The “Catalyst Comix” Superhero Style Guide

For starters, I should say that I have no experience with the original versions of the characters featured in Dark Horse’s current Catalyst Comix. They were part of the publisher’s Comics’ Greatest World imprint in the ’90s, and I was not aware enough at that time to be reading anything outside of Marvel and DC. Someday maybe I’ll find and read them all, who knows, but this new series is my first experience with any of these characters. I don’t think it matters, as far as my comprehension of Catalyst Comix, which does a good job of respectfully acknowledging its cast’s history without relying on it for the stories it’s telling today. Besides, the real joy comes from each issue containing three separate tales, existing in a shared universe but also so isolated and distinct from one another that the comic feels like a full-on three-for-one deal.

Granted, none of the individual sections of an issue of Catalyst Comix are full-length, but Joe Casey and his artistic partners make them dense and brisk, so even with a smaller page count, they do a great deal of storytelling. Each of the three parts tells its own ongoing narrative, and they all have a unique tone and take on superheroism. At the same time, the whole series comes together as a product with a unified voice and attitude about its subject matter. It’s a convincing and captivating lecture on how superheroes can be better, should be greater. All three storylines turn the usual hero-punches-villain formula on its head somehow, but don’t abandon or ignore it, either. They honor that tradition as they progress beyond it.

I’ll begin, as the series does, with Frank Wells. I suppose he’s sort of a Superman pastiche—flight, strength, and invulnerability, plus an overly serious demeanor. Frank is more of a scowler than Superman, and more dysfunctional, too. Not even aware of his own origins, he doesn’t have any real history with or connection to the rest of humanity. All he knows is fighting villains, using his immense might strike down almost-as-mighty threats. And right away, we see him take that strategy as far as it can go, flying fists first into the center of Nibiru, a cosmic death monster that’s in the middle of destroying the world, and defeating it. In the wake of that event, Frank finds himself unrecognized by the public and unfulfilled by his own actions, which leads him to discover new ways of doing good with his powers.

Under the guidance of Baba Lama, another superhuman who has a kind of Yoda-meets-Go Man Van Gogh vibe, Frank undertakes such tasks as freeing child slaves, saving trapped miners, protecting striking workers from abuse, and other broadminded/socially relevant things. It reignites his sense of purpose for a time, but he quickly realizes that even these are only short-term solutions, and what he craves is something that will make a lasting difference. This already marks a major transformation in his point of view, and more such shakeups are likely to follow. He’s open now to the idea that he can be a superhero without always beating on supervillains, and where that frame of mind takes him is what “The Ballad of Frank Wells” is all about.

Frank is a vessel through which Joe Casey gets to play with the definitions of some common cape-and-mask comicbook terms. But he’s also a classic everyman character on a journey of self-discovery. This is a coming of age story at its bones, it just happens to star a bitter old man. Not old as in elderly, but as in experienced. He’s been around the block a few times when it comes to high-powered action, he’s faced some terrifying foes, and now he’s ready for the next phase. Just a guy who’s sick of his job and wishes it could be more interesting, challenging, or meaningful. That’s an almost too relatable point of view, made more bombastic through the trappings of the genre.

Speaking of those trappings, “The Ballad of Frank Wells” is drawn by Dan McDaid, not an artist I’ve seen much of before (nor are any of them on this book save for colorist Brad Simpson). McDaid gives Frank more meat than anyone else, which is perfect. He’s just a little taller, broader, and thicker, not only in his body but his hand and face, too. You believe in his power immediately because he carries it all with such ease. And the size of his head and spacing of his facial features give Frank generally heightened expressions, so his emotions always come on the strongest. Frank is an angry guy, and McDaid’s lines reflect that, in their weight as well as their energy. The individual lines are not always super bold, but the whole images are, full of motion and emotion. Lightning and fire look real when McDaid draws them, which he finds plenty of chances to do. He’s also careful to put as much thought into every minor character and one-off panel as he does with the stars in the main narrative. In the debut issue, he draws numerous tiny panels of random, ordinary citizens being killed by the chaos caused by Frank and NIbiru’s fight, and they all have enough detail to tell their own complete story in a single image. Later in the series, when Frank imagines alternate versions of his life for one panel at a time, they each feel just as lived in as his reality. Nothing is handled with any less care than anything else, an approach to the art that mirrors what Frank is hoping to do with his superpowers.

As a means of transition, let’s talk Brad Simpson’s coloring, because he is the only artist to contribute to all three sections of each issue of Catalyst Comix. He colors everybody, meaning like Casey, he is responsible for giving each narrative its own identity but also creating cohesion between them. What they all get is smooth, pop coloring that can go fully psychedelic when called for. Simpson’s choices are catchy even when they’re not bright, a big part of the overall feeling that this is a series rooted in old-school comics, the cartoonishly colorful funny books for kids that have gone so out of style. But Simpson’s colors are still more mature than that, able to step back when the story gets heavy or take over when the art wants to thrill and delight. “The Ballad of Frank Wells” is where the colors are most likely to grab hold of the reins, and where Simpson uses his most limited palette. Frank is still learning, still seeing things fairly simplistically, and tends to feel either extremely angry, happy, or confused. This small but quickly-sliding scale of intense emotions is fittingly coupled with a smaller, more focused spectrum of color. Quite different from the always-full and ever-changing coloration of the other two storylines.

