We who are destined to die, salute you. Whether you’ve just watched the trailer for “Thor: Ragnarok,” are pumped for “Injustice 2” or just fell asleep watching “Gladiator,” it’s time to set your circus to the maximus because we are counting down 15 of the best instances of comics entering the arena.
To clarify: characters in comics had to enter some sort of arena, blood sport, gladiatorial bout, death race, kumite, homicidal reality show — really any highly-spectated murder-based event — to qualify. Fights to the death don’t literally have to be to the death, necessarily, but we did somewhat rank entries based on the brutality of the bout, and the subsequent guilt we felt for wanting to buy tickets to the event in question.
15. DEADPOOL: GAMES OF DEATH
In “Deadpool: Games of Death” by Mike Benson, Shawn Crystal and Lee Loughridge, Deadpool has been hired to infiltrate “Pain Factor,” an underground reality game show of death in order to find his employer’s spoiled yuppie son. In “Pain Factor,” nine men enter, but only one can leave with the grand prize: one million dollars… and a year’s worth of Cialis. Challenges include a human blender, mini-bike minefield races and a round of roller ball, which in retrospect is just spiky roller derby.
Nine men enter, one man leave, and each of these men are parodies of action movie staples, including Viper, an homage to Snake Pliskin; Klaus Van Der Beek, aka JCVD in “Blood Sport;” and Vito, a tantric yoga enthusiast/Steven Seagal stand-in who dies instantly. Vito is emblematic of “Games of Death,” which suffers from comedic spray and pray — throwing so many jokes of varying quality at you on nearly every panel, hoping that something hits the center mass of your funny bone.
14. TRANSFORMERS: MEGATRON ORIGIN
In “Transformers: Megatron Origin,” by Eric Holmes and Alex Milne, we witness the rise of Megatron and his Deceptions. Despite his magnanimous moniker, Megatron’s beginnings are meek, working as a lowly Energon miner as a part of Cybertron’s disenfranchised working class. During a major miner revolt, Megatron kills a guard with his bare hands. Horrified, Megs flees to the most ratchet parts of Cybertron, surviving as a combatant in the arena — Cybertron’s most popular spectator sport.
While throwing characters in the arena is typically just a plot device, in “Megatron Origin” it is crucial to Megatron’s character. As leader of the Decepticons, Megatron is known to sacrifice his own soldiers to accomplish his goals, but he wasn’t always this way. During his first bout, Megatron hesitates to finish off his foe, haunted by memories of his first kill. By his last brawl, however, Megatron is using teammates as shields while barking out orders. The crucible that is the arena smelted down the lowly miner into the ruthless Deception leader. Utilizing his popularity, Megatron turns his fellow pit-fighters into the first generation of Decepticons, turning the whole planet into their arena.
13. COUNTDOWN ARENA
In “Countdown Arena,” by Keith Champagne and Scott McDaniel, Monarch hops across the entirety of the DC Multiverse, searching for the dopest alternate versions of DC characters in order to fill the ranks of his army. Since Monarch likes drama, he pits three versions of each character against themselves to fight for the spot. We’re talking Superman from “The Dark Knight Returns,” Steampunk Batman from “Gotham by Gaslight,” Johnny Quick, Apollo from “The Authority,” Vampire Batman, and a quick cameo from Dr. Manhattan. In fact, half of the fun of “Countdown Arena” is figuring out which universe each character hails from.
So, dumb question — Why limit yourself to one incarnation? There’s technically four Batmen competing, as Green Lantern-Bat is a twofer, so why not just make an army of Batmen, aka what Darkseid was trying to do in “Final Crisis?” The victors of each superhuman brawl were determined by online voting, which seems somewhat unfair to the lesser known characters, as it’s impossible to equally consider every nominee when you have “Vampire Batman” and “Commie Clark Kent” on the ballot.
12. ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN: DEADPOOL
In “Ultimate Spider-Man: Deadpool,” by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, Spider-Man has been spider-napped by Deadpool in order to participate in Mojo’s new reality show. On Krakoa Island, Spider-Man teams up with the X-Men to star in the Ultimate Universe’s most popular (and most racist) reality show, where mutants and Spider-Men are hunted for sport. The hunters are comprised of Deadpool and his Reavers, individuals who sacrificed their humanity in order to better defend it. All of this exposition is organically told to us through perfect television style segments, highlighting high school quality drama between Peter Parker and Kitty Pryde in-between action sequences.
