Year of the Horse: Van Lente On "Project Black Sky," "Conan the Avenger" & More!

Last week, Dark Horse Publisher Mike Richardson and Editor-in-Chief Scott Allie promised that their 2014 "Year of the Horse" plans would include outreach to creators on multiple fronts, and it appears the first name on their list is Fred Van Lente.

Already working on a number of projects for the publisher including the Free Comic Book Day "Project Black Sky" one-shot -- a lynchpin for the publisher's growing superhero line -- and April's reboot of "Conan The Avenger," Van Lente and Dark Horse revealed today an additional slate of comics from the veteran writer in 2014. On the heels of the "Project Black Sky" one-shot, Van Lente will script both an original digital series set within the world and will reteam with artist Freddie Williams II for a second "Brain Boy" miniseries. In addition, the writer will bring back two of his creator-owned series -- "The Silencers" with artist Steve Ellis, and "Action Philosophers" with longtime partner Ryan Dunlavey -- in new Dark Horse collections with a still under wraps, brand-new creator-owned series to follow later this year.

Dark Horse Comics Declares 2014 The Year of the Horse

With the vast amount of material the writer is producing as part of the Year of the Horse, CBR News felt this was the perfect time to speak with Van Lente about his connection to the publisher, his take on Brain Boy, Captain Midnight and the rest of the "Project Black Sky" cast, plans for Robert E. Howard's legendary barbarian and much, much more.

CBR News: Fred, you've already had a number of Dark Horse projects on tap for 2014, and now we've learned that you're also taking on the "Conan" franchise, launching a new creator-owned series and reprinting you and partner Ryan Dunlavey's self-published hit "Action Philosophers" through the publisher. What led you to line up so many things with Dark Horse in 2014?

Fred Van Lente: I'd like to say these incriminating photos of Mike Richardson had nothing to do with it...

I kid, I kid! I had been working a lot with Dark Horse on "Conan" and their "Brain Boy" hero book, and I just got a long real well with everyone over there. As often happens with good relationships, they start to grow, and once my big creator owned series (which will be announced later in the year) got locked in, Dark Horse asked me if I had any older stuff that could be reprinted -- they had success re-releasing Brian Wood's "Channel Zero" along with his "Massive," for example.

Ryan and I had been wanting to get out of the self-publishing game for some time. 2014 happens to be the tenth anniversary of "Action Philosophers," and we couldn't be more thrilled to have a home at Dark Horse, to have a new hardcover "Ãœber" edition coming out to celebrate.

And that's not all! The series Steve Ellis and I did that got Marvel's attention -- the super-crime epic "The Silencers" -- will be fully collected with all the Moonstone Books and Image Comics issues together for the first time. Steve's working hard on the new cover for that one right now, and we're super-psyched.

Looking at your year in broad strokes, it seems like you'll be taking a central role in the superhero universe known as "Project Black Sky" from Free Comic Book Day on forward. How do you define your position in the development of this line across 2014?

The Dark Horse hero line is really going to explode in 2014 -- literally and figuratively! There's a new, exclusively online "Black Sky" serial that's going to debut not long after the Free Comic Book Day issue, and it's going to redefine how you look at a super hero universe. Then, in the fall, all the different seeds that have been sown in "Captain Midnight," "Brain Boy," "X" and "Ghost" are going to come together -- along with the the characters themselves -- to face a unique and terrifying threat that will shake the world to its core.

One of the stand outs in the first "Brain Boy" series for me was how you really worked to take a shot at the idea of the "likable protagonist." There was very little relatable about Brain Boy. He was almost Larry David-ish. Did you set out to sidestep that whole trope?

Yeah. This always had "House if he was psychic" as my shorthand pitch. People really love that character. I mean, I've never really watched that show. [Laughs] But I've seen enough of the ads to know that he's a dick. And the dick as a protagonist has a very long and proud tradition -- the greatest example of which is Sherlock Holmes. He's this obnoxious know-it-all. And it just seemed to me that taking a teenager who because he can read minds is literally one step ahead of everybody, well, he's going to have a super inflated sense of self.