The second of which is “Amazing Grace.” I call it the second because that’s where it fell in the order of the first three issues, but as of the most recent Catalyst Comix #4, Grace’s story gets to be the lead for a time while Frank’s becomes one of the back-ups. This seems to be the long-term plan: each story will be in every issue, but which one gets the longer first slot tale will rotate every few issues so everybody ends up getting equal space. A fair and balanced way to do it, all things considered.

Grace is the head of Golden City, which seems to be its own tiny nation, an isolated culture trying to work together to create a better, smarter, even utopian society. Grace is also Golden City’s only real defense system, a talented enough superhero to keep her home safe from all sorts of external dangers on her own. In that sense, she’s already operating differently when we meet her than Frank Wells was during his introduction. It’s not all fights against baddies for Grace; when she sees the same apocalyptic threat coming that Frank battled, her tactic is to jump in a spaceship and try to meet and study it at its source. When she does come into conflict with Nibiru, it is her mental capabilities instead of her physical prowess that save her, and that continue to serve her throughout the rest of her narrative. Though she definitely has impressive fighting skills, they are never her first resort.

So Grace isn’t used by Casey to reexamine heroism through the same step-by-step method Frank is, because she’s already gone through those steps, it seems, long ago. Instead, Grace’s tale is one of how to approach things with no clear morality, how to handle forces that may not be evil but have the potential to do great harm nevertheless. After her deep-space encounter with Nibiru, Grace crash lands back on Earth, but she doesn’t return alone. A mysterious entity follows her all the way to Golden City, where it takes the form of a strapping, strong-jawed blond man and calls itself Seaver. He wants to date Grace, apparently, and ultimately conceive a child with her, though his reasons for that have yet to be uncovered. In order to accomplish this, Seaver constantly emits out a sort of chemical attack designed to make him irresistible to human women. It works on most of them, but Grace is more powerful and in control than Seaver knows, so she’s able to overcome his manufactured charms. However, since his only crime so far is hitting on her relentlessly, Grace doesn’t quite know what to make of Seaver. He’s obviously an alien being, and therefore technically an intruder in the home she’s sworn to protect, but up to now he’s been benign.

She agrees to a date with Seaver, mostly to buy some time to study him in person and have the scientists and doctors of Golden City do the same from their labs. And even once he has her to himself, nothing Seaver does is overtly threatening or wrong. I personally find him to be a schmuck, but that’s just because he’s shooting for smarm instead of genuine charisma. He’s relying on his powers to win Grace over and make her his mate, so his personality is a hollow mix of flattery and arrogance. What makes me nervous, though, and what makes Seaver worthy of Grace’s attention in the first place, is that he seems pretty determined, and may not take no for an answer when the time comes. So far he’s been calm because he’s still confident that he’ll get what he wants, but should Grace turn him down, he’s clearly capable of doing some damage. His ability to influence humans through their biology could become very ugly very fast, and that looming tension is what drives this story. Grace is smart enough to tread lightly, but Seaver’s inevitably going to make his move, so to speak, and the hope is that by then Grace can figure out how to let him down without making him into an enemy. If anybody can, it’s probably her. Because like Seaver, Grace has a bulletproof self-confidence, fearlessly diving into unknown territory without a plan. Hesitating is the only thing we’ve never seen her do, because she trusts herself and her powers enough to face anything that comes her way.

The artist for “Amazing Grace” is Paul Maybury, who has a rounder, thicker line than McDaid. There’s no less bustle in his panels, but everything looks softer around the edges. I love his sense of fashion, particularly Grace’s outfit. It’s futuristic and functional, but also kind of childish with the chunky boots and gloves. Maybury always has Grace look comfortable, though. The clothes are her uniform, her business suit, and she wears them like a second skin. I’m also a big fan of her huge, wild, curly hair, which adds to her awe-inspiring presence, especially when she’s in action. It moves with her and makes her more look more formidable, like a cape does for so many other superheroes. Grace is a natural born world-saver, so her cape comes right out of her head. Seaver looks good, too, so disgustingly Aryan that you can see he’s not a real human right away, and dressed hilariously in a flawless white suit with a garish lapel flower and a pocket square. Everything about him is forced and overdone, where everything about Grace is, well, graceful.

She lives up to her name, and so does Golden City, thanks again to Brad Simpson. Color-wise, “Amazing Grace” is the brightest of the bunch, from the shimmering buildings of the city to Seaver’s extraterrestrial sparkle to the glint of wisdom always present in Grace’s eyes. And to go along with Maybury’s linework, Simpson’s colors aren’t quite so harsh or brazen here as they are in “The Ballad of Frank Wells.” Where they grow even bolder, though, is in the last of the three narratives, “Agents of Change.” There, Simpson goes Day-Glo, lighting up what is perhaps the darkest, meanest of the stories with high-powered bulbs.

