Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a…Dark Horse?
Though the Portland-based publisher has been a fixture of genre comics for over 25 years and though they’ve worked in the capes-and-tights field on and off across that time, Dark Horse Comics has never been a bread-and-butter superhero house. But over the past two years, secret identities and super powers have been spreading across the Dark Horse line like a wave of cosmic rays. And while heroes like Ghost, X and Captain Midnight are sharing the same fictional space in a technical sense, the editors behind the push swear that this isn’t just another attempt at large-scale group think world-building.
From the pages of “Dark Horse Presents” and into their own monthly series, Patrick Thorpe and Jim Gibbons have been building up their superhero world, and things are continuing to accelerate. With guidance from Publisher Mike Richardson, Thorpe has taken point on reviving characters from “Comics Greatest World” — Dark Horse’s ’90s line of superhero characters like Ghost and X — while Gibbons has led the charge on Golden and Silver Age returns like “Captain Midnight” and “Brain Boy.” Together, the pair have seen their ideas about making breakout solo series spread across the company’s overall output.
With the long-simmering “Captain Midnight” #1 on sale today (and see ROBOT 6’s chat with writer Joshua Williamson from this week), CBR News spoke with Thorpe and Gibbons for a special two-part interview about the birth of a fictional world that stretches from World War II’s most insane super science to today’s intriguing genre corners. The pair explain how creators like Kelly Sue DeConnick, Williamson, Duane Swierczynski, Phil Noto, Eric Nguyen, Fred Van Lente and more work to make each new superhero series its own success, why Captain Midnight provided the groundwork to tie the whole universe together and what Dark Horse will do to make their superheroes stand apart from the rest.
CBR News: Gentlemen, tell me about the origin of Dark Horse’s superhero initiative. What’s your memory of how this turned from one revival or another and into a fully fledged line of titles? Didn’t it start with Mike Richardson before coming to your hands for some of the specific execution?
Patrick Thorpe: I feel like it started because at one point we were talking about doing a revival of “Ghost.” At that stage, we were just going to do one mini series and see how it went from there. But once we saw the reception that “Ghost” was getting, it became really clear that not only had the fans responded to it but also here internally at Dark Horse, people were getting super stoked about reviving some of these heroes. There were so many great superheroes from Comics Greatest World that were just sitting there, and it sort of snowballed. We started talking about “X” and a few other of the Dark Horse superheroes that hadn’t been around in a while. That’s really where it started.
Jim Gibbons: I remember there was a certain point where we had this conversation where the ball was basically kicked into our court. “If we brought back Ghost and X, what would that look like?” And the idea became, “Do we do the exact same thing? Would X still be in Arcadia, or would it be another city?” We just threw out a bunch of ideas that led to a series of meetings where Mike would throw stuff at us and we’d throw stuff back.
I distinctly remember at one point being in a meeting where we had just been talking about Ghost and X, and then Mike went, “I want to do Captain Midnight!” And I don’t think any of us knew who Captain Midnight was. [Laughter] But I had also just worked with Editor Philip Simon on the “Brain Boy” Archives, and Mike was saying, “And maybe Brain Boy.” Those original comics are just bonkers, so I was thinking, “I’m not sure how we went from just Comics Greatest World characters to these other characters, but there’s a lot more going on than I originally thought.” It became more than just a mini series. There was a possibility of all this being really, really fun. And Captain Midnight and Brain Boy added some of that comics history and that pulp feel and that pulp backstory.
I mean, the ’90s were a great time for superheroes one way or the other. Yeah, some goofy stuff came out of that, but…
Thorpe: There were some great ideas as well. We realized we could take some of those ideas, update them and turn out some really cool action comics.
Gibbons: I hate to go into that radio jingle you always hear, but it’s like “It’s the best of the ’80s, ’90s and today!” [Laughter] We had some real old school stuff in there, some ’90s stuff and a fresh spin for all of it.
It does feel like “Ghost” from Kelly Sue DeConnick and Phil Noto was the spark that lit the fuse. Then came “X” from Duane Swierczynski and company, and it still felt very much like a revival of Dark Horse properties on their own. But Captain Midnight seems to be the thing that galvanized all of this into one universe or one line. What was it about that character that made this a whole? Did you want to have a sort of prime superhero from the ’40s to kickstart the story of the whole world?
Gibbons: I think in a way that did happen. Quite frankly, “Captain Midnight” came into the fold because Mike Richards loves the character. But while Mike was the first person to introduce me to him, when I started researching the character and when we brought Joshua Williamson on as the writer, we all got really excited about all the stuff that comes from this character. He started as a World War II character, and then he started fighting aliens when the UFO craze started, and then it got to the point where you find out that his main villain — Ivan Shark, this Nazi scientist — gets eaten by polar bears while Captain Midnight just flies by!
Thorpe: That’s right. Polar bears. [Laughter]
Gibbons: The thing is, we got this classic hero with a great backstory, and it gave us a ground zero to go, “Okay if these things all happened that far back, how does that change the world?” It definitely changes the world that Ghost and X live in.
Thorpe: And we’ve been sort of filling in the blanks. We have the adventures Captain Midnight had in the ’40s, and then you have what’s going on today. So what happened between 1940 and today? We just used that question to start building a history for Captain Midnight that enriched the whole.
