For the past couple of years, Dark Horse Comics has made a concerted effort to increase its superhero output. Series like “Ghost” and “X’ — both from the publisher’s early ’90s “Comics’ Greatest World” imprint, a previous attempt to enter the superhero field — have returned, as have revived Golden and Silver Age concepts like “Captain Midnight,” “Skyman” and “Brain Boy.” They’ve also introduced new characters, like “Blackout,” first seen in “Dark Horse Presents” and starring in a solo miniseries starting in March.
It’s been established the books — under the guidance of creative talent including Kelly Sue DeConnick, Chris Sebela, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Ryan Sook, Duane Swierczynski, Fred Van Lente, Frank Barbiere, Fernando Dagnino and more — share the same continuity, and Dark Horse has referred to the line as “Project Black Sky.” But in 2014, the connections between these books become much more overt, with a unified “Project Black Sky” trade dress, a logo for the imprint (taking the upper-left corner over from the Dark Horse horse on tie-in titles) and a dedicated website devoted to the line, all launching in January. Plus, there are early rumblings of an upcoming full-fledged crossover event designed to reveal what it is which links these characters together.
“Project Black Sky” is also the title of Dark Horse’s Free Comic Book Day 2014 “silver” release, featuring the first-ever team-up between Captain Midnight and Brain Boy. The book is written by Van Lente with art from Michael Broussard, and is set to pull back the curtain on more of the greater Project Black Sky mythology while reintroducing another character from the “Comics’ Greatest World” days.
CBR News spoke exclusively with Dark Horse publisher and founder Mike Richardson about what’s motivated this renewed focus on superheroes, the scope of what he calls “ambitious” plans for the future of Project Black Sky and why he avoids using the word “universe.”
CBR News: Mike, readers have already seen a real push for Dark Horse’s superhero books in this past year, but how much bigger are you looking to grow the line in 2014?
Mike Richardson: We have some new characters coming up, and the revival of some characters you might have seen in the past that will be incorporated into this framework. “Project Black Sky” will be a unifying thread through a number of the characters that we’ve introduced.
That’s been essentially the unofficial name of the line, but it seems like Dark Horse is moving towards something of a crossover involving the name.
Yes. Basically, Project Black Sky is something that’s been going on for some time within the story, and we’re going to see how all of these characters have been affected by a single incident that took place some time ago. It’ll explain these heroes; how they came about to be, in this new world we’re creating.
It’s something we’ve been working on for a few years — trying to do it right, trying to build a very solid base for the world these characters are going to live in and interact. I think everybody’s been tired of the word “universe” for years, so each of these books will sort of exist on their own, but we’ll start seeing how they share the same world.
What motivated Dark Horse’s current focus on superheroes?
I think we’ve always had an interest in them. Back in the early days of Dark Horse, we focused on a number of unusual characters that maybe shared some traits with superheroes but were much more eccentric, and we chose to stay away from the comic book territory dominated by Marvel and DC.
In the ’90s, we launched our Comics’ Greatest World, and launched a number of characters that will be coming back, and have come back, in the last year or so. Fortunately or unfortunately, at the same time we had planned to do [Comics’ Greatest World], suddenly, if you remember, we had a bit of a superhero glut, a “universe” glut that hit the market, and our timing was not the best. Even though our books did quite well in the beginning, there were just so many superheroes that were launched in that time, we ended up pulling back, although a couple of the books — “X” and “Ghost” — ran for a number of years.
We thought about relaunching in different ways, or creating a new framework for these superheroes, and finally we just felt like it’s a part of the market that we weren’t addressing. We thought we’d have some fun with them, bring some great creators on and start putting this world back together.
Speaking of creators, from your perspective, what makes Dark Horse a more appealing place for writers and artists to come and tell shared world superhero stories than Marvel or DC Comics?
First of all, we’ve put a great group of creators together. Many of them are working on their creator-owned books for us at the same time they’re working on our company characters. I think with our universe, we’re giving them the chance to get in at the beginning of the stories with some of these characters, and I think we’re attempting to at least have one foot on the ground with these characters. “How would people in these particular situations react in our world?” There are still elements of the fantastic, of course, but a lot of the superhero books have gone so far into — I don’t want to criticize anybody’s books — but cliche, where they fight 24 hours a day, and wear these costumes, and you never see that they have any lives away from superheroing. We’re trying to have one foot on the ground while we tell these fantastic stories of these characters, where they do have lives away from the job.
Was the motivation for doing more superhero books partly also a desire to focus more on characters that are owned by Dark Horse, rather than creator-owned or licensed properties?
We’re doing a number of creator-owned superhero books. Michael Oeming’s “Victories” is a great example, and Francesco [Francavilla]’s Black Beetle. But we thought it would be fun to build something, and bring in some creators, and create something fresh based on characters that not only have existed in the past, but creating new characters and reviving some Golden Age characters that have been out of sight for many years, and sort of give them new personas, and revamp them.
Like “Captain Midnight.”
Yeah, “Captain Midnight” and “Brain Boy.” The books are a lot of fun; we have a lot of fun stuff planned for them. I think there’s a lot of room, and certainly there seems to be an appetite for superheroes in the marketplace, as well as the creator-owned books and the licensed books. It’s an area we thought would be fun to enter, and we thought we could tell some great stories.
