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Catalyst Comix #1 cements Dark Horse’s place as a major player in superhero comics

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Catalyst Comix #1. Written by Joe Casey (Sex, The Bounce) and drawn by Dan McDaid (Jersey Gods), Paul Maybury (Aqua Leung), and Ulises Farinas (Transformers: Heart Of Darkness), this re-launch of Dark Horse’s Comics’ Greatest World characters puts a new spin on the superhero anthology for an incredibly engrossing read.

Dark Horse’s Comics’ Greatest World imprint of superhero comics may have ended in 1996, but its characters have experienced a revival over the past year. Heroes like X and Ghost have received strong modern updates that make them viable alternatives to the superheroes at Marvel and DC, and this week Joe Casey resurrects the superteam of CGW in the pages of Catalyst Comix. There may not be much demand for a new title spotlighting forgotten ’90s characters like Titan, Amazing Grace, and Warmaker, but the structure and design of Joe Casey’s anthology miniseries makes it one of the year’s most intriguing superhero projects. 

Split into three separate narratives, each drawn by a different artist, Catalyst Comix provides three distinct perspectives that explore various facets of the superhero genre. The lead story switches focus every three issues, starting with the apocalyptic adventures of Frank “Titan” Wells, illustrated by Dan McDaid. Frank is the last line of defense when Earth is attacked by the cosmic malevolence known as Nibiru, experiencing intense psychological trauma as he witnesses mass devastation and collateral damage. He must confront his greatest fears to save the day, but what does he do after he’s been exposed to those horrors? That’s the question at the end of Frank’s introduction, concluding an explosive widescreen blockbuster by bringing the focus down to a personal level.

The backup stories detail what happened to other characters on the same day that Frank fights to save the planet; Paul Maybury draws Grace’s space voyage where she first encounters Nibiru, and Ulises Farinas provides art for the Agents Of Change story that chronicles the reformation of the old superhero team. The segments are individually serialized, but also have connective tissue that ties them narratively and artistically. A Jack Kirby influence is strong across all three stories, from the bombastic action of the Frank Wells story to the psychedelic spectacle of Grace’s journey to the Agents Of Change chapter, which is dynamically staged despite being mostly talking heads. The art is unified by Brad Simpson’s coloring, which adjusts to fit the style of the linework and the tone of the story. Primary colors are the main hues used for Frank’s story, applying Superman’s color scheme to a character that shares more than a few similarities with the Man Of Steel. Icy blue is contrasted by orange and pink for Grace’s ethereal story, while a palette of neon colors makes Farinas’ clean, intricately detailed linework pop on the page. 

In a text piece at the end of the issue, Casey discusses the birth of this project and why he chose his three artists: “I wanted to make sure we pulled in artists that I knew would do soul-cracking work but also happen to draw in individual, idiosyncratic styles that, for some unknown reason, seem to have kept them outside of the mainstream superhero artist loop. I have no idea why that is, because this is how I personally want to see more superheroes depicted.” Last week’s column on Hawkeye #11 emphasized the importance of unique perspectives in reviving the tired superhero genre, and Catalyst Comix shows how the right artist is integral in finding that distinct point of view. Marvel has done strong work bringing in a diverse group of artists for its Marvel Now! titles, but those books are exceptions rather than the norm for superhero comics. With this title, Casey finds himself in a position where he can work with existing heroes without heavy editorial interference, and that creative freedom allows him to assemble this spectacular art team. 

Catalyst Comix is the third superhero series by Joe Casey to debut this year, and it’s also the strongest. Limited to nine issues and using established characters, this book has a stronger sense of direction than Sex and The Bounce and benefits from the history of these heroes. The former CGW titles are not required reading to jump right into this first issue, but the foundation laid by that imprint gives Casey material to experiment with that he doesn’t have to create from scratch. Frank’s past is briefly referenced in his story, but Casey is primarily using the character to explore the catastrophic personal and environmental impact of a superhuman battle. Frank’s story is a more traditional superhero tale, combining the playfully overblown narration of Stan Lee with the bleak worldview of writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. 

A thinker instead of a fighter, Grace’s chapter is a headier mix of sci-fi and suspense, throwing her into the emptiness of space and showing her the terrors that lie in the void. As dynamic as McDaid’s art is, it’s still grounded in reality, but Maybury’s hallucinatory visuals emphasize the alien splendor of what Grace is seeing. There’s a Warren Ellis influence in the technobabble and sci-fi horror of Casey’s script for Grace, creating a much different tone than the two narratives that surround it. The Agents Of Change segment has the laid-back atmosphere and expressive, detailed artwork of a Brandon Graham comic, with Casey and Farinas bringing extra humor to a story about washed-up superheroes getting a second chance to do something meaningful with their lives. 

Dark Horse has had one of its strongest years in recent memory, finding a balance of licensed titles and original properties that allows the company to publish a wide variety of books. Its superhero universe is continuing to expand, with revived CGW titles like X and Ghost being joined by new comics like Dream Thief, The Answer, and The Black Beetle. Each title offers a bold perspective on the typical superhero narrative, and that growth continues with upcoming series Captain Midnight, Brain Boy, and Blackout. Marvel and DC have such a stronghold on superhero stories that it’s easy to forget there are captivating costumed adventures at other publishers, but books like Catalyst Comix show the freedom available to smaller companies that don’t have to answer to corporate overlords. There’s something exhilarating about seeing characters that haven’t been touched for almost 20 years return in an exciting new project that experiments with the genre, and the major superhero companies would be wise to take inspiration from Joe Casey’s concept for this title.