Welcome back for the fourth installment of THE COMMENTARY TRACK. This is the regular feature at CBR in which we invite creators to stop by and talk about their most recent releases, often in spoiler-filled detail. Go behind the scenes and into the minds of your favorite creators and flip through their comics with them. It'll be just like a DVD commentary, but without all the awkward pauses.
This week, we turn to DC Comics and "Countdown." Spinning off from the events of that universes-spanning series comes "Countdown: Arena," a four- issue miniseries designed to give readers the kind of showdowns you'd normally expect to see only in fanfiction, with alternate versions of classic DC characters finding themselves in gladiator-style combat with one another.
Writer Keith Champagne joins THE COMMENTARY TRACK this week to discuss how he brought it all together in a logical way and how he's handling all the characters, their interactions, and the Big Fights. Oh, and how did a "Watchmen" character sneak into this book?
Remember, this commentary track is chock-a-block filled with SPOILERS! Don't say we didn't warn you, no matter which Earth you're from.
By Keith Champagne
I thought it was appropriate to start the fourth and final issue with a nice, big shot of Monarch. His motives have been the impetus behind the entire series and, underneath all of the battles - ultimately, "Arena" is a story about Monarch.
We'll touch on that point again later in the commentary.
I love the first three panels here. Christopher Kent and "Red Sun" Superman have reached the point where, for the greater good, they're giving in to Monarch.
The Superman of Earth-31, for good or bad, might enter the Arena but he'll never go gently into that not-so-good night. Superman is so frustrated at this point, both by being outmaneuvered by Monarch and by the ongoing bickering between he and Red Sun, that he really needs to hit something before he blows up.
The Superman from "Dark Knight Returns" was the first character I put on my wish list for this series but, for a couple of reasons, his use was actually initially vetoed in favor of the Superman of "Kingdom Come."
Early on in the process, we realized that "KC" Superman was going to be occupied in JSA at the same timeframe as "Arena" so, as the fates would have it I got the Superman I wanted all along. Having two Supermen so perfectly opposed to one another's politics gave their story an organic hook to start building their inevitable fight from. The Superman battle was always intended to be the main event. I thought it was important that their fight have a little substance behind it aside from just three Supermen punching each other.
And then there's Christopher Kent, the Last Son Of Krypton and the wildcard in the battle of the Supermen.
When the reader first meets CK, I wanted them to assume that, aside from the fact that he looks different (For fans of MMA, his physical appearance is based on former Pride, now UFC fighter Wanderlei Silva) he was more or less the 'same' as the other two Supermen.
Over the course of the story, I wanted to reveal that Christopher Kent was cut from a different cloth. "Evolved," as he says himself a few pages from now. And from the start, that evolution was really the key to how the entire Superman battle was going to play out -- in spite of a raised eyebrow from series' editor Mike Siglain, which I'll get into in a bit.
PAGES 7 - 8
In the first issue, they met and instantly didn't like each other.
In the second, the arguments and bickering began in earnest.
In the third issue, things got physical for the first time when "Red Sun" slugged "Dark Knight Superman" to provide a distraction to Monarch.
The point being, there was a progression and a build of tension. Now, finally, after three issues of (hopefully not repetitive and annoying) buildup, the Supermen fight begins, powerfully illustrated by [penciler] Scott McDaniel and [inker] Andy Owens.
Let's talk about Monarch for a minute.
There have been a lot of questions about Captain Atom/Monarch throughout "Countdown" and subsequently, into the pages of "Arena." Why is Captain Atom suddenly so evil? How did he get so powerful? Why does he hate the Monitors so much?
The answer is: I don't know, either. Those are all questions for the "Countdown" crew to answer and I didn't need to know any of it to write "Arena."
My job over the course of "Arena" wasn't to answer the Captain Atom/Monarch stuff. It was to build Monarch up and get him ready for his coming war against the Monitors.
The sequence on pages 14 through 16, where Monarch explains how far ahead he planned for "Arena," serves that purpose in my eyes.
It made sense to me early on that Monarch would have a couple of double agents mingled in with the other characters in captivity. Ted Kord was perfect in that role because there's so much goodwill towards the character, no one would ever suspect that this version was secretly working for Monarch all along.
Breach is the other traitor. No one knows anything about him but everyone assumes he's in the same boat as the rest. The only moment of foreshadowing in the entire series that Breach is a traitor is in issue #3, where Quantum-Storm waffles at wearing Ted Kord's harness and Breach steps forward to volunteer.
Monarch's plan is bigger than what anyone is assuming and Breach is integral to achieving that goal.
I love this entire sequence because it illustrates perfectly how calculating and dangerous Monarch is. Like he says, he gave them all false hope to distract them from actually finding a way to escape.
The curveball he throws here illustrates how smart Monarch is. It spins the entire series in a different light and nobody saw it coming.
Back to the Supermen, where Christopher Kent is busy absorbing chunks of the arena itself, powering up, growing larger by the second.
"Red Sun" Superman's line about how, perhaps, he and "Dark Knight Returns" Superman should team up is my favorite line of dialogue in the entire series and serves as a denouement to the ongoing rivalry between the two characters.
They may not like each other but at the end of the day, both are Superman. So is Christopher Kent. Egos aside, all of them realize they need to work together to stop Monarch.
And, working together, the Supermen turn the tables on Monarch.
Mike Siglain initially felt that giving Christopher Kent all of these new tricks might undermine the integrity of the Superman battle. I felt that, so long as his different abilities furthered the overall story, giving the fight a different flavor than what people may expecting wouldn't be so bad. Mike trusted me and let me run with my train of thought so if readers hate the way the battle of the Supermen runs? It's all my fault.
