A fighting tournament is a cliche of action films and video games, and now it's come to comic books - showing not just the tournament, but the world around it.
Dead Legends, which debuted earlier this month from A Wave Blue World, follows a annual tournament which goes back centuries and crosses borders and cultural boundaries. Writer James Maddox and artist Gavin Smith have set up a martial arts epic that takes advantage of the comic book art form to tell a story of the tournament and those within.
Newsarama: Start us off with the basics. James, what is the Dead Legends Tournament?
James Maddox: On the surface, the tournament is just an extreme series of fights between the greatest fighters on earth, but in the centuries that the tournament has been in existence, their branches and networks to power have strengthened all over the world. The champion wields that power, and it’s caused major societal change. Then the current champ, Damon, took over and let this aspect of the tournament atrophy.
Nrama: Champions come to the tournament to win, but what happens to the losers? Any chance they walk out alive?
Maddox: Many do walk out alive. The majority of fighters are more interested in winning honorably to show off the skill and control they’ve mastered. It’s only the spectacle fighters like Blind Tiger who go out of their way to be cruel.
Gavin Smith: Not only do some get to walk out alive, some are repeat contenders from previous tournaments. Stalk and Ward have competed in the tournament a couple of times before, and even trained under some of the tournament masters. They give a good perspective of what our new comers to the tournament are up against.
Nrama: We meet two characters at the beginning of this story who, despite their differences, share two things. Why do they both want to get into this tournament so badly, and why do they prefer to go by the moniker "Red Death" instead of their real names?
Maddox: While Yan definitely has the skill to fight, she isn’t technically supposed to be in the tournament, so when she’s called by the name of someone who IS supposed to be there, she just rolls with it.
Smith: Right... she’s a wedding crasher with someone else's invitation. So she sees this as an easy out.
Maddox: As for the other character, Red Death is a professional name chosen for its ability to inspire fear (which I think is a good choice when you’re a hired killer, less so when you’re, let’s say, a comics writer).
Each of these women have very different reasons for wanting to enter the tournament. Yan’s is for revenge, while Red Death’s leans toward her profession.
Nrama: One character that really stuck out to me was the master of the tournament, Damon. On the surface, he seems like a drunken idiot. But he's also the champion of this champions' battle. What's the deal there? What's he hiding?
Maddox: Damon is better than you at fighting. He’s better than everyone. He’s so good, in fact, that he’s trying his hardest to give challengers a leg up in their fights with him because he’s simply tired of winning. The problem is that even at his most inebriated state, something clicks when the ref shouts “Fight!” and Damon destroys his competition.
When it comes to fighting, Damon is just cursed with winning, and he hates that even among the best fighters in the world, none of them give him the slightest hint of a challenge.
Smith: He's very much the Jean Claude Van Damme from Bloodsport meets Sacha Baron Cohen from Talledega Nights. He won the tournament for the first time years ago, but is still there and still undefeated. He wants someone to step up to him and give him a good fight, and he's hoping that the contestants in this year's tournament will give that to him. We get to learn a lot about him as the story progresses.
Nrama: Even though the tournament seems to be at the center of this world, there's a ton of fighting that goes on outside it. Why is this world so violent? Is everyone living in it a martial arts expert?
Maddox: I don’t think it’s total, but there is definitely a bend that suggests that martial arts are more in the forefront of this world than they might be in reality.
Smith: And these are just the characters we're focusing on in this universe. We wanted to be able to introduce some of them as formidable combatants before they get to the tournament.
Nrama: Alright, let's talk art. The design of this world is incredible. It's got shades of Blade Runner, Mortal Kombat, even a little bit of WWE. What about these pieces connected them for you? What made you want to combine them in a story?
Maddox: Gavin and I talked a lot about aesthetics, but after that, I trusted Gavin to build on those conversations with references and approaches that would make it as personal as the ones I threw into the script. Then he just ran with it in a lot of the ways mentioned in the question.
Smith: Hey thanks! I'm bringing a lot of my favorite things to influence this book from old school martial arts movies like Enter the Dragon, Best of the Best, the Bloodsport and Kickboxer series, video games like Streets of Rage, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter, my love of comics, and even pro wrestling. The cool thing about everyone who reads our book, is that they all see something different they identify with, which makes it that much easier for us to tell our story. It's familiar, but they're our unique creations.
