There's blood on Dennis Hopeless's hands. But to be honest, that's what gives Avengers Arena its edge.
In many ways, it's so reckless what Marvel is doing with its teenage superheroes — pitting them against each other, in the hopes that one of them will survive the power of Arcade. It's bloody. It's even exploitative. But in many ways, this slaughterhouse distills a lot of what make superhero comics so popular: There's action, there's emotion, there's stakes. This is a slasher comic disguised as a capes-and-tights mag, and as far as first issues go, well, this one definitely aims for the heart.
I feel bad for Christos Gage reading this book, considering how much of a 180 Avengers Arena takes from its predecessor, Gage's cult favorite Avengers Academy. Yet Hopeless does pick up where he left off nicely, reminding us why we like these characters before he abruptly whisks them away to the techno-battlefield known as Murderworld. Hopeless's rationale of the Arena is a bit self-conscious, as he readily admits the inspiration from books like The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, but that bit of exposition is needed to get the concept of this book across — while the adult superheroes might have wills of steel, Marvel's teenage heroes aren't ready for this yet. It won't be Arcade that kills them, it'll be each other — and it'll be their own lack of maturity and experience.
Artist Kev Walker also proves to be the perfect fit this book, really playing up the savagery of combat with his sharp lines and expressive faces. If the opening sequence with Hazmat squaring off against X-23 is any indication, Avengers Academy is going to be the hidden artistic gem of the Marvel NOW! lineup — X-23's face is drenched in shadow, really dehumanizing her and making her seem like a fearsome killing machine. When her skin is peeled off to reveal a blazing skull, well… brrrrr, it's enough to make your blood run cold. Walker also makes you feel for these characters with their wide eyes and the tears running down their faces. One hero, for example, looks both terrified and utterly resigned when they make an appeal to Arcade, and I have the feeling those sorts of moments are going to make readers both love and hate this book with equal passion.
While this book wears its influences unapologetically on its sleeve — and yes, the fact that these overpowered teenagers have accepted the new status quo so quickly is a little much to swallow, even with Arcade's new-and-improved powerset — there's still something guiltily, trashily fun about Avengers Arena. Maybe all those teen characters that nobody bought will at least generate some outrage, Marvel is likely (and rightly) thinking. Maybe all these deaths will draw in some of those bloodthirsty Walking Dead readers, a more cynical reader might think. Maybe the corpses of all these teenage superheroes might trigger a new crossover, I'd even suggest, one that puts Arcade at the top of the supervillain list. But either way, there's a lot of different angles that Avengers Arena can attack us at, and that mix of action, terror and heart make for a potent first issue launch.