Catalyst Comix #1 (of 9)
Written by Joe Casey
Art by Dan McDaid, Paul Maybury and Ulises Farinas
Colors by Brad Simpson
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Rating: 7 (of 10)
“Catalyst Comix #1 is an undeniably different and invigorating punch to the head of the superhero.”
Joe Casey has once again put superheroes on notice.
Last year Casey firebombed readers with a handful of provocative essays in the back of Butcher Baker: The Righteous Maker, pointing out what’s wrong with superhero comics these days. In his estimation, there simply isn’t enough innovation happening at the big companies.
Casey’s newest series, Catalyst Comix, not only renews superheroes from the 1990s Dark Horse experiment, “Comics’ Greatest World,” it rekindles his soapbox. His letter in the first issue claims the three artists on the book have such weird styles that they have been relegated to B-list projects and bizarro throwaways at DC and Marvel. Casey argues that artists who can bring a unique vision to superhero comics should be unboxed and better embraced by publishers. He also demands that readers who love superheroes “momentarily break off from whatever’s being spoon-fed by this month’s corporations” and give different books like Catalyst Comix a chance.
For the most part, I wholeheartedly agree.
It’s true that the “Big Two” don’t throw a lot of curveballs our way when it comes to art or story. They tend to play it safe. But lately I am seeing more risks taken, particularly at Marvel. I recently started reading Captain Marvel and was pleasantly surprised by the striking and offbeat fill-in art of Emma Rios in issues #5-6, for example. And then there’s the entire Hawkeye series, which barely feels or looks like any other superhero book I read. The last issue was written and drawn entirely from a dog’s point-of-view! So, while I don’t think we’re going to get a Richard Corben Flash comic that has Barry Allen fighting crime with his @#$%ing legs blown off any time soon, there is evidence that the mainstream publishers are interested in new kinds of storytelling.
Fortunately, while the “Big Two” dip their toes in the innovation pool, we do have bold creators who take the classic superhero archetypes and plunge them all the way into the deep end. Casey’s enthusiasm for subverting superheroes and pushing them beyond the mainstream barrier is very compelling. He’s scary good at it too, creating brilliant series like Wildcats 3.0, Automatic Kafka, Gødland and Sex to name a few. Looking at Casey’s career portfolio it’s clear he has committed to diversifying the superhero genre he loves so much. He wants to knock over as many industry dominoes as possible.
That brings me to the comics portion of Catalyst Comix #1, which doesn’t quite live up to the First Rule of Casey Club, but does offer up a very good start.
The series is uniquely structured like an anthology, featuring three, loosely interconnected stories. They all take place on the evening of December 21, 2012 as the end-of-the-world approaches, courtesy of a monstrosity named Nibiru. The lead tale in issue #1 focuses on Frank Wells (formerly known as Titan in the 90s Dark Horse comics) who seems to single-handedly take on the apocalypse in an urban action spectacle reminiscent of the final battle in the Man of Steel film. The second story is a hard and heady science-fiction yarn that introduces space/time explorer, Amazing Grace. The final chapter follows the government recruitment of two thuggish, forgotten anti-heroes named Elvis Warmaker and Wolfhunter.
The biggest innovation and success of this debut definitely rests with the artists that Casey hand-selected. Dan McDaid, Paul Maybury and Ulises Farinas all have distinct, refreshing styles that are very left-of-center from illustrators typically hired on superhero comics.
McDaid handles the main feature, “The Ballad of Frank Wells.” His art is bombastic and organic, somehow combining widescreen superheroics with an almost EC Comics alien creepiness that makes the opening pages wondrous to behold. His work on the mammoth creature Niberu and the destruction it reigns down on the city is very impressive, as is his portrayal of Frank, whose look instantly conveys a determined, blue-collar joe. I already threw a penny in a fountain and wished for a McDaid Superman book.
Maybury’s “Amazing Grace” changes the pace with its ethereal and innocent tone, especially evident when we see the protagonist’s youthful face at the helm of her spaceship and during her meditation. Grace’s big, expressive eyes almost remind me of the soulful character designs in Hayao Miyazaki films like Spirted Away. Unfortunately, most of the pages in this story are taken up by color effects and space weirdness. I would have liked to see more people and less flash from Maybury, so hopefully next issue will be more character focused.
Farinas’s art takes the reader in an entirely different direction. His line work on “Agents of Change” is very clean and precise, almost to the point that it seems simple. But upon closer inspection every page is uncommonly detailed. From the diamond-studded armor that Warmaker wears, to the rows of bizarre jewelry in a display case, to the textured, black swirls in the characters’ hair and beards, Farina obviously spends a lot of time crafting every page. There’s a 1/6 size panel on page three of the story that shows nearly 100 diamonds (of varying sizes) in Warmaker’s golden battle gear. It’s remarkable, especially when you consider that most artists just draw blobs at that scale.
Farina also has a chance to show off his talent in a scene where Warmaker lets loose a hail of bullets from his shoulder-mounted cannons. The result is a glorious Geoff Darrow-esque moment that makes me hope Joe Casey has a double-page spread of total carnage planned for Farina to illustrate.
The anthology structure itself is incredibly promising and unique for a superhero book. Each story in the nine-book series will run as the main feature for three issues while the other two serve as backups, allowing each artist and the characters he draws to get top billing. But as clever and cool as this format is, it also fights against the series somewhat. With only 32 pages to work with these short chapters don’t quite feel like complete yarns. I really wanted more. Casey does try to make up for the lack of real estate by injecting a hefty dose of narration into the first two tales and dialogue into the third. The Frank Wells feature is driven by a Kirby-esque prose similar to the overblown style that makes Casey’s Gødland series so much fun to read. That dramatic tone works well here too, thanks to the gigantic, mindblowing action. Casey also effectively scripts the consequences of mass destruction on a superhuman level and Frank’s reaction to them, which serves as a very timely response to the criticisms lodged against Man of Steel.
The text bombardment in “Amazing Grace,” however, does not work as well. Of the three stories this chapter requires the heaviest narration because without it I don’t think it’s possible to figure out what’s happening. But having read the story three times, I’m still not completely sure what the $&@% is going on, even WITH all the words. As much as I want to like the middle story, its storytelling shortcomings make it the weakest chapter in Catalyst Comix #1.
Casey does manage to recover nicely with some kooky, adversarial dialogue between two has-been superheroes (Elvis Warmaker and Wolfhunter) and a mysterious government recruiter named Bert in Agents of Change. I especially enjoyed how quick-to-anger and seemingly unbalanced Warmaker is portrayed. He gets so worked up after being labeled “irrelevant” that he suddenly feels the need to display his firepower by randomly obliterating a window. Afterward he’s nearly foaming at the mouth. This final story also does a bit of world-building by referencing other characters from Warmaker’s past who could potentially play roles in the story later on.
Along with the story and interior art, it’s worth mentioning that the eye-popping wraparound cover for the first issue is illustrated by Mesmo Delivery artist Rafael Grampa. And it’s been announced that future covers will feature the indie draftsmanship of Paul Pope and Brendan McCarthy. Spotlighting the considerable talents of these non-traditional artists really demonstrates how Casey and Dark Horse have gone the extra mile to make Catalyst Comix one of the most original superhero options in the marketplace.
Of course, after admittedly “talking a lot of smack” about the lack of creativity in comics, Casey is now obligated to pull out all the stops on his projects. While this particular issue doesn’t quite hit the mark in every chapter, as a whole Catalyst Comix #1 is an undeniably different and invigorating punch to the head of the superhero. I look forward to seeing just how many dominoes Joe Casey and his delightful band of oddball artists can knock down in the next eight issues.