Gibbons: One of the fun things is that Mike, at a certain point, gave us a timeline of events. He basically said, “Here’s the history of the world. In 1933, this happened. In 1935, this happened. Then in 1939, the government approaches to Jim Albright about working with them. Then in 1940, he becomes Captain Midnight.” It wasn’t Mike telling us, “Do this and that in your books.” He gave us a history to share with the writers, and we work with the writers to come up with the present day stories. It’s great because we’re not working in a vacuum where you have to create everything. The fun thing about these books is that there’s nothing that prevents you from reading every single one of them and enjoying them in their own right. They’re not going to be continuity heavy and convoluted. It’s just a matter of us making sure that at no point, X just says, “Oh, and there was a nuclear war in the 1970s.”
Thorpe: It really gives us a basic structure to build off in any way we want.
So what were you looking for in terms of creative talent? From the original Comics Greatest revival teams to newer additions to the line like Tim Seeley, Mike Norton and Frank Barbiere, what was the skill set you wanted to flesh out this world book-by-book?
Thorpe: For me, it was very much about putting the perfect creative team on the book. What’s best for the character? It was very important to me that “Ghost” have somebody that can give the character a strong voice. I had just read “Osborn” by Kelly Sue — this was before she was doing “Captain Marvel” — and I was totally blown away by the character moments they had in that book. I knew they needed to work with her. We talked at length about getting Kelly Sue on this book, and when we approached her, she was really excited about it. Then Phil Noto came along, and while he’s primarily known for his “pin-uppy” style, his female characters are totally bad ass. That’s something I really needed for “Ghost.”
Duane also seemed like a really clear choice for “X” as a really gritty crime writer that could just get in there and do some really visceral work. And Eric Nguyen just has a style that lends itself to the dark world of X. So when I was assembling these teams, it wasn’t with the universe in mind. I just wanted teams that complimented the characters.
Gibbons: Maybe that’s a better way to put it. When these books came up, it’s not as though anyone was tasked with putting together creative teams that could build a universe. That word “universe” becomes a shorthand for any kind of superhero comics that are related in any way. Ghost and X and Captain Midnight in a sense can be called a universe, and there will be some crossover down the line, but that’s not really the ultimate goal here. The goal is to put together really solid books. It’s not as if Duane and Kelly Sue knew each other and worked well together — even though I think they do and they would. It’s more that Duane would be a great writer for “X.”
It’s the same thing with putting Fred Van Lente on “Brain Boy.” I loved his and Greg Pak’s run on “Hercules” — it was such a classic superhero story, but one that was offbeat with a lot of humor amidst the serious stuff. That was the character of Brain Boy in many ways. He was such a weird character that you couldn’t make him only one thing. He can’t just be another spy or a hero like Jean Grey. I thought Fred would bring a fresh take to it, and when I called him up to ask about it, he immediately started rattling off ideas. It was this perfect moment of “He gets it” right off the bat. I think his place as a comics historian led him to going and reading those original issues and realizing, “I’ve got some ideas for this stuff.”
It was really more about finding those teams who had a really unique take on the characters than it was about assembling a universe. That’s how the best superhero stuff happens. It’s not like you build the Avengers and then break them apart to tell individual stories for those characters. The house can only be as strong as its foundation, so if we didn’t have really cool characters, anything we do to cross them over down the line would be meaningless. We wanted strong characters first, which is where we’re at now. And if there’s a crossover down the line, it’ll be better because we found the right creators who can get readers interested.
Some of the superhero books you guys have on tap won’t fit into this loose universe at all. Joe Casey and company’s “Catalyst Comix” comes to mind. It’s based on some old Comics Greatest World properties but does its own thing. Do you have a guiding principal for a book that makes you go, “This fits into the world that was launched by Captain Midnight?” I know Mike has talked about his love of the everyman quality in these characters.
Gibbons: It’s interesting. We had a meeting earlier this week where Patrick and I were talking with Chris Warner, who’s the editor on “Blackout,” and Daniel Chabon, who’s editing “The Occultist” with Scott Allie, and the conversation was a about what makes a hero and how to tell that story without treading on the same territory. If all of our characters are the “With great power comes great responsibility” type of superheroes, then how unique or interesting are they really going to be? The conversation became, “What drives each of these characters and makes them interesting?” In a sense, all the superhero characters have a kind of everyman origin, but there are different ideas that you can transpose onto all sorts of superhero characters. Our idea is to find the thing that makes the characters relatable so you can understand their problems while also making their problems unique to each one.
With Captain Midnight, we got to the idea that this is a guy who thought that by 2013 everyone would be flying jetpacks around in a utopia because of what he was doing in the ’40s. Then all of the sudden, you jump him into the future, and he looks around and goes, “What happened?” He realizes that because he was gone, the world didn’t turn out as good as he thought. Yeah, that’s a problem for a super genius and not for an everyman, but I think that at some point everyone can relate to the idea that certain things happen in your life that you can’t control. So now you’ve got to change your present even though it’s not exactly what you wanted it to be.
Thorpe: Our big goal was to make sure — especially as we do more and more superhero books and bring in more and more editors like Randy Stradley, Brendan Wright, Daniel Chabon, Chris Warner, myself and Jim — that every single one of our characters are distinctive in their own way. To go back to your “Catalyst” question, Joe had a really unique idea that didn’t fit what the rest of us were doing, but it was such a cool idea that Mike just said, “Yes! Absolutely!” Just because it doesn’t necessarily fit with what the rest of us are doing doesn’t mean you don’t have cool creators and a really fun idea. At the end of the day, we’re all comic book fans who love superheroes, and if we have the opportunity to put a great superhero comic out there, we’re going to do it no matter what.
Stay tuned later this week for a look ahead at the future of Dark Horse’s superhero line including the return of Skyman, the “Ghost” ongoing, Brain Boy and more!