by Elana Levin
It is not too late to fall in love with a new superhero universe in comics. In a time where some publishers have made it clear that they don’t really care if people who aren’t cisgender heterosexual, non-semitic, white men read their stories, Catalyst is making it entirely clear that they do care about us as an audience. Not only do they care, they are dedicated to providing us with something we aren’t getting elsewhere.
For example, the Catalyst Prime universe’s prickly, world changing genius scientist building her super science business empire out of the Chiapas region of Mexico. That is a new story. That is interesting as hell. I’ve never spent time in a super scientist’s dream of Chiapas– or really any predominantly Latin American nation. Comics readers aren’t going to see that in any other English-language comic and don’t we deserve something new?
Not only has Catalyst recruited writers who are a veritable who’s who of people doing interesting comics writing today: David F Walker, Christopher Priest (Priest Is Back!) Alex De Campi and Dr. Sheena C Howard (an Eisner winning academic in African American cultural and media), but the artists they’ve recruited such as: Roger Robinson, Juan Fernandez, Marco Turini, Jessica Kholinne and Jamal Igle are doing polished, energetic work that will appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of comics readers today. In fact, the art on Noble and the Catalyst Prime debut is so polished it outshines other marquee comics done in the latest big two house styles.
The in-universe catalyst of the Catalyst Prime universe is a world-ending asteroid. The story begins with a diverse team of brave astronauts traveling to space to break up the asteroid at aforementioned super-genius, Lorena Payan’s command. This establishes that the new Lion Forge Universe launch and central series is going for a hard sci-fi science focus. It is a smart choice because the existing superhero universes aren’t really focusing on that aspect of the genre right now.
So between hiring diverse talent and centering their stories in a part of the genre that others have ignored while basing their characters in a range of places around the globe, Catalyst is truly giving readers something new.
When I interviewed Catalyst’s Senior Editor Joe Illidge on my podcast he credited Editorial Assistant Desiree Rodriguez with coming up with the idea of doing color guides for all the major characters. These guides show samples of the character’s’ skin tone. Other publishers have left colorists to their own devices when it comes to what colors they choose when depicting skin tone. This has lead to characters of color like the New Mutant’s Bobby Da Costa being depicted with lighter and lighter skin over the years.
As artist Ron Wimberly has depicted in his award winning comic “Lighten Up,” there are real damaging repercussions when light colored skin becomes the default for even black and brown characters over time. Other publishers haven’t exercised editorial control over consistent depictions of their characters in the first place. A white character drawn with the wrong haircut can be confusing for readers. But when characters of color get whiter and whiter over time it reinforces the racist notion that white skin is “normal” and more desirable than dark skin.
Lion Forge’s color guides are essential to depicting a racially diverse world. It’s no surprise that an editor whose background is in writing about race in comics came up with this way of addressing the problem. This is any incredibly important choice I hope becomes a trend. If a small publisher can staff this aspect of color design, believe me, DC or Marvel can do it too.
I really enjoyed reading Noble #1, 2 & 3 — the first new series in the catalyst universe. It is by Brandon Thomas, Roger Robinson and Juan Fernandez. The critic known as Son of Baldwin pointed out how rare it was to have a black male hero with an existing black family who loved him at the story’s center and that is certainly the case here. A badass wife looking to solve a mystery and sparing no expense to do so is a story we see in suspense and action movies but not that often in comics. Again, Catalyst is going where other comics aren’t.
Another smart move was hiring web-savvy artist Christina Steenz Stewart as Community Manager. I don’t know of another publisher with a role like that. Stewart’s experience with the women in comics organization, The Valkyries is the perfect background for someone whose job it is to grow the audience of the imprint and build real community relationships.
The newly released Superb from writers David F Walker and Dr. Sheena Howard and artists Ray-Anthony Height, Le Beau L. Underwood and Veronica Gandini is the first comic ever to feature a superhero with Down Syndrome. It’s extremely important that Lion Forge worked with the National Down Syndrome Foundation to get the depiction right— people in comics need to make a point of doing their homework like that every time especially when they are depicting characters that are unlike themselves.
The comic’s marketing materials, which were made up to be “redacted” governmental files, it is clear that the people in power see the other main character a black teenager named, Kayla Tate as a “threat” because she is an effective activist. I love that since I identify as an effective activist myself. Centering a story around a young black woman activist is particularly timely in the age of Black Lives Matter.
David F Walker’s recent superhero work at Marvel does that better than any other big two comics. I’m so eager to get even more of that from him because this is under-explored territory that we need sensitive treatment of and he’s a proven master of it. It was bungled to offensive levels by several white writers who didn’t do their homework so having black writers who are heavily engaged in social issues write about this sensitive subject is the right choice.
Dr. Howard even stated in Lion Forge back matter connecting her Eisner winning historical work to her new fiction writing: “I follow the cultural critique I have applied to comics. This means being conscious of stereotypes around race and gender as well as trying to push for aesthetics of Black female characters that are not of the ‘male gaze’. I am attuned to the gendered nature of the comics industry, so I remain hyper vigilant and aware of this aspect of working within a male-dominated arena.”
As a reader of DC and Marvel super hero universes for decades, who was really resistant to picking up Valiant and Malibu as a kid (sorry!) I’ve wondered if it was even possible for me to get emotionally invested in a new superhero universe, let alone to fall in love with one. But I remember back in 2000 when I was introduced to The Authority. My friend sold it to me by saying “here’s a comics universe that’s putting film theory and political commentary in the forefront. Also there’s a gay couple.”
And he was right.
I needed that in my comics diet and I wasn’t getting it elsewhere.
The next thing I knew I fell in love with The Authority and was getting into Wildstorm in general. It wasn’t too late to fall in love after all.
I haven’t read enough Lion Forge’s Catalyst universe to say if I love it all. The new title Accell featuring a youthful Mexican-American speedster feels like an update of the old 90s Young Justice series. It’s hip-hop meets anime art is not my thing but my podcast Co-Host Brett Schenker really enjoyed it and that series has such a strong place of nostalgia with fans who grew up on it. I’m sure it will find a home with that audience.
Not every comic has to be for me. Some are for younger folks. And that’s ok. That is one of the things we should take away from how warmly Lion Forge has been embraced in particular by people who look like the characters.
But the potential to fall in love with Lion Forge is right there. I am entirely intrigued by what Joseph Illidge is leading at Lion Forge. I respect the boldness and intelligence of the direction he’s steering this new world to. He is going where other universes aren’t and he’s letting creators make statements that have social weight. He’s showing that the real world is diverse and that fictional worlds are richer and more interesting when they are diverse too. He’s showing that a list of best and brightest comics talent is by nature going to be diverse as heck. And those are all things I’m already in love with. So bring on the rest of the series. I’m ready to fall in love.