NYCC 2016: Talking Lion Forge’s Catalyst Prime with Joe Illidge
Ever since Lion Forge announced a new line-up of hires, it’s been a company to watch. You don’t bring on that sort of talent without having a bigger plan and something up your sleeve.
I’ve watched intently parsing every word said by staff and every hint dropped to try and figure out what exactly what was being worked on.
At New York Comic Con, we found out what that was.
At their panel Sunday, Lion Forge announced “Catalyst Prime,” a new superhero universe with a killer amount of talent writing, drawing, coloring, and lettering, and diversity on the page and behind the scenes. But, impressively it’s also established and new talent alike working together to create this new world. That’s something that’s important for the company, to bring together old and new voices.
Along with the creative talent it was announced that Desiree Rodriguez is joining the company as an editorial assistant for the new line. Rodriguez is a freelancer for Nerds of Color who wrote this fantastic piece about being Latinx in comics.
Before the panel, I got to speak with Senior Editorial Manager Joe Illidge and got the details as to what we can expect.
Graphic Policy: It’s been months of teasing and hints and I know I’m excited to hear the details. What’s the scoop as to what Lion Forge has announced at New York Comic Con 2016?
Joe Illidge: We’re announcing the creation of a new superhero universe which will be under the title of “Catalyst Prime.” There will be seven monthly books and the line will launch in May of 2017.
GP: Who’s the talent that’ll be involved that you can announce?
JI: For the kick off book it’s going to be mainly written by Christopher Priest, co-written by myself with the art by Marco Turini, letterer Deron Bennett, and colorist Jessica Kholine. For the first ongoing series with a Black male lead, the writer is Brandon Thomas, artist Ken Lashley, letters by Saida Temofonte, and colorist Juan Fernandez. The second main book about an interracial duo, it’s co-written by David Walker and Dr. Sheena Howard, illustrated by Chuck Collins, and colored by Veronica Gandini. The third book is written by Joe Casey, illustrated by Damion Scott, lettered by Janice Chiang, and will be colored by John Rauch. The fourth book will be a team book written by Joe Casey with story consultation by Ramon Govea who created the concept, illustrated by Larry Stroman and Rob Stull, and colored by Snakebite Cortez. For the fifth title with a British male lead which is a science fiction thriller, it’ll be written by Joe Casey, illustrated by Jefte Palo who is well known for illustrating the Black Panther Secret Invasion storyline in which the Wakandans held back the Skrull invasion, it’ll be colored by Chris Sotomayor, and lettered by a legendary letterer. The letterer of the Hugo award winning Sandman Overture graphic novel, Todd Klein. The sixth title with a White male lead will be written by Alex De Campi, illustrated by Pop Mhan, and lettered by Deron Bennett. Deron Bennett is doing a bunch of DC “Rebirth” books. One prominent one is Batgirl. The seventh title with a lesbian lead character will be written by Amy Chu, illustrated by Jan Duursema, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick, and lettered by Deron Bennett.
GP: That’s impressive you can remember and name all of them. So what can you tell us specifically about the series?
JI: Well basically the whole universe is started from an asteroid heading to Earth and a private corporation called the Foresight Corporation, which produced our teaser memo, they send four astronauts on a suicide mission to stop the asteroid. What happens leads to the emergence of super humans on our world. After that, most of the books will take place one year after that.
GP: As far as the comics, how are they kicking off, a mini-series and then everything launches from there?
JI: It’s going to start with a one-shot co-written by Christopher Priest and myself, coming out the first week of May 2017. And then we’ll be rolling out the books from there, from May through December.
GP: That’s an amazing group of talent working on the comic that’s very diverse, what about the characters?
JI: The characters are diverse. Of the four astronauts, you have two women, one of whom is lesbian, one of whom is Black. The two men, one is Black and one is British. The other three are American. Then there’s also a Chinese woman who is part of mission control who is supervising the mission in space, but was not one of the four astronauts.
GP: That certainly is diverse. When putting the series together, was this a priority and thought through?
JI: It was thought through in the sense that the owner David Steward II, the President Geoff Gerber, and I are really committed to creating a universe that invites everyone. Diversity is a buzzword that has become obsolete because it’s been used for a lot of PR. Diversity should be intrinsic if you have an expanded mindset and worldview so when you’re going to creators they’re not all heterosexual, they’re not all Caucasian males. They might not all be from the United States. They’re from different industries. They have different political backgrounds. Diversity is automatic. But we want to create something new and exciting that doesn’t have a burden of decades of continuity. We want everyone to feel invited to this world and this world will evolve into a world that will more accurately reflect the demographics of the one that we live more than a lot of other fictional superhero comic universes.
GP: When it comes to the writers… there’s a habit lately that writers are pigeonholed into what they write based on the color of their skin or their gender, in November out of 13 female writers for the big two only one was writing a comic with a male lead as an example, are you breaking that mold?
JI: I am breaking that mold. The book that is going to have the latino teenager lead is going to be written by Joe Casey whom is neither Latino nor a teenager. But, Joe Casey has clearly been an advocate for variety in superhero comic books, in creator owned comic books. And frankly he’s the co-creator of America Chavez. To me, that right there, America Chavez is one of the most beloved Latinx characters of our time. So I’m comfortable with him writing a Latinx character considering he created one of the most popular ones right now.
GP: He’s shown he can do it.
GP: One of the things that caught my eye in your teases was a woman writing a male character, so it’s either Dr. Sheena Howard, Amy Chu, or Alex De Campi.
