DC Comics Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Dan DiDio himself called "Countdown: Arena" a "fanboy dream book" when it was announced at Wizard World Chicago this summer. The writer of the four-issue weekly event, Keith Champagne ("Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters"), jokingly said he actually finds the project to be the complete opposite.
Champagne told CBR News, "In the words of Merlin from John Boorman's 'Excalibur,' it's 'a dream to some...a nightmare to others.'
"In all seriousness," Champagne continued, "this project was about as good as it gets for me. It starts with a really fun overall concept: Heroes pounding on heroes, plus 'Arena' gives a rare chance to play with some of the cooler versions of different characters. On top of that, I got to make up a bunch more, including my own version of Superman which, to me, is the Holy Grail of comics."
Debuting December 5 with art by Scott McDaniel and Andy Owen and covers by Andy Kubert, "Countdown: Arena" is hyped by DC as an event pitting "hero versus hero in the ultimate battle royale." Spilling from the pages of "Countdown," Monarch begins the last chapter of his campaign against the Monitors, combing the entire multiverse to enlist the most powerful (or deadly) heroes and villains from throughout existence to join his army. The chosen/abducted must battle one another in Monarch's specially constructed Arena, where only the strongest of each will survive to join his battle against the Monitors.
"Readers might go into 'Arena' expecting it to be a simple slugfest but I hope they'll be surprised at how much more there is to the book," said Champagne. "It grew and expanded quite a bit from the overall fun concept that birthed the project to the point where, in my humble opinion, it's much more than people are going to be anticipating. But then again, I'm biased."
Three versions of each Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, plus The Flash, Blue Beetle, Nightshade, Starman, and the Ray will be carefully selected from worlds throughout all 52 universes – including characters from Wildstorm, "Superman: Red Son," "New Frontier," "Gotham by Gaslight," "JSA: Liberty Files," "Justice League: The Nail" and "Tangent," among many others-- will walk into the Arena, and only one of each will walk away.
"The readers have been invited to vote for the winners of the four marquee battles, the ones featuring Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Superman," explained Champagne. "There are six other battles between different characters in the book, but the final results of those were left in my hands.
"Think of it as Monarch building his ultimate version of the Justice League to serve as the generals of his army," continued Champagne. "So far, I know what versions are competing. I just don't know, in four cases, which ones will win. The reasoning behind the fan vote is pretty simple, mainly to give the online contingent of comics fans, which is pretty vocal, a chance to contribute to something in a fun way. Turn out for the vote at www.dccomics.com/sites/arena/ has been really strong, so I think the online fans have had a good time with it. As I write this, there's still a little time left to get up there and vote so if you haven't yet, or you want to vote again, get to it."
Champagne says from a marketing standpoint, the concept of fan voting is great. Including a fan vote gives the book an instant hook that separates it from every other project out there right now. Shipping the four issues weekly in December is another distinct factor to give the book a unique identity. But in terms of writing, Champagne has some challenges ahead of him.
"From a creative standpoint, it gets a little trickier leaving things open while we wait for the results of the vote," explained Champagne. "The creative process has taken a great deal of forethought to plan for every contingency, no matter who wins which battle, but also finding ways to make sure those victories are organic to the characters and the overall story."
And while voting is key to the wins and losses of "Countdown: Arena," Champagne says the creative team has learned from past attempts at putting a comic book's final results in the hands of the Jeff Albertsons of the world. "I can say unequivocally that there will not be a 'Wolverine beats Lobo' outcome to any battle, no matter who wins each one. We planned ahead for that kind of contingency," said Champagne, referring to the famous upset that took place when fan-voting produced that highly debated outcome in the '90s "DC Vs. Marvel" fight comic.
"I can also say that the structure [of 'Countdown: Arena'] is seamless," Champagne continued. "People are going to read this book and kill themselves trying to figure out how the story flows so smooth throughout, in spite of the fact that, as we produced it, we didn't even know who would win the four key battles.
"It's all been planned out to a ridiculous degree.
And while many decisions were made for him, Champagne did offer some notables who he would have loved to include in the mini-series. "We put together a pretty strong roster for this book and I'm pretty happy with the versions of the characters we used," Champagne said. "Having said that, I would have liked Batman from 'The Dark Knight Returns.' We had him for a little while, then it was decided it would be sacrilegious to use him. Which isn't to say, other characters from that series aren't present, just not Batman.
"I also wanted a Barry Allen version of Zoom, which I thought would have been a cool reveal at some point for longer-term readers. We had Superman from 'Kingdom Come' for a bit, until we realized he was going to be busy in 'Justice Society of America' at the same time as 'Arena' ships. But we got a great replacement for him.
"I would have liked The Watchmen, too or at least one of them. I wanted Night Owl for the Blue Beetle battle. Again, it was deemed sacrilegious to play around with those characters, which I completely understand."
As for his series' heavy hitter, Champagne had this to say about Monarch, "I think he serves a great role in the DCU now that he's hit that mark," Champagne remarked. "Any comics universe can always use more great villains. And much like writing Guy Gardner in 'Green Lantern Corps,' I didn't really give a crap about Monarch before I wrote 'Countdown: Arena.' By the time I was done, I really got to enjoy him. I think 'Countdown: Arena' has one of the smartest and most determined versions of the character to date and I hope readers enjoy our take on him."
Monarch was created by Archie Goodwin, Denny O'Neil, and Dan Jurgens and first appeared in 1991's "Armageddon 2001" #1. After much fan deliberation suggesting he was a version of Captain Atom, Monarch was revealed as Hank Hall, formerly the hero Hawk, and was later renamed Extant for the "Zero Hour" crossover.
The second Monarch – Nathaniel Adam, formerly Captain Atom – was introduced in the pages of "Extreme Justice" in the mid-1990s and resurfaced most recently in "Countdown" #44. "His determination is to be admired," stated Champagne. "Monarch is doing what he believes is the best thing for the entire multiverse and he's willing to throw his own soul away for what he sees as the greater good.
"I think the best villains are the ones who, even though they're fundamentally wrong in their actions, believe that what they're doing is the best possible thing. That inherent conflict makes for an interesting character."
And a character that may not get exactly what he set out to do. "At the end of 'Arena,' it ties back into 'Countdown' but to say how will spoil the ending. No one ever said Monarch would succeed in building his army, though, just that it's his goal," teased Champagne.
"Like I said before, there's a lot more to this project than people might expect. So if you go into it, and I hope you do, expecting mindless, pandering trash, prepare to have your perceptions rocked a bit. Fun is the order of the day but never at the expense of character or internal logic."
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