Well, it's happened. Avengers Academy, the stellar series from Christos Gage, has come to an end with issue #39, in order to make way for a completely different creative direction to coincide with the Marvel NOW stunt. Characters will be culled from this series to be sent to Avengers Arena, where young superheroes and Darkhawk will be forced to fight each other to the death by Arcade – a la The Hunger Games, Battle Royale or, as Hopeless would prefer to say, The Running Man.
"They're teenage superheroes," Hopless told CBR in asserting the differences between his book and those movies. "Their histories are very different. These characters come from different places, but they're all Marvel Superheroes. This gives it a different perspective. For me, it's as influenced by The Running Man as anything. It comes from gladiatorial games and everything just as much. The perspective of teenage superheroes changes it enough."
The Running Man, you may recall, stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a guy killing his way through a horde of colorful American Gladiator-styled hunters like Sub-Zero (now Plain Zero), Buzzsaw (he had to split) and Dynamo (aka Light Head, Christmas Tree).
If you're an avid reader of Crave Online, you'll know I've been whining about this shift for a while now, as it comes off as one of those changes just for the sake of change – in this case, the big Marvel NOW event that has a massive shuffling of creative teams encouraged to make hostile takeovers of books from their previous caretakers. Avengers Academy has been one of my favorite books, where characters act like reasonably intelligent people and attack problems in interesting ways. Initially, it began as a reaction to Dark Reign, as Hank Pym, Tigra, Quicksilver, Jocasta and a rotating list of guest Avengers found some teenage superhumans who had been subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment by Norman Osborn, and they tried to set up a school for them in hopes of keeping them from going down the quick and easy path to supervillainy – as the things they'd suffered would certainly lend itself well to that. Over time, it matured into an interesting look at adolescence in the Marvel Universe, a celebration of obscure niche characters that weren't getting attention anywhere else, and even a fresh examination of the relevance of the Avengers in the modern world.
Now, I'm not a hater of Marvel NOW in general. There are several books I'm looking forward to, including Uncanny Avengers, Superior Spider-Man and Indestructible Hulk, among others. I just think some common sense could be exercised here and there. Not everything needs to be swept up in the tidal wave of publicity hooks, and surely there were ways Avengers Academy could have changed enough to fit in with the swing of things without rounding up half the cast and dumping them on an island to make them kill each other off. These are characters we love, and putting them in this knock-off setting – as much as we like the idea of crazy ol' Arcade and his Murderworld – just makes us fear the worst. These are characters that don't feel as though they've been firmly established well enough that we can be sure they'll return if Hopeless gets bloodthirsty.
That said, maybe that's the point. Death in comic books is a nebulous concept at best, and people have grown used to the 'death stunt issue/wait a year or so/resurrection' cycle. But with niche characters like these, getting killed has a significant chance of sticking for a good long while. Thus, the stakes are high, and the fears of fans are fanned.
"Death is a big emotional part of life and I'm not the type of person who thinks death as a story device is cheap," Hopeless said. "Death is close to you, very close to you, is the most powerful thing someone can go through. I am really proud of the book, I think we're telling a really good story within this. None of the people responding to the concept and the marketing have seen the book, so I don't take it too personally because they haven't seen it yet."
This is true. I haven't seen Avengers Arena yet, and even ousted writer Gage doesn't want me to bag on it sight unseen (although one could argue that I've seen enough). In his eloquently modest and soft-spoken farewell page, Gage urges us to give the book a try.
"Many of you have shared with me your sadness that the journey's over. Me too, but I'm even more glad we got to do it," Gage says. "Some have expressed anger or frustration with Marvel, or the new direction some of the characters are going in, but please don't feel that way. When Mike [McKone] and I created the students of Avengers Academy, it wasn't to jealously hoard them. It was with the hope that they'd become part of the Marvel Universe. The only way that happens is if other creators use them, and Avengers Arena has terrific creators doing just that. If it's not your cup of tea, fair enough, but please give it a chance."
That's Gage – unbelievably gracious, even in this defeat. Several issues back, he published a relatively well-spoken complaint letter from someone who was unconfortable with the gay relationships being portrayed in a book about teenagers, and proceeded to calmly, respectfully dissent from that opinion in the most benevolent, heartfelt way you could imagine – a way that people like me would have a hard time doing without dropping an expletive or two.
For his part, Gage has ended Avengers Academy well, as #39 brings things full circle. The students finally reveal that they know the secret that the teachers have kept since day one – that the core class wasn't selected because of hero potential, but rather villain potential – and the teachers admit this, but insist that the initial criteria doesn't matter anymore, because the original team – Mettle, Finesse, Striker, Veil, Hazmat and Reptil – as well as the later additions like X-23, White Tiger and Julie Power, have proven themselves time and again, having gone through wars like Fear Itself and trials like Jeremy Briggs. They've grown, they've changed and they've matured, but they've come through it all together, and they've graduated to being "Avengers: Third Grade," which is as confusing to them as it is to you, most likely – but it's a good thing, not a demotion. Pym will probably rename it eventually.
Longtime AA artist Tom Grummett helps keep the emotions high, as the aloof Finesse – the photographic reflex girl who some thought was borderline sociopathic with her trouble dealing with emotions – suffers the loss of a friend in X-23 due to mistakes she made, then sees all the happy endings her classmates are getting and feels more alone than ever. However, over the run of this series, we've come to trust Finesse has a conscience, even if she doesn't have a grasp of relationships, and that's exactly why the irritable hero Quicksilver is her perfect mentor.
Overall, though, it's a quietly triumphant send-off to the concept of Avengers Academy, setting up a lot of positive conclusions for everybody – especially Veil, who may have lost her powers, but she's become stronger of body and mind, proving that she's learned to stand up to bullies on the last page. There's also a hybrid notion that helps keep the Avengers relevant – some of them may indeed be The Avengers of Tomorrow, and others will help use their powers in more proactive, real-world ways with an Avengers Network of philanthropic foundations. Gage even keeps up his tradition of mild satire of the medium at large, with Mettle teasing Finesse about maybe, when she goes supervillain, she should put in a boob window in her suit, and maybe some stiletto heels.
Avengers Academy is one of those books that kept me sane about comics during the misery that was Fear Itself and the stupidity of certain characters who should have known better in Avengers vs. X-Men. I'm very sad to see it go, but I will give Avengers Arena a fair shake, out of respect for Christos Gage.
Just don't kill all these characters, Hopeless. They're too good for that.
AVENGERS ACADEMY #1-39