Given his artificial healing factor, Deadpool is a natural fit as the charismatic leader of The Reavers, who take perfectly good human parts and trade them in for experimental cybernetic nonsense and super-necessary chest-mounted flamethrowers in order to take on the X-Men. Of course by undergoing these experimental procedures, The Reavers have become more inhuman than the very mutants they hunt, but it’s hard to explore the true meaning of humanity when you have sweet metal snake legs.
11. TRANSFORMERS: LAST STAND OF THE WRECKERS
In “Transformers: Last Stand of The Wreckers” (2010) by Nick Roche and James Roberts, The Wreckers — the Autobot equivalent of the Marines — go on a suicide run to reclaim Fortress Maximus. Formerly an Autobot-run prison, Fortress Maximus is now a Robo-Thunderdome lorded over by Overlord for the past three years. Defying the Decepticons, Overlord claims Fortress Maximus for himself, pitting its prisoners against one another in the arena. Overlord’s offer is simple: survive 12 matches, and you get a shot at freedom. When The Wreckers drop in to rescue their robot POWs, however, Overlord changes the rules: Anyone who offs an Autobot gets out.
For a comic centered about Transformers you’ve never heard of, “Last Stand of The Wreckers” manages to be surprisingly brutal, with robots saying “hell” and “damn” before being executed gangland-style. You find yourself caring about robots having “Saving Private Ryan” style freak outs during firefights, drenched in the purple blood of their friends. There’s even a tragically beautiful last stand as one of the Wreckers stays behind to buy his teammates some time, being ripped apart by prisoners in what should have been his shining moment.
10. FANTASTIC FOUR: ARENA OF DEATH!
Ben Grimm has been captured by the Skrulls and enslaved on the planet Kral in “Fantastic Four” (1969) #91-93 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kral’s inhabitants are masters of science and technology in their section of the galaxy, yet are totally crazy about the 1930s gangster aesthetic. This is a society that uses power stones as currency and giant bottle openers that shoot nerve gas as weapons, yet still utilizes switchboard operated telephones. Slaves are even transported in a retro Chevy truck labeled “SLAVE TRUCK.” To convince slaves to fight, a high-tech sonic disruptor operated by a fedora-wearing mook is pointed at each combatant’s home planet. This melding of gladiator and gangster inexplicably works, especially given The Thing’s heavy Brooklyn accent and accurate facts disguised as insults: “Ahhh… yer Fadder wears space shoes!”
Things only get more beautifully insane for The Thing, exemplified by Torgo, the arena android literally created for gladiator fights who expresses sorrowful doubt in doing so. Then, the gangsters actually debate the rules of the death match when Ben accidentally detonates a bomb on himself — and the battle is actually reset! A fight to the death with rules? Fantastic.
9. THE TRI-SPORTS ARENA
In Mirage Comics’ “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1986) #6 by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the ninja turtles are imprisoned on the Triceraton Home Planets. The Triceraton Republic condemns the turtles to the Tri-Sports Arena, forcing them to compete in their survivor-take-all televised games. It’s a classic tale of ninja turtles versus gladiator triceratops, who salute their saurian senator with “We who may be about to die salute you!” as the games begin. Bouts between eldritch horrors are interrupted by ads for Zhet’s all-glow horn-polish, leading into an alien gang war.
The main event is a fight between the Triceraton All-Star Team and The TMNT, complete with handy commentary from death sport commentators Raz and Zed. Don’t forget — this is gritty OG TMNT. Raphael states that he can’t wait to kill these veteran warrior-slaves by himself, only for Leo to correct him: they’re going to kill the Triceraton All-Stars together. The four turtle bros scream “Let’s kick some ass!” (not shell) as they charge in to murder the Triceraton Republic’s most cherished athletes.
8. THE UNBELIEVABLE GWENPOOL: MURDERWORLD
In “The Unbelievable Gwenpool” #12-13, by Christopher Hastings, Misha Haynes and Gurihiru, Gwenpool and her mercenary mates at M.O.D.O.K. wake up without their weapons and memory, locked in a fantasy dungeon crawling with frogmen. That’s right — Gwen has found herself in Arcade’s version of an Elder Scrolls game. This is a Murderworld RPG with an emphasis on PVP, as Dungeon Master Arcade has filled his fantasy realm with gold-seeking mercenaries. Fortunately, Gwenpool’s omega-level nerd knowledge extends to gaming, ensuring that her team follows the standard MMORPG party structure: Gwen is the tank, Mega Tony is the healer, Terrible Eye is the mage and Batroc The Leaper is the rogue.
