Because poor literacy is kewl! Dark Horse’s “Comics’ Greatest World” returns in full force with CATALYST COMIX #1. Can the titanic powerhouse Frank Wells save the world from the End? What part did the genius Amazing Grace play in averting the apocalypse? And how will what remains of superhero glory react to a world that needs them more than ever?
Most importantly, what did I just read?
The 1990s were an odd, shadowy, and great time for comic books. Not necessarily a good time all the time (especially the early part), but certainly great (in scale). Many publishers and imprints belonging to existing publishers rose and fell during this tumultuous period. One such purveyor of comic books was the Dark Horse imprint Comics’ Greatest World, a shared universe containing many unique properties, including Ghost and X (not to be confused with Mister X). Unfortunately for the imprint that would eventually be renamed Dark Horse Heroes, it cropped up at the tail age of the Dark Age, when the bottom was falling out and the speculator bubble burst.
To the imprint’s credit, it was in production as early as 1990, when the industry still had plenty of life left in it. It’s just that it only got to releasing comics three years later, when everyone was jaded and the kind of heroes being put out were seen as just more of the same crap. It truly was bad timing.
So by the early 2000s the imprint was well and truly dead, and their characters forced in the back room for years. But recently Dark Horse has begun reviving its old properties, such as the new X ongoing. I might check out said X ongoing for a First Impressions – having obtained a few issues of the old series here and there – but for now we have more pressing business. The Golden City superheroes have returned in a new ongoing series with CATALYST COMIX #1.
CATALYST COMIX #1 is divided into three parts: the first with Frank Wells, formerly the Titan; the second with the leader/protector of Golden City proper, Amazing Grace; and the last with various former heroes, including anti-hero/villain Warmaker. All three stories run in parallel, with Titan and Grace each working in their own ways to stop or mitigate an end of the world attack by an eldritch horror on December 12, 2012. Meanwhile, a government agent calling himself Bert comes to the retired Warmaker, requesting he join several other former heroes in returning to work in humanity’s apparent great need. The Agents of Change must rise again.
All three stories were written by Joe Casey, with Dan McDaid, Paul Maybury, and Ulises Farinas handling art for the Titan, Grace, and Agents of Change stories respectively. All three artists do a wonderful job, all being colorful and complex, reflecting the nineties artwork from which these properties originated. The Frank Wells story reads like a very overblown old school comic, which is fitting not only in its style but also in the subject matter being a fight against Armageddon. Overwrought narration sets the mood quite nicely, though if you have no love for such melodrama, this story will do nothing for you. It’s practically parodist in how tongue-in-cheek it is.
The Amazing Grace story is more restrained in its narration, but still invokes the 90s era text. It’s also quite abstract, to the point where I had trouble figuring out what was going on. In fact, that’s probably the biggest strike against CATALYST COMIX #1 as a whole: I don’t exactly know how the world was saved. All I can gather is that Frank Wells and Grace did their respective brands of…something, and the threat to Earth was destroyed. At least the Agents of Change story was much more grounded and character based.
Speaking of character, I didn’t really get a good bead on Grace. Frank Wells and the Agents of Change were simple enough to understand, but Grace was a much harder nut to crack. Mostly because she said barely anything, and her tale was plot-centric, such that there was to be understood.
The world this comic takes place in is also dense with depth, you might say. And I mean that by saying it’s obvious, even from a guy who’d never even heard of Comics’ Greatest World outside of X before now, that we’re not dealing with some original world made in the style of a standard shared superhero universe. This is a place that has years of stories and background minutia out the yin-yang, and it’s unabashedly proud of it. Which it out to be, I suppose. It certainly made me research the thing, because after reading it I was sure, knowing nothing else about it, that these were pre-existing characters.
Of course, while this can get a person interested in their world, it can also seriously turn new readers off. Many questions come up to someone with little knowledge about the universe, but I think one in particular sums all of them up nicely: why is the President’s office haunted by the ghost of what appears to be Abraham Lincoln?
And if you’ll permit a second follow up question, why does the comic itself seem to consider that such an insignificant detail that it doesn’t even show the ghost as more than a background character with no lines?
A lot of these background details and world-building (or rebuilding) stuff also reflects a very nineties set of sensibilities. Obviously this would be the case, these being places and characters from that era. But if the presence of a woman with a skull face or a muscle bound dude with armor folding out into huge guns isn’t your cup of tea, then CATALYST COMIX offers you nothing.
That’s really all there’s to be said of the work, really. CATALYST COMIX #1 is certainly not a bad comic – the creative team did a fantastic job – but it’s a very specific kind of comic. It’s working from a style twenty years old, generated in a very different cultural environment. It exists for a specific audience: those that either read Comics’ Greatest World or comics like it back in the day. CATALYST COMICS came about for the same reason Valiant Comics was reformed, though from what little I can gather from old Valiant, the current crop is a mix of that old stuff and more modern writing styles. CATALYST COMIX would appear to stick more closely to the 90s aesthetic and groove, which might help or hurt it in the long run.
But perhaps its greatest strength lies there too. There’s certainly nothing else like it in the industry today.
Personally, the book has plenty of odd-ball elements to intrigue me, but on a personal level it’s not quite my cup of tea. Combined this with me never being a fan of the universe to begin with, and I just don’t see myself picking up issue two. It’s also worth noting that all three stories in CATALYST COMIX #1 conclude by saying “well that happened, what’s going to happen next?” Nothing specific is hinted at, meaning while the future of this story is uncertain, there’s no mystery to latch onto. So if I fail to cue up for the next installment, I probably won’t be all that bummed about it. By all means though, give the book a shot, especially if you’re a 90s comics fan and want a shot glass of nostalgia.