Fred Van Lente Reveals ‘Project Black Sky’ Secrets At Dark Horse [Interview]
If you’ve been keeping up with Dark Horse’s line of superhero comics, then you’ve already heard of Project Black Sky — both the shadowy government agency ostensibly meant to protect Earth from alien threats, and the upcoming event tying in Brain Boy, Captain Midnight, Skyman and more. If have, then you already know that as sinister government organizations go, those folks are pretty creepy, right down to their Latin motto, translated as “Who if not us?”
But to find out just how sinister they are, I spoke to writer Fred Van Lente about his approach to unifying Dark Horse’s disparate characters, the stories he couldn’t tell, and why he reunited with artist Steve Ellis to reveal the secret history of Project Black Sky in a free webcomic.
ComicsAlliance: Am I right in saying that Project Black Sky is a term for the overarching universe that’s being built through the Dark Horse Heroes?
Fred Van Lente: Let’s say yes. That’s a perfectly fine way to describe it. Practically speaking, it’s a mysterious, shadowy government agency in the world of the Dark Horse heroes, and the heroes themselves do not know if they are heroes or villains. As we saw in the Free Comic Book Day issue, the U.S. Government doesn’t entirely understand if they’re good or bad.
CA: And you’ve been revealing the history of the organization as a webcomic, as well.
FVL: Yes. You can go to ProjectBlackSky.net right now, and we have our current strip right now called The Launch. We’re sort of doing a Twilight Zone of superhero origins, where all of them have different endings. The Launch was inspired largely by the online reaction I saw to an actor I admire named Michael B. Jordan being cast in a certain superhero story, so the story kind of comes out of that.
CA: Right. You have an unauthorized rocket launching in 1961…
FVL: On June 16th, 1961.
CA: Just like how the first installment of the comic has a rocket crashing on a farm in 1938.
FVL: On October 30th.
CA: I don’t think I’m blowing anyone’s mind when I say that I think you’re working with a few analogue characters.
FVL: There’s bits of comics history going on there, just a tad! Very much so.
CA: So what are you going to do when you get to the ’90s?
FVL: You will be pleased by the answer to that question.
CA: It’s interesting to me for a couple of reasons. I wrote a while back wondering why more major publishers, publishers of superhero comics in particular, didn’t take advantage of webcomics. Using that as the launching point for what’s coming out with Project Black Sky, even though it’s coming out of stuff like Brain Boy and Captain Midnight, makes a lot of sense to me. For the reader, there’s no risk to try it out.
CA: It’s all up there right now. Was that something you were interested in doing that you brought to the table, or did Dark Horse come to you with the idea?
FVL: Looking at it from a creative standpoint, one of the challenges with doing something like this is the same as if you’re doing a zero issue. It’s the classic problem of mandatory supplemental material, right? You’re using it to drive people to the line, but at the same time, you don’t want people who don’t read it to be lost if they pick up the actual physical comics. You don’t want the free stuff to overwhelm the ticket-buyers.
So the challenge here was to do something that would be super fun for the online reader and make them intrigued about the Dark Horse line as a whole, but was not so integral to the universe that if you didn’t read it online, you wouldn’t think “wait, what’s going on?” So I hit on the idea of the multiverse.
In Archer & Armstrong, we did a lot with this, particularly in the Eternal Warrior storyline. There’s a great science writer named Charles Seife who wrote books called Decoding the Universe and Zero that talk about the multiverse as essentially a physics and mathematical construct, as opposed to just “there’s guys with goatees and they’re evil!” Although, there is that world in the actual multiverse, but anyways. I wanted to deal with the multiverse from a standpoint of, in an infinite multiverse, any combination of matter is possible, right? It’s not only possible, it exists, because that’s the only way to have an infinite multiverse. I wanted to take the multiversal concept that’s so typical with superhero comics, and make that the foundation for an actual superhero universe.
The Launch, the story that’s being serialized online that we’re about one twentieth of the way through, lays the groundwork for all that. It differentiates the Dark Horse universe from other superhero universes in saying why the Dark Horse Universe is not the way other superhero universes are. Project Black Sky, the agents of Project Black Sky, are a big part of that. They’re out there to whack the other superheroes before they come into existence.
CA: Is that a function of having to blend a lot of characters into this Dark Horse universe? You’ve been working on Brain Boy for a while, but he’s an old Dell character from the ’50s.
FVL: Early ’60s.
CA: Oh, excuse me.
FVL: That’s all right. I’d never heard of him before I was asked to write it, so I don’t expect there to be any Brain Boy experts out there who are going to correct me. [Laughs]
CA: But there’s also Captain Midnight, that Joshua Williamson is writing, who’s another older character, and then you have X, who was one of the Dark Horse original superheroes from the ’90s.
FVL: Comics’ Greatest World.
CA: So is this multiversal approach a function of taking these disparate sources and hammering them to fit in a single world?
