First, the bad news. Five issues into “Avengers Arena” and the basic series concept — Arcade turning Murderworld into a last-hero-standing death match — still hasn’t quite clicked. The good news is the rest of the book — with the different young heroes starting to come together and developing personalities — is where Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker succeed.
By dividing up the cast of “Avengers Arena” into a couple of larger groups, Hopeless makes it slightly easier to get a grasp on the different characters because of how readers get to watch them interact with one another. At the same time, there’s a strong focus on at least one character an issue, with “Avengers Arena” #5 zooming in on Kid Briton. The one problem with this strategy, though, is that most of the characters that Hopeless has examined in greater detail have come across as being rather unlikable, and Kid Briton is no exception to that rule as Hopeless reveals him to be an arrogant two-timing bully. It’s a strange tactic to take with more and more characters; some at least are merely gruff rather than nasty (like Cammi) but it does make you start to wonder who to cheer for. They don’t all need to be heroes (despite the title of the book), after all; we just need to want to see them at least a few of them succeed and that’s not somewhere that I feel “Avengers Arena” has taken us.
Walker’s art is a joy, though; I loved it on “Thunderbolts” back in the day and I’m just as enthusiastic about it here. I appreciate that Walker uses some quiet storytelling tricks as he draws each page, ones that don’t draw attention to themselves. Flashbacks are being drawn as a series of long horizontal panels, for example; there’s no announcement of that feature, but it’s something that he’s just done throughout the series and it trains the reader to instantly identify that tactic and mentally subtitle those pages as being part of the past. He also has fun with other ideas, like when an earthquake hits and his normally crisp panel borders become jagged and rough, with the panels themselves just slightly off-kilter. It emphasizes what’s going on in a way that sound effects or shaking scenery wouldn’t be able to manage on its own; that attention to detail is part of what makes Walker an artist who should be in demand. It doesn’t hurt that in general he’s a strong artist, too; nice clean character designs, expressive eyes, and some undeniably bizarre yet fun action moments, like when Nara is attacked. The expression on her attacker’s face is so spaced out and vacant that it lowers your defenses, and the actual shot being fired ends up feeling almost funny until a character screams in the next panel. It’s a great black comedy moment in the visuals, and I snickered a great deal.
“Avengers Arena” #5 still hasn’t quite come together, but Hopeless and Walker are certainly trying to make it work. For now it’s not bad, though, and as the numbers presumably dwindle we’ll hopefully start to get some more characters to care about as they rise up through the chaff. With so many strong “Avengers” titles in general, though, I think “Avengers Arena” might end up suffering in comparison, so it needs to up its game and soon.