Disclaimer: This is a rant. And it is almost 4000 words long. If you don’t care about comics at all, then you should probably move along, because this will be a supreme waste of your time. I’m still not sure it wasn’t a waste of mine. But this one’s from the heart, and here it goes: Marvel has pissed me off.
For the first time in years, I’ve slowly begun trying to ease myself into the intimidatingly vast whirlpool that is the comic book industry. My history with comics is spotty at best: my Genesis led me to pick up Archie’s Sonic and Knuckles runs for as long as my meager allowance could justify it, but once I was weaned off the light fare I never really transitioned to a solid diet. Marvel and DC were names I heard, but list a half dozen X-Men and you’d be amiss if you hoped for a flash of recognition in my adolescent eyes.
High school found me relating to the Ultimate version of Peter Parker, and I fell in step with the Spider-Man series right in time to enjoy the first couple Raimi films. But comics are expensive and expansive, and even with limitless resources (which I did not have) it’s daunting to try to keep up with such huge and shifting continuities. It wasn’t terribly long before my interest fell off yet again.
There was a small comics shop a few minutes from my college, and somewhere around my sophomore year I began to take advantage of it, first as a tagalong with more avidly reading friends, and eventually as an initiate of the trips. I was drawn, I’ll admit, to the violent, to the flashy. After cutting my teeth on a dozen or so Civil War TPBs I added Deadpool to my pull list and scoured the Internet for X-Force comics. I don’t mean to brag about depravity, but I do want to establish, prior to the point I’m slowly driving towards, that when it comes to comics I have a taste for the mature, the blood-soaked, and the despairing. And, well, I enjoyed reading while the money was there, and when it wasn’t I moved on to other things — like paying attention to my work — and comics faded to the periphery for a few more years.
Right before Christmas I had a chance to finally see The Amazing Spider-Man, and somewhere between its coolness and its inspiration I felt a bit of a familiar tug towards the comic universe. Those sparks burst to flame when, Christmas morning, I received an iPad mini, and digital comic ownership suddenly made sense (as a side note, there are no comic retailers anywhere close to where I live). I began by pouring through the many comics I’d amassed over the years, looking for clues as to where to begin. I happened upon the Angels & Demons X-Force collection, and between Kyle & Yost’s compelling dialogue and Crain’s gorgeous art, I knew I’d arrived. It was gritty, it was gory, but it was also good.
I began to purchase the comics that had come after those I’d read years ago. Laura Kinney, aka X-23, immediately grabbed my attention, and I did a bit of research on where she’d come from. Not a day later I was tearing my way through her Innocence Lost miniseries and waiting for Amazon to deliver the Target X one. X-23’s origin story did something I’d forgotten comics could do: it made me feel. I got angry, I got worried, I got a little nauseated, and in the final bloody pages I couldn’t help but notice the lump in my throat.
Laura Kinney isn’t exactly Marvel’s most popular character, and she hasn’t enjoyed the greatest reputation. Despite frequent dismissal as “Wolverine with boobs” or some similar epithet, her back story is legitimately compelling. Quite unlike the compulsive (albeit occasionally emotional) Wolverine, X-23 is almost completely sociopathic, but her latent humanity manifests in a crushing lack of self-worth whose only visible display is easily missed, as the self-inflicted scars on her arm are often covered by sleeves or gloves. She’s a killer through and through, but not of her choosing, and to that end she earns our pity, our desire to make her feel better even though we know she doesn’t really feel at all.
Or at least, pity’s the response that I had after reading her origins, and while I don’t claim to be the authority on proper emotional feedback loops to art I have difficulty imagining anyone who could finish Innocence Lost and not at the very least feel bad for her. But it seems X-23 wasn’t simply created as an allegorical tool for discussing nature and nurture. Since her inception she has also become the utilitarian device of sadists as, with an indestructible skeleton and regenerative factor, she can be subjected to just about any imaginable torture without the benefit of being able to die. And she’s a young girl, which gets a rise from people who might not bat an eye at Wolverine’s torments.
My attraction to X-23 as a character, then, is oddly paternal, and I daresay that’s what her creators were going for when they put such a compelling tragedy behind her vacant eyes. Yet time and again she finds herself at the hands of people who don’t seem to care, whose only desire is to treat her as a rag doll that happens to be capable of screaming. Put simply: I have invested money and time into learning who this character is, and the result is that I care about what happens to her, regardless of whether other people feel the same or even know who she is.