As I head into “Agents of Change,” I want to keep talking about the artwork, because Ulises Farinas’ work is different from either McDaid’s or Maybury’s in a few ways that I think reflect how this story stands out from the other two in general. Farinas is steadier and more concrete with his drawings. Both “The Ballad…” and “Amazing Grace” have a certain kinetic looseness to their respective aesthetics that drops away in “Agents of Change.” The lines are clean and precise, giving the whole thing a smoothness that the rest of Catalyst Comix isn’t looking for. Farinas also has superb character designs, but they feel more normal—cloaks and capes, armor, gadgets, visors, and other expected costume pieces. The titular heroes often remind me of other heroes, and that’s not a bad thing, but it is something. It actually may be helpful, because there’s a far bigger cast in “Agents of Change” than its companion stories, and it’s the most character-driven of them all.

What Casey’s done up to now in this story hasn’t been about superheroes dealing with new kinds of problems, but about them deciding if it’s worth it to deal with any problems. Warmaker, Wolfhunter, Ruby, and Rebel are all former professional superheroes who are currently down on their luck, recruited by a chain-smoking suit named Bert for a project they know nothing about. Though they all agreed to it, based mostly on having nothing better to do, they’re not exactly enthusiastic or even entirely committed yet. They don’t get along with or respect one another, which leads to bickering and showboating, but at the same time you can see that they’re enjoying the prospect of being back in the saddle. A lot of this is Farinas, who has the cast smiling and relaxed more often all the time, but Casey also finds little moments for them to see each other’s value and find reasons to believe in whatever it is they’re doing.

He also gives everyone a unique reason to become an Agent of Change, with the possible exceptions of Wolfhunter and Warmaker. Those two characters both sign up because Bert convinces them it’s better than the inactivity of their current lives, and it happens off-panel with Wolfhunter, who then helps Bert pitch the whole thing to Warmaker. The key difference between them is that Warmaker is boisterous and ostentatious while Wolfhunter is more of a cool, silent, hanging-in-the-background type. For example, the former has two broad shoulders full of an array of insanely powerful weapons and armor, and the latter wears a simple white pelt and carries two handguns. Anyway, they’re both washed up when Bert finds them, but their teammates less so. Ruby isn’t exactly living a glamorous life, but she does use her power to make a living, inflicting pain with her touch as a sexual service. She seems jaded, almost apathetic about where she’s landed, but that doesn’t translate into any eagerness to be a proper superhero again. She’s detached and deadpan in every situation. Then there’s Rebel, who has become a reality TV celebrity. Or celebrities, since Rebel is technically twin brothers, only one of whom can have the costume and accompanying powers at a time, while the other is trapped in a vegetative state. They trade off, but neither one loves that system, since it means spending half their time unable to move or speak or participate in life. So they try to cash in on the weirdness of their situation with a television show about their lives. It’s basically a successful endeavor, but not one that makes either brother any happier. They’re ready to leave it behind now, which is why they agree to be Agents of Change.

Only Bert, then, has any specific investment in (or knowledge of) whatever the team has been gathered to accomplish. It’s his jam, and they are just the musicians he hired to play it. It’s a fragile dynamic, and involves a lot of inflated egos being asked to get along without being given a reason why they should. People give Rebel grief about selling out, Warmaker has severe anger management issues, and Ruby is clearly profoundly hurt over something. This is not a squad I’d trust with the future of the world, because it’s hard to see them having much of a future together at all. Yet Bert seems to have chosen them for a reason, or for various reasons, and thus far he’s appeared happy with their progress as a group. And they are making progress, inch by inch, reaching a place of begrudging civility and trust. I have to believe that, by the time it’s really time for them to do what they’re meant to do, the Agents of Change will have been molded into exactly the right heroes for the task.

That’s a strange way to go about building a superhero team, though, isn’t it? Not from Bert’s perspective, but from Casey’s. He develops several reluctant characters led by a cryptic one, who are all depressing and depressed, then he sets to work gradually reshaping them before actually sending them out on their adventure. The reshaping is their first adventure, I guess, and in that they find common ground with the protagonists of the other two narratives.

Because what they all do, what Catalyst Comix does cover to cover every issue, is tell stories about superheroes who are dealing with the unfamiliar by rolling with it wherever it goes. Frank lets Baba Lama lead him, and works as hard as he can on each new part of his journey. Grace goes along with whatever Seaver asks for, but analyzes and questions him, too, trying to solve him before he becomes a bigger and more complicated puzzle. The Agents of Change buy into Bert’s thing sight unseen, because at least they know it won’t be the same as what they were doing when the offer came around. Because of their powersets, all of these characters feel sure enough of themselves to ride the waves of uncertainty, and that seems to be, four issues in, the biggest takeaway from this series as far as its opinions on heroism. Being heroic in this book means having the flexibility to adapt to new situations, trusting yourself enough to face head-on things that you don’t understand. It means jumping blindly into the abyss if there’s any chance that when you get to the bottom you will have made the world a better place.

Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists