[Note: while an argument could be made this belongs more in the Avengers Arena section, my argument deals in part with the entire Marvel Universe, hence Gen. Discussion]
When I first started out here on Comic Vine, furiously raging against Avengers Arena, I was careful about one thing in particular: judging Dennis Hopeless' skills as a writer. As many legitimate charges as I believed (and have not been given reason to disbelieve) I have against Hopeless, poor writing chops weren't among them. But as time has gone by, I am beginning to change my opinion on that as well. Because a growing list of concerns mounts before me, some of which have been explained away by theories, but others of which are glaring and, unless Hopeless is the greatest writer ever hired, seemingly impossible to reconcile with any amount of plot twisting.
So yes, without having actually read most of Hopeless' words, I'm going to critique his writing. Which I can do, because I'm not critiquing his lines, but what's found between them.
First, though, I want to point out a basic objection I have begun to form based on the numerous reviews I have been reading (seriously, I read every one I can find), and that is the fact that so often Arena is praised for introducing and explaining the characters, taking issue after issue for what mostly amounts to exposition.
Here's the problem. What other book are you reading, comprised of established characters with years of history, which takes its first half-dozen issues to catch you up on those characters and their abilities? Which X-Men book focuses on one X-Man per issue for months while progressing its actual plot at a snail's pace, so that just in case you don't know anything about, say, Magik or Psylocke, you'll have enough to go off of going forward that would not otherwise have been made obvious through brief exchanges and the character's own behavior as the story organically progressed?
The only reason you'd feel compelled to spend so much time explaining known characters' back stories is if you took as a basic assumption going into the book that the majority of the people who would read and follow it do not know the characters. In other words, you write under the assumption that people who like what you're writing are not current fans of the characters; that, in fact, the extant fans of these characters will be the minority of your readership. Were the reverse true, you would hardly need to tell them who these characters are.
And that's not just me, either. Just today I read a fan of the book, among a list of defenses, actually praise Hopeless for how "he's slowly telling you who these people are." Hopeless is slowly introducing the characters. As if no one knows or cares about them already. As if most of the people reading the book need to be told who they are because they don't know or care. As if the whole book is written under the assumption that its audience will not consist of actual extant fans of the characters. As if it didn't even try to respect or attract or cater to those people or assume they'd be part of the readership. As if it took for granted that fans of the characters being used in this book would be against it from the start, and the remainder of the readership would need catching up.
It's telling that I frequently see fans of Avengers Arena who can't tell which characters are brand new and which ones have been around for years. One might credit that to Hopeless' skill with making new characters seem rich, but I see it more as his failure to respectfully grapple with the actual depth that the older characters have been gifted with over the years, and which the readers he's not counting on to support his book learned to love those characters for.
The nifty benefit of assuming no one who knows better is watching? Not having to actually stick to the characters' histories. Now it's one thing to write a character a bit differently, sure. But when you're not relying on fans to call you out, you can do a great many things which you'd never get away with in a book targeted towards people who actually care. Things such as:
- Splattering the blood and gore of a bloodless character across the first issue. (Mettle)
- Making an angsty, troubled teen read as a heartless and hate-filled douchebag (Hazmat -- seriously, so many people just considered her a jerk)
- Disabling one of the most powerful artifacts in the entire universe because its actual powers would be inconvenient to your story. (Staff of One)
- Equipping multiple characters with outdated versions of their equipment and expecting neither your readers nor the characters themselves to notice or comment. (Nico/Chase - Staff of One & Fistigons)
- Writing a complicated character in a way far more in keeping with the misconceptions of people who do not like her: feral & prone to violent outbursts (X-23)
- Allowing a copy of your book to go to press with said character's signature two claws increased by one, even if it was only in one panel and even if you corrected it for digital versions. (X-23)
- Handling a cosmic, somewhat sentient amulet as if it were a mere product off Stark Industries' product line. (Darkhawk Amulet)
My initial complaints about Hopeless and this book were based on the premise that a person who cared about these characters would not take so much pleasure in repeatedly informing interviewers that they were going to die. That was a major focal point of pretty much all of the PR early on -- "did I mention people die?" I cited earlier indications that Hopeless had ambivalence, if not outright disdain, towards fans concerned about what he was doing.
