My Misspent Youth: Dark Horse Presents

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I tiptoed ever so hesitantly into the world of independent comics back when I was a devoted teen reader, grabbing as many titles as my meager funding could manage. For one thing, they cost more. Dark Horse Presents #10 had a $1.75 cover price, over twice as much as the big publisher superhero stuff for the same month. The extra investment put a lot of pressure on those comics, especially because I wasn’t likely to have the opportunity to peruse them before purchasing, relying in my small town on the efforts of a nationwide subscription service offered by a major retailer in Dallas. I was lucky to even see a cover before the purchased items were delivered to my door. For this reason, I was the exact young consumer who needed Dark Horse Presents.

The flagship title of Oregon publisher Dark Horse Comics, the quasi-monthly publication was an anthology, collecting three or more different stories in each issue. Some of the stories were recognizably genre fare and there were even offerings that looked like oddball superhero tales, but the point was that the material could go anywhere the creators chose to take it. It gave me a taste of being an indie comics kids without the full-on commitment into strange worlds where intertwined continuity wasn’t holding it all together, making it feel like even the comics that weren’t very good still had value because at least they gave me valuable insight into, say, the Captain America adventure that might be mentioned off-handedly in an issue of The Avengers, making me feel like I was properly in the know. I’m not entirely sure what led me to Dark Horse Presents in the first place, but it was probably Concrete.

Concrete was the creation of Paul Chadwick, an artist who’d previously had an undistinguished run on Marvel’s Dazzler in the closing days of that misguided series. Concrete followed a speechwriter named Ron Lithgow whose life took a dramatic and unexpected turn when aliens transplanted his mind into a giant body made out of a stone-like substance. Though built on the nuttiest of foundations, Concrete presented a deeply humanist storyline, bypassing the most convoluted aspects of the story to quickly get at the emotional underpinnings of what it would be like to suddenly value the simplistic of human connections because they are being denied by the sheer improbability of an unworkable physical identity. He pined after the woman who was studying him and generally fumbled through a work that wasn’t built for a stony behemoth. I read one review that suggested Chadwick was writing the Fantastic Four’s the Thing as he should be, with realistic poignancy in place of a superhero universe’s acceptance of the outlandish. That was about right, and it was an irresistible prospect to me.

I’ll admit that nothing else I read in those early issues of Dark Horse Presents stuck with me the same way. As a prime example, I read several installments in the adventures of a character who was then called the Masque.

DHP Mask

A few years later, when a movies called The Mask was released, I had no recollection whatsoever that I had read the source material upon which it was based. To be fair, though, the character had undergone a bit of an evolution after my encounters with him, an evolution which put him more in line with what eventually hit the screen.

There should have been other things that grabbed my attention in those early issues. Now that I look back at it with my current taste, I feel it was a mistake that I wasn’t more intrigued by, say, a weird story about interdimensional travel narrated by a humanoid dinosaur creature.

dhp story

In some ways, it didn’t matter that I didn’t assimilate every last panel and word that my eyes floated across when I read Dark Horse Presents. It was the exposure to something–anything!–markedly different that mattered. And then there was Concrete, which was a key early example to me that great comic book storytelling need not involve costumed heroes. Indeed, maybe freeing the sequential art from the decades-old conventions of two-fisted derring-do was the best way to get at great comic book storytelling. That was hardly a novel concept by the late nineteen-eighties, but it was regrettably foreign to me. Dark Horse Presents didn’t transform my taste, but it did start the valuable process of expanding it.

dhp concrete

Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod

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