Mortal Kombat 1 recently released, touting a story mode that refreshes every aspect of the franchise’s universe. Fire God Liu Kang has remade the realms, with his new era giving a redefined purpose to characters like Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, Kitana and Mileena. This new reality is sprawling, detailed, and frankly too big to fit into the framework the games provide, making it perfect for comics. In fact, Mortal Kombat and its mythologies have always been perfect for the cast-driven storytelling frequently seen in the genre.
While Mortal Kombat has flirted with the comic book medium through limited series and tie-in releases, it’s never headlined an ongoing comic. The franchise was brought into the same company as legendary publisher DC in 2009, but the seemingly obvious fit hasn’t been made. In fact, the series has recently had more comics canceled than released, leaving the vast potential of its extensive canon on the sidelines. Mortal Kombat 1 sees the classic lore’s factions and societies recast with new depth, but its inability to explore these depths presents the perfect reason to ask the question of why the franchise has never had a successful comic book.
Early Mortal Kombat Comics Were an Exercise in Brutality
Mortal Kombat came its closest to having a presence in the printed medium in the mid 90s. Malibu Comics, purchased by Marvel in 1994, took on the gory franchise as one of its final headlining projects. Published across several different titles, Malibu’s books leveraged the game’s plot as a framework, but focused on their own arcs and personalities. This led to original stories that ranged from forgettable to outright dreadful. Notable examples include Baraka’s babysitting adventure with Noob Saibot, Earthrealm’s warriors answering a magic book’s riddles, and Shao Kahn hypnotizing Sonya into marriage. The line was canceled after 26 issues, with declining sales cited as the reason.
It’s obvious the books were made to cynically advertise the games more than adapt or build on them. If newer fans haven’t heard of these comics, it’s because they’re arguably as impossible to recommend as they are to enjoy. The poor characterizations and cartoonish plots are out of step with Mortal Kombat‘s tone, and represent one of the franchise’s first flops. Fortunately, 30 years later, it’s hard to imagine any new prospective series facing these kind of problems. Mortal Kombat is firmly established as an immortal brand whose aesthetic is etched in stone, and any adaptation bound to its canon should automatically improve on what has come before. Recently, however, the problem hasn’t been finding ideas for MK comics, but rather finding ways to actually get them made.
Modern Mortal Kombat Revivals Suffered Unreasonable Fatalities
Mortal Kombat‘s most recent brush with the comic world came in 2015 when DC published Shawn Kittelsen, Dexter Soy and Veronica Gandini’s Mortal Kombat X series. Across its 12 issues, the title crafted a plot including 3D-era characters like Reiko and Havik to blow open the scope of Mortal Kombat‘s post-2011 reboot world. Its finale even teased future plots involving fellow post-renaissance Kombatants like Onaga and Daegon. Kittelsen was told the comic would lst two volumes, but the title was canceled before the second was put into production. To date, the 12 released issues are the only project DC has helmed since Mortal Kombat became part of Warner Bros. But at some point the brand’s realms may have been meant to merge completely.
In 2019, writer Gail Simone discussed research she had done for a canceled Mortal Kombat project. Beginning with a 12-issue maxiseries, the prospective comics would have evolved into three ongoing titles. Simone didn’t go into plot specifics, but implied her work with MK may have had ramifications on the mainstream DC Universe. This ambition is exactly what the diverse mythology of Mortal Kombat deserves, but the adaptation was ultimately doomed to the Dead Pool by the series’ own creators. Netherrealm Studios was deep into production on Mortal Kombat 11 and didn’t want to split their focus. Given the crunch employees already endured, this was most likely the right call, but it ultimately robbed Mortal Kombat of what could have been the series’ biggest adaptation into the world of comics.
The Mortal Kombat Story is Too Big for the Games
Liu Kang’s new era of the Mortal Kombat universe is the perfect time for the series to return to the comic book realm, if for no other reason than because the story outsizes the game. The post-reboot lore of Mortal Kombat 1 is full of new worlds and reimagined fighters with deep, nuanced character. Baraka and Reptile have found new niches as oppressed Outworlders, the Lin Kuei have been redefined as Earthrealm’s historical protectors, and Kenshi is avenging his ancient family lineage. It’s clear there’s been an extensive amount of thought put into the lore, but it’s just as clear by the restrictive story mode and character interactions that it’s too much for a single game to handle.
Mortal Kombat 1 uses every bit of available bandwidth it can muster on exposition. Some characters spend more time explaining their backstory than participating in the present one, and even then they can’t say enough. With four fights per story chapter and just two lines per versus interaction, Mortal Kombat 1 must constantly choose between storytelling and infodumping. As a result, the game’s world is extremely detailed, but the expression of its story and characters always feels hindered by a constant need to stop and explain. Giving Mortal Kombat a home in comics is the perfect solution to these problems, providing a limitless space to build and explore its canon with the time and care it deserves.
Admittedly, Mortal Kombat and comic books haven’t had the most fruitful relationship over the years. The quality and popularity of one has always existed almost inversely with the other. 30 years ago the mismatch of MK’s brooding, gory nature with toyetic 90s comics led to failure. In the late 2000s, MK’s increasingly cartoonish tone in staunch opposition to post-Batman Begins comics led to a lack of consistent interest. In the 2020s, however, the two have perfectly eclipsed in style and popularity, and could create something truly unforgettable if brand and medium were ever to line up and work together.
There’s no arguing that Mortal Kombat, with its limitless setting and generations’ worth of lore, is a perfect fit for comics. Just as Mortal Kombat 1 has reestablished the story foundation of the franchise, it seems like the perfect time to re-establish MK’s presence on the printed page. The iconic characters have already been created and their potential has been left open-ended at the conclusion of the series’ newest entry. While there have been valiant attempts to make this happen in recent years, DC and Netherrealm Studios would do well to dig deep and ensure that one of these projects is actually brought to fruition.
Mortal Kombat 1 is the series’ boldest story yet, feeling very much like a comic book – but what happened to the franchise’s forays into the medium? Read More