Hopeless & Gage Head To the "Boss Level" of "Avengers Arena"

In the debut issue of their new Marvel NOW! series "Avengers Arena," writer Dennis Hopeless and artist Kev Walker kicked off a story line that put 16 teen heroes through a month-long hellish ordeal: a battle to the death on Murderworld island, home of their abductor -- the psychopathic gamesman known as Arcade. 12 issues later, that month is almost up and a number of the super power adolescents are no longer among the living.

With a limited number of teenage heroes left on the field, it's almost time for the final clashes in Arcade's bloody battle royale. Before the final confrontation, "Avengers Arena" #13 by guest creative team Christos Gage and Karl Moline, will explore how the disappearance of the missing Murderworld contestants has impacted the other heroes of the Marvel Universe. Hopeless and Walker return with "Avengers Arena" #14, which kicks off the final arc of Season One of "Avengers Arena": "Boss Level."

CBR News spoke with Hopeless and Gage about both the current status of the teenage, superpowered battle royale and how the disappearance of the Marvel U's younger heroes has affected the outside world. Plus, Gage's view on returning to write his "Avengers Arena" kids, Hopeless' plans for the final arc of the series' first season and more.

CBR News: Dennis, Nico Minoru appeared to have lost a hand but gained a lot more mystical power in issue #12. What can you tell us about Nico's state of mind and mystical abilities going into "Boss Level?" How powerful is she now? Have her abilities or limits changed? Has the extra bit of power affected her personality at all?

Dennis Hopeless: Nico's situation is complicated. Like she told Chase at the end of #12, she's more or less the same as always. But Nico is certainly dealing with a lot of darkness at the moment. Katy used Nico's best friend as a weapon to against her. She had her arm cut off, was kicked over a cliff and left to bleed to death in the snow. Then she died and was painfully resurrected through powerful blood magic. That's a rough day. When you combine that level of emotional damage with Nico's new deeper connection to her dark magic powers, you get a pretty scary chick.

This experience has definitely hardened Nico to some extent. We've already seen some of the repercussions. The first thing Nico did after her resurrection was attack and kill Katy and Death Locket (from her perspective, she buried them alive). That's not the sort of thing we'd normally expect from her. Murderworld is changing her but underneath it all, Nico is Nico.

The last page of issue #12 showed Death Locket looking out into what appears to be one of the sublevels of Murderworld on bodies of fallen competitors. What can you tell us about this page, if anything?

Hopeless: I've noticed fans reading a lot of different things into that last page. Some of the theories are pretty far-fetched, but that's been one of my favorite things about this series from the beginning. Fan speculation runs wild.

I don't want to spoil too much, but I promise we'll learn about those bodies as we move into "Boss Level." The big thing everyone should take away from the end of #12 is that Death Locket (and Apex?) survived the Nico battle and woke up in Arcade's bunker beneath Murderworld. Are they safe down there? Or is this a frying-pan-to-fire situation? We'll find out soon.

"Avengers Arena" #13 is a special issue written by Christos. Dennis, what made you and series editor Bill Rosemann want to reach out to Christos for this issue?

Hopeless: We were always planning on telling an outside world story to bridge the second and third arcs. As we were nearing the end of "Game On," the schedule started getting pretty tight on me and deadlines were creeping up. Bill and I wanted to make sure and keep things moving so we decided to bring in another writer for #13. Christos was the obvious choice. His fantastic run on "Avengers Academy" was one of the primary influences for "Avengers Arena." I'm a big fan of that book and loved the idea of having Christos turn our outside world issue into a sort of "Academy/Arena" crossover. We had a lot of fun discussing the story and Christos turned in a fantastic script. It couldn't have gone any smoother.

Christos, how does it feel to return to some of the characters you worked on in "Avengers Academy?" How closely did you guys work together on this issue?

Christos Gage: Dennis and I talked on the phone for close to an hour. I think we both wanted to make sure that, while this issue takes place outside of Murderworld, it accurately reflects what is happening there and fits with any upcoming spoilery reveals. We talked quite a bit about Arcade, his methods and motivations. Dennis' love of the characters came through quite clearly.

As for how it felt to return to some of the "Avengers Academy" characters, it was great fun -- obviously I love them dearly. But ultimately, this isn't the "Avengers Academy Reunion Special," it's "Avengers Arena" #13, so I wanted to make sure I wasn't throwing in old characters just for nostalgia's sake. Hopefully everyone who appears does so for the purpose of fleshing out the story of "Avengers Arena" and explaining what the outside world thinks has happened to these missing kids.

The solicits suggest that Hank Pym is the point of view character in "Avengers Arena" #13. What is his mindset in this issue? How personally does he take the disappearance of his students?

