Racing for the Top: Coleman Engle on ‘Victory Mountain’
Coleman Engle's Victory Mountain debuted last week on the Stela Unlimited app, with Chapter Two out tomorrow. It tells the story of Doily Obsidian and her best friend Corey Berry, who both decide to compete on Victory Mountain, USA, a wildly popular show where contestants fight their way up an artificial mountain for championships, glory, and the thing Doily's family needs most, money.
We sat down with writer/artist Coleman Engle to talk about his influences and inspirations for this new project.
Comics Alliance: There's obviously a little bit of Hunger Games influence in your premise, although things seem considerably less dire and deadly. Did you start with that inspiration or was that something you came to along the way?
Coleman Engle: The initial inspiration for Victory Mountain, USA was American Gladiators, and Sam Bosma's Fantasy Basketball zine from SPX 2013! I really like the first few Hunger Games movies and Battle Royale was huge to me growing up so I definitely looked to them as inspiration after the first few pieces of Victory Mountain, USA fell into place. After knowing it was gonna be a sports entertainment competition, I started looking at American Ninja Warrior, WWE and NXT. Legends of the Hidden Temple and Nickelodeon GUTS were also inspiring!
Comics I looked to for inspiration were Kenichi Sonoda's Gunsmith Cats, Yashuichi Ohsima's KO, Paul Pope's Battling Boy, Bastien Vives' Last Man, Frederik Peeters' Aama, Minetaro Mochizuki's Dragon Head. They all kinda of have a nice cinematic feel that I wanted for Victory Mountain, USA. I also always just have Hope Larson's Chiggers, Junko Mizuno's Pure Trance, and Eleanor Davis' Secret Science Alliance on my desk at all times because I revisit them so much, there's always something new to look at and learn from with those comics.
I wanted the characters to be very fluid so I also took a lot of inspiration from Gyimah Gariba and Ariel Ries' work. Their cartooning, along with Bosma's, sort of became this inspiration triangle I'd return to if I was feeling lost. All of them play so well with movement and line economy, between them all it was a pretty bottomless source of eye candy!
CA: Is Victory Mountain, USA meant to take place in the future, or is it more of an alternate present? Or is a question like that even relevant to the story you're telling?
CE: Probably an alternate near-future setting? But you're right in thinking that it isn't too important to the story, I wanted Victory Mountain to be this sort of weird universe or supernatural plane the characters go to in order to solve their problems or reach their goals.
The outside world isn't dystopian or war-ridden, I think this is just a possible future where a really popular sports competition show has become as popular as football, wrestling, or baseball in the United States.
CA: It did seem like there was some pro-wrestling influence going on, particularly in the costumes, the nicknames, and the various championships. Is that connection deliberate on your part?
CE: Yeah! This past year I got super into professional wrestling thanks to my roommates! I never watched it growing up so coming into it as an adult... I had a lot of questions. Who is that?! Why are they mad?! Why are they fighting?! Are they going to kiss?! What's that move called?! What's that belt?! There's something really flamboyant and exciting about WWE, you get to see these super incredible athletes act on stage for hours every week, and there is so much old material to sift through. Initially I was overwhelmed but after a few weeks you kinda know who your favorites are and you start rooting for them.
I think there is a lot of pretty gross, macho, hyper-masculine stuff rooted deep at the core of professional wrestling, but we're in an interesting time for WWE in that they're trying to very actively change and better that.
The nicknames definitely came from American Gladiators! They're a little more goofy than wrestling names (for the most part), and I like how they're just one word and not like "The Beast Incarnate" or "The Dashing One".
For the costumes, I wanted everything to be mainly red, white, and blue. Competitors all have a distinctive gold band somewhere on their costume, with large color blocks. Champions all have a gold star on a black singlet or leotard with red, white, and blue stripes somewhere. Crown Champions usually have something a little extra, so I gave Foam a small cape!
