***This article contains significant spoilers for Avengers Arena #18, on sale now.***
Ever since the bloody beginnings of Avengers Arena in December 2012 we knew there would be an ending, but how it would come – and who’d be left standing – was the big question. But last week Marvel released the finale of the series, Avengers Arena #18, and there’s a lot to be discussed.
For those unfamiliar or simply a couple issues behind, Avengers Arena followed 16 teenage and young adult heroes from Marvel’s ranks as they were kidnapped and forced to fight amongst themselves on a secret island for their survival all the while lorded over by the villain Arcade. Reminiscent of Battle Royale or The Hunger Games? It’s intentional, but series writer Dennis Hopeless took to the ground running, crafting a homage that bucked expectations and turned a number of reluctant readers into ardent fans. After the events of the previous Avengers Arena #17, only ten of the teen heroes have survived, but they find themselves fighting more amongst themselves than their captor who teleported away.
Newsarama spoke with Hopeless and the series’ primary artist Kev Walker about the events of this week’s Avengers Arena finale, as well as the future of these heroes and Arcade in March’s Avengers Undercover.
Newsarama: Dennis, how does it feel having it all done and in the hands of readers today?
Dennis Hopeless: It’s definitely bittersweet being done. There’s a huge sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing something and Avengers Arena was my first ongoing series. It’s by far the longest story I’ve ever written and it feels great to see that all the way through to the ending we planned at the very beginning.
That said, I already miss Avengers Arena. The final issue took about twice as long to write as any issue since the first (first issues take forever). I don’t think I wanted it be over. It’s odd to say that a super hero death match comic has “meant a lot to me” but it’s the truth. It was a challenge from page one that forced me to grow a lot as a writer. I’m so proud of the story we told and the character work we were able to do. I’m definitely glad we made it all the way to the end but I could’ve written that book for two more years.
Nrama: Kev, what about you?
Kev Walker: It's been a long haul, but it's really nice to see such a large story come to its natural end, especially one that's as unsettling as it is. I always knew Avengers Arena was a finite story, but the characters were all much larger. I looked at the island as a birthplace, where new heroes are formed, thrown in at the deep end, so to speak.
Nrama: There’s a lot I wanted to ask you two about, from the final issue to the essay in the back. But let’s start with the story – when it came time to write this final issue, had your initial plans for the ending changed over the course of writing the book?
Hopeless: The ending was pretty similar to what we conceived early on. The final Death Locket scene played out exactly how I explained it to my wife over pancakes last winter. And I always knew we’d end on a big Hazmat moment. Arcade’s fate was a little more up in the air throughout. Elements of that final scene were in my early outlines but the specific beats really came together when we started discussing plans for Avengers Undercover. The last two pages of Avengers Arena lead directly into Avengers Undercover. You’ll see what I mean in March.
Nrama: For some reason, I always thought Darkhawk would be one of the characters to die in the series, but Chris Powell made it – even trading out the Darkhawk amulet to others for a time. Of the cast he was one of the most popular going in, so how do you think about what you did with the character over the course of the book?
Hopeless: Ha. A lot of fans would argue we didn’t do much. The thing about Chris Powell is that he never belonged in Murder World. That was the point. Arcade made a mistake and put a grown man into a children’s game. Chris as Darkhawk was powerful enough to end this game day one. But he’s also an adult super hero. He was never going to break. There’s a reason we pulled him off the table so early. Chris sort of played the role of heroic police officer who dies in act one, leaving the other characters to deal with his gun.
Nrama: Kev, in addition to featuring some cult favorite characters, you got to design a few new heroes of your own. Although some died along the way, which one was your personal favorite of the ones you had a hand in designing?
Walker: I don't have a favorite, honestly. The key to drawing such a large ensemble cast of characters is to invest all of them with something of yourself. There's nothing worse than a character you hate but have to draw. I was given a lot of leeway with the characters because, after all, this was just my interpretation of them.
Nrama: If there’s one dead hero you could bring back and tell more stories with, who would it be?
Walker: Actually the first two deaths, Mettle and Red Raven. I understood why it had to be someone important who died first, because the characters needed to know Arcade meant business as much as the reader did, otherwise it would have just been his usual bull. Arcade had a reputation for being a lousy villain who never actually succeeded in anything. In order to be taken seriously he had to do something really dramatic and although killing one of the new characters would have affected the kids, it wouldn't have shocked the readers. I just wish I'd had more of a chance to draw him, do something with him first. When I was asked to do Avengers Arena it was still at the planning stage and was being called an Avengers Academy book, it was Mettle I was looking forward to drawing. But alas, he is no more. Though no one ever really dies in comics, so you never know.
