Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Books/Comics

Alchemy of the New: The Catalyst Prime Universe is Here

Let’s say you love comics. You love comics, but you’re frustrated. There are so many good independent books and small publishers that take chances and seem to keep in step with the times. You want to see that creative daring replicated in the work of the big publishing houses, with characters and story arcs that reflect the changing sensibilities and diversity of a modern world, playing out in the larger connected universes you have loved since childhood.

But it rarely seems to work very well. So many of the great iconic characters of Marvel and DC have all been created in different times. There’s too much resistance from core readership to pull them too far off center. More often than not, forays into the new and controversial get swept away by the next big universal reboot, leaving things mostly has they always have been. Innovation, true innovation, seems to progress in grudging, incremental steps that leave you bored and impatient and unsatisfied.

So you’re frustrated. You yearn for a big, epic, interconnected universe that isn’t afraid to tackle the new. One that’s more reflective of the communities and the globally aware reality we all live in now, one that builds characters around people that better represent you, and the people you know. One that’s not afraid to grapple with the modern challenges of a world you’re most familiar with. One that takes chances, one that’s built on chances.

What’s a comic lover to do?

You do the obvious thing. You make your own universe.

Well get ready for a new ride, because Lion’s Forge, the small but mighty publishing house from St Louis, is determined to do just that. With creative teams producing seven books, and plotlines planned for two years of stories and counting, they’ve gone all in on a project that is nothing short of ambitious, and not without its share of risk. Their aim is high as well as broad. The goal is to create a dynamic universe of heroes that are modern and complex, and above all represent the social and racial diversity of the current day. An attempt to craft stories and characters that reflect real-world issues, against the advent of a new superhuman dawn. It’s a bold, unapologetic bid to be the new comic book world you just may be dreaming of.

Welcome to the universe of Catalyst Prime.

But will it work? We’ll have to see. There’s a history, after all, of small comics publishing houses trying to introduce new universal pantheons of their own to compete in a marketplace dominated by DC and Marvel. Some have been successful. Few remain.

Valiant Comics is the most obvious contender these days. They’ve been steadily forging the Valiant Universe for decades, and while the mix of titles can still feel like something of a hodge-podge, it’s all still quite alive and kicking. Image Comics helped usher in a new era of creator-owned comics in the early nineties, and for a time the books of Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Universe were all the rage. For a time. Milestone Comics featured the first all-African-American lineup of books with their short-lived Dakotaverse. Dynamite Entertainment made a brief splash with Alex Ross in Project Superpowers. And who remembers Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse? Anyone? No? That’s a shame.

Other big name creators have thrown their hats forcefully into the world-building ring over the years. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, Robert Kirkman’s Invincible, and Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, all come to mind. Alan Moore, of course. But these creators, and others like them, have generally relied on a stand-alone series or title book to work their magic.

Many popular projects have since been bought up by the big two, and DC in particular has a track-record for assimilating other properties into their own continuity. Blue Beetle and Captain Atom of Charlton Comics are now regular cannon, and of course the Captain Marvel family has been a staple for decades now. Just recently Grant Morrison laid out the definitive DC Multiverse in Multiversity, with no shortage of different re-imagined Earths to choose from.

Neither DC, nor Marvel Comics have been shy about flexing their creative muscles into the eternal promise of alternate realities. While DC seems enamored with Infinite reboots, Marvel has given us Supreme squadrons, Ultimate revisions, a reality-spanning Captain Britain Corps, dimension-hopping mutant Exiles, Spider-Worlds, Venom-Worlds, you name it. And of course, they also gave us one of the earliest interconnected world-building exercises to make a splash back in the eighties, with the launch of their very own, dearly remembered, New Universe.

There are actually a number of similarities between Catalyst Prime and the New Universe projects. Each spin outward from the modern era of their readers, and each depict characters struggling to come to terms with extraordinary and unexpected transformation – the world’s, as well as their own. Each benefits from a full roster of books, designed concurrently, and populated against a common backstory. And to accomplish this, each project has a rather notable team of industry talent behind it, to pull the whole thing off.

Celebrated Marvel editor Jim Shooter helmed the New Universe project. For Catalyst Prime, Lion Forge has tapped Joe Illidge. With a resume that includes time at DC as well as working closely on the Milestone Dakotaverse project, Illidge is no stranger to world-building, and he has a passion for seeing comics populated with the diversity we deserve. With writers on board like Brandon Thomas, Amy Chu, Alex de Campi and David Walker, as well as superstar Joe Casey for the buzz, and with artists such as Marco Turini, Damian Scott, Ray-Anthony Height, and PopMhan, along with Phil Jimenez and John Cassady doing alternate covers, Illidge appears just as determined to see that diversity in his bullpen. That can only be a good thing.

