As a big fan of Avengers Academy, I found the announcement of its cancellation in favor of the Dennis Hopeless/Kev Walker series Avengers Arena kind of insulting. The concept being a bunch of fledgling teenage characters are rounded up into Arcade's Murderworld and forced to kill each other until there's one left standing. Characters from Academy, Runaways, Darkhawk and more. Very obviously a Hunger Games cash-in, but if you want to be charitable and cooler-than, a Battle Royale homage. However, since Arcade even admits he "got the idea from a couple kids' books I read in the pen" in Avengers Arena #1, I think we can all be clear about what prompted this whole notion. At least Hopeless cops to it.
The other thing I'll give Hopeless is that he's doing sound character work in this first issue, which he claims repeatedly in the letters page, responding to the understandably frustrated fan reaction to the concept, is the driving goal of this series. He does pick up right where Avengers Academy left their lead couple Hazmat and Mettle, and it does seem like he understands their characters throughout. That makes it all the more aggravating when he ends the issue with a big mushroom stamp to Academy fans.
That may seem like overstating things in a genre where character death is quite often impermanent, and we're always likely to see the dead return to life for future franchising opportunities. But the fact that these are mostly ancillary characters – some brand new for this series, others from critically-acclaimed books that have ended and who haven't apparently had the strength to find new series to be a part of until now, and some from a book that seems like it was cancelled specifically so its characters could get killed off – makes that whole resurrection thing seem less likely to fall back on as a consolation. Thus, Hopeless has to find some balance between making his high stakes real and just pissing off everybody who likes the characters he's using, and thus would be the target audience, by making a series that's little more than a snuff fest.
This first issue seems to be trying to establish the often-laughable Arcade as a high-end villain, and Hopeless writes pretty much everything in service of that goal. It generally works in that respect – he rounds up a bunch of kids with seemingly godlike power over even their basic motor skills, fights them all off without breaking a sweat, and then forcing them to turn on each other by threatening to kill somebody immediately if they don't choose who dies first. It's truly daunting. Maybe Hopeless has an out planned for the future – the kids are all just plugged into a Matrix thing and all the deaths are virtual and not real or it was all holographic or something – but the minute he reveals that, all the air goes out of the concept. So he can't, unless the series starts hemorrhaging readers who respond to this teen character purging with angry 'fuck yous.'
The extra kick in the nuts here is that this issue is well-written, and the art from Kev Walker is outstanding. Arcade's updated look is much more malevolent, with longer hair and ditching the bow tie for an ascot, making him look a lot like some kind of evil Mr. Roarke from a twisted version of Fantasy Island. The team is doing their best to make this work, but it's such a goddamned polarizing concept – a ripped-off idea subjecting cult-favorites to the chopping block – that it remains hard to swallow, and much harder to actively enjoy.
On one hand, this is exploitation of cheap-death shock tactics to try and skim a little off the top of the teen-lit trend of the moment. On the other hand, it's a tense thriller that's really put the fear of death back into superhero comics, where it's often gone missing due to the revolving door to the afterlife. It may come down to what kind of comic fan you are. If you like to pick your favorites and follow their growth as characters over time, this will drive you nuts. If you are an arc-to-arc type who can cast continuity aside and just focus on enjoying whatever story you're reading at the time, Avengers Arena might just be your speed.
For those of us who split the difference, it's going to be one hell of a headache.