INTERVIEW: Priest & Illidge Forge a New Superhero Universe with Catalyst Prime

A new shared universe will enter the comic book industry this spring, shaped by creators with plenty of experience in that territory. This Free Comic Book Day, Lion Forge Comics is set to launch a new superhero shared universe dubbed "Catalyst Prime" with the "Catalyst Prime: The Event" one-shot, co-written by Christopher Priest (currently of DC Comics' "Deathstroke" and acclaimed for his work on "Black Panther," "Quantum and Woody" and more) and Joseph Illidge (Senior Editor of Catalyst Prime, a former editor at DC Comics and Milestone, and well-known to CBR readers as the writer of "The Mission" column), with art by Marco Turini and Jessica Kholinne.

This one-shot will set the stage for a new line of seven superhero books at Lion Forge, all linked to the event that unfolds on the FCBD one-shot and launching approximately once a month for the rest of 2017. Though the details of the titles haven't yet been revealed, the creators working on them have, including Brandon Thomas, Ken Lashley, Amy Chu, Alex de Campi, David F. Walker, Joe Casey, Damion Scott, Jefte Palo, Pop Mahan and Jan Duursema.

CBR spoke in-depth with Priest and Illidge about collaborating on the Free Comic Book Day one-shot, the importance of a more science-rooted superhero universe, the importance and inevitability of inclusion and diversity, Illidge's strategy for the line as a whole and what made Priest -- who has extensive experience in both Marvel and DC's shared superhero universe -- intrigued to contribute to Catalyst Prime.

CBR: Joe, obviously a new superhero universe is a major endeavor, and I know you well enough that you wouldn't be doing this if you didn't have a very specific idea of how to do things differently. What does Catalyst Prime aim to do that isn't currently found in the comics market?

Joseph Illidge: For one thing, Catalyst Prime is a superhero universe, but it's pretty rooted in science. That even goes to the initial premise, which is the suicide mission of the five astronauts that are trying to prevent the end of the world by destroying an asteroid. I don't think you can really look at any of the other superhero universes that are popular now and find a singular event from which it grew out into a line of books.

A second thing, quite frankly, is that Catalyst Prime is new. I think we're seeing an attrition of the capacity of fans' tolerance for change. I think they're exhausted. I think they're tired of the reboots of Superman. They're tired of the reboots of the Marvel Universe. It's exhausting and it's confusing. The idea that people can come into the Catalyst Prime line of books and start now, get in on the ground floor of it, I think that's exciting for people. It’s similar to the people who started watching "Arrow" and saw the DC television universe grow from one show to four. The early viewers were there at the beginning, and didn't need to have the fan vocabulary of all the other characters, because the larger world was introduced over a period of time.

Priest, what made you want to get involved with Catalyst Prime?

Christopher Priest: Certainly, an approach to superheroes that's rooted in the real world. I tend to write from a real-world perspective; I think the more grounded and realistic your world is, the better the larger-than-life elements will pop, as opposed to if the entire world itself is a little silly. A lot of this is gone now, but once upon a time, Batman could be walking down the street and people would wave to him because he's a hero -- which is unrealistic, and it's not grounded in what we do. I think Lion Forge's approach with Catalyst Prime is something that would make a fairly good prose novel, if not film, because it has a real solid science-fiction background to it, and everybody is doing things for logical reasons, rather than having to try to reverse-engineer a logical reason for Superman to be wearing a cape, or things like that.

That's what Hollywood has to do -- they take our comics and they reverse-engineer to make some sense in the real world, while Lion Forge is starting with the real world and moving from there. It's intriguing. I'm really impressed with what they're doing.

Illidge: When I was putting this together, and I chose Priest and the different writers to come on board as the Catalyst Prime writers' room, the first thing I had to do was have a creative summit. Get everyone in the same room, so we could collaborate and just vibe off of each other's neuron insanity, and bring a superhero universe to life. The Catalyst Prime Universe, the nucleus of it, was created by David Steward II, Managing Member and CEO of Lion Forge; Carl Reed, Chief Creative Officer of Lion Forge; and a group of people. I had to assemble the right people to raise and nurture this newborn child into a full-blown universe.

We had the retreat after San Diego Comic-Con last year. That's when things really started flying, and Priest's diabolical mind came into play. Everyone added ideas to the mix. That was the beginning of it. Once the writers’ room and I fleshed out the world, I brought in the artists, letterers and colorists. It was necessary and important to get the right people for the right books.

