Writer: Dennis Hopeless
Art: Kev Walker & Frank Martin
Stewart R: Marvel NOW! seems to be really testing the comic reading audience’s wallet at the moment with a large selection of new titles all with new creative teams to be picked up and sampled, and some rather punishing release schedules (Iron Man has appeared on shelves in four of the past six Wednesdays!) for some of the premium $3.99 books that beggars belief. I’ll admit that I’ve had to be more ruthless when it has come to dropping Marvel titles after just one issue or simply not picking them up in the first instance for fear of being inundated with bank account crippling sadness. While I have become ruthless in that respect I have been keen to keep an eye on those fringe NOW! titles that are coming in at the tempting $2.99 priceline and appear to have a more balanced and spread release schedule that could see them live long on my pull-list. Simon Spurrier’s X-Men Legacy is one such title that I’m sold on and now it appears that after just one issue Dennis Hopeless’ Avengers Arena is another.
The premise is fairly simple so far; 16 superhero or powered teenagers are taken from their homes, placed within the deadly realm of Murder World, cut off from the outside and forced to fight each other to the death until only one survives. On the face of it, that is reading very much like a combination of cinematic hits The Hunger Games and Battle Royale (the cover even directly riffs the latter) and considering Marvel’s recent history with trying to pander to certain audiences - see the Victor Gischler penned X-Men title’s heavy vampire leaning a few years back - it’s a fair bet that they might be trying to gain a little interest from those people who handed over their share of the $400m+ that The Hunger Games took at the US Box Office. The success there seems likely to be reliant upon word of mouth, but for the regular comic reader there’s plenty to draw them in with a cast of vaguely familiar C and D-list heroes and the offering that they may meet the rarest of things in the Marvel Universe - a permanent death!
That last comment might seem a touch bloodthirsty, but such finality is rare in a creative industry where longevity of the characters is key to the long term future and success of the business. Lesser known characters are easier to put on the chopping block, but it still introduces something that is not that often found inside the pages of your mainstream comic book. The idea that this will be heroes forced to kill their friends and other heroes adds an extra element of emotional thrill to the proceedings and asks just what else, aside from their lives, could these individuals potentially stand to lose along the way.
Certainly from this debut I’d say that Dennis Hopeless seems to be the type of character-driven writer who clearly understands that to make a premise such as this work he has to ensure that the readers have an emotional tether to some or most of the cast and that their individuality has to stand out. Here he uses one of the more recognizable teenagers, Avengers Academy’s Hazmat, as his prime protagonist to highlight how troubled she has been growing up, how things were finally starting to turn around for her and how the trip to Murder World seems likely to tear that all away (assuming that she’s the one to survive). I was instantly drawn into her struggle and really want to find out just how far her journey lasts which says to me straight away that this title has legs.
Does the villain of the piece’s presence mean that this whole idea has an air of, dare I say it, predictability? Quite possibly, but then making assumptions about Hopeless’ ongoing title based purely on the antagonist seems a touch headstrong in this day and age considering our collective love of the unforeseen twist and unexpected plot turn. I doubt Marvel would have brought this writer onboard and given him two titles to handle from the get go if he was going to run with rather standard stories and plots, the likes of which we’d seen before and could easily predict. I quite enjoyed how he captures the villain’s swagger, arrogance and the slight chip on his shoulder from past failures, and including him in a comic book where he now chooses to get his kicks from preying on the fears and naivety of younger minds that seem to offer him far less resistance and threat makes an awful lot of sense.
His power in this dangerous realm is captured perfectly by the very talented Kev Walker (2000 AD, Thunderbolts) who has a fantastic breadth to his skills, depicting subtler moments of peace and tranquility soon broken by the unsettling storm of violence as the teenagers attempt their initial rebellion against their captor. I really do enjoy Walker’s use of dynamic angles to propel a sequence along and coupled with Frank Martin’s brooding use of colour I can see that Murder World, and the horrors that unfold within it, are going to be a treat upon the eyes.
A very successful start for a comic series that probably has to get out of the blocks quite quickly to make itself stand out in the cluttered Marvel NOW! schedule. At the lower price point Avengers Arena is an absolute steal and certainly worthy of your attention should you fancy something a touch different. I sit here quite excited about the prospect of picking up the second issue and seeing just whose face might get crossed out on the Murder World yearbook photo next! 8/10