Growing Up isn’t Easy in Dennis Hopeless’ “Avengers Arena” [Interview]

It’s a tough job to jump into the world of double shipping titles and decades of continuity, and it’s even more difficult when the concept of your book is the type that drives people to create petitions to retcon your books very existence before it had even been released. Yet, that’s exactly what writer Dennis Hopeless had to deal with on his title “Avengers Arena,” a title that was met with controversy and a lot of preconceived notions about what it could be, while very few people focused on what it actually is.

Which is a damn good book.

“Arena” takes a group of young Marvel characters, most of whom were effectively disposed of into the trash pile of Marvel B and C list characters of yesteryear, and puts them in a place where the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s literally life and death, with tangled relationships and duplicitous behavior muddying the water all the more. Hopeless does a remarkable job of not just pushing the Hunger Games like plot forward on the regular, but developing an incredible cast and doing them actual justice in the process. Those people who were worried about their favorite characters being killed? Hopeless is making them live, and perhaps more than ever.

I talked with Hopeless about his work on the title, dealing with the controversy, his incredible art team, dealing with working on such a heavy schedule for the first time, and much more. For those who are or aren’t fans of “Arena,” this is a recommended read, as Hopeless is a great interview if I do say so myself.

How did the Avengers Arena gig first come together for you, and what was your initial response?

Dennis Hopeless: Bill Rosemann (AA editor) originally asked me to pitch a more traditional super hero school book. Avengers Academy was ending and he was looking for a different take on that basic idea. My initial pitch was sort of like a Marvel Universe version of Skins (the amazing British TV series) starring Death Locket and the Braddock Academy kids.

One of my story arc suggestions for the book was a tri-wizard tournament style competition between several Marvel Universe schools that devolves into a Hunger Games situation.

At some point, Bill took our rough pitch to Axel Alonso and Tom Brevoort. They took one look at our potential story arcs, pointed at the Hunger Wizard Games and said “That’s your book. Just do that.” So, we took that 5 issue arc idea and expanded it into an entire series. I was a little apprehensive about the change at first but it turned out to be the best editorial note I’ve ever gotten. Arena is so much more challenging and exciting to write than that book would have been. It probably sells better too.

How much of the cast had you previously experienced as a reader, and what kind of connection did you have with them yourself?

DH: I had some connection to all of them. I’m a big fan of the Annihilation Marvel cosmic books and Cammi was one of my favorite characters out of that. Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s The Runaways run is my favorite teenage super hero story of all time. I read and loved Christos Gage’s Avengers Academy before Bill contacted me to pitch a follow-up.

The hardest thing about this job from the very start has been hurting and killing characters I love so much. I’m a fan of everyone in the book. Unfortunately, the high stakes are what make the book compelling. Nobody gets to be safe.

When it comes to something like a Marvel style Hunger Games, due to the inherent nature of that contest, does that put a cap on your thinking? Did you approach the series with an ending in mind from the get go (which seems likely given the open to #1), or did you try to keep it open-ended even considering the concept?

DH: We’ve always had a rough ending in mind for this first big mega-arc. Everything beyond that was left pretty nebulous because, well, this first story is big and you never know what’s going to happen 15, 18, 20 issued down the road. At this point we know pretty much exactly where we’re headed and what we’ll do once we get there.

My goal from the beginning has been to do something unique within this obviously-inspired-by-some-famous-books concept. That’s why we’re doing the POV shifts the way we are. That’s why we chose to go with a slow-burn first arc. That’s why the book is and will remain so character driven. This has to be our version of the deathmatch story, done our way and playing to our specific strengths.

We lean into the stuff we like. I’ve been really happy with the results.

One of the things that has been so fascinating to see so far is the controversy of the book and how it, at least initially, pretty much overwhelmed the concept of whether or not the book was good or not. I personally have loved how you and the rest of the Marvel team have handled it (especially in the letters column), but I’m curious: how difficult has it been to handle, and how has the response changed the further into the book you’ve gotten?

DH: It was pretty tough at first. I spent a lot of years writing for a relatively small audience. Most of my pre-Marvel work never actually made it to print (that’s a whole other story). So I was completely unprepared for the sheer volume of feedback. On top of that, I was getting hit with the massive wave of hate from the initial Avengers Arena controversy. Some fans hated the book from the day the title was announced. They had a concept blurb, a cover and my easy to mock last name and that was more than enough. I took a lot of that early hate to heart. Looking back I should have expected it, but I just had no frame of reference.