There’s another thing the Catalyst Prime Universe shares with Marvels’ New Universe.

A single catalytic, world-changing Event that kicks everything into motion by seeding the world’s population with pure superhuman potential. In the New Universe, that catalyst was a mysterious worldwide cosmic energy surge known as the White Event. The Catalyst Prime Event hinges on the no less mysterious – if unfortunately more hokey – crisis of a giant radioactive meteor hurtling through space on a deadly collision course with Earth. The story of what happens when a small crew of astro-scientists undertake a daring suicide run to prevent world-wide catastrophe, is told in the very first book to launch the series, a stand-alone intro to the Catalyst Prime Universe named, somewhat unoriginally, Catalyst Prime: The Event.

That comic, released in May 2017 on Free Comic Book Day, was plotted and scripted by Illidge in collaboration with industry heavyweight Christopher Priest. For that reason alone it’s worth picking it up, though it’s also the necessary primer for all the stories that follow. Priest’s signature style, with no narrative explication, only a sequence of dialogue laden scenes, which bounce back and forth between the present-day action of mission launch, and flashback snapshots into the lives of our heroes, is an engaging bit of character-driven storytelling, complete with a surprise twist ending which promises to be a big problem for our heroes going forward.

What follows, and what has been playing out for the last seven months now, is a rollout of Catalyst Prime’s seven title books.

Seven titles, one new title per month, with seven creative teams telling seven very different tales against the larger backstory of what exactly happens in the days and months that follow the Event. In keeping with the narrative approach Priest and Illidge lay down with their opening one-shot, that backstory is revealed piecemeal throughout the books, in glimpses and circumstances that range across the post-Event CPU. The reader is left to figure it all out, like a great big jigsaw puzzle, by investing themselves more or less fully into the roll-out, and letting the picture take shape as you go.

Which is cool in concept, though to be frank, it leaves a lot to be desired at times. I give Illidge and his crew points for taking the creative risk, which after all seems to be a big part of the idea behind this whole project. It takes chutzpah to bank the success of such a big project on an untested approach like this. Trouble is, it is a big project, and with so much going on, not having a clearly laid out overarching narrative from the get go, leaves too much feeling disjointed and confusing, particularly at the beginning stages.

Sure seven months in, that’s beginning to come together, but you’re relying heavily on a dedicated audience to stick it out until it gets that far, which in today’s market, is a lot to hope for with any new single title, much less for seven. I can only hope the gamble pays off for them.

Still, that cohesion is finally coming into focus, so as we roll into 2018 you might want to pick up some of these titles, if you haven’t yet already. It’s pretty clear the year ahead is building to something fun, and my guess is there’s a lot of potential for that to feel satisfying. It may even get damn exciting.

With that in mind I want to provide a brief introduction to the stories and characters of the Catalyst Prime Universe. In the interest of getting you up to speed and cutting through some of the possible confusion there will be a few spoilers here. I’ll keep that to a minimum, but if you want to start fresh from the beginning, or if the purist in you wants to respect the creative experience the project is going for, I’ll just advise you to stop here and go pick up the first issues, along with The Event, and dive right in. I won’t be offended. Fair warning.

For those of you still with me, I’ll start by explaining that things do not exactly go as planned when our intrepid team of astronauts are sent into space to intercept the giant asteroid that threatens the planet. The two main consequences of this being, firstly, that six brave souls are lost to space, presumably dead, and secondly, that the meteor, once an extinction level threat, rains down upon an unsuspecting earth in a hail of smaller meteor fragments. Fragments which become responsible for what turns out to be something more like an evolutionary event instead.

The set up pure science fiction pulp, with predictable results. The startling effects of the wide-flung meteor shards, are matched only by the damage they wreak. Turns out that both are rather extensive. For some reason, it takes until the first issue of the seventh title, seven months after the set up from The Event, for us to learn that whole sections of North America have been obliterated in the meteor shower.

What doesn’t take seven months to discover, is that those exposed to the weird energies of the space rock, have been gifted with impossible power and abilities – or, you know, cursed, depending on how you feel about it. And, something else: turns out our martyred team of first responders are not so dead after all. They’ve somehow returned to earth, each one as changed as the planet they have saved.

That storyline is picked up straight away in the first of the Catalyst Prime Universe titles, Noble.

In keeping with the spirit of the CPU creative intentions, David Powell, Catalyst Prime’s premiere hero, is African American. He’s an accomplished engineer, and a family man, with the soul of a hero and instincts of a warrior. As one of The Event’s heroic crew of astronauts, David makes the ultimate sacrifice for his planet, only to resurface a year later with incredible power, but under circumstances that have him on the run from unscrupulous forces intent on controlling him and harnessing his gifts for their own ends.