Catalyst Prime cover
"Catalyst Prime: The Event" cover by Marco Turini and Jessica Kholinne .

Which creators were at that retreat?

Illidge: It was Priest, David Walker, Sheena C. Howard, Brandon Thomas, Joe Casey, Amy Chu and Ramón Govea, who's the creator of one of the titles that Joe Casey is writing. Ramón is the creator, and he's a story consultant on that series. Alex de Campi was the final piece of the puzzle.

Let's talk about the Catalyst Prime: The Event Free Comic Book Day one-shot that everything spins out from, that the two of you wrote together. What it was like for you to collaborate on that, given that you are literally setting the tone for a whole new line of books?

Priest: We knew where things had to go, because of the writing summit. What I really did was suggest a structure, in terms of how to introduce these concepts in a single issue, in as efficient a way as possible, because you only have so many pages. You're also dealing with short attention spans from the readers, who are confronted with so many choices thrown at them. How do we break through that noise, and how do we set up the Catalyst Prime Universe in this open window that we have? That was my main contribution -- pacing and being more like a creative consultant than someone who was bolted down into the group. I could be more of an observer and go, "Alright, here are these ideas, here's a suggestion for how they all coalesce."

What we needed to do was create an overture -- it has a little bit of everything in it. Keep it fast paced, keep the pages turning. Don't overwhelm the readers, but at the same time, put just enough seasoning and flavoring in there to give them an idea of what we're trying to do -- and hopefully also hit them with a few surprises.

Priest, are you involved beyond the initial one-shot?

Priest: Stay tuned.

Illidge: Yep. Watch this space.

Priest: "Deathstroke" publishes twice a month, so I'm juggling the chainsaws here. [Laughs]

Illidge: We're working on cloning Priest.

For me, collaborating with Priest was great, because I've been an admirer of his work for years, and he strikes me as one of the writers with the most science-grounded, real-world approaches to stories. One of my favorite books that he wrote, and also co-created, was "Xero." When I thought about, "Who's the right person to bring on board for this story?" I knew it was him.

There was something thematically poetic about this, because Priest is one of the co-founders of Milestone, and Milestone is where I got my start in comics. Dwayne McDuffie was one of my mentors and a friend. As the Senior Editor of Catalyst Prime, I am doing what he and Priest and the other founders did when they gave birth to the Milestone Universe.

The Catalyst Prime bible is a growing behemoth that is almost 75 pages in length.

Priest: What's interesting about Catalyst Prime is how integrated everything is. All of these pieces fit together in a sort of clockwork. Even though the Catalyst Prime titles have individual creative directions, all avenues lead back to this event, and play off of this event in one way or another, and it's all hooked into each other in a way that is different.

"Catalyst Prime: The Event" page
"Catalyst Prime: The Event" page by Marco Turini and Jessica Kholinne .

What can you share about the characters who readers will meet in this initial Catalyst Prime one-shot?

Illidge: The overture that [Priest] was talking about is going to be teaser introductions of some of the heroes that will be seen in the upcoming seven books. As a matter of fact, the scenes you see in the one-shot, you're going to see in the various books. Basically, they're glimpses of the characters, but they're also glimpses of the future. After that, we go to the main mission of the five astronauts who accepted the mission to save the world.

You have David Powell, African-American male, married man; Alistair Meath, a Major for the British Air Force; you have Jamilla Parks, African-American woman; Evan Chess, American Caucasian male; and Dr. Valentina Reznick-Baker, a Jewish woman and the payload specialist.

The mission is sponsored by a private corporation called the Foresight Corporation. The Foresight Corporation provided the teaser memo everyone saw right before New York Comic Con. Foresight is one of the significant companies in the architecture of the Catalyst Prime Universe. The company is run by a Mexican woman named Lorena Payan. She actually took the company that her father built, and she moved it from the United States to Mexico, the land of her birth. They deal with a lot of aeronautics and fringe sciences, public services, pharmaceuticals, and more. By moving the company, she actually changed the landscape of Mexico as we know it. So in the Mexico of the Catalyst Prime Universe, there are a ton of employment opportunities -- a lot fewer Mexicans are running for the border to come to the United States, because there are a ton of good jobs right at home.

The Foresight Corporation is the one that arranged for and sponsored the mission to destroy the asteroid. They were the first to detect it, because of their advanced technology.