At this point I’m able to tune it out. Once the book came out and started finding its audience, the positive reaction began to drown out the negative. I’m sure there are plenty of fans out there still calling for my head but I don’t seek them out and for the most part, they don’t come directly at me. The fans I do hear from are those who love what we’re doing. The letters column mail we’ve been getting lately has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s humbling how much our fans are loving this book. Those readers more than make up for all of the initial hate.

You mention the character driven nature of the book, and I think that’s been a huge part of the success so far. A lot of books lose momentum with character focus issues, but I’ve loved how the overarching plot of the story has continued on even when you focus on characters like Chase Stein and Kid Briton. As a writer, how difficult is it to appropriately balance moving the plot forward and developing characters? Also, when it comes to developing these characters, how does your approach differ for someone like Chase and someone like Kid Briton?

DH: Oh, that’s a constant challenge. I love writing character moments. If you read my creator-owned work, you’ll notice my tendency to let character beats meander away from the plot. There’s a 30 page sequence in LoveSTRUCK (an Image OGN I did with Kevin Mellon in 2011) in which the protagonist brings the rest of the cast coffee. Given infinite pages, I’d write a lot more scenes like that one. My Marvel books keep me a bit more honest because I have an editor and a 20 page an issue limit. I have to make sure and hit the plot beats before I run out of pages. AA has a mercifully simple plot so it makes that balance fairly simple to maintain. It also allows me to do these issue to issue POV shifts without worrying the reader will lose track of the plot. In a lot of ways I think AA is the perfect book for me. It plays directly into my strengths.

For me, writing characters is all about finding a voice. A person’s voice is a combination of what they say and how they say it. To find out what a character would say, you have to climb inside their head. What are they afraid of? What are they trying to hide? Where do they keep their pride? Who is the most important person in their life? What do they want? Who do they hate? The “How they say it part” is about hearing what their voice sounds like. I don’t know how I do that. Voices just sort of pop into my brain based on who the person is and where they’re from. Chase to me sounds like a Jock version of Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad. Kid Briton sounds like Tony from the first season of Skins.

Arcade is a character who has been a punch line in many comics over the years, but your version is clearly no joke. Not only that, but he’s had a bit of a minimized role so far, and I think that enhances the times he does appear. What appeals to you about Arcade, and what’s your approach for keeping the part of him that is a threat as prominent as the part that is overly theatrical and ridiculous?

DH: The thing that appeals to me most about Arcade is the same thing that makes him so challenging. He’s a showman who has always cared more about making an entrance than succeeding at his goals. Arcade’s a hell of a lot of fun to write because he’s such a pompous cornball. He loves the sound of his own voice. He likes dancing and prancing in front of people in silly suits. He chews every piece of scenery and dialogue writes itself. He’s everything in the world you want from a villain EXCEPT intimidating. Arcade has never been scary.

Figuring out how to make Arcade fit into Arena was my biggest challenge early on. I fought against using him through my first few pitches. We wanted an established Marvel villain for the book and Arcade makes a certain amount of sense, but I had no clue how to make him match the tone of the book. I didn’t want to change the character too much. He’s great. But I also didn’t want to sacrifice the careful tone we were going for by dropping a clown in the middle of the story.

What we eventually came up with was the idea of evolving the character. We had to keep the theatrics and suits and bravado while stripping away the failure. We couldn’t change who Arcade is but we could give him a reason to up his game. We could make him menacing and scary on his own terms. He just needed the right motivation. Issue #7 tells that story. A series of events force Arcade to take a good look in the mirror and himself as others do. For the first time he sees a career loser who builds Murderworld death traps in which no one ever dies. He sees a joke who gets no respect at all. These realizations knock Arcade pretty low. It’s a weird super villain rock bottom story.

One of the things that I think is really, really interesting is the Life Meters that each character gets. Now, there are a few ways to interpret this that I’m not going to get into from an overall plotting direction, but I’m interested in how that idea came together. Was that something you came up with to make the game aspect of the series more easily digestible, or is it more a stylistic decision, or some blend of both?

