disney-owned company Marvel take over publishing duties for Star Wars comics.
Really, though, the list of possible buyers was long since Amazon, Sony, Warner Media, and others also have ongoing Dark Horse-connected projects.
Dark Horse’s New Owner
On December 21st, Dark Horse announced it had found a buyer. A deal expected to close in early 2022, and all of Dark Horse (including retailer Things From Another World) is included in the deal. Mike Richardson will remain the head of Dark Horse even after the sale, and no restructuring expected.
The new owner is going to be Swedish video game company Embracer Group.
The Embracer Group has been on a Supermarket Sweep-style shopping spree recently, revealing four other acquisitions the same day, including studios that have worked on Halo 4 and Mortal Kombat. The week prior, Embracer announced it was acquiring board gaming company Asmodee, which owns the rights to games like Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic.
Embracer Group has spent its decade of existence focused on acquisitions. With Dark Horse and its other latest announcements, Embracer Group is up to 10 subsidiaries.
- Amplifier Game Invest
- Coffee Stain Holding
- Dark Horse
- DECA Games
- Gearbox Entertainment
- Koch Media
- Saber Interactive
- THQ Nordic
This means Borderlands, Goat Simulator, LittleBigPlanet, Saint’s Row, and Zen Pinball are among the titles developed and/or published by Embracer’s companies.
The Future of Dark Horse
The original Bloomberg article reporting on Dark Horse’s proposed sale wasn’t centered around Dark Horse; it was about how it’s a prime time to sell companies with any type of valuable content — film, music, studios, etc.
The main reason, unsurprisingly, is streaming. Multimedia franchises have always been very lucrative, but the media companies are all angling for a story to bring to their streaming service and/or theaters and perhaps sell the license to other companies to make T-shirts, figures, books, and more. The acquisition press release boasts “Dark Horse owns or controls more than 300 intellectual properties”, and as industry expect told The Hollywood Reporter that Embracer “seems to be going all-in on the trend of IP consolidation”.
“It’s not hard to imagine Dark Horse publishing a line of Saints Row comics, or Asmodee putting out a Hellboy board game, or a Settlers of Catan TV show all operating under the Embracer banner.”
Those are all top titles, but filings for the Embracer-Dark Horse deal showed that Kentaro Miura’s Berserk was Dark Horse’s most lucrative print series from 2019 to the first half of 2021, and it made the top five since 2016.
Although Dark Horse’s top property being a manga and with many new publishers popping up, Dark Horse hasn’t been rapidly expanding its manga selection. A lot of their current and upcoming titles are re-releases. Their first new volume 1 isn’t until April 2022 (Cat + Gamer), and their last debut manga was in November 2020 (Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!).
Dark Horse has never been primarily a manga publisher though, so that’s to be expected at least somewhat. That perhaps makes Berserk‘s success at Dark Horse all the more impressive with their catalog including major video games, TV shows, and more ranging from classic Disney to Cyberpunk 2077 as well as content that has already made the jump into other media, like Hellboy.
Dark Horse doesn’t own a lot of its own IPs, which is likely why the deal has such appeal to them, as rights to a, say, LittleBigPlanet comic won’t easily jump to a competitor like IDW Comics. In another example, game company Deep Silver (which is part of Koch Media) could develop a new game, and Dark Horse could create a side story or spinoff from it. Yes, you don’t need a lot of detective work to know that’s Embracer’s goal with all of these purchases, where they don’t have to undergo a lot of negotiations to develop games themselves — let alone sell the rights to media conglomerates like Netflix for live action and animated adaptations.
And who knows if they don’t have more deals they’re working on! But anytime a company acquires that many businesses in a short amount of time, I have to wonder if they’re going to overextend themselves. But I also wonder if Dark Horse announced their new gaming division earlier in the year either as the first step for Embracer to come in or as a way to entice them.
It’s good to hear Dark Horse isn’t being reorganized or anything under Embracer Group, which should be reassuring to Dark Horse fans. And even with the goal of creating self-owned multimedia franchises, the manga genre is booming, and Dark Horse won’t likely want to push manga to the bottom of the barrel, especially Berserk has proven to be a bestseller.
Yes, although now a lot of IPs and publishers will be connected through Embracer Group, there will likely be some interesting projects for all kinds of readers and gamers coming out in the near future. And with such immense popularity, manga fans should still expect a lot of Berserk projects coming down the barrel. I’m sure some Berserk fans will be afraid of some horrible Netflix live action version that gets canned after a season, but we’ll just have to see what Embracer Group envisions for Berserk and other Dark Horse licenses.