Sunday, September 17, 2017

Catalyst Prime for August: Incidentals #1, Noble #4, Accell #3, and Superb #2

After a couple of false starts, I’ve been rethinking how to approach my planned monthly posts about Lion Forge’s Catalyst Prime comics. I was starting to veer too far into (too) lengthy recaps of the various issues, and that’s never been my plan. So, starting this month, I’m just going to talk about what I liked about the comics, and hopefully that will whet your appetites enough to check out the actual issues.

This month, I’m going to start off with the new series that premiered in August, Incidentals, the first Catalyst Prime team book. To my mind, superhero team comics come in two types: super-groups made up of existing characters, many of whom have their own solo comics, and teams made up mostly of new characters, who only appear in comics as part of that team. Since Catalyst Prime is only four months old, it’s too soon for their characters to come together like the Avengers or Justice League (as far as I’m concerned), so it makes sense that Incidentals features a bunch of brand-new characters.

Frequently, when comics give us a new team with new characters, we get introduced through the eyes of a new member being recruited to or joining the team. This issue, we do see a young super-powered woman pursued by some sort of armed team (from the Foresight Corporation, perhaps?) rescued by a group of other super-powered individuals, clearly on a mission to recruit her. However, she runs away before they are able to make contact.

We also meet a super-powered guy taking revenge on an abusive father in Las Vegas, and learn that he apparently received his powers from a meteor strike on a beach. And he isn’t the only one. The members of the team seen earlier in the issue were also on that same beach, it seems. 

Finally, we meet Vincent Chen, a rich businessman who seems to be the benefactor gathering these people together for a reason. That reason? He’s having visions of aliens in his dreams. Are these premonitions of an invasion? Whatever they are, they present an interesting wrinkle on the Catalyst Prime universe, beyond simply a bunch of people getting super-powers from the destruction of an asteroid. It also sets up a threat beyond Lorena Payan and her Foresight Corporation.

This issue throws a lot of information at the reader, and it doesn’t hold you by the hand and walk you through a traditional introduction. However, the connections between the disparate characters are pretty clear. So is the direction things seem to be heading, I think, but not in a way that makes those things seem obvious. There’s plenty of room for surprises, and I’m looking forward to whatever twists and turns are thrown at us as we learn more about these characters and their mission.

Once again, Incidentals already appealed to me because of the creative team: writer Joe Casey (who is also writing Accell), penciler Larry Stroman, inker Rob Stull, and colorist Snakebite Cortez. I’ve talked about the Joe Casey books that I’ve enjoyed in previous entries; I had forgotten that he also wrote the extremely engaging revival of Jim Lee’s WildCATS, illustrated by Sean Phillips. He really turned the team format around on that book, taking what had been a very 90’s X-Men-styled action-adventure team book and turned it into more of an ensemble drama. 

I loved Larry Stroman’s work on Alien Legion and X-Factor back in the 80s and 90s, but after that, he seemed to pretty much drop out of the comics scene. I’m happy to see him back here, hopefully for the long haul. His work had gotten pretty stylized towards the end of his runs; I remember a couple of issues he did of The Tribe, a creator-owned series for Image that didn’t last very long. (A quick glance at Wikipedia tells me it returned as a self-published series for 9 issues; I don’t remember seeing that at all.) 

Here, his art is a little more realistic, but his distinctive style still shows through. I really enjoy his dynamic storytelling and layouts, and he does a fantastic job, ably assisted by Rob Stull. I also like the coloring by Snakebite Cortez, who did such a great job on Red Star; he’s using a dark palate that gives the book a grounded, realistic tone. He’s not afraid to use bright colors when appropriate, though. Overall, another great launch for Catalyst Prime.

Perhaps the other big issue this month is Noble #4, which wraps up the first story arc, as well as bringing us up to date with the moment between David and Astrid seen in the Catalyst Prime FCBD issue. This also marks the first Catalyst Prime fill-in artist, with penciler Jamal Igle and inker Robin Riggs stepping in alongside regular artist Roger Robinson to produce a number of pages. 