Gage: As we'll see, Hank Pym (as well as Captain Britain, headmaster of the Braddock Academy) doesn't know anything sinister is going on. Everyone thinks there are perfectly normal explanations for where the kids have gone. That was my big precondition that I insisted on to Bill Rosemann: if the Avengers know these kids are missing, possibly in danger, and they're not pulling out all the stops looking for them, the Avengers are gigantic jerks. And they're not; Hank Pym certainly cares a great deal about his students. Our premise is that Arcade has set up some very clever things to make it seem everything is pretty much okay. But even so, when the Runaways' Molly tells Hank she thinks something's happened to her friends, and he realizes they "left" at the same time as several of his students, he is concerned enough to look into it.

Do any of the other "Avengers Academy" students that didn't end up in Murderworld play a role in this issue? Will we see characters like Striker, Veil, Finesse and White Tiger? What about the school's other faculty members like Tigra?

Gage: Veil is de-powered and back in the civilian world, so no. And Striker didn't fit into the narrative. But Finesse, Lightspeed and White Tiger show up, as does Tigra, and we'll see several Runaways as well as Captain Britain and Wolverine. (Who is X-23's adoptive father, don't forget.)

What else can you tell us about the plot and themes of issue #13? How much story time unfolds during the story?

Gage: It's been about three weeks since the kids were kidnapped. The story in issue #13 itself takes place over a couple of days, I'd say.

Dennis, you kick off "Boss Level," the final arc of "Avengers Arena" Season One, in issue #14. How much story time passes between the end of issue #12 and the beginning of issue #14?Hopeless: Issues #11 and #12 both take place on day 25. Issue #14 opens that next day and moves us deeper into the final week. "Boss Level" is about the end of the game so most of it takes place in the final 2 days of Murderworld.

In terms of plot and themes, what is "Boss Level" about? It seems as though there are two sets of characters in two different locations -- Death Locket and Apex in the subterranean levels of Murder World and the rest of the contestants top side.

Hopeless: Right. Half of the story takes place in the Arena as the final battle heats up. The other half takes place in Arcade's bunker. The two stories sort of mirror one another and share the same theme. "Boss Level" is about the desperation that sets in when you realize time is almost up. It's literally do or die. These kids have been stripped bare. They've seen the darkest parts of themselves. Now they know what they're willing to sacrifice for survival and it's time to fight. Win or lose, this game is over on day 30.

In terms of visuals, Christos, you're working with Karl Moline on "Avengers Arena" #13. What do you feel he brings to the issue as an artist?

Gage: Karl is an awesome artist who I worked with on the two-part Avengers Academy/Runaways crossover in "Avengers Academy" #27-28. So I already knew he brings an uncanny skill for being able to juggle multiple characters and give them all distinctive emotions and characterizations. That was crucial for a book whose cast is not just large, but also not necessarily familiar to "Avengers Arena" readers. Karl does an amazing job pulling this off. He's an incredible storyteller.

Dennis, what can we expect from Kev Walker on "Boss Level?"

Hopeless: Kev draws some of the most emotionally charged fight sequences I've ever seen. He blows your mind with big violent imagery and then zooms in to show the human toll these fight take. "Boss Level" is full of all the crazy I've been waiting to see Kev draw. As gorgeous as this book has been from the beginning, Kev's best work is in "Boss Level." I can't wait for everyone to see it.

"Avengers Arena" is a book that readers either really love or very upset by. With the end of Season One in sight, how does it feel to have been part of a book to which people have such a passionate reaction?

Gage: I will gladly accept any praise while deflecting all anger onto Dennis. No, in all seriousness, having spent nearly a decade working on comics that have garnered intense reactions, from "Civil War" tie-ins to issues of "Superior Spider-Man," and having experience with passionate fan bases like the Whedonites, I have learned to take strong reactions as a positive thing, because it means people care about the characters. What's deadly is when they don't care what you do with them. Passionate reactions are good.

Hopeless: As exhausting as negative feedback can be, it's pretty cool to write something that inspires such a passionate response. Creators spend a lot of years doing work no one will ever see. Breaking in means toiling in obscurity for however long it takes to get noticed. I try to keep in mind that back then (and by back then I mean 3 years ago) I would have given a foot for half this much fan feedback. It helps that we have amazing fans who reach out and say the nicest things. At this point the positive response to "Arena" outshines the negative 3 to 1.

Gage: With issue #13 I had a great time both revisiting old friends and pushing the new story forward. And having avoided spoilers that didn't directly affect my issue, I'll be as interested as anyone to see where it goes from here!

Hopeless: We have big plans. I'm super excited about what's coming up through the end of "Boss Level" and beyond. If you've liked the book up till now, keep reading.

"Avengers Arena" #13 by Christos Gage and Karl Moline hits stores August 14. Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker's Season One-concluding "Boss Level" arc begins August 28 with "Avengers Arena" #14.

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