This quest culminates in the boss fight… against Deadpool. Two genre savvy individuals battle to the death, except for one problem: Gwenpool doesn’t read “Deadpool.” Utilizing min/maxing, Gwenpool manages to lead one of the only teams to ever take down Deadpool, until he drops the fantasy veil in favor of a fourth-wall stabbing knife-fight. This tale has everything you could ever want in a death game, including a “Mortal Kombat” worthy “Toasty!”
7. SHOWDOWN ON THE SMUGGLER’S MOON!
In “Star Wars” (2015) #9-12 by Jason Aaron and Stuart Immonen, Luke Skywalker has been imprisoned by Grakkus The Hutt. Unlike most Hutts, Grakkus is an antique collector, utilizing his criminal empire to collect relics of the Jedi, including a lovely lightsaber necklace. Also, Grakkus is like the only Hutt who has ever worked out. Naturally, the last Jedi makes for a fine addition to Grakkus’ collection, with the fall of the final Jedi quickly becoming the must-see event on the smuggler moon of Nar Shaddaa.
Because this takes place before “The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke’s training is supplemented by the lightsaber-wielding Gamemaster, and Clone War era Magnaguard droids, if only to ensure that the audience gets a good show. Things suddenly take a turn fro the awesome, however, as the Rebels and the Imperials simultaneously raid the arena to rescue Luke mid-fight. Artoo raids Grakkus’ museum, resulting in everybody getting a lightsaber in an action sequence that even Darth Vader would have to admit was pretty wizard.
6. SUPERMAN: GLADIATOR
After having his shoes stolen on a space slave ship, a sunlight-depleted Superman finds himself on Warworld in the aptly titled “Gladiator” from “Superman” (1989) #32 by Roger Stern, Kerry Gammill and Dennis Jannke. On Warworld, Emperor Mongul pits the last Kryptonian against a medley of alien gladiators, including a pink elephant-man. With every bout, however, Clark breaks the one rule of a fight to the death by refusing to kill his adversaries. Superman goes unpunished because what is Mongul gonna do, kill his rising star for free? Clark’s gladiatorial career culminates in a clash with Mongul’s champion, Draaga. This fight is shown in “Action Comics Annual” #2, which isn’t the focus of this entry due to fight-interrupting flashbacks of Kryptonian eugenics.
Anyway, Superman challenges Mongul to fight, and Mongul instantaneously teleports in to accept the challenge, promptly knocking out Superman. The main reason Superman isn’t just decapitated is because Mongul doubts his blade is sharp enough to properly do it in the arena, which may be the dumbest way Superman has ever survived anything, ever. No, wait — Superman then only survives Mongul’s energy blast because he’s Krypton’s Messiah.
5. GHOST RACERS
This list needed a Circus Maximus event, and “Ghost Racers” by Felipe Smith is Circus Maximum Overdrive. It’s every Ghost Rider ever — from the better known Blaze, Ketch, 2099 and Alejandra to a skeletal ape straddling a flaming train and a T-Rex skeleton riding a harrier jet — in a death race. Hosting Battleworld’s most popular sport, Arcade litters the track with the most malicious bits of the Marvel Multiverse, from Sentinels to a squad of Sabretooths (Sabreteeth?), ensuring that each immolated racer will have to do more than turn left to survive.
“Ghost Racers” is just fun as Hell, Doom-it! Juan Geodon makes every incarnation of “skeleton on fire” feel unique, from the tank-punk Danny Ketch to the Evel Knievel inspired Johnny Blaze. There’s even a blind mummy centaur cowboy with twin gatling guns! Who you can ride! The entire work feels tongue-in-cheek, from the nameless spirits of vengeance like the Ghost Rider on a flaming ATV and the immolated surfer riding a flaming flying shark, to simple acts like Robbie Reyes road-hauling MODOK until his gigantic eyes pop out.