I’ve been a fan of Igle’s for a number of years, and I really recommend Molly Danger, his creator-owned young girl superhero comic. His art is maybe a little cleaner and rounded where Robinson is a bit scratchy, gritty, and angular. However, they share a clear, direct sensibility when it comes to layouts and storytelling, so the shift between the two artists isn’t particularly jarring. 

As usual, we open with a flashback. This time around, that scene contains a pretty big revelation: David Powell’s powers seem to have held the explosion of the asteroid in check for a full six months. That definitely explains my confusion over the timeline of the flashbacks. It’s also going to affect my reading of the other Catalyst Prime books, if the characters couldn’t have received their powers more than six months previous.

We quickly skip ahead to the present day, and the first anniversary of the incident. (This seems to be dated from the initial explosion, not, I guess, the six months later when the fragments found their way to earth.) Powell, Astrid, DeMarcus Mayes, and (I think) a new character are making their way to Foresight HQ in Chiapas, Mexico. Finally, all the storylines converge.

Powell also gets (or, I suppose, regains) a super-suit designed to help him control and regulate his powers, The story also sheds some light on what Mayes has been up to, and his current relationship with Lorena. The story feels very much like the end of an act, bringing the various plot threads to a point where they can pause, rather than wrapping them all up. As a fan of stories that play out over a long number of issues and months, I’m okay with that.

So far, each issue of this series —and all the Catalyst Prime series for that matter—have felt like satisfying serialized installments building towards a larger story. While they aren’t exactly self-contained stories every month, they feel like they contain enough development each month and end on a satisfying climax. Overall, this first four-issue arc has a similar structure. We’ll have to wait an extra month for the next issue (which will also be drawn by Igle, before Robinson returns with issue 6), but when that issue finally arrives in October, I’ll be eagerly awaiting it.

The third issue of Accell picks up where last month’s left off, with Danny battling the Native American spirit, Dagwanoenyent. I liked the change in the art between (for want of a better term) the speed dimension, where everything had a more animation-like look, and the real world, defined more clearly by the black lines in the art. This month is still penciled by Damion Scott, but the inking is credited to both regular inker Robert Campanella and (this time around) Mosh Studios; I wonder if Mosh Studios did the parts set in the speed dimension?

After wrapping up the battle, Danny is hit with a situation that brings things from the mystical and high adventure down to earth in a very real way. After that, he returns to his girlfriend Monica, and along with her, we meet another of Danny’s friends. However, the events of this issue seem to be taking an emotional toll on him; we’ll see where that takes us in future issues.

We also touch base with the storyline of Monica’s father trying to split them up, even if it means having to kill Danny to do so. This is definitely a story that we will return to next month.

Overall, I am enjoying the mix of straight speedster superhero adventure alongside the mystical and the weird. I am also definitely interested in seeing how Danny develops from someone who is definitely a superhero, but more on the happy-go-lucky side, to someone deeper, based on the experiences of this issue. Next month’s issue brings this first arc to a head. I’ve already read it, but I’ll talk more about it in the September Catalyst Prime wrap-up.

The final Catalyst Prime issue this month we have to discuss is Superb #2. The issue picks up right where the first one left off, with Cosmosis being pursued by Foresight guards. He makes a somewhat grisly discovery (one which, honestly, could have been highlighted a bit more clearly by the art) and makes his escape.

Meanwhile, Kayla records her podcast, Our World, about Cosmosis and the after-effects of the meteor shower (which, we learn, happened the previous May). She hears a sound outside, and discovers Cosmosis, injured, lying in her yard. She—and we—also discover that Cosmosis is actually Jonah. But that’s not the only revelation; the book subtly hints that Kayla may well have powers of her own.

We also get some insight into Foresight’s plans for the enhanced teens that they are abducting. As one might expect, they have nothing but noble intentions as far as they are concerned. Everyone is the hero of their own story, right? But if that’s the case, what’s the story behind what Jonah discovered?