RELATED: Dark Horse Plans A "Fresher" Take on Superheroes with "Project Black Sky"

Part of this was also to make fun of or put a spin on the classic superhero character who's been contracted by the government/an evil organization then finds out they're up to no good and turns on them/is pursued by them. I liked the idea that Brain Boy was enough of a jerk that he knew the corporation was up to no good, and he just didn't care. [Laughs] He'd feel like, "So long as I get my sports car and my thousands of dollars, I don't give a damn what you do."

What was it like to be doing this conspiracy story with people holding hidden info over each other while the Edward Snowden leaks were coming out? That had to be weird.

I think my first interview before "Brain Boy" happened the day after the first Snowden leak to "The Guardian." It was very prescient. It's sort of funny that we're telling a story of telepathy in an era of social media where you're always telling everyone what you're doing anyway. One of the early gags in the Brain Boy "Dark Horse Presents" serial was, "If you want to know what being a telepath feels like, just go to a YouTube comments page. That's my life all the time."

But what's most interesting about doing psychic espionage stories these days is that we like telepathy as a power because we think it lets us see who people's true selves are. I think to the extent that we use our social media identities to craft a persona for ourselves, the ability to see past that makes this really interesting.

Next up, Brain Boy will be appearing in the "Project Black Sky" Free Comic Book Day special, where his life as an agent on loan to the Secret Service and his life as an employee of Albright Industries -- the company started by Captain Midnight -- will collide. Was that always the "rock and a hard place" position you wanted to put the character in?

Kind of. In the original "Brain Boy" series from the '60s, Matt was an agent of the Secret Service. And with respect to my early '60s counterparts, he was really just a generic secret agent. He was essentially a CIA agent or a James Bond-style character, and that's just not what the Secret Service does, but I thought it was an interesting idea. What if he was literally a Secret Service agent going after counterfeiters and assassins? Those are things that being psychic would assist you in the pursuit of.

With regard to Albright being brought in, [Dark Horse Publisher] Mike Richardson has got some broad bullet points for where he wants these series to go, and "Brain Boy" needed a connection to "Captain Midnight" and Albright. More than anything, Dark Horse has been great to work with because they're great at taking Column A: The Dark Horse column and Column B: The Fred column and making them a happy marriage. We found it'd be fun to make Brain Boy a defense contractor because that's really the way our government works. It allows you to have that crossover between espionage and industrial intrigue, which is what the Free Comic Book Day story ends up being all about.

So what does this story mean in terms of putting that enjoyable jerk of Brain Boy and clashing him with the classic hero that is Captain Midnight? Do you pick a side to root for as you write it?

The way I've looked at it is that it's almost the Superman/Batman dynamic because it's the superpowered guy with the non-superpowered guy. In that situation, I always tend to root for the underdog, so I do find myself rooting for Captain Midnight. He's basically a gadgeteer. He has no innate abilities of his own beyond the fact that he's really smart and good with machines. To me, that is a kind of superpower because I'm terrible with machines. [Laughs] But technically, he's the non-powered one.

Ultimately, the dynamic of the story is about, how does this underdog not only hold his own but really put the superpowered guy in his place? Brain Boy is, of course, still a dick and can still read minds -- including Jim Albright's. And Albright hates what his company has become. He hates Matt Price because aside from being unlikable, he's also an emissary of what this company has become.

We had such a great response to the first "Brain Boy" series, the sequel, "Brain Boy vs the Men from G.E.S.T.A.L.T.," will be coming out this summer, drawn by Freddie Williams II, who designed the new characters and debuted them originally in "Dark Horse Presents." Definitely watch the racks for that one.

"Captain Midnight," as written by Joshua Williamson, has dealt with that "Midnight Vs. The Company" dynamic. Have you been reading that with an eye towards what will roll into this one-shot and beyond?

Yeah. Captain Midnight is a fun, time-tossed character who's a little disappointed that he awoke in a future without jetpacks and rocket cars. That's how I've been looking at him. You'll definitely see some connectivity between the series in future installments in a way that you haven't seen before. The growing aspects of this universe will be much more clear as 2014 moves along.

You've done a few of these Free Comic Book Day stories before this one-shot. Looking at the fact that the event is widely promoted and often promoted locally by shops to new comics readers, do you feel a certain responsibility in how the story is presented?

