Since the launch of Marvel NOW!, one title has risen above all others to be the most shocking, cliffhanger-filled, edge-of-your-seat story: Avengers Arena.
Sixteen young superheroes, trapped on an island in a life-or-death competition lorded over by the bloodthirsty gamemaster Arcade. In Avengers Arena #13 earlier this month, Avengers Academy’s Christos Gage and Karl Moline stepped in to show how Arcade kidnapped these kids and have hid their disappearances from the outside world. And now in August 28’s Avengers Arena #14, series writer Dennis Hopeless returns for series finale arc, “Boss Level.”
Like his characters in Avengers Arena, Hopeless has bore the brunt of some life-or-death comments from an intense comics fandom with the string of deaths in the series so far, from cult favorite Darkhawk to the heart-wrenching death of Runaways alum Nico Minoru. But just as Nico survived her brush with death, Hopeless and Avengers Arena have been forged by the fires of opinionated fans and found near-universal support from readers now that Hopeless’ plans have begun to reach fruition. But that mean the deaths are over. We talked with the writer for more, and he brought along some art from next month's AA #15 by Kev Walker to tease.
Newsarama: At the end of this month, the finale to season one of Avengers Arena begins with issue #14. Set the stage for us, Dennis.
Dennis Hopeless: Times up. This is the end game for everyone. Play or die. Arcade is so close to finally winning one of these things and it looks like he just might do it. But… For the first time since this all started, the game master can’t see the whole board. Death Locket and Apex are hiding out in the control center. Five issues left until we crown a winner and we’ve packed each chapter full.
Nrama: This arc’s title, “Boss Level,” harkens back to classic side-scrolling video games – a neat twist given Arcade’s own moniker. Is this series something you’ve thought of before in video game terms?
Hopeless: I’m so sappy character-obsessed, when I think of Avengers Arena my mind goes to things like the British TV series Skins for inspiration before it goes to video games. That said, I think the arc title is apt. This is the part of the game where you throw everything you can at your opponent and hope like hell you’re still standing after. That’s true for the kids and Arcade. If they want to walk out of this thing, this is the moment to fight for it.
Nrama: In Avengers Arena #13 earlier this month, Christos Gage revealed why these 16 heroes disappearances haven’t been noticed by the outside world – namely Life Model Decoys. Is this something that’s been in the works for awhile to explain away how no one’s come to save them?
Hopeless: We always planned on doing an outside world story between the second and third arcs that explained why no one had come to rescue them. I had my own set of answers worked out for all that. I still have them in a notebook somewhere. But in the middle of the second arc when the schedule got tight, editor Bill Rosemann suggested we bring Christos in to write that issue. It would be like a lost Avengers Academy issue that explains everything, using Hank Pym and other characters from that series. I loved the idea and didn’t want to get in Christos’s way. We talked on the phone about the series and I explained the questions that needed answered but all of the answers are Christos. He and Karl Moline took that issue and made it into a great sort of Avengers Academy / Avengers Arena crossover. I couldn’t be happier with it.
Nrama: And will we be seeing more of the outside world going forward, or is “Boss Level” strictly Murder World from here on out?
Hopeless: Strictly Murder World until the end of the game. Avengers Arena #18 includes some aftermath coda stuff but it’s pretty much 4th quarter game time from here on out.
Nrama: This series has been rocked by multiple tragic deaths – from Darkhawk in #3 to Juston, Red Raven, Mettle, Kid Briton and Nico Minoru – albeit briefly. Not to be too morbid, but but are there any more deaths coming?
Hopeless: Ha. Yes. Big deaths are coming. I’d say if you added up all of the biggest moments in the book, nearly half of them happen in the last 5 issues. This last arc is the culmination of all the character work we’ve been building since the very beginning. There are obviously winners and losers but nobody survives Murder World. Not really.
