Rookie Comic Writer Delivers "Buckets of Blood" in DC Digital's "Mortal Kombat X"

At New York Comic Con, DC Comics announced weekly digital-first series "Mortal Kombat X," based on the latest installment of the popular and often controversial fighting game series known for its over-the-top violence. The comic will be written by Shawn Kittelsen, who is a newcomer to comic book creation -- but not to DC or "Mortal Kombat."

Kittelsen worked from 2009 to 2012 at DC Entertainment's Burbank offices, including a stint as a Creative Executive in the company's game development department. And, like many fatality-memorizing fans in their late 20s and early 30s, he grew up playing "Mortal Kombat" and its various sequels -- adding a palpable sense of excitement for this project, evident during his in-person interview with CBR News on the convention floor at NYCC.

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"Mortal Kombat X" the game isn't scheduled for release until April 2015, but the comic book -- illustrated by Dexter Soy, known for his run on Marvel's "Captain Marvel" -- is scheduled to debut on DC's digital platforms in January. Kittelsen told CBR about coming into the series with potentially "too much material," writing gory fight scenes while spending time with his infant son, playing the "Mortal Kombat" arcade game at Pizza Hut as a kid and his appreciation for "MK" cosplayers.

CBR News: Shawn, let's start at the beginning -- this is your first comic book, correct?

Shawn Kittelsen: Yeah. I've been lurking in the wings for years. I had a short story in "Smith Magazine" six years ago. I didn't want to show up at DC on day one and be the guy who was like, "So, I'd really like to have a book, as well as this job." I hung back on that, and when I left DC a couple of years ago I really committed myself to writing. I had some screenplays that went out, did some good things for the studios. Nothing that got produced, but it brought me back to writing.

I love comic books. It's in my blood. I'm a huge Superman fan, my son's name is Clark. But for me, coming back to comics was like coming home. I've got a couple of other projects that I can't talk about yet for next year. It feels like this is the me that I always wanted to be. I'm trying really hard to pursue a dream, and I feel really fortunate to have the opportunities that I have.

Every Mortal Kombat game has a story, in a sense, and there have been movies, cartoons -- lots of stories told with these characters. Yet it still seems tricky to take the bare elements of what it is -- people fighting each other to the death -- and turning that into a narrative, especially a comic book on an ongoing basis. How do you approach that?

I think I may have overwhelmed everyone with too much material when I pitched, because I felt like the only way to do it would be to describe an entire year of stories. So I broke a huge arc from the get-go. But in terms of how it's all organized, the way I've always looked at "MK" is, you have all these different characters that sort of inhabit their own worlds, and then worlds collide. It's all about how those worlds collide. Because the new game is very much about the multi-generational aspect -- it's about what ties them together and draws them into that collision.

It's blood. It's blood in the sense of heritage, and who your parents are, and where you come from and who your family is. But it's also blood in the sense of your beef -- your vengeance, your conflict, with a "K." I feel like we have this structure in place; everyone has to be inextricably drawn towards each other in conflict in some way. So we gave everyone their own emotional stories to pay off where they're going to end up in the game, where they've come from in previous games. Then from there we say, "How can we just throw them at each other and see what happens? What are the surprising twists we can find in the ways that they interact?"

Who are some of the main characters -- kombatants, if you will -- that play a role in the book?

All the characters who you've seen revealed so far are in the book. Kotal Kahn, D'Vorah, Ferra/Torr -- the new characters there. And then obviously Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Kano. Raiden shows up like a badass in the book.

It's cool to get the opportunity to portray the characters in comics. My job is tough, to wrangle all the characters, but I think what the gamemakers do is even harder. They have a limited amount of time, they have to showcase as many characters as they can. I have an ongoing weekly series to breathe a little bit. We'll be able to focus on a few characters for a few stories, and then move on to another few characters. So you'll never get bored, because there will always be a new arc just around the corner, and then when everything comes together, it does form this really massive, epic tale.

The original Mortal Kombat was considered violent and controversial back when it was released in 1992. But today's standards, it would be considered tame. Some of the fatalities in the recent games are insane. How far can you take it in the comic?