As a black man, that story, with underlying themes of exploitation and an ongoing struggle for freedom, take on added weight, as well as possibility. And as the story progresses, writer Brandon Thomas (Horizon, Voltron), ties the saga to issues of the present day, just to be sure we don’t miss the point.

It takes a while for David to get his bearings and to take steps to reclaim his life – and for us too, unfortunately. That’s because Thomas, presumably taking his cue from Illidge and Priest, attempts to tell David’s story with pictures and dialogue alone. It’s a tough way to launch a book with so much riding on it, when so much is unclear at the outset. But seven issues in, and the pay-off has begun to take shape. With more characters, more dialogue, more plot twists, and more overall background to add to its momentum, it’s much easier to be invested in David’s story and its outcome.

Doesn’t hurt that artist Roger Robinson’s (Batman: Gotham Knights, Azrael: Agent of the Bat) clean lines and layouts help to tell a good story along the way. Doesn’t hurt to get Noble into costume either. It’s a good design.

But it does take a little while.

Along the way, month after month, four additional Catalyst Prime titles spin up for launch, each with storylines set in a world irrevocably changed from the ordinary into the extraordinary. Even if we’re not entirely clear at first just how changed, or, just how extraordinary. It’s not until the six and seventh books that we pick up the narratives of any of the other of our missing astronauts, and by then it’s not much surprise to find them alive and similarly imbued with remarkable power.

Summit is the seventh and last CPU title launch. Written by Amy Chu (Poison Ivy, Red Sonja) and drawn by Jan Duursema (Star Wars), Summit features Valentina Resnick-Baker, genius savant astrophysicist, who leaves behind a loving wife when she signs up for the mission to save her planet, fully expecting never to return. Instead she wakes up atop a mountain in Tanzania, unscathed and naked, in a crater of her own making. For some reason, she stubbornly avoids the evident implications of her survival for a full year, retreating from society and from public scrutiny, ostensibly to mourn the somewhat ironic and sudden passing of her partner. But there is much more going on here, and it all finally becomes uncontainable, promising changes that are likely to galvanize a new cycle for our heroes as we head into 2018.

Meanwhile, fellow mission astronaut Alistair Meath is dealing with his own difficulties, and they are unusual to say the least. Meath is a British MI6 agent. Following the Event, his superiors presume him dead, until it becomes clear that his body has been recovered on earth and being held in a secret location without authority. So they send a team to get him back, and then things get weird.

Joe Casey is at the helm for K.I.N.O., which stands, naturally enough, for Kinetic! Impulse! Neoterrestrial! Operative! Yep.

If that sound a bit much (neoterrestrial?), never fear, Casey has the rationale for all this well in hand – in fact it’s apparently a premise he’s been working on for years. Catalyst Prime and Alistair Meath have just given him the perfect opportunity to play it out, and Jefte Palo’s (Civil War II, Black Panther) outstanding pencils provide just the right pop. Long-time fans of superhero comics will appreciate the way K.I.N.O.’s story develops, and with intrigue, international adventure, a nifty power set, and a truly unusual take on a nefarious mad-scientist nemesis, it’s clear this book has great potential going forward.

Of the four remaining books Casey is responsible for two others as well. The first is Accell, the second Catalyst Prime title to launch, and it seems meant to be a primary flagship book like Noble. It’s a very different take on the new CPU however, and so far, wholly separate from the larger backstory.

Accell is clearly meant to appeal to the millennial reader. It features Daniel DeSantos, a young Latino from L.A., an ADHD kid suddenly operating at the speed of thought – with some rather spectacular (and alarming) side-effects. Daniel has the instincts of a hero, but the priorities of a young man with no focus, no direction, and no obligations to anyone but himself.

His circumstances are pure comic-pop: he gets his powers after he finds a glowing meteor shard and stashing it under his bed for a few nights. The storylines Casey gives our hero are similarly simplistic, often to the point of being silly. But I think that’s intentional. Casey’s doesn’t appear to be attempting anything wildly original here – Accell is a hero that could show up literally in any other comic universe – he simply seems to want to write something that will appeal to the sensibilities (and attention span?) of his audience.

Crafting an iconic Latino American superhero sounds like a no-brainer given the market potential, but surprisingly few have attempted it. Here the effort is complemented with the brash illustrations of artist Damian Scott (Batgirl, Batman)and bold choices of colorist of John Rausch. It lends the book a loud, almost psychedelic style. Some won’t like that. It may very well do the trick for those its intended for, however.

