Interview With MKX Comic Book Writer Shawn KittelsenShortly before the holidays we sat down with Mortal Kombat X Comic Book writer Shawn Kittelsen and talked about the return of the Mortal Kombat franchise to the world of comic books with his new series.
MKSecrets: Hello Shawn, My name is Atanas, webmaster of Mortal Kombat Secrets (MKSecrets.Net), a Mortal Kombat website that has been following the franchise for the past almost 13 years. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us and our readers. Would you introduce yourself to our readers?
Shawn Kittelsen: Great to be here Atanas! I’m Shawn Kittelsen, writer of the weekly Mortal Kombat X series from DC Comics.
MKSecrets: How were you introduced to the Mortal Kombat franchise? Do you have a favorite character, game, movie, etc... Do these influence the stories you are going to tell in any way?
Shawn Kittelsen: I grew up with Mortal Kombat, starting with the first game in 1992. It was at a Pizza Hut in my hometown. I used to beg my family to eat there just to play the game, so by the time it came home to consoles, I was already hooked. From there, I’ve played every game, watched the movies, and seen a lot of the shows, so without a doubt my approach to MK stories is influenced by everything that came before. Even the stories that weren’t successful— I’m looking at you, Annihilation — are an influence, because they’re a reminder that as fans, we hold this franchise to a higher standard.
MKSecrets: Mortal Kombat has very passionate and very vocal fans who dissect everything under a microscope. This will inevitably happen to the Mortal Kombat X comic books as well. Was any special preparation needed for writing the stories?
Shawn Kittelsen: I personally did a ton of homework, including watching all nine episodes of the MK Secrets “History of Mortal Kombat” on YouTube. Seriously!
Everyone on this book knows that scrutiny is coming. That’s exciting, because it means we’re working on stories people want to read, but as you pointed out, that attention comes with its own challenges. Trick is, if you focus too much on microscopic details, you’ll never finish telling the story. That’s why NetherRealm’s approval is so important to me. Some of the biggest MK fans in the world are the folks who dedicate years of their lives to making these games great. Holding ourselves to NetherRealm’s standard isn’t just a talking point to me, it’s a responsibility to honor the creators and fans around the world who’ve kept MK alive for over two decades.
MKSecrets: The comic books based on Injustice: Gods Among Us are a huge success. These books tell the story that leads to the events of the game itself. In one of your recent interviews you mentioned that the Mortal Kombat X comic books will tell stories that will take place during the 25 years time span of the game itself. Can you tell us something about how the Mortal Kombat X game and comic books are going to complement each other? Will there be stories that take place before the events of the game? Will the books still be complete on their own or will the stories from the game and knowledge of the franchise be required in order to piece all things together?
Shawn Kittelsen: It’s been very important to me that this series stands on its own because you just never know where readers are coming from. Some people are hardcore veterans who know every game front to back. Others are lapsed fans returning to the series. Then there’s a whole new generation of fans who just discovering MK, and we want them to feel welcome. So the stories are approachable insofar as we introduce a fantastic cast of characters with motives and objectives and we follow them on action-packed, epic journeys.
At the same time, the book should reward hardcore fans by harkening to things they already know from past games, like the Red Dragon and the Kamidogu. But just because you recognize familiar elements doesn’t necessarily mean you know the story, and just because you see characters in MKX the book doesn’t mean they’ll be in MKX the game, either.
Relative to the game, there are 25 years between MK9 and MKX, and most of our comics take place several years in, with some flashbacks here and there. We’re not retreading the MKX Story Mode. If you read the comics alone, you’ll get a full story. Play the game alone, you’ll get a full story. But when you combine the comics with the game, you’ll become immersed in a bigger, more complex world with a deeper understanding of the characters.
For me personally, the best thing about starting in the middle of the gap instead of being a direct prequel to the events in MKX the game is that we still have several years of twists, turns, and surprises to explore, so that opens up a world of story possibilities. We don’t have to play it safe.
MKSecrets: There are several comic books/comic book series based on the Mortal Kombat franchise. Most of them non canon. Are these comic books to be considered canon and how involved were the guys over at Netherrealm Studios when the stories were outlined. While we are on this topic, were you able to tell the stories you wanted to tell or were you in some form restricted by the existing Mortal Kombat stories and the expectations of the others involved in the development of the new game?
Shawn Kittelsen: These books are intended to be canonical and compatible with the games, in order to create that more immersive narrative. We didn’t start on scripts until we had NetherRealm’s approval on the outline, and in the outline process we had deep, deep discussions about what worked, what didn’t, and why. Throughout the whole process, everyone at NetherRealm, DC Comics, and WB Games were incredibly cool about letting me tell the stories I wanted to tell, even when I came in with a left-field idea. There was no list of rules or restrictions that I was asked to follow beyond this guiding principle: “Thou shalt not break the games.” Fair enough!
