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.”