EXCLUSIVE: One of the most intriguing headlines out of last year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego was the announcement that Gail Simone, one of the top comic book writers in the world, would be taking the helm of the Catalyst Prime Universe, the sandbox for the superheroes featured in the pages of Lion Forge Comics. Lion Forge was founded back in 2011 with a mission in mind — hard-wiring a new superhero universe with the principles of cultural diversity and representation that would be reflected by the ranks of both its characters and its creators. Adding Simone, and accomplished superhero specialist and an outspoken voice on women’s issues, into that mix brought the promise of big things but the details have been scant. That changes today.
Simone is the architect behind Seven Days, a new publishing “event” series that will unite the heroes of the CPU for seven issues that countdown the days of one week — a week that happens to be the final one in the history of humanity. That’s the promise, at least, of the alien invader who is considerate enough to give the people of earth that window of time to put their affairs in order before they are wild off the face of the planet to make way for a reptilian remodeling,
Today Deadline has the first artwork from the high-profile publishing event and the first interview with Simone detailing her plots and plans for the CPU. We also talk to the writer (whose esteemed credits include celebrated runs on Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, and Birds of Prey) about heroic diversity, both literal and figurative, on today, the first day of International Women’s Month. Simone also shared her longview thoughts on a comic book career that is nearing its 20th anniversary.
DEADLINE: Last summer at Comic-Con International you were announced as the new guiding hand for the entire CPU. After all these months on the job, what has been the hardest part? And the biggest surprise?
SIMONE: Well, the first thing is, I love new characters. I’m a fan, I read comics, I talk comics, I make comics…it’s almost pathetic how much I enjoy this hobby and industry. And I love shared universes. Being offered the opportunity to jump in and help wrangle a complete universe, that’s just very appealing.
But more than that, the more I started to read the characters, the more I learned about the Catalyst Prime Universe, the more I fell in love with it. It’s full of characters like Summit and Noble, who really go right to the heart of why I love superheroes. When I get offered a chance to write new characters, I can’t help but imagine where it all could lead. I try to write the kinds of stories I want to read. And there’s so much out there to explore in the CPU.
I guess the biggest challenge would be that some of the initial writers were moving on to other projects as their contracts came up. There’s no hard feelings but it meant casting the right people for each book just as I was coming aboard. Fortunately, we had a lot of people to choose from.
And I can’t wait for people to hear who is coming aboard. The biggest surprise has been the editorial team, they’re just these brilliant, dedicated, stylish, wonderful young women and they bring something I’ve not really seen at any other publisher, they make comics that feel like they were created today, not 1939. I love them to pieces and rely on them utterly.
DEADLINE: The CPU and Lion Forge have been populating a superhero universe where the heroes and creators veer from the expected industry norm — they aren’t all white straight men. What do you see as the next step in making the mythology reflect socio-political themes that will set it apart? How do you balance that with other storyteller imperatives?
SIMONE: It’s a thing I love about Lion Forge, there’s this feeling of happening right now and not decades ago. That means a lot to me. I am never about replacing what people love, it’s all about adding to it, making people feel welcome. You go to any convention in the U.S., you see this unbelievably diverse group of people and it’s lovely. The CPU feels like that. But none of that matters if the books aren’t any good, if they don’t touch the reader. So that’s always goal number one. I tell the editors to go for the heart. Action, drama, comedy, we want all of that, get the pulse racing.
The story of Seven Days is this, in simplest terms: A superior being comes to Earth, and he’s a conqueror and destroyer, but he has one act of mercy in him. He’s going to give the people of Earth seven days to say goodbye to each other and make peace. At first, no one believes him. As it starts to creep in that people have just seven days to live, many can’t handle it. Some go up to the mountains with their family to wait for the end, some start shooting people. But a lot of people start “playing hooky,” the term to mean they stop showing up at work. Or they abandon their families. If you had seven days to live, would you go to work each morning? And the first thing to fall are the borders. No one particularly wants to check passports or run a guardpost when they would rather be partying or being with their loved ones. And we see what happens in a world without borders, where the people are terrified because the end is coming. It’s not utopia.
DEADLINE: The world can change a lot in the span of a week — especially if people think that it happens to be their final week. The end-times certainly refocus people’s priorities. It sounds like there’s a bit of Independence Day or Battlefield: Los Angeles in the beats of that set-up?
SIMONE: There is, I’m a sucker for old school disaster movies, I’m talking like Earthquake and the Poseidon Adventure. One of the things I love about them is, you don’t know who is going to die. And I love the spectacle. Event comics have a lot of tropes now…big threat, a character dies, another loses an arm, it’s not really a formula I want to follow. What I want is, give these characters something they’ve never faced, never even imagined. And see what happens to the people on the street without plasma powers. We have an unlimited budget, we’re not monitored by a big film company. There’s tremendous freedom.
So we’re going to push over all the toys.
And it’s fun, because we found just the right artist. I’m not kidding, we knew how important this was and we looked at every big name, all the names you know. And it’s interesting how few artists are really a perfect match for this story—lots of characters, tender small moments and then huge bits of spectacle. That’s a lot for one person. We looked at everyone, and then I asked my friend Joe Prado, who heads up Chiaroscuro Studios and has never done me wrong going all the way back to Birds of Prey, and he showed us Jose Luis.
It was literally immediate. We all thought, this is the guy. This is absolutely the guy. He’d been doing all sorts of work, Aquaman and others, and he could bring the scale we needed like nobody’s business. The book looks amazing and pretty soon, Jose is going to be one of the big names in comics art, wait and see. He’s joined in finished art by Jonas Trindade, who is equally fantastic. It’s just everything I had hoped for in my mind. Huge art, which I love.
