Marvel's Contest of Champions leaps from video game to comic book

The venerable comic book maker has inspired movies, television shows and video games. Now, for the first time, the trend is working in reverse.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
5 min read

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The cover from Marvel's upcoming "Contest of Champions" comic. Marvel

When Marvel Comics was founded in 1939, the very idea of a video game was so foreign that even its futuristic thinkers couldn't imagine such a thing.

Now 76 years later, the company will launch its first comic inspired by one.

Marvel, owned by Walt Disney, is launching a comic series this October built around Contest of Champions, a video game co-created with San Francisco-based Kabam. The comic will follow the story line of popular superheroes, like the military superhero Captain America and the web-slinging Spider-Man, who are kidnapped and forced to fight by a mysterious figure known as the Collector.

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One of the pages likely to be in the upcoming "Contest of Champions" comic. Marvel

This is a first for Disney's Marvel division, whose comic books have become the driving force behind some of the most popular movies and TV shows ever made, including "The Avengers," "Spider-Man" and "X-Men."

That inspiration has been a one-way street: the comics have always led to stories for other media, and never ceded control of their story lines -- until now.

"On the comic book side, this book has to be as good and bar-shattering as the game," said Bill Rosemann, creative director at Marvel's games group. "We have to define what a comic is based on a game."

The move not only recognizes the video game industry's story-telling prowess and growing influence, it could lead to a shift in the way comics are written. While Marvel will still rely on comic writers for its Contest of Champions, video game makers could offer up new story lines, drawn with a potentially different artistic perspective. Perhaps most important, the effort will give readers and gamers a deeper connection with the stories' characters, participating in the game's side-plots while reading their favorite characters' thoughts and motivations in the comic.

"Video games have really become an important storytelling medium for us," said Peter Phillips, head of Marvel's interactive and digital media group, who added the company has rallied its television, movies, comics and games groups together for this and other initiatives. "We've gotten smarter as an organization."

The dreaded Street Fighter

You wouldn't be the first to think a video game could translate to stories told in other media. Unfortunately, it's rarely worked.

The film industry, for example, has a long history of failure -- the plots were too shallow, too hokey or too weird.

Take the "Super Mario Bros." movie, released in 1993, which bore only a passing semblance to the game. The adventures of the two plumbers to rescue a princess helped turn Nintendo into one of the world's largest video game makers and created characters so popular that kids often recognized them before they did Mickey Mouse. But the movie was a flop, pulling in only half its projected budget in box office receipts, according to Box Office Mojo. And no wonder: The film revolved around a weird plot entirely different from the games, featuring dinosaurs evolved into human-looking animals in an alternate dimension.

"This movie wasn't imagined correctly at the outset," said famed movie reviewer Roger Ebert at the time. "What this movie shows is that it's a lot harder to make a high-tech movie than you would think."He gave it a "thumbs down," and put it on his and Gene Siskel's list of "worst movies of 1993."

Some of the most popular Marvel comic characters, like Spider-Man's nemesis Venom (pictured above), will appear in "Contest of Champions." Marvel

"Street Fighter," released a year later, didn't do much better. That film was based on a popular fighting game of the same name that was often played in arcades. The New York Times called the movie "a dreary, overstuffed hodgepodge of poorly edited martial arts sequences and often unintelligible dialogue."

While there have been exceptions (notably "Lara Croft," based on the Tomb Raider adventure games) most comics, movies and TV shows based on video games have been largely forgettable.

That's changing, thanks in part to games' increasingly intricate plots. Nearly every major video game inspires a one-off comic book now. And Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard and other game makers are working with Hollywood to bring their stories to the silver screen.

Books have also sold well. Novels based on Microsoft's Halo space-age shooting games have helped solidify the series as one of the most successful ever made. The franchise has inspired more than a dozen books and comic book series spanning an epic and still-expanding story line.

Others, including Ubisoft's epic Assassin's Creed good-vs-evil games, for example, have also been popular with fans. They tell additional stories of the game's central battles between the Assassins and the Templars, two groups whose generations of soldiers seek out alien technology that has the potential to control the planet.

"Lots of people are creating long and meaningful relationships with the characters and environments in these games," said Laurent Detoc, president of Ubisoft's North American business. Ubisoft this month said Titan Comics will publish books based on Assassin's Creed.

Even DC Comics, creator of characters such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, is getting in on the trend. It now offers a comic series for the fighting game, Injustice: Gods Among Us. The story line includes a battle between Batman and Superman after the Man of Steel is tricked into killing his love interest Lois Lane and destroying the city of Metropolis.

Marvel's strategy with the "Contest of Champions" comics is to tell stories that include what's happening to heroes when they aren't fighting in the game. The original idea for "Contest of Champions" began as a three-issue comic in 1982. Two teams of super heroes fought as pawns in a competition between two godlike characters. Marvel and Kabam reimagined the competition 33 years later; the heroes held hostage and forced to fight one another.

Coming up with the comic

So how do you translate a fighting game into a real story, with characters and a plot? That challenge highlights the creativity that can go into these new efforts.

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Paco Medina, the artist for "Contest of Champions," collaborated with Kabam. Marvel

"Where are the trapped heroes stored when they aren't fighting?" wondered Al Ewing, lead writer for the comic. And if they're in a prison, do they try to escape?

Such intricate story lines will create fertile storytelling ground for the comic, said Ewing. "As long as you go in thinking I 'want to make the best comic I can make,' you can't go wrong."

New comic book characters -- who will also be added gradually to the game -- will enhance the story. One such character is Guillotine, a superhero whose powers draw from a magic sword handed down in her family since the French Revolution.

Kabam helped Marvel conceive of the character, creating sketches and offering ideas for different traits, like a skull affixed to Guillotine's magic sword that talks to her.

The artists at Kabam and Marvel were able to collaborate in part because they rely on similar tools. Paco Medina, the artist drawing the comic, has been creating characters with 3D models for the past few years as his characters move into other types of media. Working with video game makers felt natural as a result, he said.

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Guillotine, a new superhero created by Marvel and Kabam. Marvel

That sort of transition is intentional. Marvel has been pushing its teams to create stories that interlock across games, movies, TV and comics in a way that lets fans experience an epic yet detailed set of stories, said Marvel's Phillips. "We do everything we can to make it authentic and real," he said.

The signs point to a successful translation across media, but there are no guarantees. Marvel has never before based a comic on a video game -- even though that video game was itself inspired by a comic published three decades ago.

The comic will be released in October.