And, well, that’s where Avengers Arena comes in. I stumbled across it as I searched hungrily for more appearances by my second-favorite Marvel character (X-23’s awesome, but can we please have more Cloak & Dagger, now?), and at first I was excited to see that after her short-lived solo series X-23 was to appear in a brand new run.
Then I read the description of the series, and looked at a few pages of it, and a queasiness I had never felt when looking at a comic book began to crop up in the pit of my stomach. Arena is, of its own tongue-in-cheek admission, a blatant nod (I won’t say rip-off, but others have) of teenagers-driven-to-atrocities tales like cult classic Battle Royale and literary classic Lord of the Flies. More clearly, it’s attempting to “catch” the fire of recent sensation The Hunger Games. Sixteen youngsters are corralled into an enclosed tournament and forced to slaughter one another at the peril of their own short lives.
I’ve already avoided the stories this one pulls from because I had no interest in such a ridiculously awful situation, and the recent real-life deaths of young people did nothing to whet my palate for more. Marvel really ought to have reconsidered launching this series right now given the fact that grisly child death is still fresh on the national conscience; but then, clearly, I don’t think Marvel ought to have launched the series at all.
Looking over the roster of unlucky “competitors” that writer Dennis Hopeless (oh what a name) plans to eliminate, I’ll admit that there weren’t many I recognized. As far as C- and D-list heroes go, it seems quite a bit of thought went into picking interesting characters who are also niche. Sure enough, there was Laura.
I have been scanning the Internet all evening, looking to see what people had to say about Arena. Reviewers, diehards, casuals — those who’d read the first couple issues and those who’d sworn never to do so — all weighing in on this slaughterhouse. And the word that I continue to see, almost everywhere, is “cruel.”
My proverbial ears perk up, because as a fan of X-23 I know all too well what cruel writing looks like: heartless at best, voyeuristic at worst, and all-around vapid. I have never read Lord of the Flies, but I’m positive William Golding did not create it for the express purposes of profiteering and gleefully executing Piggy and Simon.
Yet interviews with Mr. Hopeless, appropriately, leave little room for hope. When asked why this is happening, editor Bill Rosemann says “Arcade [the villain running the eponymous arena] is a sick freak.” Both men’s words belie a more suitable direction for finger-pointing; Arcade is only as sick as the men inventing him. And he can only kill the people Hopeless chooses to put within his grasp — a group which Rosemann calls “a fun mix” of familiar and unfamiliar characters.
A fun mix.
Aye, how delightful. And for a moment, you believe that these guys care about the characters — for they are quick to assure worried fans that everyone’s death will be meaningful. Rattling off the impressive roster, Rosemann mentions the “dearly missed” Nico and Chase from Runaways, a series about kids who (God knows) don’t need any more trauma in their lives. Yet here they are, in Murder World.
Therein lies the juxtaposition. Nestled between the “dear” and the “cherished” and other such language is the simple, hard truth that most (in theory, all but one) of these characters are slated for impending, brutal death. Which makes Hopeless’ boast about having the opportunity to “cherry pick” the cast, and how “that was a lot of fun,” all the more jarring. These men scoured the Marvel universe for little-known but much-loved young characters, and even created a few new ones, all with a solitary purpose in mind: to torture them psychologically, emotionally, physically, and then to kill them, and eradicate them from the Marvel continuum once and for all.
I have quite a few qualms with Arena, but that’s the biggest one, and the one that still dumbfounds me. Avengers Arena bears the Marvel NOW! imprint. For the uninitiated, Marvel publishes under a slew of different brands, and each has its own flavor or purpose. Growing up, I knew that if a story were part of the Marvel Knights imprint, it was probably too edgy for me. Later, I knew to seek Knights out.
Marvel NOW! is the company’s new imprint, designed to mimic last year’s quasi-successful New 52 campaign from DC which amounted to an almost total reboot of the house’s franchises. Billed as “a new beginning for the Marvel Universe,” the NOW! imprint is the company’s vision for the future; one is to look at NOW! books and understand that this is what the company wants you to think of when you think Marvel — this is the best Marvel has ever offered. And Stan Lee, apparently, be damned.
It’d be one thing if this sadistic sideshow — already difficult to justify beyond the apparent joys of watching young, unfortunate people do things they hate to people they shouldn’t — were a What If, Alternate Universe, just-for-fun one-shot miniseries. But it isn’t. It’s a kickstart to the future of Marvel, cleaning house in the ugliest of ways, taking characters who were sidelined but loved and saying “abandon all hope, you who like them.”