DEADLINE: Shared universes in comics go back to the Justice Society in the 1940s but they were pretty haphazardly executed for years. I remember an early 1960s Superman comic book where he goes to Atlantis and its mermen and mermaids swimming around — even though that issue likely shared a spinner rack with Aquaman. How would you describe the strategy you have for wiring the CPU to be a more interwoven reader experience?
SIMONE: I don’t like to tell writers what to do. We hired people, like Alex Paknadel and Amy Chu and Rodney Barnes, who are natural team players and we know what they are capable of. The idea is to give them the layout and the way the status quo has changed, and let them use it as a launchpad. The truth is, I end up asking them about their characters far more than them having to ask what I want from them. If I am writing Quincredible (which is one of the best teen hero books ever, in my opinion), I just ask Rodney and he’s graciously always there.
I’ve been part of many huge event books and run a few of my own. The more you micromanage, the less organic and interesting the books become. Have a tight framework, know the endpoint, but then unleash hell, I say! It’s a bunch of the coolest superheroes out there, versus the ultimate creepshow villain. I couldn’t be happier. We’ve waited almost a year to start talking about this and pretty soon it will be here. It’s just thrilling. People will be able to jump right in. Do you like invasion movies and special effects blockbusters? What if we threw in some astronauts with superpowers?
DEADLINE: All the different “event” crossovers over the years at DC and Marvel — Secret Wars, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Atlantis Attacks, Civil War, House of M, to name a few — is there one or two that you could point to that have valuable lessons about what does or doesn’t work?
SIMONE: My favorite of all of these is still Crisis On Infinite Earths. That and the original Secret Wars, I mean, I don’t know if anyone has topped those for feeling like something new was happening and the stakes were real. Crisis, that’s still one of my all-time favorite stories. It had a million balls in the air and just kept catching them perfectly. And Secret Wars, there was this feeling like these beloved characters could actually die in a real way. The stakes were huge. Many of the event books since, they are forgotten soon after. We want this to be the best Noble story, the best Kino story, the best CPU story we can tell. So it lasts, it has meaning.
DEADLINE: Can you make a fearless prediction about the state of the CPU in, say, three or five years from now? Will the sky be filled with heroes or do you envision a leaner universe?
SIMONE: I don’t care if it’s a little or a lot, but I feel that it’s better to focus on making each one meaningful. I don’t want the CPU to be interchangeable. We have a vibe, we have a thing, that makes us unique and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
I feel like our trinity is Noble, Summit, and Accell. Then we have some awesome teen heroes in Superb and Quincredible. And right now, one of the best books on the stands is Kino, just an amazing take by Alex Paknadel. After Seven Days, we will put a couple books on hiatus and bring out some new characters I am amazingly proud of, best I’ve ever created, I think. We’re having a blast.
DEADLINE: This is International Women’s Month. At this stage of the the unfolding #metoo movement, do you think of yourself as a “glass is half-full person” or a “glass is half empty” person? Or a “throw the glass across the room” person?
SIMONE: I think it’s always progressing, it’s just that there’s some resistance to it. I feel amazed that we can have a character like Summit, who is a queer Jewish scientist and astronaut, and what happens when someone like that gets superpowers? I just love that. Not that long ago, a book like Summit was very unlikely. Now, her potential is unlimited. That’s progress. When I look around and see Kelly Sue DeConnick or Marjorie M. Liu or G. Willow Wilson and they’re just killing it, that’s progress. I am happy!
DEADLINE: If I have my math right, you are two years shy of your 20th anniversary as a published comic book writer. When you think fo the industry that greeted you then and the one that you work in today, are you struck by how different the experience is or by how similar it is?
SIMONE: Good lord, is that true? You know, a few years back, I decided that my joy in comics lay with doing lots of different projects, rather than a mult-year run on one title. I love the idea that I can write Tarzan one day and Iron Man the next. And so burnout is never a factor, I always feel like a newbie and I’m just starting out. I have been uncountably fortunate, there’s always a new challenge. That’s what motivates me, it’s never, you know, what’s popular today. I always want to tap into that energy of someone who is looking at this with fresh eyes.
It’s been a huge honor that so many of the impossibly talented women in comics have expressed that seeing me do this has helped encourage them to do the same, but I never think of it as following in my footsteps, I feel like we’re all pushing the same boulder uphill and it’s a privilege and a thrill to be shoulder to shoulder with them. It’s this thing no one believes, that we all support each other and no one is happier than I am when one of my sisters has a huge success. Even better is the group that is just now reading comics, and thinking about making their own. The next generation will have so many inspirational women to follow! It’s dizzying. It’s also a thing I love about the CPU. Every editor on the books right now is a woman, some of them award-winning creators themselves. That’s just as important as whose name might go on the cover.
DEADLINE: At every stage of our lives we find ourselves with new challenges and new opportunities. For you, right now, when you look at your career and your craft, what do you see as your biggest challenge or most intriguing opportunity?
SIMONE: That’s the thing, I love a challenge. I could always go back and I have on occasion revisited a previously well-regarded book. But I love to try the new thing, and am blessed that I always have more opportunities than the schedule allows. But people like Dan DiDio at DC, Tom Brevoort at Marvel, and Nick Barrucci at Dynamite, they know the way to get me is to offer me something I could not have possibly considered on my own. That’s the joy of Seven Days. It’s the first superhero universe event I have actually run, and it’s full of new challenges.
I hope people give it a try. We want it to be fun, entertaining, scary and heartbreaking all at once. I want every writer involved to bring their A game, especially me. It’s seven issues, bi-weekly. No other CPU books come out during the seven issues, so you don’t have a million tie-ins you have to buy or a thousand variants you can’t get. It’s just this one, massive story, like a lightning bolt in the middle of your comics purchases. We mess things up. But we have fun.