Is there anything specific that you can share about what you’ve got planned coming out for the next year? We’ve seen the revivals of “Captain Midnight” and “Brain Boy,” “X” and “Ghost” have returned to positions of prominence — what are some of the characters you’re looking to take on next?
The key and major villain in our world will start appearing very shortly; a return of a character that appeared in those early days of Dark Horse, but with a new persona and bigger mission. You’ll see him suddenly rise up. You’ll see several more revivals and several more new characters, all revolving around this term “Black Sky.” You’ll see a new design on the books that are in this shared world — notice the word that I’m avoiding.
â€¨Yeah. It’ll all start coming clearer, all of the little parts we’ve put together and hinted at. You’ll see some of the organizations that have been in the stories, and have a presence, but you’ll suddenly see just how much they’ve influenced the world that these people live in. Albright Industries — that was Captain Midnight’s small company when he flew into the future — it’s become this organization that’s so big it has influence around the world, and basically is beyond the control of any government. You’ll learn what Project Black Sky actually is, and how it started. We’ll learn that something otherworldly may be going on in the world. A number of mysteries are going on. Our story really starts the minute Captain Midnight flies into the 21st century, and the layers will start peeling back into a very complex but fun storyline that we’ve created.
Given everything you just said, it sounds like something that might be moving towards a more traditional crossover or event — is that the case?
Yes, that is the case.
Sometime in 2014?
We’ll be having announcements coming out — a number of events that will be coming up this summer, this spring, and there will be some stuff happening on the Internet at the same time these things are going. We will have a tie-in on our direct website, DarkHorse.com, and we will have a companion site at the same time that will be related to Project Black Sky.
Looking further down the line, do you have an idea of how big you’d like this line to be?
We’re very ambitious. We’ve been thinking out well ahead, so we know where we’re going, we know the characters that are coming in. This has been in the works, story-wise, for the last several years. It’s not something we’re just launching, it’s something we’ve been planning for some time. We’ve been working on this for a very long time.
I think it’s a lot of fun. I think we’ve got some great creators, and the individual characters, each storyline, has a particular direction it’s going to travel, and it’s going to be fun to see how these different characters intersect, because we have a unifying thread that goes through all their stories that will bring them all in contact with each other.
Let’s talk a bit about the creators on this books — so far it’s been a combination between rising stars, like Frank Barbiere on “Blackout,” and people who have shared universe superhero experience, like Fred Van Lente on “Brain Boy”– is that roughly the pattern you’re looking to continue with as you’re going forward? A mix between slightly undiscovered talent and veterans of the genre?
Obviously, we want to help certain creators who we think are really talented become better known, and bring in a number of people who may not be as well known necessarily, but we’re also bringing in a lot of well-known writers and artists that people will be familiar with, like Kelly Sue [DeConnick], and Fred, and Tim Seeley, Josh Williamson, those types of creators. But there’s a number of terrific artists and writers out there that really are good, and may not be as well known, and definitely, we want to bring them in there. We’d like to have some new artists that we think are really great work on some of the books, as well as people like Ryan Sook.
We’ve talked about what you see as distinguishing this line from others from a creator perspective, but what would you say to an average reader about what you view as the unique strengths in Dark Horse’s superhero books versus the other ones on the market?
We’re going to be taking some chances that maybe other, larger companies don’t have the ability to take. We’re going to have some storylines that we think are fresh, and we’re not burdened down by decades of continuity. We’re going to be creating fresh things. We’ve got a great batch of creators that are coming up with terrific ideas. I just think it’s going to be a fresh, new world to jump into; people can jump in from the start. I just think it’s going to be a refreshing change from what’s out there.
Why have you barred the word “universe?” Just to distinguish from the competition?
[Following] the superhero wars of the ’90s, I think there’s a general fatigue on the part of retailers from everyone starting new “universes.” I share that fatigue from the word. The minute you use that word, I think we’re all tired, immediately. I’d just rather not use it. We’re creating an exciting world where we have a number of characters that populate the world, and we’re going to tie them all together with this “Project Black Sky” that will explain a lot of what’s going on.
Along with the revivals, new characters and concepts, like “Blackout,” are an important part of Project Blue Sky.
â€¨Yes. We have some new characters that will be showing up, some additional revivals — revivals of Dark Horse characters that appeared in Dark Horse publications — and one key character will be returning, and have something to do with our major villain this summer. And maybe some Golden Age revamps also. It’s sort of fun — we’re able to create our own Golden Age with some of these characters that have been abandoned — given them a new take and a new spin, evolving them into new characters out of something that was left behind years ago.
There’s going to be a lot of stuff going on, it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re dedicated to this. I think there’s trepidation on the part of retailers to go forward and really invest in large launches, but we’re in it for the long haul, and we’ve got plans going out for the next several years of how we’re rolling this out. Obviously we’re going to react to the market, but we’re in it, we’re going to stay in it and we want everyone to get invested.
We want to get the word out, we want people to take a chance. We’re launching something new. A lot of the characters that we all know as traditional superheroes have been around for 60 and 70 years. We’re trying to come up with something a little fresher.