Definitely. To me, you're not just selling Brain Boy and Captain Midnight or any of Dark Horse's characters; you're selling the idea of comics themselves. I've done enough events up and down the East Coast for Free Comic Book Day that I've seen curious people coming in. And even if you convert a small number of those folks into regular comic readers, you've done a huge job in expanding the reader base. For me, if I've got a Captain Midnight comic to do I want -- planes and action and super gorillas and crap blowing up -- almost the most Michael Bay experience you can give people. I essentially want "The Avengers" in 22 pages. That's really what I'm trying to do in this particular story.

Well, when you're talking about the kind of thing that only comics can do, what's better than a giant, talking monkey?

Right! There's a long history of super apes in comics because they're awesome. Ape-X was a character from Dark Horse's Comics Greatest World line, so I updated him and put him into this mythology in a new way. Soon, you'll start to see more and more of Comics Greatest World creep into "Project Black Sky." Obviously, Ghost and X and those characters come from Comics Greatest World, but you'll be seeing even more of them all very soon.

So what was the overarching mythology goal with the FCBD one-shot, outside its big, bombastic action angle?

There are certain things we want to seed. The idea of Project Black Sky is obviously hugely important to everything coming this year, and even though it's been mentioned in passing in "Captain Midnight," you'll learn even more about its relationship to the heroes and the White House in the course of the story.

Michael Broussard is your artist on this book. What's he bring to the table in terms of achieving both the short and long term goals?

He's fantastic. It's really delivering that big feel. I wouldn't call his art photorealistic, but it's kind of painterly expressionistic in that cinematic way. We get to blow up Las Vegas, which is awesome. It's good character interaction, government intrigue and overall a cocktail of entertainment that'll just explode in your face. [Laughs]

Meanwhile, you're also launching "Conan the Avenger" come April. I wanted to start by asking you about that title. Robert E. Howard's character has had a number of sobriquets over the years. What made "Avenger" the one that worked for your take on Conan?

The reboot/renaming was an internal Dark Horse decision -- I thought I was writing "Conan the Barbarian" #26! But I don't mind it. I think renumbering is going to be the New Normal, just like a TV show renumbers the episodes with each new season. And definitely, as we transfer from Brian's vision to mine, it's enough of a tone shift to warrant the new #1.

The last Conan series was a longer adaptation of a single tale from the original canon. How are you looking to switch things up here? Does this take place at a definitive point in the Howard timeline, or are you branching out a bit?

Ever since Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord began the Dark Horse "Conan" series years and years ago, the series has followed the "Dark Storm" Chronology of Conan's life as determined by REH scholar Dale Rippke (you can check it out here). My story is the one that direct follows "Queen of the Black Coast" on the timeline, an untitled fragment usually called "The Snout in the Dark." What Dark Horse creators have tried to do is to weave from these disparate stories a comprehensive narrative of Conan's life.

So when my first arc, "Shadows Over Kush," opens, Conan is broken-hearted and wallowing in booze in the capital city of the Black Kingdom, mourning the lost of his pirate queen. But he doesn't have too long to mope about because he's quickly dragged into palace intrigue involving scheming noblewomen, terrifying witchcraft and a loathsome monster that will test his fighting skills to the utmost.

Oh, and there are zombies. Lots and lots of zombies.

Overall, what's your general history with Conan, and how does that inform this run? Is there an ideal Conan story for you?

You know, I had never read a single Robert E. Howard story before Dark Horse asked me to adapt "People of the Black Circle" with Ariel Olivetti. But I quickly devoured them, and fell completely in love. Once I got hired to do the regular series, I read the entire Dark Horse run. There are some great comics in there.

I also really enjoyed Brian Wood's run, his emphasis on giving Belit and Conan equal weight. She'll still be a presence in this book -- how, I probably shouldn't give away for fear of spoilers -- so fans of that run should definitely stick around for this one.

That said, however, Brian is obviously no big fan of monsters and magic. I love monsters and magic, so there's going to ample helpings of both in these arcs. And, of course, the kind of exciting action and swordplay we've come to expect from a "Conan" comic.

On the collaborator front, I'm not very familiar with Brian Ching's work. What's he bring to the table in terms of hard drinking, sword swinging monster fightin?

He really brings the gritty primitiveness of Conan's world to life, and he's doing a great job with the acting, as well as some terrific character designs. I love comics artists who provide a lot of personality to their creations -- and that definitely describes Brian to a T.

Stay tuned to CBR for more from the "Year of the Horse," Fred Van Lente and more!

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