And now it seems, based on the actual writing, that he really doesn't know or care about these characters. He's said he hand-picked the kids, but he seems to have picked them not for their stories or selves but for the interesting ways their powers might factor into various conflicts in the book, as if the powers were the characters themselves. X-23's not just a violent and emotionless killing machine with healing factor and claws? Eh, close enough. Nico has used different staffs, and they're supposed to be kind of all-powerful? Eh, close enough. Mettle's body has no flesh or blood in it? Eh, close enough.
I began by having a problem with what Hopeless was doing. Four issues in, I have plenty of problems with how he's doing it, too. Add this to the large plot holes which are ostensibly supposed to be covered in issue 7 (but who knows), and you have a less than sunny picture.
The thing is, while faulty tech can be explained by the old "all just a simulation" story, the characters' failing to notice honestly can't. That's the first major writing conundrum I have (beyond disregard for canon, which in my mind is the very definition of bad writing when you're working for a publisher). To have done it in the first place is sloppy -- but to be unable to cover for it is even worse. I've yet to hear a decent explanation of the characters' own obliviousness to their inconsistencies, which suggests that they are the product of ignorant writing rather than of clever authorial manipulation.
Nevertheless, folks continue coming back to the virtual reality theory, which begs the question: how?
Is it Arcade who has hooked these kids into some very complicated simulation? Okay then, let's look at The Rather Gaping Hole(s) That Will Need To Be Filled... which I raised awhile back. How did Arcade get these kids? We're told that may be explained. We're told the kidnappings happened on Christmas, when they'd have been in less secure environments (though one wonders what Darkhawk's story is, considering his amulet's abilities).
Lest anyone try to answer that question and think they've undone my whole argument, the more important follow-up is and then what? Why has no one noticed or done anything since then? Pym had kids stolen from his school. Wolverine's got an AWOL daughter. Abigail Brand literally had Cammi stolen from in front of her mid-conversation. And yet these characters exist elsewhere, in books beyond Arena's pages, in a universe whose continuity is contingent enough that a writer like Marjorie Liu can't touch them because they are officially off-limits in Murderworld. As far as Marvel is concerned, these kids are somewhere they don't want to be. And yet no one notices. Pym, Logan, Brand, not to mention the larger worlds of Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., & S.W.O.R.D., wherever they appear in other books, do not seem to have noticed anything at all. Nevermind that they're also not shown caring within the book that had the kids taken from them.
Yeah, sure, seeming impossibilities between books happen all the time in comics. But it's one thing to question how Wolverine can be on X-Force while with the X-Men while with his own school. It's another thing to say Wolverine is definitively only in one place, has been taken by a specific villain from, say, right in front of Thor, and then neither Thor nor anyone else says anything about it again for weeks to any of the characters in any of the various books in which he appears. You just can't do that. It's beyond convenient. It's making an absolute impossibility happen "because I said so." It's saying "for the next week anyone can pick up Mjolnir, because it'd be more fun if stuff could just happen the way I say it happens and don't bother me about the details because that's not the point of the story i'm trying to tell" (which is basically what Hopeless has said when asked about why other people aren't noticing -- that he doesn't want to focus on it because that would make telling his story not work so well).
It's one thing to say "that's not my focus," but it's another thing to ignore the fissures in a major supporting pillar of your story. If we can't have reasonably explained to us how Arcade managed to capture kids and get them to a place where no one in the world -- no government, no mutant tech, no tracker, no anyone -- can find them, and if we aren't going to be shown said government, mutants, heroes, etc. flipping the heck out because of this insane turn of events and show of heretofore unknown power -- then why on earth should we accept anything else about this book? Why should we accept that deaths -- physical or psychological -- are happening to characters who never stood a chance in terms of canon or logic?
