WATCHING BLACK SKY: Richardson & Van Lente on the UFO Agenda

At its heart, Dark Horse Comics' interconnected line of books known as Project Black Sky is a classic superhero universe. But as the threads of series like "Captain Midnight" and "X" draw tighter together on Free Comic Book Day, readers can expect shades of conspiracy thriller to fall across the assembled heroes.

Written by "Brain Boy" writer Fred Van Lente and drawn by Michael Broussard, the aptly named FCBD one-shot "Project Black Sky" promises to expand the universe into new characters, new stories and new series as 2014 continues. And the root of all those changes is the lone crash of a UFO during World War II.

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This month, CBR's look inside the Dark Horse superhero world, WATCHING BLACK SKY, zeroes in on this UFO agenda by inviting Publisher and Project Black Sky mastermind Mike Richardson along with Van Lente to give the secret history of the world's alien obsession, share Richardson's own past with flying saucers, tease the return of many classic Dark Horse '90s heroes and villains and explain how everyone from Ghost to The Occultist will have a role to play in "Project Black Sky" from May 3 to beyond.

CBR News: Mike, we all know that the big plan for Project Black Sky involves a growing awareness and conspiracy around aliens in the world of these superheroes. And someone at Dark Horse told me the roots of this go back to a UFO sighting you had when you were young. Could this possibly be true, or are they pulling my leg?

Mike Richardson: [Laughs] That's not exactly true. I've always had sort of an interest in this stuff because of something I saw when I was about ten years-old. So I've always paid attention on the side. I'm no enthusiast who sits on the hillside with binoculars, but when something shows up in the news, I take a look.

But when I was ten, my friend and I saw a big disc with a spinning outside and a stationary, silent center. It was the color of the moon and hovered up over the trees. We rode our bikes up into the back yard of my house following it, and it just floated along. Then after watching it for about 30 seconds, it shot straight up. It went up so perfectly straight that it looked like it just shrank in space. It was gone in less than a second. So I don't say what it was. I'm just saying what we saw. It was something.

Fred, I'm sure you see a lot of weird things living in New York, but probably nothing like that.

Fred Van Lente: I wish. But I don't think guys peeing on the sides of buildings really counts. [Laughter]

Richardson: That's usually unexplained also, isn't it?

Van Lente: Well, it's hard to put yourself into the mind of a guy when he does it. But I've never really had any paranormal experiences. My life is exceptionally normal. Subnormal even.

Richardson: Even though you're in the comics business.

Van Lente: Yeah, but all that stuff is fairly easy to explain. The most unexplained thing you get in comics is the classic convention game of "Is that person a cosplayer, or do they actually dress like that?" [Laughter] This is what you do in the downtimes in Artist Alley.

So how did Mike's casual interest in UFOs and aliens in pop culture roll into the idea of a shared superhero universe? Obviously, the characters in Project Black Sky each have their own history whether they were part of Comics Greatest World in the '90s or like Captain Midnight and Brain Boy had runs from further back in comics history. What makes UFOs the kind of factor that can unite all these pieces into one whole?

Richardson: This might sound odd, but I wanted to ground the series in something that could be real. Obviously, it's all a fantastic premise, but it seems that an event that happened over Lake Michigan in 1936 and was then explained away by the media was a fun way to start a background history that leads to superheroes in the modern world. That resulted in a scientist getting technology that led to him ultimately landing in the 21st Century, led to organizations growing powerful over the years he's gone and led to a number of scientific advancements that created these other characters.

We touched on these elements some back when we started Comics Greatest World. That was part of the layout or explanation for the characters that appeared in the original "Ghost," "X" and some others. So while it's not exactly the same in this relaunch, they have similar backgrounds. And this time it's much more elaborate in that there are many characters and organizations intertwining through this world we're creating.

And what was the process like taking that overarching concept and making it work for the individual books?

Richardson: It's a lot of fun. We figured out how to involve elements that had already been introduced in Comics Greatest World alongside new characters, and we put together our own Golden Age with characters that had existed in previous incarnations. We sat down with the writers and gave them the overall outline. That thing was pretty long, though I'm not sure how many pages of it we gave to Fred. "Brain Boy" was the result there, and I love how that has gone. Now he's moving on to "Project Black Sky," and the ideas for where we're going certainly match what I was thinking as we went in. And Fred is obviously such a great writer that he's bringing in his own ideas and talent to it.

Van Lente: Thank you very much, sir. What's kind of cool for me is that when I go the call for "Brain Boy" initially, I only knew his corner of the universe. So what was neat was doing two miniseries to come up with his own mythology that could dovetail into the larger bible. When I got brought on to do the larger "Project Black Sky" Free Comic Book Day issue, I then had the "security clearance" to get the whole bible, which as Mike said is pretty extensive.

Richardson: And Fred, I hate to tell you this, but it's gotten even more extensive.

Van Lente: It's growing now?! [Laughter] That's fine. I enjoy reading it. It's cool to see how characters as diverse as The Occultist and Captain Midnight fit into the larger scheme of things. It's a very fun sandbox to play in.