Even with broad brush strokes DeSantos is a character who’s all-too believable, and it’s easy to like him. Casey brings all of his wild, imaginative, storytelling chops to the game, quickly fleshing out a character you want to cheer for, and shake hard, simultaneously.

Casey’s third book, The Incidentals is a team book, and is also targeted at a younger crowd.

It depicts the coming together of a disparate group of young men and women, thrown together by the shared experience of a nearby meteor strike off the coast of California. But these Millennial heroes are hardly on the same page otherwise. Casey seems intent on exploring themes of moral ambiguity, distrust, and conflict in ways we haven’t quite seen in a superhero team before. This ain’t your daddy’s X-men in other words. At this point it’s anyone’s guess where it’s all going, but you can bet Casey plans to have some fun along the way.

A second team book is Superb. It centers on a cast of adolescents in a small town suddenly run amok with super-powered activity. The leads are a young black girl, and a white boy with downs syndrome. Co-authored by David Walker (Luke Cage) and comic academic Dr. Sheena Howard, this updated Buffy-esque set-up, is at once groundbreaking and hard to anticipate. Like many of the scenarios of this new CPU, the advent of the extraordinary into the lives of the ordinary, comes with heavy, even grim, consequences. Like other teenage-centered books that have come before it, Superb tackles themes of coming of age, finding one’s self, and learning to shoulder responsibility. But the disruptions these young people are faced with are far from simple, and far from over.

To round it all out is Astonisher. Written by author and pop media maven Alex De Campi (MayDay, Grindhouse) with the gorgeous penciling of artist Pop Mhan (The Flash, He-Man) Astonisher is the CPU’s foray into the astral plane.

Our hero, Magnus Attarian, is an industrialist wunderkind who survives his own deep space disaster that leaves slivers of the meteor embedded in his brain… and powers that compel him to operate in the realms of the psyche. The story is a touch hard to follow at first, with so much going on, but it’s a fascinating addition to the mix, and I have to give props to the idea of an astral-warrior who comes from a family that is both extremely wealthy and extremely dysfunctional. Think of a hero dealing with the dramas of the Trump family, or the Kardashians. That provides a lot of raw material to explore, particularly if they are inclined to dive deep. I can only hope De Campi and artist Pop Mhan rise to the challenge and do it justice. I suspect they will.

So far we haven’t seen anything else of Christopher Priest again since The Event. He’s been busy at DC after all. But there’s hints that this will change at some point, and he’s open about his role as a creative consultant to the entire project. There are certainly clues, particularly now, that everything is heading to an important culmination, one which seems likely to pull the loose threads and plotlines of all these books into a truly interconnected climax.

One thing is for sure. Illidge and Priest and all the other creators, appear to have a very clear handle on where they’re going with everything, even if they’re happy to feed that out slowly to their readers. Hate that or like that, there’s a lot to like about the project overall, and a lot of reason to jump in and ride along to see where it’s going. Particularly if from the get go, you’re invested in the idea, and want to see it succeed.

In the end their success will depend on how well the Catalyst Prime creators succeed in developing characters that you believe in and can root for. And while it’s all a bit of a jumble now, there’s a lot of potential for that going forward.  So grab the Noble and Accell TPs, pick up K.I.N.O., go find a copy of The Event. See what appeals to you, and consider supporting Lion Forge in their dream for a better universe.

It’s an exciting effort, and it’s bold, and it’s new.

And after all, what else are comics for?

 

Click to comment

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

DISCLAIMER

Forces of Geek is protected from liability under the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) and “Safe Harbor” provisions.

All posts are submitted by volunteer contributors who have agreed to our Code of Conduct.

FOG! will disable users who knowingly commit plagiarism, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement.

Please contact us for expeditious removal of copyrighted/trademarked content.

SOCIAL INFLUENCER POLICY

In many cases free copies of media and merchandise were provided in exchange for an unbiased and honest review. The opinions shared on Forces of Geek are those of the individual author.

You May Also Like

Books/Comics

Written by Scott Snyder  Art by Tula Lotay Presented by Best Jackett Press Published by Dark Horse Comics   Barnstormers: A Ballad of Love...

Books/Comics

Written by Roberto Recchioni  Art by Werther Dell’Edera Covers by Gigi Cavenago Published by DC Comics   So, this was a lot better than...

Comics

DC has announced a new four-issue DC Black Label comic book miniseries launching in September, Plastic Man No More! The Eisner-nominated creative team of...

Books/Comics

Written by J. Michael Straczynski Art by ACO Published by AWA Studios   Now, that was refreshing! This nasty piece of work combines a...