If you don’t like characters, don’t publish them. That seems easy enough. But instead, Marvel has greenlit this sick fantasy, as if to suggest that no one likes these characters, and readers are perfectly fine with seeing them go away. Which is odd, really, because if you consider it, those who don’t know the characters won’t be drawn in, and those who do will be horrified at what you’re doing. I fail to see the allure.
Meanwhile, Hopeless belies a contempt for the kids he’s killing. Despite claiming that “even the characters [that] die off early make their mark…” and that he “didn’t throw anyone into the book as cannon fodder,” he can be found joking on Twitter about what he’s doing. I was particularly struck to see a tongue-in-cheek retweet that referenced the recent social media tour-de-force that brought beloved DC writer Gail Simone back after inexplicably being fired. The implication was that if fan feedback had had that kind of force, perhaps protesting Hopeless’ storyline would be effective too. Hopeless, clearly, found that idea hilarious.
Elsewhere he scoffs (typically via ironic retweets) at petitions being generated to have his comic cancelled, hardly the response one might expect from a well-meaning writer who — God forbid — cares about his audience and believes that what he’s doing will ultimately turn out well for people other than shareholders.
Hopeless notes that “no book is for every reader,” and I can totally stand behind the sentiment. There are plenty of people I’d warn miles away from X-Force (which, interestingly, Hopeless is set to be involved with in its latest incarnation). But I don’t think that mantra applies here, because it’s not the content of the book that’s disgusting people half so much as it is the book’s greater implications on continuity: killing characters that people have invested quite literally years into is one thing when it’s done as a narrative experiment, but it’s quite another thing entirely when your experiment permanently terminates that journey. I’m bothered not just by the idea that a person would be okay with doing something like that, but that such a person — with so cavalier an attitude towards it — has actually been given the power to do so.
“No book is for every reader” simply doesn’t apply to this situation. I can choose not to read Avengers Arena and see how these characters bite it. But if, say, X-23 dies in issue 5, I can’t choose to pick up a comic a few weeks later in which she’s fine. Because she’ll never be fine again. The things I dislike about this book extend beyond the book itself, and that matters.
But what can I hope for, when the creator willingly acknowledges that he’s pissing in his readership’s cheerios and is more than happy to do so? Yes, it’s possible that at the end of the line the permanence of these deaths will be reverted — the whole Arcade aspect has many praying this is all just a simulation — but the overwhelming force of PR for Arena (not to mention Hopeless himself) suggests something more malicious and dismissive of Marvel fans in general.
All this in the wake of reviews which, beyond indicting Arena’s makers for sadism, nigh-unanimously praise Hopeless’ technical skill as a writer, and note that the art is as brilliant as it could hope to be in spite of its grisly, deplorable subject matter. That’s a real shame, because one hopes a talented writer would want long-time fans to like him rather than sign petitions against him.
Of course, in my disdain at the very concept of the book, I have not personally read an issue. It’d be rather foolhardy to pay for the opportunity to protest something (and of course that’s the sort of protest that’s always welcomed). Perhaps my other questions would be answered were I to start reading, but regardless, here are a few of them:
1. These characters are going to die. Why?
But really, why? Why do they have to die? What greater purpose is served by removing them from the Marvel continuity? I’m all for the idea of giving a beloved character a meaningful end, but why do they need to end at all?
Obviously death is a reality, and it exists in every medium. It is, perhaps, the most poignant thing. Peter Parker just died. I’m not asking why characters die. I’m asking why these characters? And in that, why not other characters? Because at least part of that answer is that there were certain characters off-limits for this Arena, who Hopeless wasn’t permitted to kill. No writer is given a blank check to permanently terminate someone else’s characters. So for whatever reason, these were the expendables.
How does one maintain the duplicitous position that they are giving characters a dignified death “worthy” of the love they’ve amassed, if those very characters, by virtue of being on the roster, have already been deemed worthless by a higher power?
2. These characters are heroes. Why would they do this?
Superheroes are the paragons, the shining examples, the things that we aspire to be. They choose the Right thing even when all others would choose otherwise. They may be flawed, but in the end they are flawed for the better, and while they make mistakes they never collapse. Sure, it’s possible, but only when they have been uniquely singled out, eroded, and broken. Their steadfast commitment to Good is what makes them heroes, what makes us love them.
So why, why on earth, would they accept this fate? Any one of these characters ought to have taken a many-issue arc before succumbing to the primal violence of self-preservation. That any, let alone most, of them should break so quickly raises serious questions about the legitimacy of the scenario in general. These are the people we’d expect to sacrifice themselves first, to form the comedic queue of people whose only delay in death is that someone else keeps saying “no, me first, I insist.”