Nrama: Yan wears a red stripe across her face. What does that mean to her? How did that design come about as you were creating these characters?
Maddox: That was all Gavin.
Smith: Besides thinking it looked cool, I wanted to give her a bit of war paint to make her just that little bit more intimidating to her opponents.
Nrama: Speaking of red, I loved how you used it as the primary color for the incredibly violent fight scenes. To you, why was it important to use color to separate these scenes from the rest of the story?
Maddox: That came about during a group conversation of how to approach the initial Red Death fight. Joe and Gavin started talking over approaches, and I just stepped back and watched the fireworks show. By the end, they had come up with a great way to make those scenes pop while not being overtly gratuitous.
Smith: When Joe and I were trying to discuss what the palette of Dead Legends would be, we came up with the "Murder Mode" for Red Death, where anytime she gets in that zone, everything turns red and there's no stopping her. We've incorporated color moods to every scene as well just from a storytelling point of view so that each setting feels unique, and it gives me a new artistic challenge when we change settings.
Nrama: There's some degree of martial arts in the majority of superhero comics today, but it seems to me that martial-arts-centric comics are a thing of the past. Do you agree, and if so, what do you think is the reason for that?
Smith: I couldn't tell you why there aren't a ton of martial arts comics. It seems that everyone in Daredevil and the whole Bat-Family all know how to fight, but the only two actual martial arts comics I can think of are Iron Fist and Shang Chi and I don't even think they're being made at the moment (If I'm wrong, correct me so I can buy them). Possibly because we're out of the martial arts boom of the 80's and 90's where there were a ton of movies being made in the genre.
Maddox: When I take on a new project, I definitely enjoy binging like-materials to help understand what’s been done and what hasn’t. With Dead Legends, I definitely noticed most of my research was coming from older movies (with the exception of stuff like Cobra Kai). As far as comics specifically, there wasn’t much out there in terms of modern, grounded martial arts stories. I didn’t really think about this all that much until we announced the series and started getting this question from others.
As for the reasons, maybe it’s the fact that telling an in-depth story in comic form is much harder to do when the real estate of pages is being used for fight scenes. That’s definitely a problem I worried about. On the artist side, having a knowledge of how a fight works could also be a barrier and might cause an illustrator to get lost in the weeds.
Smith: Luckily we collaborate well enough together that James can just tell me "you have five pages to insert a fight here", and I can make it happen. Then he can make it all make sense with his fancy words.
Nrama: Is Dead Legends a response to the lack of martial arts-centric comics today?
Smith: I don't think so. I don't want to imply that there's any sort of spite of not having those comics, this is simply the type of comic I've always wanted to do. It was more of a response to the lack of comics we were making together.
Maddox: For me, at least, Dead Legends came about because I asked one of my best friends what he’d want to illustrate if he could illustrate anything. When he said “A straight-up martial arts book”, I had the dumb courage to say “Oh, yeah. I got that”.
Smith: I can't believe I tricked him into it.
Maddox: The more I got into the legacy material for this genre of story, the more I started connecting those materials to the type of story I thought I could tell well, and soon I was heavy into the world-building that made Dead Legends feel connected to martial arts-centric work, but also stood out as something that could be enjoyed by a larger audience. The inspirations are still embedded in the storytelling, but it still feels like our own brand has been burned into it.
Nrama: Finally, I'd feel bad not to mention that Dead Legends is part of A Wave Blue World's Premiere #1 Program, where the publisher releases the first issue then sells the rest digitally then a trade collection comes out. How did it being part of the program affect the process of making this book? What makes Dead Legends right for this format?
Maddox: On the writing side, not at all. Since the story is coming out in issues digitally, we were still interested in following an issue-by-issue approach during production. For example, issue four is a completely silent issue. Something like that will do well to be singled out as its own thing, but it will also add a surge of action into the overall trade’s flow, so we’re getting the best of both worlds.
I think from a reader perspective, it’s also a home run. We’re getting to taste test the story through the first issue, decide if we want to contribute more to it based on the opening, and not have to wait over half a year to get the full story.
Smith: If I weren't part of the creative team.. it's a perfect format built for me. I buy #1 issues all the time and forget to buy the rest in singles until I see a trade.