Love them, hate them or write things on the internet about them, the events of “Avengers Arena” aren’t going away any time soon. Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker’s “Avengers Undercover” picks up where that series left off, at times feeling more like an epilogue than a first issue. Though it makes for a slower read, there’s something refreshing about a comics event that aims to have lasting repercussions. The characters still grapple with what they did and what was done to them, and the creative team isn’t afraid to take their time exploring those reactions. “Avengers Undercover” #1 spends a lot more page space studying its characters than pitching its concept, with all the expected pros and cons of that approach.
Hopeless has referenced PTSD in a variety of his interviews, and comments like that always leave people concerned about how a series might address this very real and very complicated reaction to trauma. One issue doesn’t tell me much, but so far he has at least been careful to show that it manifests differently in different people. Each of the characters here — Hazmat, Chase, Nico, Death Locket, Cammi, Anachronism and Bloodstone — have reacted distinctly to Murder World and life afterward.
All seven are also well-developed and deftly drawn, a reflection of Hopeless and Walker’s experience with them. Everyone except Anachronism gets some solid character moments and sharp synopses of where they are emotionally. (Anachronism’s characterization isn’t weak, per se; he simply doesn’t get as much time devoted to him.) Even Chase, who with his new mohawk and talk-show fame is clearly being set up as the douchebag of the group, is tempered by the sweet way he remembers to take Molly for ice cream on her birthday. As I said above, it might feel like slow going for anyone familiar with these characters, but it’s a compromise that’s necessary if Hopeless and Walker want to ease in new readers. They weren’t going to win anyone over with a lengthy synopsis of what happened in “Avengers Arena,” so it was smart to instead focus on the consequences. Rather than telling the reader how traumatic these events were, they show it in the ways that it changed these young heroes.
The look and feel of the series is familiar. Walker’s lines still feel very young without getting too cartoony for the subject matter, and his panels are broken up for maximum impact. Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s gently shaded colors establish subtly different moods for each character. He has a delicate eye for the use of light and dark that’s well suited to a series with this many characters and this many emotional layers.
The most vicious criticism of “Avengers Arena” was that it was a naked pander to its audience’s worst impulses, trying to create some sort of horror-grief porn while still selling issues from character deaths. Interestingly, “Avengers Undercover” fully embraces that criticism and examines it. The protagonists are surrounded by “fans” of the broadcasting of their death match, all of whom have in some way bought into the awful voyeurism. They’re all the more disturbing because Hopeless has such a great ear for the hyperbolic, hateful way that internet-era armchair critics talk about pop culture. People describe Hazmat as the “straight up biggest trash pile in Murder World start to finish” and Death Locket as “the only real one.” It feels unnervingly close to home for anyone who’s been to the comments section.
That said, a first issue is supposed to sell you on the series. The entire premise of this series — the “undercover” element — isn’t even touched on. From a series-building perspective, it’s great to take it slowly, but from a series opening perspective — not so much. While it’s always a pleasure to read a creative team that already has such a handle on their world and their concept, “Avengers Undercover” hasn’t fully sold me on anything just yet.