Joe Illidge Talks Lion Forge Comics’ Astonisher

The most dangerous corners of the universe live inside the nightmares of super-powered people.

Magnus Atitarn, heir to the Atitarn Satellite Corp., tried to save the world with his experimental one-man spaceship — and ended up a broken man. Now a celebrity joke suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Magnus has the power to travel inside the mind of super-powered people, where he discovers nightmares which threaten the entire human race.

Astonisher is the latest series to debut as part of Lion Forge Comics’ Catalyst Prime universe. Written by Alex De Campi with art by Pop Mhan the series is an intriguing entry to the comic line.

We got a chance to talk to Senior Editor Joe Illidge about the series.

Graphic Policy: Where did the concept for Astonisher come from? It’s interesting in how it fits in with the other series that have come out so far.

Joe Illidge: The CEO, David Steward II, came up with a basic premise for the title and certain ideas he wanted to explore in the Catalyst Prime universe. When I thought about it, it seemed like the kind of book that traditionally in superhero comics you would expect a man to write with a white American male lead character. I thought “ok, I’m tired of seeing a male perspective on men, I want to see a woman’s perspective.” When I thought about who was one of the most unique and talented female writers out there, Alex De Campi was on the short list. I went to her and told her to take this nugget and expand upon that.

She’s the one that took it to the next level in terms of making it what she called the more “Steve Ditko/Grant Morrison” corner of the Catalyst Prime universe.

GP: The vibe I got from the comic is that it shares a lot with some of the other rich male characters out there. It’s the brash, full of ego, into technology. Is that the right take on it?

JI: Absolutely. When Dave Steward II conceived it, he really thought about the convergence between Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Richard Branson in the Catalyst Prime world and where those paths meet in terms of bravura, youth, Silicon Valley, wealth culture. That’s the nucleus of where Astonisher came from.

What Alex did was expand it in terms of the family dynamic that would surround a person like that and how people treat each other in social circles. The main character Magnus became a character that we could use to examine wealth culture through his entire family.

GP: After reading the first issue, this feels like the first comic you’ve put out where I’m struggling to find a character I really like. They’re assholes each in their own special way. It’s interesting that there’s not the sympathetic character at all. Still, I found myself wanting to go along with the ride to see where it goes.

JI: It’s interesting when you say that. I was a big fan of the show Six Feet Under, created by Alan Ball. I remember that’s what someone said to me about Six Feet Under. The core of Astonisher is Magnus, who has a good core to him, but that good core has been warped by his social status, fame, vanity, but even the kind of ego it took for him to take his ship and go out into space and think he would as one man save the world. But suffering and coming back from that with PTSD, losing his level of celebrity, and how that keys into his sense of self, I found all the characters interesting. While they may not be immediately likeable, they are all characters that are human and believable. I think that is at the core of the Catalyst Prime universe, stories about characters.

You can see in various ways how this family represents the influential architecture of the Catalyst Prime Universe. When you think about it Magnus is the center of that, that opens up a lot of dramatic possibilities. We’re so used to getting superhero stories where we first meet them and they’re people that we like. They’re people to whom we’d already apply the term “heroic.” What we’re doing here is a story of a character’s journey towards heroism. That’s why we’re starting where Magnus is now because we’re going to take you on that journey. What we pride ourselves on in the Catalyst Prime Universe is that the readers will be able to go on the narrative journey with the characters at the same time.

GP: What’s interesting and stood out is that even though he’s unlikeable, it’s not a negative thing. It’s rather interesting because he’s not coming from an altruistic starter. Let’s be realistic: Tony Stark wouldn’t be altruistic. He’d be driven by ego and profit and because he thinks he knows best from a privileged place. That’s where this seems to be coming from, in a good way.

When Magnus created an app, it wasn’t what it did, it was how much he made. Now he has these powers, it’s about how he can make money off of them. This isn’t something you usually see in a superhero comic.

