St Louis, Missouri-based publisher Lion Forge Comics launched the start of a shared superhero universe known as "Catalyst Prime" this past May with a Free Comic Book Day one-shot issue co-written by Christopher Priest and senior editor Joe Illidge (known to CBR readers as the writer of "The Mission" column), with art from Marco Turini and Jessica Kholine.
From that grand opening, the publisher plans to launch one new series every month for the next seven months, starting in May with Noble and continuing this month with Accell, out now from the creative team of writer Joe Casey and artist Damion Scott.
It's a huge new venture for the publisher, and one which lands them into a marketplace directly against the long-standing connected universes of companies like Marvel, DC Comics and Valiant Entertainment. What makes Catalyst Prime something new, different, and interesting? CBR conducted a roundtable interview to find out everything about the launch, speaking to: Alex de Campi, writer of Astonisher; Amy Chu, writer of Summit, Brandon Thomas, writer of Noble, Damion Scott, artist for Accell, Joe Casey, writer for Incidentals, Kino and Accell and Ray-Anthony Height, artist for Superb.
CBR: What interested you in the idea of working with Lion Forge as a part of Catalyst Prime?
Joe Casey: Any chance I get to write comic books, I'm usually down for. They're my first love, after all. Plus, I've known the guys who run Lion Forge for a few years now and I think they're committed to doing good work that has real impact, which is something else I can definitely get behind.
Damion Scott: Joe Illidge was a big part of the decision. I worked with Joe on Batgirl and we've maintained a steady relationship over the years since. I trust his taste and sensibilities in comic art and I was sure that with him at the helm we could do some great work. Joe Casey's scripts sealed the deal -- he sets up a lot of great visual opportunities. I'm having the same kind of fun that I had working with Kelley Puckett on Batgirl. I think we're gonna be a awesome team.
Also, Lion Forge seemed like a good place to just focus on developing my work with a bit more creative control than I would get at the big two. I wanna grow and develop as an artist -- it’s hard if not impossible to do that at some publishers. They sorta box you in. Lion Forge allows me the freedom I need to do my thing. I'm grateful for the opportunity and plan to stick around for a while.
Alex de Campi: To be honest, it was the editorial team. I don't do a lot of work for hire (I have too much creator-owned stuff going on to bother chasing after work I don't own), and when I do, it's only for editors I know and trust. The team on Lion Forge was a dream -- good people with a ton of experience, who really care about what they are doing and actually edit.
Ray-Anthony Height: I had already heard a little buzz about it, but it wasn't until it was announced at NYCC that I was fully aware of what was happening and who was attached. It wasn't too long after that Joe gave me a call and approached me to join the team. I have to admit, it was one of the most exciting conversations I've had in my entire career. Catalyst Prime was a movement in both diversity and making great comics and I wanted to be part of that.
Amy Chu: I feel Lion Forge has a commitment to diversity in stories, characters and creative teams that is genuine and unparalleled in the superhero comics space.
From DC to Valiant, there’s no shortage of interconnected universes in superhero comics. What do you think marks Catalyst Prime out as something different?
De Campi: There's a lack of real courage in the other interconnected universes. Management are so married to characters, and so afraid of seriously looking beyond what is seen as a "core" fanbase (e.g., straight white dudes) that there's this pathetic stagnation with only tenuous and ill-supported efforts to ingratiate themselves with an audience representative of the people passing by their office building every day on the street.
Even in newer universes with a lot of diversity on the page, there's almost zero diversity writing or drawing those characters. Of course the irony is that this misperception of fanbase is a historically recent phenomenon, from when comics moved to specialist stores. Genre comics full of new ideas and new characters (detective, true crime, romance, weird tales, horror) used to be the norm. We used to love the new, and now the industry as a whole fears it.
