Avengers Arena #1

by Eric Halloran on December 18, 2012

The premise behind Avengers Arena, teen superheroes kidnapped and forced to fight to the death for entertainment of a sick individual, is unabashedly appealing toward popular trends within the teen survival horror genre, harnessing the influences of successful novels, manga, and cinema  to create an exciting and polarizing comic that has garnered more attention for what it means as an idea than for the potential it can bring to the Marvel Universe.


On forums and message boards across the internet, dedicated fans of Avengers Academy decried Avengers Arena as an obvious ploy to fertilize new ground for comic sales with the blood, heart and souls of heroes they had come to love. Even casual commenters were quick to pick up on the similarities between ‘Hunger Games’ and what Avengers Arena was potentially offering, creating an welcome environment for dismissive attitudes.


While criticism of the lack of originality in media and art is very often called for, in this instance it is too pointed as Avengers Arena does not shy away from acknowledging literary and cinematic predecessors. The cover of issue 1, an homage to teen-murder manga/movie Battle Royale; issue 2- Lord of the Flies. These are high marks to aim for, but there is no shame in recognizing that great ideas precede us.


At the revealing of the series editor William Roseman tied the premise to historical tropes, “from the myth of Theseus vs. the Minotaur to 'Lord of the Flies' to 'Battle Royale' to 'Starship Troopers' to 'Survivor' to 'Hunger Games.' Teen vs. teen competition is as old as storytelling,"[1]


Skottie Young's Lord of the Flies, 2009

Roseman’s comment is a calculated, but justified, distinction. There is an aspect of the human psyche, some semi-conscious throwback of our reptilian brain that simply enjoys blood sport. Presently, decidedly lethal gladiatorial combat is outlawed, so we can rely on the UFC, football and other sports to fill that niche as best it can, but thankfully art is under no such restrictions. Consider the leeway given to artists to reimagine imagery - we can appreciate that the idea itself is not original, so long as the industry of the artist is apparent and the effort does not boil down to out and out tracing. Artists such as Skottie Young draw from personal interest in such classic stories, as seen here in his 2009 Lord of the Flies piece.


Assuming this series is a simple copycat cash-grab chasing after Hunger Games popularity is likely a premature judgment. It is going to take disciplined follow-through for Dennis Hopeless to made good on the promises that have been made leading up to, and including, issue 1 so that the series is clearly defined from ‘survival exploitation’, and the first issue is indicative that he is up to the task.


The first issue offers a lot in the way of promises toward development, action and suspense. It is gorgeously drawn and colored, and the cast of characters is varied enough to offer new takes and interesting conflict from issue to issue. However, it might not dissuade someone that death is being sold for shock value alone, at least not yet. It is a balancing act that could easily sway one way or the other. Too long between murders and maiming and the villain, Arcade is too weak to care about, if they come too fast and too often then the series might have been better off a What If? miniseries.


With all of that in mind, the first issue reads exactly like one might expect, with plenty of action surrounding a good deal of expository dialogue setting the stage for the series, while taking care to springboard character development. In this series individual growth is likely to often come at great cost, given the indications of this first issue (not to mention that it is called Murder World for a reason.)


The tale begins ‘in media res’, with two heroes facing off in what may be a penultimate showdown weeks into the diabolical program. Ken Walkers art is exciting, and Frank Martin’s use of color is brilliant and rich and it all holds that way throughout the issue – this is going to be a good looking book for as long as these two are working on it. Walker will be given many opportunities to show off different vistas as this Murder World is an island unbound by Earthly laws- wildly different climates appear incongruously next to each other, doubtlessly all part of the villains plan to make his game more interesting and complex.


We find out at the same time the kidnapped heroes do what Arcade is all about, but he’s quite different from the Arcade I am familiar with – his sense of style is a lot cooler, and he’s absolutely in control of this environment. Arcade makes it very apparent that there’s not going to be any options for teaming up to stop him or not playing along with his game. In Murder World, Arcade has all the power of Dr. Manhattan without the existential crisis to hold him back from showing off his power.


In order for the premise to work we have to care for the outcome. Hopeless certainly appears well aware that the characters have to matter, or the series will merely have the impact of a generic slasher movie. That would only justify the greatest fear of those who are certain their favorite heroes are going to be used as fodder. Hopeless answers these concerns in the letters section of this first issue, “The number one goal of AA is character development and I think you’ll find it’s much more teen drama than slasher film.


The drama comes early and so do the hard decisions,. If the heroes just decided to not play along in spite of not being able to defeat him, Arcade could just massacre them in their defiance, which wouldn’t be any fun at all. The balance between heroic inaction and meaningless murder would tips in Arcade’s favor, one would think, because all it would take to break such a stalemate would be one opportunistic turn from a fellow victim who valued his or her own survival more than the lives of everyone else.


Hopeless has set up Arcade on his very own virtual Galapagos, where survival will mirror natural selection, those who do enough to at least race past the weaker among the rest of the pack will increase their own odds of surviving to the end of the ordeal. That is enough to set the wheels in motion, and I look forward to seeing how this plays out. There’s enough here to trust that Hopeless is going to produce an exciting series that explores a substantive literary theme.


If the heroes are treated as individuals with varied motivations, moral compasses and the depth of character  that appears to be the goal here, this will be a very entertaining story. The easy part is drawing parallels, the trick is to fashion something new within the paradigm, and I continue to look forward to that.

[1] http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=40986, Steve Sunu, Hopeless and Walker Populate "Avengers Arena" For Marvel NOW! Thu, September 13th, 2012 at 9:21am PDT


Our Score:


A Look Inside