By: Dennis Hopeless (story), Kev Walker (art), Frank Martin (colors)

The Story: The young heroes of the Marvel U learn there are worse places than high school.

The Review: Since my fellow reviewers have all this Marvel NOW! stuff pretty much covered, I really haven’t had a chance to get in on the fun or make comment about it.  While it’s pretty clear that this whole move is a direct response to the success of the DC relaunch, Marvel’s strategy for revitalizing their line is fascinating because it’s generated a sense of revitalization without actually having to do much reviving.

From what I’ve read, it seems like Marvel is hardly abandoning their overall emphasis on popular brands and titles; nearly all the fresh batch of titles revolve around the Avengers or X-Men (plus the Fantastic Four).  What makes them groundbreaking from the old guard of Avengers and X-series is Marvel has attached their most interesting creative teams to the books and allowed them to execute some very unusual premises.

Risk is all very well and good, and for the most part, it’s worked out pretty darn well for Marvel.  With a few others, the value of risk is more questionable.  I have to wonder at the pitch meeting for this title, for instance.  Surely someone in the room questioned the entertainment value of publishing a story that’s basically Battle Royale with superpowers.  Is there really that much demand to see young people get senselessly slaughtered?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Although Hopeless* has definitely established a setting that is ripe for a lot of pointlessly graphic violence, we have to give him the benefit of the doubt that the series won’t boil down to just that, although the early signs don’t look good.  The issue opens on day 29 of our group of protagonists’ ordeal, and clearly things have reached a downhill point:

“There’s no way I survive this fight,” says one of the kids as she faces the menacing figure of her fellow super-teen.  “No way…  She’s gonna gut me.  And all I can think—is that dying…dying wouldn’t be so bad.”

And on that cheery note, let’s talk a little about the villain responsible for all this depravity.  Hopeless’ depiction of Arcade borrows more than a little attitude from the Joker, in the sense that he doesn’t have a real motive for his heinous acts; it’s all just fun and games for him, sensibly enough.  He even has a bit of the Joker humor, down to the unnerving laugh.  After taunting the youngsters about how he had them cleaned, prepped, and dressed, he reassures them, “Hey, no judgment.  I was young once. Heh heh heh.”

With so much going into setting the stage for the series, Hopeless can’t spare much time for character development.  True to the Marvel NOW! spirit, there’s a blend of figures from all corners of the Marvel U, from Avengers Academy to young X-Men and even to the Runaways.  We only get to know two of them however, but Hopeless manages to imbue each with enough personality in a short time, such that you do get affected when one of them is lost to Arcade’s pre-game challenge.  This is the only moment of hope that will persuade you to stay on with such a bleak title: that the first important act in this battle is one of selfless, loving sacrifice.

Walker’s mixture of sketch and detail lends this title the perfect blend of looseness that evokes a younger, more impulsive and uncontrollable energy, and also sophistication, because eventually that impulse will have to confront some very serious obstacles.  For a character who’s often portrayed comically, Arcade comes across as rather sinister in this issue, and that’s from Walker giving him a rough, disheveled appearance under that perfectly tailored suit, but also from the way Martin plays with light and shadow on his face, as if he is always standing amidst hellfire.

Conclusion: I have my doubts as to whether Hopeless can deliver a story strong enough to overcome the inherent distastefulness of his premise, and while this issue doesn’t settle the matter either way, it does have signs of being more than just shocking.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * I must say, it’s a pretty interesting coincidence to have a man named Hopeless to write such a grim series.

– I also have to say that Marvel comics tend to involve so much hero-versus-hero stories that these future heroes may as well get into practice.