What Lion Forge is doing is just common sense. They have started off with a universe that looks like my friends group. That looks like the world today. And, most importantly, that is written and drawn by people with a tremendous amount of experience in comics who are also diverse. It ain't just lip-service, because we can see that. Audiences aren't dumb, no matter how much naysayers complain that we don't "understand" the way comics works. The opposite is true: we understand all too well what you're trying to do, and we don't like it.
Scott: I think it’s the focus on the individual books. Often with big crossovers, books get lost in the mess of having to tie everything together. Catalyst Prime seems to have been designed in a way that protects the integrity of the single comic book. It’s a difficult thing to do, but so far it’s been well executed.
Casey: Time will tell how "different" we are, but I know we're all conscientious content creators and I think our individual voices will be coming through loud and clear. For me, that's something different right there. I know I'm personally invested in giving the books I'm writing a voice all their own and that's a good first step in setting us apart from the pack. As far as the universe we're building, our best hope is that it develops organically, that we don't force it in any way. That's always the big danger with these launches.
Height: Honestly, I feel Catalyst Prime fills the void that Milestone left. It may not be apparent to some, but that is a pretty big void. Off the top, Catalyst Prime feels more reflective of the current landscape of diversity in the U.S. and it is built that way from the ground up instead of retroactively. It's an original tapestry with limitless potential where anyone from any walk of life can become a hero.
With the opportunity to start something and build it from the ground up, what have you most enjoyed about your series as an opportunity to create something original and distinctly your own?
Chu: I don't have to worry about the idea “will it fly with editorial if I try something outside the box?”
Brandon Thomas: Most of the foundation for Noble was already in place, like David’s name and power set, and basic personality, but the door was thrown wide open in other more important areas. Chiefly, in developing a strong supporting cast, and a functioning rogues' gallery, which are always critical details in making a superhero book really sing. David’s wife, Astrid Allen-Powell, has quickly turned into the co-lead of the book, and without saying too much, will have a major presence in the Catalyst Prime Universe far past the pages of Noble.
She’s truly taken on a life of her own in every subsequent script, and her presence and perspective makes David a stronger and more relatable character, especially since the book begins with him suffering from amnesia, which is a really easy way to inadvertently disconnect the reader from his worldview and POV.
So essentially, there was a faint outline already down, but I’ve been able to fill that in by adding additional characters, obstacles, and experiences, many of which will travel outside the book and do other cool things. Very honored to be trusted with something so pivotal, and it’s definitely a new thing for me that I hope lasts for a long, long time.
Casey: Right now, I'm writing three series in the line, so taking on that particular workload challenge was a big part of the appeal for me. It's been a while since I've had this many work-for-hire gigs going at once so I did what any historically-minded comics pro would do in this situation: I treated it like I was a Marvel Bullpen writer in the mid-1970's, writing at the speed of thought, right on the edge of my creativity, just to hit the deadlines. Felt kinda good, actually. I don't believe you should over-think superhero comics. I've been doing it long enough that I trust my instincts and I feel like the proof is in the pages, so to speak.
Scott: I enjoy developing the core character and the world around him. It’s my favorite part of storytelling. It’s always really hard to follow another artist -- no matter what, it tends to come across like a watered down version of the first take. Starting fresh gives me an opportunity to really paint the world without having to deal with the reader’s preconceived notions of what it should be. It’s all fresh.
Height: Superb, in my opinion, not only has a lot to say, but a lot to accomplish. I am so very proud and excited to be drawing the adventures of Jonah and Kayla. I enjoy drawing younger characters and we are putting two teenagers, one with Down Syndrome and the other a black female, front and center on the big stage. David [Walker] and Sheena [Howard] have crafted a fantastic story and with Le Beau Underwood, Veronica Gandini, and Deron Bennett working with me as part of the art team, I believe Superb will be a book that you won't want to miss.
De Campi: I've had a lot of fun both celebrating and subverting the tropes of my character's genre. You don't even have to do things wildly differently. Sometimes just a half step to the left is all that's needed.