FVL: Yeah, definitely. A lot of it comes from inspiration from stuff like Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s Astro City and a lot of other, if you’ll forgive the term, “off-brand” superhero universes. We know the archetypes that have remained, right? Whether it’s Batman or Spider-Man or something else. When I was younger, it irritated me that the most popular superheroines were Spider-Woman and Batgirl and Supergirl, just Male Hero With “Girl” Stuck On The End. But then you sort of realize that Captain Marvel and a lot of these other characters are female expressions of an archetype that sort of transcends gender.
What we’re doing a lot in Project Black Sky is that the Project Black Sky agency deals with confronting these archetypes in our specific world. The third story, which will probably show up sometime in late June, is called The Ring, so you can probably figure out which hero we’re dealing with there. Each story has a different hero attached to it, but manifests itself in a permutation that’s unexpected, hopefully. That gets back to the idea that in the Multiverse, every combination of matter is not just possible, but guaranteed.
CA: For you as a writer, what was the challenge like to figure out which archetypes you wanted to deal with and which ones you had to pass up? Which ones got gunned down in a space crib?
FVL: The poor bastards who got gunned down in space cribs did not have their own Dark Horse ongoing. [Laughs] I had one story called The Cave, I’m sure many of you will spend lots of time figuring out which hero that was about.
CA: I have a guess.
FVL: That’s the one I wish I’d gotten to, and maybe I will, but yeah. It was heroes that I personally had a lot of affinity for. Characters who aren’t necessarily superheroes, but who are Big Two characters sort of made it in there, but basically, I just thought of what the origins were that I could re-tell in an interesting, exciting and surprising way to throw light on the Dark Horse universe, but that in themselves are interesting stories.
A test pilot confronted by aliens and the ramifications of that is an interesting story, regardless of whether it ends up the way it does in regular superhero canon. And with Project Black Sky, you have the implication of stuff like Project Blue Book, so I was trying to keep it to aliens. And as I’m sure you know, Aliens and Superheroes are intimately combined genres. There’s a lot to work with there.
CA: Was that limiting, to confine it to the sci-fi related heroes?
FVL: That’s probably why The Cave got cut, because it doesn’t have anything to do with aliens. Although, in the ’50s, get Jack Schiff in here and he’ll tell you otherwise. But again, there are permutations across various worlds, it’s the same kind of concept as a sort of Silver Age thing.
It was really the exact opposite. I only had X pages to work with per my contract, so I had to cut a lot of stuff away. But we did get a lot of ’90s jokes into the last story, you’ll be happy to hear. Feet. Feet play a major part in the last story, set in the ’90s.
CA: One of the other things about the webcomic is that it’s partially done by you and Steve Ellis.
FVL: Steve did the story called The Field, and The Ring. Michael Broussard, who did the Free Comic Book Day book, did The Launch, which is running now, and the last story, The Archon.
CA: Is this the first time you and Ellis have worked together since The Silencers?
FVL: I think it is, yeah.
CA: That was surprising, because The Silencers goes back to 2003, before Action Philosophers, before Hercules, before… well, anything, really.
FVL: Yes, and — pre-order now! — coming out in September is The Complete Silencers from Dark Horse.
CA: Had you two wanted to get back together and do another story for a while?
FVL: What happened was that Dark Horse was entering into this online initiative, and we were casting around for artists. Since we were working on The Silencers, and since Steve, obviously, had been so successful in this space from High Moon and everything else, let’s get Steve to draw this first story so we can show the other artists “Hey, this is what we want.” That was super fruitful, he did a great job.
If you’re dealing with a screen a day, or a screen a weekday in this sense, artists want to break the panel borders. They want to go vertical when everything has to be horizontal, because that’s the way a computer screen is. Having Steve on to show the other artists what to do was very helpful.
CA: You and Steve Ellis also did that Jack Chick tract parody, which goes back even further.
FVL: Yeah, that was 2000.
CA: When you sat down to get Project Black Sky going, did you click right back into working with him? Because, and I think this is obvious, you’ve both grown a lot as creators in the past 14 years.
FVL: Yeah, totally. The Ring has a lot of Lovecraftian elements to it, and Steve was born to draw that Cthulhu mythos stuff, so that was a huge thing there. The Ring is a fun conflation of a certain superhero who my lawyers will not let me name, the One Ring from Tolkien, and Lovecraftian outer space stuff. It’s super fun, and Steve just destroyed it. It looks great.
But yeah, it was very cool. Why We’re Here, which was the Lovecraftian tract, one of the things I love about it is that it’s on my website right now, and every year, someone retweets it a hundred times, and I get all these emails: “Are you ever going to have a paper version of this?!” And we can’t make any money on it, so, no. But one year, William Gibson tweeted it, and that was awesome. I can die a happy nerd now.
CA: So what’s the next step for Project Black Sky after the webcomic that’s running now?
FVL: The most immediate thing is the sequel to Brain Boy, which is Brain Boy: The Men From G.E.S.T.A.L.T., which comes out on May 21, pitting Matt against a bunch of crazy doomsday preppers and a shadowy psychic agency which may be opposed or may be allied to Project Black Sky. Then we have some more exciting announcements coming after that, and I think the webcomic is going to continue for the better part of 2014. We have a lot of material to get through, and it’s all pretty mind-blowing.