It's not just that Arcade's powers are too strong to be real. It's that even if what he is doing within Murderworld is an illusion, his kidnapping of the kids isn't. He still has that ability. He's still hidden them miraculously. And there's still no one in the Marvel Universe who seems to care or notice.
So some people, of course, say that Arcade, too, is part of the illusion (though of course Hopeless has already said that Arcade is Arcade). Granted, there's still no good substitute (Pym, for example, would never dream of putting kids through something like this), and even if there were you again have the question of why no one in the universe cares. Despite the fact that the events of Avengers Arena look to be real, permanent, and canon, they all exist within a vacuum which the rest of Marvel ignores. As if, should, say, X-23 die, Wolverine will never notice. And if he does notice eventually, what's the explanation for him not noticing earlier? Other than, of course, because Hopeless would consider that inconvenient to his plot.
Of course, beyond all that, there's the minor question of what's really gained by the virtual reality conceit. For the characters, sure, it makes sense for them to think everything's real. But the readers? What does tricking them really accomplish? It adds an element of theoretical danger (even as more people convince themselves that this can't be real), but is that really what's driving the book? If we presume that the character development is real even if the bodies at risk are not, then the things keeping people interested are still intact even if we know from page one that this is actually a game. Mettle's death can be construed as interesting as a motivator to Hazmat and as a warning to the other characters -- not simply because Mettle died. If we knew he wasn't really dead, that wouldn't take away the interesting part of it.
Meanwhile, you have people who are refusing to buy this book but, if we knew for sure that the kids weren't actually in danger, would happily pick it up, because this could be interesting to see play out. It could lead to great character development. And it could introduce new characters which could emerge quite popular enough to stick around in other titles.
But the only character development this book seems keen on making is the sort which is, again, close enough -- enough to give clueless readers an idea of who these kids are and why they should care about them. Just enough connection so that readers feel something when the kids they never used to care about end up dead. Readers' ignorance of characters is a foregone conclusion, and folks who meet that criteria feel justified in saying to people like me "hey, he's writing these characters well, you should stop complaining." He's writing them well enough. Enough to keep you interested. But not enough to actually do them or any deaths justice outside the context of his own needs. Again, this book is a vacuum. By ignoring the implications of Arcade's actions on the contingent universe, Hopeless ensures that nothing that happens within Arena CAN have any implications on the contingent universe. The deaths, rather than being personal, meaningful, and respectable (and rather than doing any sort of justice to the legacy of the character and the dedication of the readers), are instead lumped together in such a fashion that the only impact they are capable of having is a sum horror when the world realizes that Arcade is around and means business.
Maybe I put that confusingly? The point is the individual deaths are stripped of meaning by happening in a contained and quarantined (both literally, and literarily) environment, which will only infringe on the external world after it's too late to change things, so the impact will be of the amalgamated death toll rather than of any one character's loss. You're not going to see a funeral for each individual kid. You're going to get a mass grave.
I've said it so many times that I've gotten sick of hearing myself, but for a person like me, the quality of the dialogue or the intrigue of the plot mean absolutely nothing. They have no bearing on my feelings about the book. Because the best writing in the world doesn't justify these deaths in the scheme of it all. No clever little tale can justify dovetailing years of character development and growth into a handful of unmarked graves. A hero's death, if it must happen, should speak volumes either about the magnitude of the event in which she dies, or about the legacy of the character himself. Yet death in Arena is impersonal and trivial; no matter how well-told, it serves no one's purposes but Arcade's.
Take away the death, and I'm sold. I'll go pick up every issue. I'll revel in the dialogue and marvel at the art. But until then, I want it to be crystal clear: I'm not boycotting Avengers Arena because I think it's "just about killing." I'm boycotting it because, no matter what else it may be about, killing is an inextricable part. Add to that the fact that the killing is being done by someone who shouldn't be capable, and it's being done to characters he shouldn't have been able to capture, and all the while no one who should be noticing and reacting to these things is doing anything of the kind, and, yeah, I have bones to pick with this book. A whole skeleton's worth.
[EDIT: Addendum Tuesday, March 15, ~ 5:00 p.m.]