As for Red Raven, I was just pleased with the character design and would have done a lot more with her, but again, her death, though apparently pointless, served to demonstrate that there were limitations to the environment they were in. The kids couldn't just run (or fly) away. They had to stand and fight. I think it was only really a seen as a pointless death because she’s the only character that no one ever really got to know. She did exist outside Avengers Arena but not in any great detail and not in recent memory.
Hopeless: I’d write stories about any of these characters, dead or alive. My one big regret is not getting a chance to do more with Red Raven before she died. I had a lot of interesting ideas for her and simply didn’t have room in the first arc plot. But yeah, if Marvel offered me a Mettle and Juston miniseries set before Avengers Arena, I’d jump at the chance.
Nrama: Arcade dreamt up a lot of evil devices to push onto the kids, and by extension so did you as the writer. Was there any death traps you had in mind you didn’t have a chance to write into the story?
Hopeless: For me the game itself was always the one big death trap. In the final issue, Katy finds a bunch of bells and whistles Arcade never utilized and uses them to attack the surviving players. There’s a reason Arcade didn’t do the same. He didn’t want to kill the players himself. He wanted the game to play out naturally. Killing Mettle on day one was a compromise he made to get things going. Arcade was looking for a true death match. I guess in a way, so was I.
Nrama: Kev, what was the craziest death trap you were tasked with drawing?
Hopeless: Actually I wimped out, when Katy sets off lots of traps at once to finish off the other kids, there should have been four not three. One for each of the elements. There were the sandman, the flying robot insects, the living waterspout and… I just couldn't find the room to adequately portray the final one… napalm wind. Sorry Dennis, you broke me, I just couldn't think how to do it in the space we had.
Nrama: In the afterword you reveal that Avengers Arena was originally just a chapter in a longer story you had about a superhero school. Can you give us a brief synopsis of your original pitch?
I pitched a Skins-inspired teen drama set at a S.H.I.E.L.D.- run super hero school. I wanted to lean into the emotionally intense aspects of being a teenager with stories that focused more on the real world trouble kids get themselves into. It didn’t get fully fleshed out before we switched gears to Murder World. I think I wanted Bruce Banner to be the absentee headmaster with Pepper Potts as his number 2. The lead characters in my pitch became the Braddock Academy kids and Death Locket.
Nrama: And at what point did you reconcile the focus Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso put on the Avengers Arena part and you feel like you made it your own again?
Hopeless: I got over my initial frustration with the change pretty quickly once I started plotting the thing. It became clear I could use the high stakes and inherent drama of a death match to build a different kind of character driven story. Credit where credit’s due, they were right to push us in this direction. It might make me sound like a company man to say so, but the book was definitely better for the change.
Nrama: Kev, Dennis and Marvel obviously had some big plans all along for how this series would end – did you know how it would end up when you were drawing the series early on, or did you just stick to whatever script you were drawing at the time?
Walker: Oh I knew the broad strokes, but not the details, and there were a few changes we made as we went along which altered the flow of the storytelling anyway. I think the story ended up being all the better because of fluidity. I think in Avengers Arena I've done some of my best work to date.
Nrama: And Arcade got away scott free, even shown uploading what seems like video of what actually happened on Murder World. In a way, Avengers Arena has rehabilitated Arcade from being a minor villain into potentially a very major one for the Marvel U. How do you feel about that?
Hopeless: I’ll be thrilled if other writers see potential in our version of Arcade. We definitely tried our best to set him up as a more legitimate threat. It will be fun to see what happens to the character once we’re done with him.
But… Kev and I aren’t letting him go just yet. Arcade plays a big role in the first arc of Avengers Undercover.
Nrama: So Arcade’s story with these teens isn’t over?
Hopeless: Definitely not. Kev Walker and I are launching Avengers Undercover in March and Arcade is coming with us.
Avengers Undercovertells the story of a bunch of emotionally damaged teenage superheroes that survived a horrific ordeal and no longer fit very well into their old lives. In an effort to get back what was lost, they hatch a plan to infiltrate Baron Zemo’s Masters of Evil and take it down from the inside.
Walker: There are lots I want to say, but saying anything would spoil the surprise. We've got a great bunch of characters and now they're off the island and outside the 'game' the possibilities are completely open. However just because they have super-powers doesn't mean they're well-adjusted and able to deal with it. They're still teenagers who've been through a traumatic experience and the effects of Avengers Arena will stay with them.
Nrama: Will all of the surviving cast from Avengers Arena be transitioning over to that new series?
Hopeless: Not all but most. The first Avengers Undercover cover reveals a few of our cast member but there are others. In an attempt to avoid completely spoiling the Avengers Arena ending so we held a few cast members back. Runaways fans in particular might be surprised who shows up in Avengers Undercover #1.