JI: Absolutely, the thing of it is, when you look at someone like Magnus, he comes from a position of entitlement right off the bat. His perspective on life, his perspective on doing good is going to be warped and in an interesting way parallels some of the things we see in real life. Part of what it does, it speaks to the true variety of the Catalyst Prime line, when we talk about inclusivity, when we talk about diversity, we’re showing people from different backgrounds and walks of life. The character of Magnus and his family in Astonisher speaks to a specific corner and perspective of the Catalyst Prime Universe. The name Astonisher is going to be apropos. We’re going to surprise you in different ways with this character as the story goes forward.

GP: Something that sticks out to me, through the various series that have come out, you have the Foresight Corporation, which is playing a huge role. Here you have Magnus and another corporation. My gut says that we’re going to see two corporations clash at some point.

JI: Basically, the same way you can look at our world and see titans like Google, Microsoft, Apple, you can look at the Catalyst Prime Universe and over time we’ll reveal the superstructure. The social, the financial. So, the company Magnus is the heir to which was founded by his mother and known as the Attarian Satellite Corporation, otherwise known as ATISAT. ATISAT is a major player in what’s going on in the world. The relationship between ATISAT and the Foresight Corporation is something that will slowly be revealed and in terms of a conflict of companies…when we get there it’ll be natural and make sense. It won’t be forced. It’ll be closer to a true world dynamic. What companies of wealth consider combat is different than what we consider combat. What they consider as competition, at that level, it’s a different point of view. That’s you at the top of the mountain look down, whereas most people are not coming from a position from wealth so they’re only looking up and their perspective is skewed as a result. It’ll be interesting over time the perspective that these families have of each other.

GP: Magnus’ powers are very different than others. They’re psionic or telepathic. When it comes to powers people can get, is there a guide as to what we’ll see in the Catalyst Prime world?

JI: We try to keep it science based and we want all the characters to have limitations. With this one, even though we’re entering a psychic landscape, that landscape and the discoveries of Magnus’ power, which connect to pieces of meteor in his body and one close to his brain, how that works with the Astonisher technology is quite science based. In terms of the logic of the powers, we wanted to take a different approach which is usually superpowers as an extension of personality. You’ve seen that successfully done in the past, but there’s something that’s more interesting if it’s random.

GP: With the meteor still embedded in Magnus’ head, I immediately think of people with bullets still in them and how that changes their life and PTSD. Is that going to be explored?

JI: It’s definitely going to be explored. Magnus is suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury. What we’re going to see is how people treat him differently. There’s your own trauma and then there’s the trauma that’s inflicted on you by other people’s perceptions of you. That’s something that Alex De Campi keys into with this character.

GP: I can see that in the first issue, definitely. How did Pop Mhan come on to the series?

JI: I’ve been a fan of Pop’s for years I loved his recent work for DC Comics on Masters of the Universe and when I thought about this comic and how it takes certain expectations and subverts them I thought Pop would be a perfect artist that would be able to give us the twisting actions and adventures as we go into the psyches of those infected by meteor exposure. And to give us personal drama which is just as dramatic and just as revealing of character, if not more so, as the battles. I really wanted to find someone that could get the balance. Someone that really could do the human expressiveness in body language, facial expressions, and Pop is one of the best out there. I was thrilled when he decided to come on board for the title. Jessica Kholinne as colorist is really doing an amazing job. She’s a true godsend to the book and her palette and approach to color and lighting is showing a level of thought and understanding that’s at the top of coloring in this business.

GP: With the series, it’s interesting that everything from Catalyst Prime fits in a silo. You have the team book, the teenager, the speedster, the loner character, and this with the arrogant tech and family dynamic. Astonisher could just be the “tech book” but that family dynamic makes it something else. When coming up with the various stories, how much of that is on your minds?

JI: Part of that comes from the different writers. Astonisher would have been a different kind of book with a different writer handling it. Because it’s Alex, her thinking is so brilliant and varied, she brought her sensibilities and self to the title and made it distinctive. Part of it, I think readers want to deal with familiar archetypes but want to deal with them in different ways. In one way Astonisher is where Batman, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange meet. In another way but he’s not like any of those characters. I feel like the readers are sophisticated and they should get stories that challenge them. Astonisher is the type of comic that can challenge expectations.

GP: Thanks for chatting!