This issue moved like lightning. As I mentioned earlier, each Catalyst Prime issue manages to tell a satisfying installment of its story, giving us new information and moving the story forwards, while giving enough hints and dramatic enough cliffhangers to make the reader want to come back. In the pages of Superb, the story is appropriate to its teen characters: they are acting against the threat of an establishment that claims to only be doing what’s best for them, because of course the kids can’t possibly know better themselves, even though that establishment maybe doesn’t really have their best interests at heart. It is a classic metaphor for growing up and finding your own voice.

The book still hasn’t directly addressed the fact that Jonah has Down’s Syndrome, any more than it addresses the fact that Kayla is African-American, any more than any of the other books directly address the fact that their main characters all are members of groups traditionally underrepresented in comics. While not making a big deal of that fact is part of what makes Catalyst Prime’s books so entertaining—they aren’t “message” books in ways that would get them labeled and criticized for that—the fact that they are an extremely inclusive and representative line is, to me, a very big deal.

I’m going to get off on a rant for a minute here; please bear with me. I’ve been feeling extremely down about the open racism in our country for a long, long time. I’ve been feeling even worse by Donald Trump’s non-condemnation—and by extension, approval and acceptance and empowerment—of the white supremacist and Nazi-provoked violence in Charlottesville, still very recent as I write this. 

I feel like I’ve seen proof of this empowerment closer to my own experience online recently. I saw stories on Facebook promoting the new Broadway adaptation of Disney’s Frozen, featuring an African-American actor as Kristoff, and stories from Marvel Comics promoting a new novel about African-American-Hispanic Spider-Man Miles Morales. When I “liked” those stories on Facebook, and some of the comments because visible, I felt sick at the overt racism on display. Some of those comments were prefaced with the predictable, “I’m not racist, but…” immediately followed by concerns that weren’t about anything except race. More and more, I'm not even seeing people try to pretend that they aren't racist.

I’ve been seeing this sort of racist nonsense for a long time, but in the last couple of years, when I see characters like Captain America/Steve Rogers replaced by African-American Sam Wilson, or Wally West being played by an African American actor on TV, or Thor becoming a female character, I hear lots of comics readers crying that they are all for diversity, but they only want to see new characters representing that diversity, not their beloved (almost exclusively white male) characters replaced by versions that are more representative.

Of course, when Marvel just JUST EXACTLY THAT THING (Miles Morales is a separate, distinct version of Spider-Man, existing alongside white male Peter Parker), the Facebook comments are so full of “Spider-Man is WHITE!!!!!” irrational vitriol that it completely belies the claim that these Nazis would throw their support behind a separate-but-equal character, but that should come as no surprise.

Regardless, Catalyst Prime is important for presenting readers with a line of superhero comics that is diverse and inclusive and representative, and, more importantly, doesn’t make a big deal about doing that; they just go ahead and do it. They are just as diverse and inclusive and representative behind the page, so they come by that honestly. 

It’s also an important line because they give us a line of superhero comics that stand up, in terms of quality, alongside what we’re getting from Marvel or DC these days, but without the predictability that comes with characters that have been around for 70 years, licensed to every form of media and merchandise, and having passed through the hands of countless creators. As much as I enjoyed Marvel’s Secret Empire story, I had as little doubt that Steve Rogers would eventually return to the traditional heroic role of (white) Captain America as I do that Batman is going to emerge from the events of Dark Metal relatively unscathed. I don’t know where the Catalyst Prime books are heading, but I do know that they are telling stories that I want to read, that’s exciting.

This month’s Pop! of the Week is another from the Batman ‘66 line: the Penguin, as played by Burgess Meredith.

Burgess Meredith was a national treasure, and his Penguin is easily my favorite villain from that series. I may be fooling myself that I see a bit of him in this Pop, but I definitely do. I also appreciate how they’ve changed the nose sculpt on this figure to echo the character’s trademark schnoz, and the fact that the monocle is a separate piece, and not simply painted on.

That’s it for this week! I hope that these monthly updates inspire some of you to check out the Catalyst Prime line of comics from Lion Forge; they truly are creating some really good superhero books.

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