Joe Illidge looks at his career in the comic book industry and feels he’s come full circle.
Illidge began his career in comics as an intern with Milestone Media in 1993, working with classic black comic book characters such as Icon, Rocket and Hardware. He learned under the leadership of the Milestone co-founder, the late Dwayne McDuffie, as they embarked on a publishing journey meant to give black superheroes their place in comics with roles that were more than sidekicks and stereotypes. He edited Batman at DC Comics from 1998 to 2000, and has been a columnist on diversity in comics for Comic Book Resources.
Today, Illidge is a senior editor at the Lion Forge imprint Catalyst Prime, a job he got in June 2016 to oversee a new superhero/sci-fi comic book universe featuring diverse characters — and, just as important to Illidge, diverse creators — with stories taking place all over the world.
“What attracted me to the job was, as an alumni of Milestone Media, I have always in my career in comics believed in the promotion of people from different backgrounds as creators through fiction,” Illidge told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “Having the opportunity to take the next step of that dream and make it a reality with a company that believes in the same things was impossible to resist.”
Catalyst Prime’s comics include “Noble,” featuring a black astronaut who goes missing on assignment in space and resurfaces with superpowers, though he’s on the run in Latin America while his wife and a Latina-led secret organization track him down. The series “Accell” centers on a Latino character who runs faster than the speed of thought after exposure to an alien object. Cosmosis, a character with down syndrome, is featured in the series “Superb.” There’s even a color guide, created at the suggestion of Catalyst Prime editorial assistant Desiree Rodriguez, that assures that when characters leave their own title and appear in another, their hue remains consistent.
Illidge has assembled some of the top writers in comics, including David Walker (“Luke Cage”), Christopher Priest (“Black Panther”) and Amy Chu (“Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death”).
While a strong believer in diverse characters written and drawn by talent that’s just as diverse, Illidge says that won’t be the only philosophy that defines Catalyst Prime.
“We don’t always want to do straight lines, because in a weird way that segregates talent,” Illidge said. “That only says, well if you’re black, you can only write black characters or if you’re a woman you can only write a female character. We want to show that we can expand beyond that.”
Illidge takes pride in Catalyst Prime’s mission in an era when much of the industry is still catching up to the call for more diversity. He feels Catalyst offers stories for areas of comic book fandom (people of color, women, disabled) that at times have felt they haven’t had enough representation.
Despite efforts at major publishers like Marvel and DC Comics to introduce new, diverse heroes — at times taking existing mantles (Spider-Man, Thor, Green Lantern) and placing them on minorities — Illidge feels a void has been apparent in the comic book industry since Milestone ceased publishing in 1997.
In 2015, Milestone Media announced to Comic Riffs and the world they were returning to comics, but the comeback has yet to happen. Illidge wants the many fans who are eagerly awaiting Milestone’s return to know that there is a comic book universe right now, being overseen by someone who was there when Milestone was born, that can satisfy their needs.
Most importantly to Illidge, McDuffie’s influence at Milestone guides him to this day.
“The biggest lesson I learned from Dwayne that I’m able to bring to this job is that story is the most important thing,’ Illidge said. “Creative ego has to go in back of the story. Every person in the process, from myself as senior editor, the writer, the penciler, inker, letterer, colorist, everyone’s primary job is to tell the story. If we at the Catalyst Prime team can give you that, then I feel like we’re fulfilling our promise to the readers and our fans.”