How do you each view Project Black Sky as a superhero universe? Aside from the alien threads running through it, I know you've spoken about not wanting this to be like other superhero worlds out there. Is there an overriding ethos that you try and stick to there even as the books continue to grow together?

Richardson: For us, we want our works to feel like they're not a copy of other companies worlds or heroes, and so we're taking a different approach. There is a world here. it is interrelated. There are secrets and surprises coming. I think as readers move through the individual books, they'll start to see how characters are interrelated and how some of their origins are connected. But we want the books also to stand on their own. We want people to expand the books they read in the Project Black Sky world because their intrigued by it all -- not just so they can keep up on the continuity. We want there to be interesting mystery boxes we've created that they want to open up. It all has a shared flavor, and so far it's been interesting.

I think that in the superhero marketplace, you have to build credibility. It's not like we're going to rush there, but we're going to show people that we mean this. We've done some fun things like IWatchTheSky.com that are viral parts of the comic book universe, and we'll continue to build on it.

What is the role the Free Comic Book Day story plays in that ongoing unveiling?

Van Lente: What's cool about "Project Black Sky" is that it's kind of the lead float in the parade. It's the sky high view of the Dark Horse world of heroes. You can include Captain Midnight and Brain Boy and X and The Occultist, but you never quite know which character can show up. We'll be re-introducing a few of the Comics Greatest World characters like Ape-X -- everyone's new favorite super gorilla. [Richardson Laughs] Mr. [Michael] Broussard did a great job designing him. You'll notice he's got these weird glowing metal or plastic elements in there. But that super gorilla is going to be a huge part of understanding what's been going on at Project Black Sky.

Richardson: "Project Black Sky" is going to reveal a lot of what's gone on in the past, and it's sort of the sourcebook for the whole universe of books. That's where you can learn certain origins and events that are all leading to stories and characters that will take place in our future.

Well, the FCBD one-shot certainly seems to be crafted as a jumping on point -- as so many of the FCBD books are -- but how specifically does it serve as an origin or first chapter in terms of what's coming next for the line?

Richardson: It's definitely the beginning of the second phase. The first phase was the sort of laying out the landscape. A bunch of books launched to get the look and feel of the characters established and being the process. Now with the launch of "Project Black Sky," you'll see a number of things happening to rev things up.

Van Lente: There are certain commonalities you've already seen in books like "X," "Captain Midnight" and "Brain Boy." Now that they're all out there, we can really get into Phase 2, and Phase 2 is exciting, but it's nothing compared to Phase 3.

Richardson: Oh, well we can't even talk about Phase 3 yet. [Laughter]

Van Lente: You my think we're kidding, but we're not.

Richardson: Soon you'll see the launch of a number of brand new characters and the relaunch of some others. One character in particular -- I'm not even sure we're supposed to talk about it -- has been the most requested of our characters. People keep asking when this particular book is coming back, and it will be in this Project Black Sky expansion period.

Mike, we recently spoke about Star Wars moving on from Dark Horse, and in the wake of that we've got some creative folks making moves like Jan Duursema making the move to "Ghost." Between Project Black Sky and the incoming Aliens/Prometheus/Predators line, have you been trying to repurpose some of that deep worldbuilding that the company did with the Lucas stuff towards new ends?

Richardson: Yeah, I think that's true. Back when we started the company or maybe two years after we started, the idea of worldbuilding became a facet of Dark Horse early on. The world we created with "Aliens" if you followed those books back then or "Predator" or "Terminator" or "Star Wars" did that. We were taking the concepts or characters introduced in the films and building on them, and we put a lot of work into that. There was a period of time in the '90s where we got away from that and tried a different approach, with the exception of Star Wars, but in the past four or five years we've rededicated ourselves to that. If we're going to do these kinds of books, I think fans want more than one-off stories. They want to see characters that live in a world where the events cause progression in the storyline around them.

When you bring up all these events coming up like the Aliens/Predators stuff, that's the exact same thing as what we're doing with Project Black Sky. As Fred said, we're creating a world and events where there really is a Phase 3 and beyond. We're doing this very carefully and profitably, and talent like Fred are having a lot of fun working on it, and that shows in the final books. "Brain Boy" is really a great read.

To wrap, we started this conversation with UFOs as a presence in this world, and I wanted to look past that to where those things come from. If you're talking about superheroes and aliens, you almost always come down to invaders. So what can you say about who might be behind the technology that crashed to earth and created this whole world of heroes?

Richardson: I can say that there are several threads in the overall storyline. There are two major corporations that have great power in this world, and their intentions will be revealed as we go along. And we'll also see the origins of Project Black Sky which was started to investigate the origins of a UFO crash over Lake Michigan. Now by the time Captain Midnight has landed in the 21st Century, he gets there by chasing one and has found something much deeper and more sinister in the government as a result. So he's become dedicated to finding out whether there's an alien invasion going on, but I can't say more than that.

Van Lente: If you think about it, the first, most iconic image of the superhero genre is a UFO. It's a rocket leaving a doomed planet with some very small cargo inside.

Richardson: It's an illegal alien, Fred!

Van Lente: Exactly! Undocumented. Once you realize that, then you realize how much the superhero genre has bled into science fiction over the years, and that leads through to a lot of fun worldbuilding and stories today.

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