DH: The life meters were actually Jonathan Hickman’s idea. He read an early lettering draft of issue #1 and warned us that with such a large cast of mostly unknown characters, it might get hard to keep all the characters straight. He suggested life meters because it would give us name tags that I could also use as a narrative device. It turned out to be a great suggestion. I love playing with the life meters and using them to amplify story beats. For example, that Kid Briton realization scene at the end of #5 wouldn’t have had the same punch without his life meter ticking down. There are more moments like that coming up.

There are a lot of characters to love in this book, and to me, part of the genius of this book is how you develop the personalities of some of these characters – especially the Braddock School kids – and make us connect with them even though their impending doom is always looming. For you, is it difficult to not develop those connections yourself? Does that impact your writing at all, or are you able to keep a certain level of emotional distance from them as you write?

It’s impossible for me to avoid falling in love with the characters I’m writing. I hate killing them off. It’s excruciating. Fortunately, we stay plotted pretty far out so by the time I write the scripts I’ve had some time to accept what has to happen. I know some readers were annoyed by Red Raven’s death since she didn’t really have a chance to shine. That decision hurt me too. I have two pages in my plot notebook devoted to her. I wanted to give her a POV issue before that escape attempt. We tried to make it happen but it just wouldn’t fit within the plot. I think that one hurts worse than the others because it was so quick. She was a cool character and I loved Kev’s redesign.

Scripting is problem solving. You’re trying to serve several masters at the same time and it’s like putting together a puzzle. You need to further the plot while serving the characters and building action and drama. The process helps create that emotional distance you’re talking about. A lot of times I don’t feel the emotional weight of an issue until I’m reading the first lettering draft. With this book I think that’s a big advantage. If I had to feel it while I was scripting it, I’d be a wreck.

Between the brilliance of Kev Walker – perfect artist for this book, in my opinion – Allesandro Vitti, Dave Johnson and the bevy of other artists who work on this book in some capacity, this is one of the best looking books of Marvel Now! so far in my opinion. Speaking especially of Kev, what do you think he brings to the book in your opinion, and how closely do you work in realizing this world and these characters?

DH: I couldn’t agree with you more. We’ve had amazing art team on this book from issue one. Everything from the covers, to the coloring and lettering has been top notch.

And, yeah, Kev Walker was born to draw AA. His teenagers look like teenagers, which is to say they all look completely different. They don’t have the same body-types or faces. Some of them are big for their age, some are small. And his facial expressions kill me every time. We could do 20 pages of talking heads and Kev would keep you engaged. Fortunately we don’t have to because he’s just as great at big action.

Kev takes a lot of ownership of the book. I write full script but Kev is free to move things around or rework the visuals and takes full advantage of that freedom. He sends us layouts with notes explaining all of his decisions and any changes he’s made. It’s a really satisfying collaboration because the finished comic is always stronger than the script was. Kev makes us all look good. And let’s not forget the incredible character designs he’s done for AA. Readers fell in love with Death Locket, Anachronism and Cullen Bloodstone before they ever opened their mouths. That’s Kev. He just plain makes the book better.

While I love a lot of the characters that have had previous history in other books, like the Avengers Arena and Runaways kids, the character I was most excited for in the book was Cammi. You mentioned you were a big fan of her as a character, and previously she had been MIA from published Marvel comics for some time. I’m curious: how did you decide which characters to include in the mix for the book, and when it comes to characters who had been completely missing before, how much work did you do to fill in the gaps of their history even if it is their destiny to have a glorious death (like Red Raven, with the two pages of notes)?

DH: I mostly just asked for characters I like. I’m a big fan of those Marvel Cosmic books from a few years back and Cammi was one of the best characters in them. Like everyone else who read those books, I wondered what happened to her after Drax left her. AA editor Bill Rosemann edited those cosmic books and was totally on board when I told him I wanted to pick up Cammi’s story and put her in the book. Filling in the history gaps is a lot of fun because you don’t necessarily have to show or explain all of it within the book. You get to build crazy back stories and then use what works. I could write a whole series about what Cammi got up to between the end of Annihilation and the start of AA.

The amount of back story writing I do depends on the character. I didn’t need to do much of anything to The Runaways or Avengers Academy kids. They’re pretty well fleshed out and we know exactly what they’ve been up to lately. Red Raven hasn’t been around in a while so we could have gone in several different directions with her. Unfortunately, none of my ideas about Dania made it into the book. I suppose that means they don’t count.