The comparisons to previous slaughter tournaments are as obvious as they are intentional, but the key difference between this and them is that the others are comprised of otherwise normal people in extraordinary situations; people like you and I, who in their darkest hour become something we should shiver to think on being. Go read Heart of Darkness, and you’ll see what I’m about: noble people reduced to horror is, if becoming a bit tried, at least a potential reality, and that’s what makes it truly horrifying. But these aren’t normal people; they’re in these books because of that fact, because they aren’t like normal people. To have them suddenly behave in the same way you or I would, and then just add radioactivity and adamantium, is just sloppy.
3. So, X-23?
I’ve already admitted that I’m unfamiliar with the other characters in this Arena. My intimate understanding of X-23 gives me only an empathetic indignation on behalf of fans of the others — for while I don’t share their affinity, I can imagine it to be at least as strong as mine for Laura. Obviously, I’d be pleased to see her make it through alive, as hers is the story that has just brought me back into comics and it’d be rather a shame to have her snuffed out just like that.
The thing is, she’s kinda invincible. That’s been exploited time and again, over longer periods of time, and by villains who were far stronger and more experienced killers than any of the other teenagers vying for the #1 spot in this competition. She was quite literally bred to kill, lacks the emotional fail-safe to make her weak at the critical moment, and — once more — she is literally indestructible. And that, to me, makes her inclusion one of the most preposterous aspects of the whole affair.
On the one hand, faithfulness to X-23’s abilities and past should make this a no-brainer: no one else can win, because no one else should be capable of taking her out. Trouble with that is, it kills the suspense. What’s the fun of having the obvious choice win? Who will root for the underdogs (besides the petrified diehards) if the battle is already thrown? Which brings us to the other hand: some deus (or is it diabolus?) ex machina which inexplicably makes Laura vulnerable despite years of no one else being able to find that chink in her armor. It makes for a better story arc but you’re fooling no one if you call it worthy of the character.
Add to that how unreasonable it is that the girl was kidnapped in the first place, and I really just can’t understand why she’s here. It’s selfish, a bit, to claim that one’s favorite is an exception, but I’m just going from what I personally know. Perhaps other characters are equally impenetrable, and that would only further confound this book’s existence.
Sure, I suppose if you could find some haphazard explanation for how Laura could be triggered to kill herself, then maybe you’d be consistent; and sacrificial suicide wouldn’t be completely out either. Neither, however, would please a fan, certainly not this one, and to that extent the question of how fan concerns factored into the decision to make this book still lingers uncomfortably between blood-soaked pages.
I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t get squeamish when I see crimson. Heck, I love Deadpool — and his whole schtick is death. And it’s funny, because he’s willing, he’s brash, and he’s embraced it. He taunts his torturers. He mocks death.
This is not that. This is characters who don’t want to die, or to kill — whose very lives have been devoted to doing just the opposite — being cruelly forced to do things they hate and then rewarded with mockery for their futility. I look at this, at Hopeless’s indifference, and that word: NOW! And I think of Marvel past, of the lovable Stan Lee, and I try to picture him reaching into his House of Ideas with a malicious grin on his face, and I can’t do it.
This is Marvel now.
It should be Marvel never.
My mind just keeps turning back over the question of why this exists, who’s pleased by it (aside from Hopeless and the folks who are going to profit from the PR this shock-value-rife series draws). Certainly the fans of these characters — the ones most likely to have turned out to buy a series just for a coveted glimpse of their favorite hero, no matter how terrible the art or story happened to be — aren’t happy. Their creators can’t be happy either (and if they are, what gives?). In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the old, imagination-powered spirit of Marvel deriving anything but disgust from this.
I’ve mulled over the positive reviews I can find, and aside from the aforementioned recognition of the book being well made, I’ve seen little to actually legitimize it. These readers make it clear they don’t care about the characters who are dying, and revel in the creative ways in which the deaths occur. Some read as downright creepy, referring to the “kiddies” and “teenies” in a way that brings to mind Scar toying with a helpless mouse. Disdainful, if not altogether sadistic. The people who are applauding this book are, on the whole, not giving me a reason to change my mind about its tone or its intentions.
Marvel NOW! is meant to serve as a gateway for new readers and a beckoning to those who’ve fallen off. When the first thing I see is the glittering promise of re-instituting cult favorite characters being dashed to pieces under the cruel hand of permadeath, I can’t help but view Avengers Arena as more of a revolving door.
Congratulations, Marvel: you brought me back for just long enough to convince me to leave. And for what it’s worth, if you kill off X-23, I’m never coming back again.