Comic fans have been debating which character would win in a fight for as long as there’s been superhero comics. In the modern era, it became possible to take control of your favorite hero and/or villain via a video game and have them slug it out against a variety of opponents in one-on-one battles, “proving” once and for all who was the best. The free to play mobile game “Contest of Champions” allows players to choose and collect a number of Marvel Comics‘ biggest and baddest fighters, and pit them against each other in unbridled combat.
The game — which launched in December 2014 — has been downloaded over 33 million times, which means there are a lot of people familiar with its intense battles and high concepts, including summoners and the material known as Iso-8. This October, writer Al Ewing and artist Paco Medina will use these ideas as the building blocks for their “Contest of Champions” comic, a Marvel Universe-set tale of high stakes gladiatorial combat and cosmic mystery.
We spoke with Ewing about the appeal of creating a series inspired by a fighting game, the combatants slated to appear in the series’ initial issues, and his take on the beings behind the fighters’ ordeal, the Elders of the Universe. And since this is an in-continuity tale, he opens up about the ramifications “Contest of Champions” might have on his other Marvel titles.
CBR News: With “Contest of Champions,” you’re taking some of the ideas from the mobile game of the same name and creating a series with direct ties to the Marvel Universe. What made that an appealing assignment for you? Were you a fan of the game?
Al Ewing: What drew me to this was the fun factor. Big fights, pulling from the deep bench of Marvel, making up new characters, doing weird stuff — it’s a strange mixture of a book that’s fairly capital-I Important and also quite free and freewheeling.
What’s it like creating a comic series from what is essentially a fighting game? I imagine coming up with action scenes and set ups for Paco Medina to bring to life is no problem, but what about the elements in-between? Will this series have room for emotional moments and other elements, like mysteries?
Yeah, it’ll have both. Lots of mysteries, lots of emotional beats. We’ve kidnapped a few luckless characters to be permanent additions to the cast — the idea is that the game-players and their “Summoners” have a number of permanent pawns. They can be assisted by the Marvel Universe’s best and brightest — “ringers” who are stolen for a fight or two, mindwiped and sent back none the wiser — but essentially, they’re there to fight until they die.
Imagine that for a second. Fighting an endless gladiatorial combat in a broken section of spacetime, utterly alone. Nobody’s rushing to bring you back, nobody’s coming to get you. Iron Man says he’ll bring in the Avengers — but then he’s sent home in a flash of light and you know he’s not even going to remember your name. And then people start dying, and you know it’s just a matter of time before it’s your turn…
So, yeah, emotional beats won’t be a problem. The big mystery is, how the Hell does anyone get out of this?
The titular “Contest of Champions” arises from the machinations of The Collector and his fellow Elders of the Universe, who are abducting Marvel characters and making them battle each other. What’s your take on the Elders and why they’re doing things?
The Elders are fun, because they’re so utterly inhuman. They’ve dedicated themselves to one particular thing — playing games, collecting, fighting — to the extent that they are that function. Which makes them oddly easy to work around and manipulate. The Grandmaster is always going to want to play a game, the Collector can’t turn down the chance to collect something interesting. They’re incredibly, impossibly powerful, and at the same time, they have these obvious psychological weaknesses and loopholes in their personality. It’s a fun mix.
Why they’re here this time — we’ll explain what’s happened in the eight months since “Secret Wars” [ended] towards the end of the first year, but we’ll be dropping hints at that backstory long before then.
Who are some of the characters you have immediate plans for? And will readers be following the perspective of a core cast of characters as they advance through the contest?
There’s a core cast — the “Pawns” — split into two team,s controlled by two different Summoners. One of those is the Maestro, controlling a team of main universe characters, and the other is a mysterious Player On The Other Side, who we won’t be revealing until issue #4 or #5, probably. He’s running a team pulled from different alternate universes.
Those Summoners are acting under the direction of the Elders, as part of a cosmic competition for the ultimate prize. In addition, we have guest stars brought in by the Elders to essentially add a little zap to proceedings and prolong the excitement. It’s all a bit meta, really. That’s one of the fun things about this series — I think at one point the tagline for the series was going to be: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
Anyway, we’re bringing back a couple of characters readers might think we couldn’t — the Collector’s reach, in certain cases, extends to the dead.
And since the Player On The Other Side has access to a myriad of alternate realities, we can have people like the Eddie Brock Venom or a version thereof, the Sentry from “Age Of The Sentry,” and the return of Joe Fixit. I hope those revelations whet your appetite, because I’m keeping the real humdingers under wraps until the time is right.
What kind of immediate consequences will the fights in “Contest of Champions” have on the greater Marvel U? Is this a series where the combatants will be engaging in death matches?
For the regulars, the Pawns, it’s death-match-a-go-go from the off. People will die. Bad things will happen. For the guest stars — well, the reason they’re being mindwiped and sent back is so as not to draw too much attention to the Contest, so they’re relatively safe. They’ll wake up with sprains and bruises and fractures, and their minds will make up a story about where those things came from. That’s how it starts — quite small scale, unless you’re one of the unlucky ones being actually, factually killed for the entertainment of space gods. But from there, things ramp up. By the end of the year, we’ll be in a position to affect things on a much more intense scale, one that the heroes won’t be quite so able to ignore.
The fights in “Contest” will unfold in a mysterious dimension dubbed “Battlerealm.” What can you tell us about this world?
Spinning out of “Secret Wars,” it’s a broken sector of space and time, a ruined zone, where the normal laws of physics don’t always apply. Smashed and wrecked cities float like asteroids, the rubble of some previous existence. What happened here? I couldn’t possibly tell you yet.
Anyway, the important thing about the Realm is that whatever cosmic occurrence left it behind also created a new cosmic substance, “Iso-8,” a name savvy Marvel gamers might recognize.
Bringing to life the setting, characters and most importantly the fights of “Contest of Champions” is artist Paco Medina, who has proven he can draw all kinds of Marvel heroes, and he’s also great with kinetic action sequences.
I’m really enjoying his art — it’s clear, it’s clean, it jumps off the page. I’m reminded of Chris Sprouse in places, which is obviously absolutely wonderful. And like you say, those action sequences do pop and pulse beautifully, which is very important in a comic that’s got a lot of emphasis on the punching.
“Contest of Champions” is connected to the larger Marvel Universe. Will there be some direct connections between “Contest” and your other books, “Ultimates” and “New Avengers?”
Almost certainly. I mentioned the intrusion of Iso-8 into the main Marvel Universe earlier — that’s going to connect heavily with “Ultimates,” if I get my druthers. In fact, readers might find a connection as far back as my “Mighty Avengers” run. As for “New Avengers” — well, there are big things brewing in that book, and it seems natural that eventually all the Big Things I’m planning in all my books are going to find themselves interlinking.
Contests are things that eventually end. So is “Contest of Champions” a series with a beginning, middle and end?
The first year, we’ve got pretty much all planned out, and a couple of plot elements for the second. So that’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end that’ll be big and satisfying, but it’ll end with a cliffhanger that’ll propel us into “Season 2”, which I suspect is going to be big and loud and have serious consequences for the rest of the Marvel Universe.
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