Shawn Kittelsen Interview: Mortal Kombat X, WWE Immortals, & DC Comics

The writer behind DC Comics' Mortal Kombat X comic series speaks with us about the series' lore, the new characters, and Sheamus.

Don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but Mortal Kombat X is kind of a big deal right now, and we’ve been covering it an awful lot around these parts. It’s out now, as is the prequel comic series by DC Comics. You can check out the review right over here.

The comic has been doing pretty well, following in the footsteps of fellow NetherRealm Studios game-turned-prequel-comic Injustice: Gods Among Us. As it is right now, the weekly series is on its 15th issue. Recently, we had a chance to speak with Shawn Kittelsen, the lucky soul who’s been allowed to write about the on-going adventures of Scorpion, Cassie Cage, and Kotal Kahn. He has things to say about Raiden’s track record, his writing future, and whether or not former WWE Champion Sheamus is in the Special Forces.

Den of Geek: First off, digging the Mortal Kombat X comic. I log onto Comixology every Sunday at noon like clockwork to get the latest issue. You have a pretty great thing going, landing what many would consider a dream writing job by getting to play in this blood-stained sandbox. How did this come to be?

Shawn Kittelsen: Thank you for supporting the book! Nothing makes me happier than knowing people are enjoying the work our team does. It makes all the hours worth it.

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You’re right, this is a dream job, and I don’t take it for granted! I’ve known folks at DC, WB, and NetherRealm for years now through my previous work as a creative executive at DC, but only a few of them knew me as a writer. I was working at an ad agency and writing by night, the whole “Ken Cosgrove” thing, and through the grapevine, folks at WB and DC found out I was available and interested in the MKX comics gig. That got me the audition, and from there I tap-danced my way into everyone’s hearts.

Mortal Kombat has shown up in many forms: movies, TV shows, web series, novels, comics, that really unfortunate animated feature, and so on. What is it about the game’s lore that has so many people caring about it after all these years?

You could write a Master’s dissertation on this subject. I think there are mainstream, casual MK fans who are drawn to the colorful characters, over-the-top violence, and this poppy, entertaining sensibility that the franchise has. Then there are the hardcore MK fans, and their enthusiasm for the game is on another level entirely. For those fans, this story started with little bits and pieces of characters gleaned through short, Twitter-length bio screens in the earliest games. Moving into the 3D era, the in-game universe expanded to this sprawling, epic soap opera. So now you have fans who can trace the arcs of dozens of characters across decades of stories, and that makes this world come alive in our imaginations with this potent combination of cultural nostalgia and mythological novelty.

So far you’ve killed off two major characters from Mortal Kombat’s past and you’ve made some deep cuts to the franchise by bringing in the likes of Tasia and King Gorbak. Outside of the game’s roster, has NetherRealm Studios outright told you that certain characters are off-limits?

Only insofar as they’ve asked me to respect the finality of death. Maybe there was a sense after the end of MK9, where Sindel killed off half the roster, that death had been rendered too meaningless. So even though you have a few characters who’ve returned from the dead — Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Jax — for everyone else, dead means dead. That’s why you don’t see Liu Kang show up in these books suddenly alive, then he dies again, resurrects again, dies again… He’s dead. There’s no way back, except in the most extraordinary and improbable circumstances.

In the months leading up to Mortal Kombat X’s release, NetherRealm had taken their time giving us any details about the characters and even story. How does it feel knowing that your comic has been scrutinized from day one as a window into what the game might have to offer? I mean, you had Erron Black simply show up and literally say and do nothing, yet everyone online went nuts over it. In the same vein, would you say Forrest Fox’s early inclusion was a bit of a fake-out to mess with the fans?

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There was no way for me to predict fan reactions, in part because I had to break an outline and start writing the series well before NetherRealm had determined when characters would be revealed. I liked the look of Erron Black, and I wanted to feature the newer characters as early and often as possible. He’s the stoic type, so he didn’t say much. Suddenly, he was a fan sensation, because sometimes the less you say, the more room you leave for speculation.

Forrest Fox was a bit more calculated. Takeda needed an ally in Hanzo’s clan during those early day. Forrest Fox was that ally. And once we established that friendship, an interesting story for Takeda would be seeing what happens when you take his friend away in the most terrifying possible manner. If Fox was obviously a generic ninja, nobody would have cared, but I still get fans on Twitter asking if he’ll show up as DLC. Mission accomplished!

Mortal Kombat X has the best new cast since Mortal Kombat 3…maybe even Mortal Kombat II. Again, a lot of that is on you, since you got to introduce a lot of them to the public and really sketch them out. When you were introduced to the new faces beforehand, were there any designs that really jumped out at you where you couldn’t wait to write them?

I would love to take more credit than I deserve for the creation of this new cast, but by the time they came to me, NetherRealm had already fed them, clothed them, and put them through primary school. I was just the radical English teacher who changed their lives during senior year. Now the game launches and they go out into the world and off to college and my whole coming-of-age metaphor falls apart.