And. . . like he said from the start (and repeated again this issue), Christopher Kent gives his life to save billions, leaving the battle in the hands of his two Kryptonian brothers.
This Christopher Kent was 100% my character so seeing him crumble into ash kind of sucks. But it was my idea to kill him so I can only be mad at myself.
At least he goes out a hero.
PAGES 25 - 26
The charge of the Captain Atom Brigade begins, perfectly timed the way only comic books can be.
The Brigade thinks they're bringing Monarch down. Little do they know that they're playing right into Monarch's hands.
Coming up with so many different versions of Captain Atom was a headache. I spent a lot of time searching the Internet for previously established versions and also a lot of time staring at my monitor, trying to come up with new ones.
Of pre-existing versions, I had to have the original Ditko version of the character in there. If you search through the two-page spread, you might also see some familiar faces, including an albino Doc Manhattan from "Watchmen." "Watchmen" and "Dark Knight Returns" are two of my three favorite comics ever ("Batman: Year One" is the third). I ended up getting to use Superman from "Dark Knight Returns" and damn if I wasn't going to sneak someone from "Watchmen" into this series somehow.
I would like to make clear that the world of "Watchmen" isn't a part of the DC multiverse, not as far as I know. Doc Manhattan is only here because I snuck him in and, even in the script, I called him Doctor Metropolis. So let's just say that he's from a "Watchmen"-type world and leave it at that.
Of the brand new versions, the giant robot Quantum Mechanix is my favorite brainstorm. I love giant robots and the character and name clicked pretty fast in my mind. Kid Quantum from Legion is also in there because I'm the world's biggest Legion fan, as well as a host of others.
The one I feel bad about is Brigadier Atom, the husband of Eve Of Shadows from issue #1. I intended for the Brigadier to have more of a chance to redeem himself and avenge the death of his country. If only I had ten more pages….
As Monarch wades through the Captain Atom Brigade, Breach finds both his soul and his moment of redemption, turning against Monarch, saving Superman and giving him a chance to rescue the other heroes that are being held captive.
Breach meets his demise a few pages later but I doubt that's the last we'll see of him. A lot of characters died in this series but I didn't kill anyone without already having ways to bring them back (especially not The Bat from "Liberty Files"). That also goes double for Breach, a character that I really, really like and petitioned to use in this series.
I'm really happy with this scene. The original, Ditko-version of Captain Atom faces down the modern, bastardized Monarch. I thought it gave a sense of coming full circle with the character, acknowledging what he once was while moving into the future. Like Monarch says, it's like looking in a fun house mirror.
Monarch's closing line, "If that's what it takes", sums up the character as he's become. He's throwing his soul away in an attempt to save reality itself.
The Arena is in shambles. The Captain Atom Brigade has fallen-and they can't get up. Monarch has done every single thing he set out to do.
At this point, no matter how Captain Atom is eventually shown to become Monarch, I feel I've done my job. He's now a great villain, plain and simple. He's shown how smart he is, he's shown how powerful he is, and also how determined he is. Monarch is now at a level where he can take on the Monitors in serious fashion and possibly win.
As an aside, I think it's necessary to have the villains win sometimes. Not temporarily win in part two of a three-part story, but actually achieve real victory over the heroes. If we see the bad guys constantly lose, we take them less seriously the next time they pop up. Having them win once in a while is, I think, important to the bigger picture.
That same line of thought goes towards keeping the heroes strong, too.
The Superman of Earth-31 took the most licks out of anybody in this series but, at the end of things, he beats Monarch by rescuing the captive heroes and getting them home. Even though it happens off panel, it was important to give Superman that heroic moment. He never gave in, not morally or ethically, and being true to himself provides a personal victory for the character, as well as a middle finger towards Monarch.
A bit of "Arena" trivia is that I had planned an alternate ending for the series and pitched an "Arena" one-shot that would have seen the dimensional harness deliver Superman to the Wildstorm Universe, where he and Midnighter would have then had to rescue the captive heroes together. I thought it would be a fun story but I think this ending is the best way to go. It puts an appropriate coda to the entire series.
And we end things with Monarch and the newly acquired "Generals" of his army, ready for battle.
When one is handed a series from editorial, it can be a balancing act making sure that the larger picture is being served while still bringing a bit of oneself to the writing. Add in the stunt factor of the fan vote in this series and things got even more tricky.
Read all four chapters in one sitting and I think you'll see that everyone's needs were served in this series, from editorial to the characters to the readers voting to my own as a writer. Against the odds, it's a very complete story with a very tight structure and I proudly stand behind this series. Scott and Andy drew the hell out of it, 38 pages a month for four months instead of the typical 22 pages per book and they did an amazing job.
I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Thanks again to Keith Champagne for stopping by to explain the many little details going on in the pages of the conclusion to his miniseries, "Countdown: Arena." You can also find Keith writing a fill-in issue of "The Flash" in February, and he has the "Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters" revival from Dynamite coming up. You might also catch his name on books slinging some ink around, most notably lately for Jamal Igle's pencils in the DC Universe.
You can also track Keith Champagne's works through his blog.
If you have any suggested titles or creators you'd like to see a commentary track from, drop us a line. If you're a creator with a book due out soon that you'd like to stop by to talk about in detail, let us know. (We're especially looking for artists/colorists/letterers who are looking to talk about their craft, as we've had a shortage of those so far.) We're busy behind the scenes lining up books for the weeks ahead, but there's always room for more!
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