CA: Doily Obsidian is a fantastic protagonist with a great name. (Also great eyebrows, but all your characters have great eyebrows.) Did Doily emerge to fit the premise, or did the premise grow up around her?
CE: I wanted the main characters to be best friends entering Victory Mountain for very different reasons, both rooted in familial obligations (Doily's being monetary and Corey's being about legacy). Doily comes from a place of having one foot in her passion (teaching kids gymnastics) and another foot cemented in her mother's expectations on how Doily should financially help the family.
Doily's struggle revolves around a massive gamble on something she is not wholly passionate about, and the doubts and insecurities she has about entering the competition. Entering Victory Mountain for her is piggybacked off of Corey's excitement for the show and franchise, and she doesn't fully understand what entering or the possibility of winning means.
Entering Victory Mountain for Doily is an extremely selfish and long shot move. I like the idea of a main character's motivations being almost unapologetically self-serving while still not being a "bad" character. The main focus of the book is Doily and Corey's friendship, so Victory Mountain being important to Corey in turn makes Victory Mountain important to Doily. They support one another and want similar results, and understand it takes different ways to get there for different people.
CA: Your other key character is Corey, who uses a wheelchair. I really like that his disability is never a focus, even though physical activity is so important to the plot. Were you concerned at all about striking that balance?
CE: Absolutely, I wanted to treat Victory Mountain, USA as a competition show that a wide variety of athletes could compete and succeed on. I wanted each stage of Victory Mountain to have multiple paths and solutions to the end goal. I looked at levels from Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Zelda temples, and Harvest Moon 64 environments because they have a lot of really smart, playful designs.
Corey's main motivation for entering Victory Mountain is to honor his mother, who was Victory Mountain's longest reigning Champion. Corey is really nerdy about Victory Mountain and entering and competing is his dream, so him getting to The Belt, the section his mother dominated, is extremely important to him. Where Doily has an amorphous and unclear goal of getting a Champion's salary, Corey's goal is to become a Belt Champion. Corey knows exactly what he wants and has spent a lot of his life training and getting ready for the competition.
CA: I was really impressed with the pacing of the story and particularly the way it balances flashbacks with actions in the present, which allows the comic to begin at the start of the Victory Mountain, USA competition and fill the reader in on backstory as it goes. Was that always the plan, or did you consider something more linear?
CE: No, originally when I was pitching it around it was way more linear. Issue 01 was gonna be a lot of exposition and backstory, issue 02-04 were gonna be each one section of Victory Mountain, and the last issue was gonna be a wrap-up of the competition, dropping in on the competitors and see how they're doing. I think if you're proposing an "action comic", it's a lot to ask of your audience to wait until issue 02 for the action, so the flashbacks came as a result of getting to the action immediately!
My editor Jim Gibbons had the great idea of dropping in flashbacks to slow down the scrolling, since action comics read so fast. You're sitting there swiping and swiping through backflips and suplexes and before you know it you're at the end of the chapter! Flashbacks were a great idea to slow the reader down and give more backstory, more time to like and root for the characters!
CA: As a writer/artist, how much of an adjustment was it letting go of the conventional notion of pages to create a comic that would fit the Stela format?
CE: The Stela format is really fun to work with! I was kind of burnt out with "pages" and traditional set-ups so mentally hopping into a new mode of storytelling was really refreshing to me. The scroll format allows the creator to have limitless reveals, and I think in an action comic that is a lot of fun! With traditional comic pages there is no guarantee of anything once your reader turns the page, their eye could go straight to a reveal or spoiler, it could wander anywhere!
However, having the luxury of a scroll you can hide surprises wherever you want, which made characters getting knocked out or disqualified really fun and shocking. Beyond action comics, Stela would be great for comedy or gag comics, as well as horror! There are a lot of really fun things to play around with in the scroll format, I'm excited to do more!
Stēla is currently available on iOS, with subscriptions running $9.99 per month. The next chapter of Victory Mountain, USA is out this week.