I didn't know quite where to share this (and given a new, ostensibly "shocking" issue tomorrow, I didn't want to do a whole new blog with the potential for another one less than 24 hours away), so it's gonna go here.
So, one of the free issues I snagged from that Marvel FIRST giveaway was AA #1, because I'm okay with sending the message "I'm interested, but I'm not going to pay for this." Honestly I'm not sure how they plan to use the information on what people download -- whether they'll try to adapt it into further business plans, or whether the hope was simply to get people hooked on runs which they will then pay to follow. That's besides the point.
The point is, I finally actually read an issue and (far more importantly) the letters section at the end (I now wish I could find scans of just the letters sections, honestly).
And...well honestly, I just don't see the virtual reality argument. I see why people want it. I even sort of got that vibe from the suspended animation/life bar thing (though the latter has been claimed by Hopeless to literally have just been an aesthetic decision, not part of the plot).
Now, my latest point still stands; it's all well and good for Hopeless to have Arcade say "You're completely cut off. Nobody is coming to get you. Trust me, they wouldn't know where to look." But I want an explanation, because there are some incredibly sophisticated tracking technologies and mutations which cannot, in the interest of good writing, actually be ignored. His whole "self-contained. self-contained. self-contained." bit -- because "this concept only works if there's no way out" -- is only as good as he can defend how they ended up in a self-contained trap. So long as that remains unexplained, it will continue to infuriate me.
But to the letters.
Rosemann's introduction to the letters begins with "So that was pretty intense, huh? I mean, just when Hazmat and Mettle have a taste of a happy life it's all ripped away." And suddenly, any optimism I may have had is just gone. Absolutely gone. It's funny because for some reason there are people who, months later, still have optimism -- but I'd have lost it from day one with that intro. It's a blatant admission of precisely why fans would be upset. This book came just one month after the conclusion of Academy. Many readers of Academy were sold this issue thinking of it as a spiritual successor -- retailers even treated it as if it were the same book, and just pulled the first issue for all their Academy subscribers. And immediately these fans saw the optimistic trajectory of the book they'd been following crash and burn in a bloody smear. The editor's comment on that? "Wow. So intense!"
Of course, Hopeless really has nothing to offer to help. Two pages from Mettle's gory end, in response to a letter in which the writer says "Don't you dare to do something to Mettle and Hazmat," Hopeless' answer is "So, um...sorry about Mettle. He died a hero's death and will be missed by all of his fans, me among them."
As I've said earlier, the thing I find truly scary about this book is the fact that Hopeless may actually believe he's justified in what he is doing. To him, the sacrificial nature of Mettle's death was fittingly respectful. It was, to Hopeless, satisfactory. And yet few of the "other" (as he counts himself among them) Mettle fans I've seen have agreed with that assessment. Most are like me: they see it as fridging, shock value to establish high stakes, maybe to motivate Hazmat (but again, that's textbook fridging). So either Hopeless is callous and doesn't care at all about characters, or he's genuinely convinced that what he did to Mettle was okay. And that's what makes the prospect of other characters being at his disposal all the more terrifying. Writing him off as a heartless tool is a lot easier than seeing him as a well-meaning but horrifically misguided storyteller. But these letters, and particularly that one, have me thinking it's more of the latter.
Anyhow, the only other real note I have is that Hopeless' comment that "This is a character-driven story" really only holds water if the characters don't die. No amount of development is worth a thing if it simply dovetails in a death. People who have contradicted my interpretations in the past, should take note of what I said, and what Hopeless said. What I said, having not read the letters:
But the only character development this book seems keen on making is the sort which is, again, close enough -- enough to give clueless readers an idea of who these kids are and why they should care about them. Just enough connection so that readers feel something when the kids they never used to care about end up dead.
And now, what Hopeless wrote before Issue 1 even hit presses:
...A lot of people question why AA is an ongoing series and not a mini. Here's why: For this book to succeed, we have to earn the concept. We have to make you love the characters even if you never read a page of their previous series. We need you to care how it all turns out and to feel each and every death. In order to get there, we need space...
So...who wants to tell me I'm wrong again?