In the early 1990's every publisher had to have their own superhero line, because that's where all the money was. Dark Horse, till that point the acclaimed home of creator-owned fare and strong licensed books like Alien, launched "Comics' Greatest World" (CGW from here on), a series of $1 books paired into four groups of four, each spotlighting a quartet of superhero concepts in four different fictional cities. The most high profile of these titles was Barb Wire (due to the Pamela Anderson film), but a few more went on to some measure of cult success (mostly X and Ghost, both of which have been resurrected by Dark Horse within the past year).
I followed this stuff back when it came out, and even I have a hard time remembering who is who or what the hook was for certain books. Catalyst Comix #1 is like running into someone who totally recognizes you, but you can't place their face at all and it bugs you that you can't remember more. I know I read Catalyst: Agents of Change back in 1994, but I've retained almost no knowledge of these comics that I know I liked at the time. I think it was supposed to be the CGW version of the Justice League, with heavy-hitter Titan in Superman's leadership role.
This is a fresh start on the material, so there's no worry about catching up with the old stuff - I just wish I could compare and contrast a little better. Catalyst Comix is structured like an anthology, featuring three different stories about the same cataclysmic event - the arrival of an apocalyptic entity called Nibiru ("Nibiru is release! Nibiru is decay! Nibiru is extinction! Nibiru is!" reads Joe Casey's charming, intentionally overblown prose). Titan's lead-off touches upon the consequences of superhero mass destruction in a way that feels timely in the wake of Man of Steel's controversial finale. The second story is a slightly more metaphysical and hard sci-fi introduction to the space-faring character Amazing Grace. The third tale brings the Nibiru event to a street level as two more brutish, wildcard anti-heroes are called into action by a government agent.
If I was going to make comparisons (and I am!), maybe those 1994 comics are the wrong place to look anyway. Catalyst Comix #1 really reminded me more of the recent stuff coming from Rob Liefeld's reboots at Image Comics, namely Prophet and Glory. These aren't quite underground alt-comix, but they are alt-superhero comics and they offer a viable, curious alternative to the squarely down-the-middle superhero stuff from the Big Two.
Part of this is due to the artists chosen for the stories. Dan McDaid, Paul Maybury, and Ulises Farinas work from Joe Casey's sturm-und-drang scripts with the assured craft of veteran cartoonists. All three have distinct styles that compliment each other when viewed page-to-page in the anthology format. The tie that binds is that they're all left-of-center artists - certainly not experimental or off-putting, but not working in the blandly mainstream American comics idiom. It feels to me like publishers are starting to expand their idea of what superhero books can look like (Marvel's recent Alpha: Big Time is a great recent example of this, and I can't help but think web comics may have advanced the palate of the American comic book fan. This is a subject worth further exploration away from the confines of this specific review.) Catalyst Comix #1 looks different from other books, and it deserves your attention for that.
Neither of Joe Casey's most recent projects (Image's Sex and Bounce) have tickled my fancy, which is more of a matter of personal taste than harsh criticism, but Catalyst Comix looks to be a little more in the vein of his Kirbyesque opera Godland. The bombast in Catalyst is more charming than tedious and really does flavor this book with something a little different than anything else on the rack. It's not a book as easy to get into as either of Dark Horse's other CGW reboots, the recent hyper-violent X relaunch nor the supernatural mystery Ghost. The drawback of this three-story format is that none of the individual shorts quite get the time they need to really hook you. It's missing a bit of editorial clarity in that way - tell me why this book should exist and why I should care, outside of it being just another brand revitalization. They could be doing something much more memorable with these characters this time around than they did in 1994, and my hope for Casey and company is that the potential in Catalyst Comix #1 to forge a new off-kilter superhero universe is fully realized as the series progresses.