Priest: Albert, I just want to caution -- this sounds an awful lot like the film "Armageddon." It ain't. We can't tell you why it's not "Armageddon" without giving away plot points of the story we don't want to give up right now. From a general description, you go, "Well, that's 'Armageddon.'" No, it's completely different here.

Illidge: The last four pages flip the whole thing on its butt, and you have to read the whole story to appreciate it.

I really feel like fans are going to get a fully packed story in these 28 pages. “Catalyst Prime: The Event” is going to premiere on Free Comic Book Day, and Lion Forge felt that it would be great if for the start of a new superhero universe, you don't have to pay. You can start this journey, and you don't have to pay one cent. Fans are going to get a good, packed story that will propel them forward into the entire line of books.

"Catalyst Prime: The Event" page
"Catalyst Prime: The Event" page by Marco Turini and Jessica Kholinne .

And in terms of what's coming next, there have been seven different creative teams announced for seven different books. That's an ambitious launch. How quickly will we see these books roll out after the Free Comic Book Day issue?

Illidge: The rollout is going to happen from the months of May to December. For almost every month, a new #1 will premiere. By the end of the year, all seven titles will have premiered, and that will give you something of a sense of who, if anyone, survives the mission, because some of the titles have more of a direct connection than others, although they're all a part of the same superhero universe.

The creative teams announced are some impressive names -- it's a diverse list, and also includes some writers and artists who may have been undervalued at times at other publishers. Joe, what was your philosophy when recruiting creative talent for Catalyst Prime?

Illidge: There are a couple of things. One is that Lion Forge Comics, as a company, and Catalyst Prime by extension, believe in bringing together veteran talent and newer talent; or talent that the system may not consider A-level talent, but their talents are definitely A-level. That was something I thought about -- bringing together different generations of people. That really went over well when we had the writers' room.

In terms of inclusion, I do find the Catalyst Prime Universe to be very diverse and inclusive, but the reason is because our world is that. And our industry is that. Unless I tried very hard, how in God's green's Earth could I put together creative teams that did not reflect the variety of our comic book community? It was really easy in that way.

Another factor is, I wanted to bring together good, talented people. As a former Batman editor, I still keep up with the Batman books from time to time, and having read Amy Chu's "Poison Ivy" miniseries, I said, "OK, I want her on board with this." That was easy. "I want Amy Chu on board. I want David Walker on board. I want Brandon Thomas on board." Joe Casey has had a relationship with Lion Forge for some time, so having him as a member of the Catalyst Prime Universe made perfect sense. I've been a fan of Joe Casey’s writing since "Wildcats Volume 2" and "Wildcats 3.0," which I still think are some of the best quasi-superhero comic books written in the last 20 years.

In terms of the different artists, Damion Scott and I worked together in the Batman days, when he co-created the Cassandra Cain Batgirl during "No Man's Land." Jefte Palo, I've been a fan of his work since he did the "Secret Invasion" storyline in "Black Panther." Jan Duursema is one of the authoritative artists on the Star Wars library of comic books. Todd Klein is probably the best letterer in comics today.

Priest: I was wondering how you got him! Not being facetious. He's really busy.

Catalyst Prime astronaut sketch
Catalyst Prime astronaut sketch by Marco Turini.

Illidge: The specific book that he's doing, written by Joe Casey and illustrated by Jefte Palo, it's so off-beat that I feel like it's possibly the closest thing to a Vertigo book we have. I think he responded to that.

In terms of the colorists, I love Kelly Fitzpatrick's work. Greg Pak told me about Jessica Kholinne. Jessica's coloring the one-shot, and then she's coloring one of our ongoing series illustrated by Pop Mhan. I loved his work on "Masters of the Universe," and "Injustice" for DC.

For me, it was bringing people from different backgrounds and sensibilities together, but also people that I want to work with, or that I have worked with that and like as people. One thing about being an editor -- there are just so many moving parts, that it really helps if you're working with people you like. It'll just make the Herculean task easier.

Social graces is this little thing that the industry could use a lot more of, across the board. It's the editors, it's the creators, it's on both sides of the table. We need to be nicer and more respectful and more understanding of one another -- that's how you're going to get better comics.

The "Catalyst Prime: The Event" one-shot will be available at participating comic book stores on Free Comic Book Day, May 6.

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