4. PLANET HULK
Attempting to solve the Hulk problem forever, The Illuminati ship the Hulk off to an uninhabited planet where he can live and smash in peace. Because The Illuminati are the worst, the ship malfunctions and the Hulk lands on the gladiator planet of Sakaar. Hindered by an obedience disc, Hulk has to survive three rounds in the arena in order to gain his freedom. Hulk, or The Green Scar as he is known in the games, is assisted by The Warbound — alien gladiators hailing from all corners of the 616 Universe. The Warbound’s ranks include “Thor” villain Korg, No-Name from the Brood and the ebon insect Miek.
“Planet Hulk,” by Greg Pak, Carlo Pagulayan and Aaron Lopresti, is one of the better modern Hulk stories, even if it can be a bit basic at times. Sure, Hulk in gladiator armor is kinda the coolest looking thing ever, but we sort of wish Hulk stayed in the games a bit longer. Frankly, his three challenges could’ve been more challenging. Hulk has to fight gladiator robots? Oh no! How will Hulk survive what is essentially every “Hulk” comic ever, but in a gladiator pit?
3. SECRET WARS
So, in “Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars” (1984) by Jim Shooter, Mike Zeck and Bob Layton, The Beyonder has summoned the strongest heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe to do battle on Battleworld (duh) in Marvel’s first major crossover ever, event. If this sounds like a plot you would write to explain why your action figures are fighting you’re totally correct, as the “Secret Wars” were declared in order to sell/explain Marvel’s first line of action figures. Once you accept that this is a serious story written about toys, you realize “Secret Wars” is kinda amazing.
“Secret Wars” is one of Marvel’s best crossover events — the exact opposite of “Axis.” You got Dr. Doom figuring out the situation faster than the heroes, Avengers and X-Men clashing over the morality of Magneto immediately upon teaming up, and the introduction of the alien symbiote. Our favorite moment, however, is Ultron, who starts by basically saying, “I have no idea why I’m here, or alive again for that matter, but I know I’m Ultron, so…” then proceeds to try to murder everyone.
2. AVENGERS ARENA
“Avengers Arena” is Marvel Battle Royale. Seriously, the first and last covers are references to “Battle Royale,” and it’s precisely what you could’ve hoped for. Arcade cherry-picks 16 teenagers from the Marvel Universe to participate in a fight to the death for 30 days of Murderworld. Even if you aren’t familiar with “Avengers Academy” regulars like Hazmat and Mettle, Cammi from “Annihilation” or Chase and Nico from “Runaways,” it doesn’t matter. Each extremely well-written chapter is devoted to a different combatant, as Dennis Hopeless (writer, not fictional character) will have you caring about these nobodies in no time, thanks in large part to some yo-heavy dialogue.
The beauty of “Avengers Arena” is in its simplicity. While he has absolute control over Murderworld, all Arcade does is set the fuse — a tidal wave to split up groups here, a particularly crunchy batch of homemade trigger scent for X-23 there — and lets the teens follow through on the murder. Most arena stories suffer from poor antagonists — there’s no way a random arena monster will kill our protagonists — but X-23 going through a bad drug trip? Yeah, someone is totally going to get murdered.
“Deathmatch” (2013) by Paul Jenkins and Carlos Magno begins in media res, making the set up a mystery to get right into the nitty-gritty. Thirty-two of the most powerful individuals on the planet have been imprisoned to participate in Deathmatches — fights to the death in a highly customizable arena, designed to give each combatant an equal chance of victory. These “Supes,” “Fears” and “Neuts” have no idea how they got into the arena, with their memories about the truth behind the fights erased after each bout. Though friends will swear against fighting one another, upon entering the arena, they remember the horrible, unspeakable truth, finding the motivation to slaughter loved ones and strangle canine compatriots.
This mind-wiping serves as a perfect means of introducing a new comic book universe with years of fake history. While each combatant has traits of classic comic characters — Dragonfly is Spider-Man, Rat is a lovable Rorschach — they remain memorably distinct. “Deathmatch” doesn’t feel like satire, rather a loving uncanny homage to mainstream comics. Fortunately, unlike mainstream comics, “Deathmatch” is beautifully brutal, giving you precisely what you paid for in some of the best ultra-violent fight sequences to grace comics.
Did we forget your favorite gladiator story? What is your favorite Murderworld or Mojo production? How does one use a net in a fight? Is it weird that we didn’t mention “Contest of Champions?” Let us know in the comments!