What’s coming next for Arena, that you can share? What deadly directions are you taking the cast in as they get further into Arcade’s brand new Murderworld (of sorts)?

DH: The second arc shows us what happens when people stop accept the situation they’re in and start playing the game. For the most part, our cast spent the first arc waiting avoiding the inevitable. I think most of them expected to be rescued or to find a way out. By the end of issue #6, they see that this game is playing itself out whether they like it or not. Starting with issue #8, it’s very much Game On. People start being pushed to their limits and the fight for survival begins. Meanwhile we get POV issues from X-23, Nico and Apex.

You’re also busily crafting Cable and X-Force at Marvel, a book that’s filled with an array of mutant anti-heroes of sorts and the place to find the continually changing relationship between Hope and Cable. How’s that project coming along, and as a relative new gun to the Marvel stable of writers, how has the experience been at the House of Ideas so far?

The second Cable and X-Force arc just kicked off and I’m writing the 3rd. We spent our first arc setting up this Most Wanted concept and doing our best to explain how Cable and his team find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Now that we’ve established all of that, we get to tell big crazy Marvel Universe crime stories. That’s what I pitched. That’s what I wanted to write. So, it’s a lot of fun to be off and running. Issue #6 saw Colossus go to jail and old school X-Forcer Boom Boom join the group. I think it’s our best issue yet.

I’ve been really lucky so far at Marvel. I get along really well with my editors and have worked with some of my favorite artists. I know some people don’t, but I really enjoy the editorial process. It’s collaboration from start to finish. I think my best ideas come from talking things out with other people. The stories in my creator-owned books always came out of long conversations with the artists. Now I have artists and editors to bounce ideas around with. It’s really creatively satisfying.

The one struggle I’ve had since coming to Marvel has been adjusting to the relentless production schedule. I jumped into the deep end taking on two more-than-monthly ongoings my first full year of freelance. I’d never written anything but mini-series and OGNs before this year. Taking on two at the same time meant learning to be a lot more disciplined with my writing schedule. That’s a lot tougher than it sounds at least for me. My editors deserve a lot of credit for holding my hand through it. When I’ve stumbled and fallen behind, they helped me back up.

You mentioned that dealing with the production schedule was something you really had to adjust to, and that’s understandable given that it’s hard enough for even us as readers to handle that. You also mentioned that you’re currently working on the beginning of the third arc for Cable and X-Force, a book that just started its second arc. How far out do you typically work on your Marvel titles, and have you developed any processes/methods that have eased this process besides simply leaning on Editorial on occasion?

DH: It depends on the book. I’m currently writing issue #12 of Arena and #10 of X-Force. We stay further ahead on Arena because we have rotating artists and need to keep both in scripts. Salva is obscenely fast so X-Force doesn’t have to be as far ahead (though we’d all like to get there).

The biggest change in my process has been writing rough drafts. I’ve always been the kind of writer who won’t leave a scene unfinished. I have a hard time leaving something rough and moving on. That method isn’t very efficient and I’ve had to abandon it. Now I try my best to knock out a rough draft and get it off to the editor. It’s nice because now I have another brain helping me polish but I’m still not used to letting go. Depending on the amount of coffee in my blood, I occasionally have little anxiety attacks when I hit SEND on a first draft email.

The other big thing I’ve learned is to schedule plotting time between arcs. The scripting goes a lot faster if you have everything tight-plotted. That’s usually not a problem with first arcs because you have to plot to get the job. With second and third arcs, though, all you have is a basic outline and it’s hard to make yourself sit down to tight plot when there’s a deadline looming. Now I know you do it. You take the time. Because if you don’t, you’re trying to script while still figuring everything out. That is insane and takes a whole lot longer than just taking the time to plot ahead.

I know The Answer is soon wrapping at Dark Horse, but what other projects do you have coming down the path? Anything else with your buddy Kevin Mellon coming up, by chance?

DH: Nothing in the immediate future. Kevin and I definitely have plans. We always have plans. He’s been working on pitch pages for our next project but I’m not sure what the timeline looks like. I have a couple of projects with other artists in various states of development but nothing ready to announce. It’s always hard to know how long these things will take. For right now I need to get ahead on my Marvel books before I can devote much time to creator-owned work.

About The AuthorDavid HarperDavid Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).

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