MKSecrets: You are simultaneously working with iconic classic characters and also with newcomers to the franchise. How were you able to integrate these two groups into your books. How did you approach them? Are you planning on introducing new characters to the Mortal Kombat franchise or on using minor characters?
Shawn Kittelsen: I can’t say too much about the characters or I might spoil the story. I will say that, structurally, I tend to group new characters and familiar characters together. We get to know the new characters through the familiars, and conversely, we develop new understandings of the familiar characters through their interactions with new characters. You’ll see minor characters returning from the past as well as new characters created just for the comics, but the main focus will be on characters who appear in MKX.
MKSecrets: What can we expect from the first chapters? Is there a story or a moment that is your favorite?
Shawn Kittelsen: It’s so hard not to drop spoilers! Like, do you really want to know about Scorpion and his apprentice? Is that too much? I think my favorite thing about the first chapters is that this series has a sprawling story with a big cast, but we start relatively small. Those early chapters are tightly focused on a few characters, easing you back into the world of MK. Within a few weeks, we go wider, much wider, but we don’t rush into it like, “HEY! HERE’S 20 CHARACTERS IN THE FIRST FRAME!” That’s what Annihilation did, and the problem with jamming too many characters in the story too quickly is that you don’t really get to know anybody, so you have no reason to care about them.
MKSecrets: Were there any challenges you had to face with the still relatively new and shorter digital first format of the chapters?
Shawn Kittelsen: The widescreen format was easy to get used to, but there was a learning curve with figuring out how to pace those 10 page chapters. You can do a lot with 10 pages, but you can’t do EVERYTHING. I’m used to writing short form stories; I’ve written plenty of short plays, films, and advertisements, but now I had to consider how all these short digital chapters add up to longer print issues and collected editions. It’s a head-trip but I’m really pleased with where we landed, and I think I’m a better writer for it.
MKSecrets: Mortal Kombat has more than 20 years of history and countless of stories. With the amount of new stories coming from Mortal Kombat X how did you prioritize the stories you wanted to tell?
Shawn Kittelsen: I drafted a long character list, everyone we could possibly use, and crossed off everyone who wasn’t viable at our point in the chronology. With the characters we had left, which were still too many to cover in the series, I just started thinking about their stories, figuring out who they are and what they want. From there, I worked with DC Comics and NetherRealm to figure out where we wanted to focus our priorities. Not necessarily from a marketing perspective so much as asking, what do we find exciting as fans ourselves?
MKSecrets: I know I mention the Injustice comic books very often, but as with the two games a comparison is inevitable. Next to the action and violence in these books, they have a lot of emotional moments. How will you describe the tone of the Mortal Kombat X comic books?
Shawn Kittelsen: The Injustice comics deserve to be mentioned and praised. I worked on that game with NetherRealm and WB Games as a creative executive at DC Entertainment, and early on we all sensed that fans would want to see more of that story, that version of the Justice League mythology. Then Tom Taylor came along and delivered a smart, nuanced expansion on stories that were only hinted at within the game. The success of those comics speaks volumes about what happens when you take a popular game and offer the fans not just companion content, but stories with real depth and quality of purpose, stories that respect the humanity of their characters no matter how bizarre or fantastic their world is. That philosophy informs our approach to the MKX comics. If you read the first chapter and it’s just wall-to-wall Fatalities, you might come back for another week or two, but you’d probably get bored fast. So like all my favorite stories, including Injustice, every chapter of MKX mixes action and character. After all, it’s one thing to watch bad-ass characters fight, but it’s far more interesting if you care who wins and who dies.
Shawn Kittelsen: It’s all up to you, the fans. Injustice comics kept going because the fans showed up, plain and simple. So if you like our MKX comics and want to see more, keep reading! Tell your friends! If it were up to me, I’ll write these books til my bones collapse and you drag me away from the keyboard.
Shawn Kittelsen: Writing this series is a dream come true for me. It took a lot of years working in the background, helping other people tell their stories before I got the chance to tell some of my own. And to tell stories in the MK universe that I’ve loved since I was a kid waiting in line at the arcade with my roll of quarters and a handwritten move list… I know how lucky I am to have this opportunity. The entire team on this book is working hard to do right by our fellow fans. This one’s for you.
MKSecrets: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. We all wish you and the Mortal Kombat X comic books a huge success and will follow you every step of the way. Happy Holidays!!!