When Marvel NOW! came on the scene, there was a buzz of controversy about one particular comic. Avengers Academy was sadly coming to an end, and another alliterative Avengers title was taking its place – Avengers Arena, a teenaged death-match loosely inspired by popular books and films such as The Hunger Games. The Internet being the Internet, the response was outrage; countless posts in untold numbers of forums expressed disgust, and either wished for the series to be trashed or swiftly rendered out-of-continuity.
Despite the continuing existence of a few nay-sayers, the fact remains that Avengers Arena has (at time of writing) just released issue ten. We’re mid-way through the second arc, and writer Dennis Hopeless has mentioned in interviews that he’s preparing for a second season. This book most certainly doesn’t look like it’s going to be cancelled any time soon – and I for one am glad, because I’ve swiftly come to love the comics. I’ll be doing a few quick posts to ensure everyone’s up-to-speed, and then reviewing every issue as they come out.
Act One followed a standard format; each issue would mostly be written from the perspective of one character, and you’d also get some backstory to help you relate. As the stories unfolded, they’d come to a climatic ending.
Hopeless kicks things off with Day 29, ensuring we realise he’s in this for the long game. In four absolutely riveting pages, we see an already-wounded Hazmat drawn into a fight to the death with fellow Avengers Academy student X-23. Kev Walker’s art here is phenomenal, just as it needs to be in an issue that really needs to sell itself. Then, we’re dropped into the action – we see a loved-up Hazmat and Mettle, but their romance is rudely interrupted as they (and the reader) are plunged into Arcade’s madness. This first issue is spellbending, and makes it clear from the outset that we’re dealing with a very different kind of super-hero book. When, at the end, Mettle is brutally killed – as a fan of the character, I was horror-struck – it’s in a way that shows real respect for the character. If there’s one thing AA can pride itself on, it’s characterisation.
From this head-first introduction to the concept, though, Hopeless dials the tension down a notch. He’s not just interested in the scraps that may happen; he wants us to understand the characters, to feel it as they sink to the point where they play Arcade’s sick game. Plus, he’s introduced a bevy of new characters, and he wants us to care about them just as much as we do about, say, Hazmat, Nico and Chase from the Runaways, or Darkhawk. So we get #2 from the perspective of Death Locket, and it’s a wonderful issue that really did manage to make readers care. This issue shows the heroes drifting into separate camps based on friendship groups, and also contained the most random death of the series to date – Red Raven flies into the invisible ceiling over this latest incarnation of Murderworld, and breaks her neck doing so.
#3 (with a cover I considered glorious) shows Day 8, from the perspective of Cammi. Now, the tension levels are rising; someone is causing trouble, and Cammi and Darkhawk unite to try to stop them. Now, for me this was an issue that didn’t work so well; I’d never encountered Cammi, and the backstory panels didn’t really ‘sell’ her to me too well. Then, at the end of the issue, Hopeless drops a bomb – Darkhawk apparently falls, defeated by an unseen enemy. Unfortunately Walker’s art at this point is a little confusing, but probably intentionally so. After all, there’s supposed to be mystery here, isn’t there?
When it comes to misleading covers, #4 takes the biscuit. This issue’s from Chase’s perspective, as he and Nico struggle to survive and attempt an unsuccessful alliance with the kids from Avengers Academy. Unsuccessful, because Reptil is attacked from the shadows, clearly by the mystery figure from last issue. Again, this issue was a little bit clunky, but Hopeless throws a good spin on Chase’s past, making it worthwhile reading (yes, I’m a Runaways fan). At the end of the issue, a disconsolate Chase stumbles into becoming the new Darkhawk!
We learn in #5 that he’s keeping it secret; told from the perspective of Kid Briton, an alt-universe Captain Britain with an attitude problem and sex drive dialled up to max, this issue really works. Arcade ups the ante, bored now, by causing disastrous events all across Murderworld that force the kids to head to safe zones. And Kid Briton’s backstory makes him the guy you’ll love to hate. It all ends with a twist, though, as Kid Briton and his fellow students from the Braddock Academy turn on one another; Death Locket, who’s teamed up with them, shoots another character. Apex, Kid Briton’s girlfriend, twists the knife with this; turns out she knew Kid Briton was sleeping around behind her back, and considered it ‘cute’ to watch him sneak about. The blow to Kid Briton’s confidence is palpable, but the hints are starting to form; it’s pretty clear that somehow Apex is able to control Death Locket. This is, on the whole, probably one of the strongest issues to date. All the more impressive, since it stars original characters.
And, with that, the Braddock Academy kids come to a full-on battle in #6. The issue is told from Anachronism’s perspective, although not so much as other issues. Heroes are turning on one another; the use of trigger scent leaves X-23 making a kill attempt on Hazmat and Reptil, who barely escape with their lives. And the Braddock Academy love-squares (yeah, it’s more complicated than a triangle) end in one of their number becoming the first killer, in a final page that leaves you gasping with surprise. Seriously, you know throughout that someone’s going to die, but you just can’t figure out who. It’s so well done.
And no, I’m not going to show it! I’m well aware the death has been spoilered everywhere by now, but not here.
In all honesty, I was always going to give AA a try; the idea of super-hero comics with consequences has always been an interesting one to me. But Hopeless has surpassed my expectations, crafting a series that’s unlike anything else Marvel have published. It’s deep, dark, and dangerous; it’s rooted firmly in characterisation, and bears all the hallmarks of being a classic series. No, I’m not happy to know that some of my dearest loved characters have been put in a deathmatch, and some will not survive. But I’d rather they went out with a writer who treats them as well as AA does, than just exist in the background of the Marvel Universe for the next decade or two. The fact that Darkhawk is included, when he’s not even been a teenager in comic-terms for years, is a nice signpost to the fact that these are characters who could quite easily have been lost in limbo.
Well done, Hopeless.