That was a concern of mine. "At what point am I going to get censored here?" I've been pushing it -- with every chapter, something more violent happens. So far I haven't met any resistance at all. DC, I think, gets what this property is, and WB and NetherRealm wouldn't even want us to do the book if it wasn't going to be authentic.

It's R-rated, hardcore violent -- I grew up with watching Peter Jackson movies, and George Romero, and Italian [horror films]. The bloodier the better when I was a kid. I'm sure my parents were really worried at some point -- "He seems like a nice kid, but he wants this movie by Lucio Fulci where someone gets stabbed in the eyeball." I just thought the effects were cool.

I was sitting with my son on my lap and I wrote, like, "Buckets of blood pouring from his face!" I looked at my kid and I was like, "I know you're five months old and you can't read yet, but what is this doing to you?" So I'm a parent, too.

Must be a fun balance.

It's a fun balance. But this is definitely a book for all of us who grew up with MK, and all the new fans, too.

So fans can expect similar content as in the video games?

Absolutely. Fatalities. All that stuff. Bones crunching. Skin flaying. Everything you can think about. Eyeballs popping.

I'm guessing you and I are about the same age -- I was at the exact right age when the first Mortal Kombat came out, where I was old enough to play it and be reasonably good at it, but also young enough that it was forbidden fruit. Were you in a similar situation?

Absolutely, man. I found "Mortal Kombat" at a Pizza Hut arcade. There was a little arcade section in my Pizza Hut in Clifton Park, New York. That arcade game -- when we went, I remember playing it any my mom coming over; just like, "What is this?" But she let me keep playing it because all my friends were playing it. You put your quarter up -- I'd be like, "Mom, I've got my quarter up there. What do you want me to do here?"

I grew up with it, and it became, for me, so much more, because I would draw these pictures and kind of live out adventures in the world. I'm able to draw from so much -- there's this vast mythology. Everything from the cartoon, to the TV shows, and so many games. We're over 10 games in now, if you include "Special Forces" and "Mythologies." You look at everything that's been done, and I'm never at a loss for a character to use, a place to go, something authentic. I feel really, really fortunate that there's this thing to draw on that we all love and know.

How's it been working with the artist for the book, Dexter Soy?

He is insane, bro. He is insane. He has not backed down from anything. He's fantastic. I think what you're going to see if you're a fan of his from "Captain Marvel" and "Justice League Beyond," he's taking things to a whole new level with the art here. It's a different spin on his own style, but it feels like something you've just never seen before. I haven't seen a whole lot of martial arts books besides "Immortal Iron Fist" out there that have this kind of style to it. I'm super-pumped.

Surely you'll be asked this a lot, but who's your go-to character when you play Mortal Kombat?

Sub-Zero in "MK3" is my all-time go-to MK character. Obviously, Scorpion's a huge one. In the new game, Kotal Kahn captured my heart. And when you meet Cassie Cage, you're going to shit a brick. She's so awesome. She is the best of both worlds. One of the stories I'm most excited to tell now is, who is Cassie Cage, and what's it like to be Johnny Cage and Sonya's daughter? And what do we learn about Johnny and Sonya through that? It's an awesome story.

[Sees a Sonya cosplayer] Oh, shit. I think there's a Sonya Blade over there. I've been finding every MK cosplayer and asking them to take a picture with me, and in most cases being, "Will you kill me in a picture?" I'm going to put all those up on my Tumblr.

What's the best MK cosplay you've seen?

There was a guy and a girl as Nightwolf and Jade who were outside yesterday, right outside of here. They were both incredibly fit, and they put a lot of love into the costumes. They had the most authentic fighting moves. I also found a really amazing Scorpion, and female Shao Kahn. Which makes me want to write a female Shao Kahn in, but I don't think that's going to happen. I think NetherRealm may draw the line at that. "What's that all about? Shao Kahn's dead, and now you're bringing him back as a woman. This is getting weird."

But they've been really good, too. Everyone that I've worked with on this book, from DC, WB, NetherRealm, have given us a lot of creative lead for as much as we want to tell new stories, and put new twists on the characters. We've been really fortunate to have a lot of freedom.

"Mortal Kombat X" is scheduled to debut digitally from DC Entertainment in January 2015.

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