Sunday, December 22, 2013

Review: Avengers Arena Vols. 1-2

You can count me as among the many who found the premise of this series more repulsive than attracting. Arcade, the world's least cost-efficient superhero hitman, builds a new island version of Murder World in which he deposits young, teenage superheroes (taken primarily, I assumed, from the cast of Avengers Academy, as this book was launched as Avengers Academy was cancelled) and then forces them to fight one another to the death until only one of them remains a live, ala Battle Royale.

Watching teen heroes kill each other didn't really strike me as all that entertaining (I certainly didn't enjoy DC's Terror Titans any), especially given the already rather hight mortality rate among teenaged super-characters, the idea seemed rather creatively bankrupt (which the covers at least acknowledged, visually homaging Battle Royale on the first issue, and the going on to do so towards Lord of the Flies and Hunger Games), and given the make-up of the cast, it seemed rather likely a lot of these characters were going to end up dead by the end of the series, as the only ones to actually star in their own titles at any point—just as an indication of how relatively popular or unpopular the cast of this book is—were X-23, Darkhawk and Juston Seyfert, who starred in a 12-issue Sentinel ongoing written by Sean McKeever and drawn by the Udon studio. So if popularity is the main determining factor of whether a superhero will live or die (Batman? Never longer than temporarily. Robin II, IV or V...?), well, let's just say it's not too hard to imagine a Marvel Universe in which X-23 is the only character who survives this title (Which was actually another rather galling thing about it; should writer Dennis Hopeless be allowed to kill off characters like the McKeever-created Seyfert, or the Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona-created Nico and Chase?)

Well, I finally got around to reading the first two trades of this and, despite all of my reservations, I have to admit that it really isn't that bad of a book at all.

It opens with Arcade, now wearing his hair long and dressing a bit more dapper than clownish, somehow abducting 16 teenaged superheroes. It takes a while to introduce them all within the narrative, but there's Juston, X-23, Reptil, Mettle and Hazmat of Avengers Academy and then Apex, Anachronism, Cullen Bloodstone (a relative of Elsa's), Kid Britton and Nara (a blue Atlantean) from the Braddock Academy (I had never heard of any of these British characters before reading this, so, for all I know, they may be original creations of Hopelesses and artist Kev Walker). The rest of the cast includes Cammi from some of  the Annihilation books, Runaways Chase and Nico, the aforementioned Darkhawk, a little girl Deathlok eventually named Death Locket and a Red Raven legacy character who, given how long she lasts, I assume was an original to the series.
Arcade appears before them long enough to explain the rules—kill each other until only one of you is left—and demonstrate his own omnipotence upon the island, before retreating into the background, allowing the circumstances of the island to gradually cause the young heroes to turn on one another and kill each other, if the traps he's seeded the place with and the several inducements towards conflict he's created (limited food supplies, for example) doesn't do it first.

He says he got the idea from some "children's books," and in a later issue devoted to how and why Arcade did this, we learn that it was a book he read in his youth, so I'm assuming its Lord of the Flies, but Hopeless' script never identifies it.

The group splinters into camps almost immediately, with the two school groups sticking mostly together in two large groups, Nico and Chase going off on their own, and several loner characters going solo until forced into uneasy alliances. As with Lost, another bit of island survivalist pop fiction, Hopeless spends a great deal of time flashing-back to the characters' lives before they arrived on the island, which is pretty helpful considering how little we know of a lot of these new-ish characters (Death Locket, the kids from Braddock Academy) or characters that might have existed previously, but are awfully different now then when we last saw them (Cammi).

If you'd call what Hopeless is doing here stealing or simply "being inspired by"—and me, were I in his position, would feel way too uncomfortable about the thinless of the line between them to even pitch a Battle Royale-with-Marvel-characters comic—at least he's stealing or borrowing or homaging a good, pressure-cooker premise. Stripped of adult supervision, their superhero mentors and all hope of rescue, the characters begin to change almost immediately, with some becoming better people as they are forced to trust others, and others becoming, well, villains as they do whatever they have to do to survive, and then there is a lot of gray area—particularly among the Brits—the characters are forced to move through from issue to issue.

Horrible things do indeed happen to teenagers, and too horrible things happen to characters that it seems somewhat gauche for Hopeless to be messing with in the first place—
—but then dead very rarely means dead in superhero comics, and at least one of the six characters we see seemingly die in these collections comes back to life almost immediately, while two others that a character thinks they're killing in battle are revealed to be safe and sound a turn of the page later. Hopeless seems to have therefore struck a pretty good balance between creating and destroying, making a reader worry that any character could die at any time, while not always explicitly carrying through on that threat, even when limbs are severed or characters go missing for a while or their video game-like life meters drain completely.
Most of the art is by Kev Walker, whose work I like quite a bit, and who, after a rather rocky opening in which he and Hopeless seem to assume all readers will know who at least all of the members of Avengers Academy are, does a fine job of distinguishing the many characters and making them look quite distinct from one another. He also sells the weird geography of this Murder World, in which deserts and frozen tundras and jungles and tropical are all within a walking distance of one another, quite well.

He can't draw the whole series though, and there are occasional fill-in issues. In the first volume, Kill or Die, Alessandro Vitti draws one issue, while in the second volume, Game On, Walker is only one of four artists, a quartet including Vitti, Jason Gorder and Riccardo Burchelli (it's unclear who does what; I can't tell if Gorder and Burchielli are inking Walker, or penciling and inking their own work or...what).

At any rate, it obviously gets less an less consistent as it goes on, but no one drawing the book is bad at drawing, and there aren't really any visual flow destroying changes in style.

I rolled my eyes at this book's announcement and initial promotion, and picked up the trades expecting to not like it at all, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit and eager to find out what happens in the third and final volume. So I'd say Hopeless and company did a pretty fine job here (As for Marvel, I'm not sure what the point of making this an "ongoing" series if it was only to run 18 issues was, other than some sort of marketing ploy).


Medraut said...

Yeah, the Braddock Academy kids were created for the series. In fact, I read somewhere that Hopeless originally pitched this as the first arc in a new Braddock Academy series, but it morphed into the more marketable "Avengers Arena".

Aki Alaraatikka said...

18 issues seems like a long time for a series like this. Usually these kinda stories are a few issues long.

Or 2,5 hours.

I like the name Dennis Hopeless. It`s a name one would give to a fictional character.

Eric Lee said...

At Akilles, I was thinking the same thing for Dennis Hopeless' name. Just like how Matt Fraction sounds like a good fictional name or Geoff Johns sounds like a superhero secret identity.