Nrama: Speaking of those deaths, they really rocked fandom – especially Nico and Darkhawk. If you can look back at your initial plans for Avengers Arena, were those deaths always part of the plan or did they change over time? Was there, for example, anyone on the chopping block for the issues so far that you decided to save?
Hopeless: We had most of the deaths pretty tightly plotted from the beginning. There was a little wiggle room in the second arc but apart from not being able to fit as much stuff as I expected into every issue, it all played out as planned. My one big regret is Red Raven. I had plans for her very early on that just wouldn’t fit within the rest of the plot. Her death provided a specific moment that needed to happen super early. If you forced me to go back and rework the plot from scratch, that’s the one thing I might change. It would have been great to write an issue from her perspective before her sudden demise.
Nrama: A couple months back you said the end of season one was with #18, but the Marvel solicits call it the “series finale.” Can you settle it for us – will there be more Avengers Arena?
Hopeless: We have big plans for what comes next but it won’t be in the form of an issue #19. I can’t wait to talk about it but have to wait till Marvel announces what’s next.
Nrama: This is overlooked by some, but Avengers Arena has really done much to rehabilitate Arcade from being a novelty villain in the Marvel U to a massive threat. What’s that been like for you?
Hopeless: Arcade is just a blast to write. At this point he’s a voice in my head. All I have to do to write him is listen to his diatribes and decide which bits fit into the book. If all of my characters talked in my head so much, I’d be a lot more prolific or completely insane.
I know some fans consider this a new version of Arcade but I honestly don’t think we changed the character much. We just shifted his perspective a little and gave him the tools to actually win one of his games. The biggest difference between Avengers Arena Arcade and old school Arcade is that winning is fun. He’s having the time of his life. He made a plan, saw it through (with a little help from a friend) and it’s working. We gave the guy a gun that fires and it turns out he has a lot of untapped potential.
Nrama: Spreading out to look at the heroes here, in addition to using some fan-favorite cult characters from Marvel history, you also introduced some new ones such as Cullen Bloodstone. How’s it been introducing these new characters, and even groups like the Braddock Academy, into the Marvel U?
Hopeless: Getting the opportunity to create characters for the Marvel Universe is one of the highlights of this job. It’s obviously a lot of fun to write Wolverine and Cable but creating something new is satisfying in a totally different way. We get to play around in this incredible world we grew up reading about. They pay us to do it! And while we’re at it we get to leave behind little bits of ourselves. Cullen Bloodstone, Anachronism, Death Locket and the other Braddock Academy kids are all pieces of me. Now they exist in the Marvel Universe and other creators can use them in their stories (at least until I kill them all). That’s a pretty cool legacy to leave.
Nrama: Throughout the dozen issues of Avengers Arena so far, you’ve really turned in a suspense-filled, winding road of emotion that’s got comic fans – both offline and online over on Tumblr – hanging on your every word. It’s quite different from your approach on other comic series – so how did you plan all this out and is the reaction this series has gotten so far, specifically to some surprise deaths , what you expected?
Hopeless: The whole story was written around the various character arcs. It’s fairly easy to understand plot so from the very beginning we leaned on the shifting POVs and emotional torment to move the story forward. The first thing I did was fill a notebook with back stories and potential in-game turmoil for each character. Then we began sewing those together and moving things around to find the structure. It was a lot of moving parts to juggle so early in the process but having that roadmap has really helped out along the way. It allowed us to really focus in on the character work.
As for the fan reaction, I couldn’t have expected that. No way. This is my first ongoing Marvel book. We got 10 times as many reviews and comments for issue #1 than I had gotten on all of the rest of my work combined. That would have been overwhelming if the book wasn’t so polarizing. If you take into account that 40% of those people wanted our heads on pikes, it was pretty intense. But it turns out that’s just part of the job. You get used to it and move on. And, fortunately for us, the tide eventually turned. The feedback we get now is almost exclusively positive. It helps that I’m really proud of the work. You’d have a terrible hard time convincing me this series isn’t worth a look for the artwork alone.