JI: What it is, the book that will be co-written by David Walker and Dr. Sheena Howard is an interracial team book written by a man and a woman featuring a man and a woman. That really came down to whom I feel David and Sheena are as people. Due to their academic backgrounds. Due to their vast social and cultural knowledge. Due to the fact they are both social crusaders, they are expertly qualified to tell this story.
Amy Chu is going to be writing a story about a Caucasian lesbian. Alex De Campi will be writing a story with a white American male lead. So you don’t have to keep these straight lines. Some of them won’t be straight for the sake of being straight. I really tried to see who were the best creators to tell these stories book by book.
GP: With the baggage that comes with continuity and years of stories, are you thinking through that as you put together this universe and series? A perfect example is Valiant that has continuity but you can read just one series, step into a new story arc, there’s clear starting points, or you can enjoy it all.
JI: Absolutely. No two books will be alike aesthetically. We want readers to be able to read a book and not feel like they are trapped or tricked into reading other books. If you read other books and you keep moving forward, you start seeing connected threads, and you get the benefit of the worldview of this entire thing. If you choose just one book, or two books, or four books, you can have individual experiences and as we look forward to the first crossover event, which will probably take place in 2018, that will be a story in of itself. If you choose to keep reading your book, you can do that. It’s very important for us that the reader not feel interrupted in the book, or books, that they like. It’s also important that when we collect these books we really want to engage the book market. We want to create volumes where a new reader can pick up any volume and get into that world. Whether it’s across titles or whether they pick up volume two of any series and we hope that they don’t feel like that have to pick up volume one but instead that they’ll want to pick up and read volume one.
It really comes down to characters. Characters are the underpinning of all stories. We want to create characters that the readers will care about. We want you to come along on the journey with these characters. So, by defining the characters, making them compelling, and making them relatable, is the ultimate way that we can invite readers, old and new, into the universe.
GP: Is the universe set in our world or slightly off? Do we get fake countries or ones that actually exist?
JI: It’s going to be our world geographically, all the identifications will match up to Earth. I look at this as the love child of Darwyn Cooke’s DC New Frontier and Vertigo Year One and the brilliance of Karen Berger in using Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Shade, the Changing Man, Black Orchid, and Kid Eternity as the foundation for a truly imaginative and impressive body of books. These will be super hero genre books, but they’ll also engage in other genres like science fiction, techno thriller, young adult, action adventure, teen adventure, social drama, so that is how I see it. For that to be the case, it had to take place in a world like ours.
GP: Since it is taking place in a world familiar to ours, there’s the debate as to whether comics should just be entertainment or if it should touch upon social justice issues being waged. Will the comics touch upon real world issues? From the characters and what you’ve described it sounds like social issues will be a natural thing for the series, but is it a goal and point?
JI: You know, we don’t see it as a hard agenda. It’s not something we’re going to beat the audience over the head with as far as the stories. When you’re talking about social justice, art has always been a vehicle for social justice.
GP: Comics always have.
JI: Exactly. We’re at a time where we are vulnerable in so many other areas. Our bodies are vulnerable. We’re being told what bathrooms we can use. We have political icons engaging in reprehensible behavior, xenophobia, and sexism. Art may be one of the last frontiers that is bullet proof. If you’re going to do a universe, and you’re going to engage the super hero and what the super hero can do, how can you not engage in social justice?
GP: How long has this been in the works?
JI: It’s funny, there has been different stages. I started working at Lion Forge in June and I really expanded it. The origins of the “Catalyst Prime” super hero universe starts with the owner of Lion Forge, David Steward II. As someone highly influence by Milestone, we are obviously simpatico on that front, myself being a Milestone alumni, Geoff Gerber the President of Lion Forge being an advocate for social justice, the three of us together really wanted this to be something special that would invite everybody. It started with the owner, but when I came in I took the nucleaus and put together a team of writers. We did a writers retreat where we all sat down in a room and spent a day and basically nurtured this universe to life and that kind of creativity, that imaginative osmosis, the results of that are really going to be seen in the books. You’re going to see us subvert some familiar archetypes. You’re going to see some characters of ethnic backgrounds that you never thought you’d equate with roles of power. We’re really looking to give you the kind of familiar things you want with super hero comic books, but we want to return fun and imagination to super hero comic books.
It feels like right now we’ve hit a critical mass in terms of cynicism, in terms of doubt, in terms of dissapointment, for the faith and investment of time we have given. I want this super hero unvierse be a return to fun and imagination and the consumer being rewarded for their time and love of this genre and this medium.
GP: With starting a comic line now, it feels like it’d be different because it’s no longer just print you’re dealing with. There’s digital, there’s mobile, there’s web, the avenues and distribution is so different. Is that in your thoughts in putting it together, looking at the big picture and how different people will interact differently with the material?
JI: Absolutely. It’s very important for us that anyone who wants to get our books will be able to get our books. Whether it is comic book stories in the direct market. Whether it’s book stores and collections in the trade market. Whether it’s digital. We have been looking at a lot of metrics and data in regards to digital comics. Some of those discoveries will impact how we put together and provide these books. And it’s very important to us that if you’re unfortunately living in a place that’s a comic store desert, you can still get the book. It’s important to us that if you feel there’s a local environment that’s not welcoming to you as a consumer that you can still get our book. It’s important to us that we engage in a discussion with retailers and consumers about pre-ordering so that we expand the vocabulary and help consumers get our books.
GP: Any final thoughts?
JI: It’s exciting for us to start this new thing. I think culturally that we are at a high point of the popularity and the agency of the super hero as a genre and so there’s no better time to start a new universe than right now. I firmly believe, and the creators that I’ve assembled, we all firmly believe that ultimately people want good stories. It’s not about what genre it is. It’s about good stories and good characters.