One thing we’re seeing with Catalyst Prime is a real focus on characters, and telling stories not seen anywhere else. In terms of character, what were your aims and interests?
Scott: On my end i just wanted Accell to be a contemporary take on the classic superhero comic. Accell is Mexican which is kinda new in our industry, but I didn't want him to be the "Mexican" Superhero: I want him to be the All-American Superhero. It’s a little political, but I think people should feel like they belong and are represented in this country. It’s one of the more subtle statements we're making with Accell, but I think it’s important and will be appreciated.
Chu: I wanted to create characters that reflect more real world science heroes - an antidote to the geeky stereotypes that we see on mainstream media shows like Big Bang Theory.
Height: As the penciller, I want to convey the same amount of character driven story and personality I read in David and Sheena's scripts. To me, all good stories should be character driven stories. I want readers to know what Jonah, Kayla, and the rest of the cast are feeling just by expression. They should walk away feeling they have a sense of who these characters are and maybe even resonate with them by issue #4, if not sooner. That may sound like a tall order, but that's my goal.
De Campi: I wanted to portray accurately the stresses of being part of a very privileged but very toxic family, and how the diminishing of mental health issues within that family has very significant long-term ramifications on these characters' lives. Plus lots of Kirby and Ditko-esque fantasy sequences and lots of action.
Casey: When it comes to writing *any* character -- no matter what their background may be -- the main thing is honesty. If your writing is honest, then I think it will resonate with the readers. Not to mention, the best characters transcend whatever cultural boundaries that exist. For instance, icons like Superman or Spider-Man resonate, regardless of a reader's background, because for the most part they've been depicted honestly. That's why they've lasted for decades upon decades. So that's primarily what I'm interested in... writing honestly and, in doing so, hopefully writing comics for everyone.
What are your long-term goals as part of Catalyst Prime? What are you looking to bring to the line?
Thomas: Well, even past my own individual contributions, I want to see these books hit #25, then #50, etc. Longevity and sustained vibrancy is what any creator ever wants, and it makes its own statement. If that happens, it ultimately proves all of us right -- that this current industry can sustain, and embrace, and champion a fully developed multicultural superhero sci-fi universe, which looks like the world we’re living in both in through the characters and the creators.
Personally, I want to keep getting better, and help project a sense of scale and wonder to the adventures of this amazing black male superhero. To break the narrative chains (as it were) that often trap similar characters in an urban environment, and saddle them with some tragic, generic backstory. Noble is not that, and will never be that. My biggest challenge every month is coming up with a better, more exciting action scene than the one we delivered in the previous issue. Our guy has a major league power set, so he needs major league challenges to test his mettle every month, and we’re going to keep upping the ante!
Casey: I think the long term goal here is to build something that lasts. It's a big challenge, but I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we'd eventually get where we need to be. For me personally, I'm just looking to do my part in that process, to the best of my ability.
Height: For me, a visual familiarity. I want Superb readers to be excited when a new issue hits the shelves. I'm way more interested in readers being mainly invested in the adventures of Cosmosis and Amina than with the creative team behind the book. That means that if Jonah and Kayla pop up in Noble or Accell... Superb readers will pick those books up. That's a long term plan because that kind of character loyalty won't happen in a handful of issues.
Chu: I myself am looking to experiment with storytelling, and refining the craft. Certainly as a woman of color that has lived all over the country, and travelled all over the world I hope I bring some extra perspectives into the stories I create.
Scott: My hope is to bring the fresh. I think smaller publishers really need to run on the cutting edge in order to compete with the giants. That may be executed within the art or it might be executed with how the books are campaigned. I like the idea of being part of something new. I'm on board to do whatever I can to help these books stay competitive.
De Campi: Same as they are with any story I work on: a good story well told, that feels real.
The second series in the Catalyst Prime Universe, Accell, is out today from Lion Forge. To find out more about Catalyst Prime as a whole, check out their website here.