By Brigid Alverson | Publishers Weekly

Free Comic Book Day issue.

Free Comic Book Day issue.

The superhero comics of DC and Marvel dominate the direct market retail channel and these days the box office as well. In a marketplace crowded with works by The Big Two, is there room for another superhero universe, let alone another superhero publisher? Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson thinks so.

Dark Horse, a major independent comics publisher with a wide ranging list of titles, creator-owned works and licensed properties, has launched a new line of superhero comics under the umbrella Project Black Sky for a very simple reason: To draw in more readers. “We have been well established in market share for some time,” he said. “We want to expand our readership in the comic market, and what’s the biggest percentage of sales? It’s superheroes.”

That’s something of a shift for Dark Horse, which is best known as the home of creator-owned series such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, as well as licensed comics such as their multiple Star Wars titles (although they will lose that license at the end of the year). Indeed, Dark Horse isn’t following the standard superhero template: They have put together an array of characters with different real-world origins and brought them into the same universe, and they have woven in social media as well, with a blog and Twitter that drop hints about what’s going on in the comics. Because these series are starting fresh, readers don’t have to catch up on a complicated backstory to fully understand the stories.

ghostProject Black Sky is a superhero universe that currently encompasses seven ongoing series: Captain Midnight, Skyman, X, Ghost, Brain Boy, Occultist, and Blackout. Each series can be read independently, but the stories also cross over into one overarching tale. The comics started rolling out with the release of Captain Midnight #0 last June, but the collected editions are just starting to hit bookstore shelves. The first volumes of Captain Midnight and X were released earlier this year, and volume 1 of Brain Boy is due out at the end of April. The creative lineup includes a number of writers and artists with Big Two experience, including Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel), Joshua Hale Fialkov (Marvel Ultimates), and Phil Noto (X-23).

The superheroes themselves are a varied lot. Captain Midnight and Skyman date back to the 1940s, and Brain Boy had a short run in the 1960s. All came from different publishers, but Dark Horse has updated them and brought them into the same universe. Ghost and X first appeared in Dark Horse’s 1990s superhero imprint Comics’ Greatest World, while The Occultist and Blackout are newer characters. In addition to the Project Black Sky comics, Dark Horse has published collected editions of the original Brain Boy and Captain Midnight comics.

Although these characters may come from different places in publishing terms, they are now drawn together into the same universe under Project Black Sky. “We think these characters need to live in the same world so we can get traction for them,” said Richardson. “It’s very hard to get attention for a single superhero comic that lives by itself in this crowded space.” The characters will also have some depth to them, but without the elaborate continuity of long-running superhero series. “We have characters that have lives, and what they do impacts their lives,” Richardson said.

'Skyman Vol. 1: The Right Stuff,' the trade paperback.

‘Skyman Vol. 1: The Right Stuff,’ the trade paperback.

Dark Horse has already launched a big promotional push to comic shops, sending digital copies of Captain Midnight to retailers and having creators call the stores. There’s a Free Comic Book Day Project Black Sky giveaway written by Fred Van Lente and Dark Horse has brought in an outside firm, Superfan Promotions, to produce a social media campaign around the series. Outside the direct market, promotion is focused on independent bookstores, along with Amazon and the Dark Horse Digital online store, where the publisher is looking to find new readers. Dark Horse editor-in-chief Scott Allie calls the line “a group of superhero books you can jump into that doesn’t require you to have 20 years of backstory.”

“We have done all sorts of superheroes in the past—Umbrella Academy, Grendel, characters that are pretty much superheroes but a bit left of center,” Allie said. Project Black Sky, on the other hand, aims for the traditional superhero audience, including both current and lapsed readers. “We have more characters on the horizon,” Richardson said. “We have dipped our toe into the superhero waters in the past, and this time we are diving in and we are committed to it.”