When I got my first look at the roster, I had the same impression you do: This is the best roster of new characters in years. Kotal Kahn’s image struck me immediately because you can’t miss him — he’s tall, blue, and wearing a feathered golden helm. Others, like D’vorah, really came to life in the cinematics script, where the game writers did a great job crafting a memorable voice for her. Then the younger characters like Cassie appealed to me from a more human angle — they’re badasses, but how the heck is anyone a KID in this universe? Ninja assassins, interrealm wars, the constant specter of death lurking over your shoulder. What’s it like to grow up in that environement? What does all that violence do you?

This is a silly thing that I have to mention. Once Sonya and her Special Forces team show up, one of the more prominent members appears to be WWE’s Sheamus. I don’t know if that’s your doing or if Dexter Soy figured, “What the hell, I’m going to make this guy Sheamus,” or if this is a stealth tie-in to WWE Immortals, but the guy is probably a red shirt and isn’t long for this world. So who is this guy and what would you say is his story? Who knows, maybe he’ll be the next Tremor, getting people to clamor for him to show up in-game fifteen years later.

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If only we were all so coordinated to have a master plan for WWE Immortals tie-ins, but we’re not! Any similarity to persons living, dead, real, or imaginary is purely coincidental. Here’s where that guy came from: Sonya has her Special Forces Lieutenants, and I wanted to give them names so that, even if they don’t speak much, we think of them the way Sonya thinks of them — as real people and not Lieutenant #2 and #3. So I based all of them on different folks whom I’ve worked with. Shaun Shamrock was intended to be an Irish tank of a man as an homage to another Shaun who is near and dear to my heart, and NetherRealm fans can probably guess who that is. Then the art came in and homeboy had this crazy mustache. It fit the character, so we went with it. And that’s where it came from!

Ever since 2011’s Mortal Kombat, the running gag amongst fans has been how Raiden has become the God of Blunder. He couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with the instructions on the heel. So far your comic has done very little to dissuade that notion. Do you feel that opinion is overblown or are you just playing along and having fun with the idea that Raiden is a major screw-up?

I’m having fun playing both sides. We should all have more sympathy for Raiden. Even with his vast cosmic resources, managing a team of hot-tempered athletes to victory over the opposition ain’t easy — just check out any sports movie ever made. But as with coaches like Gordon Bombay, Raiden also makes plenty of dumb mistakes all his own, and something that’s exciting in the comic is calling him on that. Hanzo is the voice of so many fans who are screaming, “WHY ARE WE HELPING YOU?! ALL YOU DO IS GET PEOPLE KILLED!” And in our story, that accountability problem isn’t going away for Raiden, it’s getting worse.

The Injustice: Gods Among Us comic has become a runaway hit and went from a 36-issue story to something that’s about to start its fourth volume in several weeks. Do you think Mortal Kombat X could also keep going? It’s also a prequel and gives some wiggle room, but while Injustice had an entire DC Universe to play with, Mortal Kombat has far fewer characters at its disposal.

I’d love for Mortal Kombat X to keep going and although that would come with its own set of challenges, I’m really excited about where we can take the story from here. Thanks to the fans, it seems like we’re hitting our sales numbers, and if those sales keep up, the odds improve that we’ll get to make another 36 chapters after this. So if you’re enjoying these stories and you want more of them, vote with your money! Your dollars speak louder than forum posts and petitions.

If there was to be another crossover with the DC heroes, whether it’s DC proper or the Injustice universe, what match-ups would you be chomping at the bit to take a crack at? Johnny Cage vs. Booster Gold? Kotal Kahn vs. Black Adam? Ermac vs. Ragman? Mokap vs. Anti-Monitor?

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Kotal Kahn versus Black Adam is a diabolically sick matchup! That might actually be my top choice. Cassie Cage versus Batgirl for the bantamweight title. Maybe I’d pit Quan Chi against Nekron for control of the underworld. Or Takeda versus Nightwing in a battle of the apprentices. And to answer the inevitable fan petitions, Doomsday would fight Tremor in the rumble to end all rumbles!

Mortal Kombat X has been a pretty righteous debut for you. Do you have anything coming down the pipeline?

Thanks, I do! It’s too early to talk about, but I’ve got some creator-owned comics series in the works. I’m also writing an upcoming mobile game and a few other secret projects to keep me busy. Not to mention I’m still finishing the first 36 chapters of MKX and laying groundwork for the next 36 after that, in case we’re lucky enough to get the green light!

Final question, with the DLC coming out over the next few months: Jason vs. Predator. Who do you pick and why?

That’s a hard one. I’m a massive Stan Winston creature-feature fan so my heart wants to say Predator, but just going by the numbers, we’ve seen Predators die and they don’t come back, at least not the same Predator over and over. Jason, on the other hand, just. Keeps. Coming. He’s got a dozen movies while the Predator have fewer than six and it’s not always the same Predator. So they’re both badass, but one of them is a killing machine and the other is an IMMORTAL killing machine…Jason.

Thank you so much for your time.

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