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Dennis Hopeless Talks ‘Avengers Arena’: ‘I Want To Make Them All Katniss’ [NYCC 2012]

This December, Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker will be sending sixteen of Marvel’s teenage heroes into Avengers Arena, a book where the young heroes will be tasked with, as Matt Wilson put it when the book was announced, “totally killing each other.” For them, it’s pretty grim stuff, but for us readers, it comes with a promise of huge deathtraps, intense fights and, according to Hopeless, character-driven drama.

This weekend at New York Comic-Con, I talked to Hopeless about what he plans to accomplish with Arena, his hopes for blending strong characters with ’90s radness in the pages of Cable and X-Force, and his tattoo of Harley Quinn.

ComicsAlliance: Let’s start off with Avengers Arena. I’m a guy who really likes teenage superheroes, but not necessarily teenage superheroes getting killed, so I’m curious about your approach to the book.

Dennis Hopeless: Well, it’s all character-driven. If you look at Hunger Games, that’s a very popular book where a lot of children die, but it’s not a book about children dying. It’s a book about being inside the head of the main character going through this horrible, horrible thing, and learning about her and her growing through a time period where she’d be growing anyway. She’s becoming an adult in this godawful situation, and that’s what’s really interesting.

Marvel has all of this amazingly rich cast of characters that are teenage superheroes from books like Runaways and Avengers Academy, and I’m going to be using Cammi from the Abnett and Lanning cosmic books, all these great teenage characters. I want to make them all Katniss. I want to put them all in this awful situation that, in a way, parallels the things you have to deal with when you’re a teenager. It’s kind of the worst high school in the world. All of these emotions running wild and you’re afraid and you’re trying to figure out who you are, and you’re stuck in a place where you’re being told you have to do these things and it’s the last thing in the world you want to do.

Except for here, your rivals will kill you.

CA: I really, really love Arcade.

DH: Me too.

CA: What is the motivation for him to be a guy who’s targeting the younger characters?

DH: Arcade is a genius deathtrap builder who got into the superhero game and has been sort of an embarrassment ever since. He builds these amazing traps and he loves the idea of watching people die in interesting ways. That’s his thing. You assume that before he started going after superheroes, he was very successful at it, but now he doesn’t ever kill anyone. No one ever dies in Murderworld, so he’s become a joke.

Arcade has decided that he’s no longer going to be a joke, so he’s come up with a new version of Murderworld. This time, it’s going to work. This time, people are going to die, and people are going to respect him, and it’s going to be the best Murderworld ever.

He’s the same character. He’s going to have the same voice that he always did, he’s a showman. To him, it’s all about pizzazz and being interesting, but he’s more motivated to actually kill people. Murderworld is going to live up to its name.

CA: When you’re working with those teen characters, you’re pulling from a lot of corners of the universe. A lot of them are characters I love, but in a way, they’re sort of the leftovers from a lot of books.

DH: That’s not how I look at it. I’m just a big fan of teenage characters. In my creator-owned books, that’s what I do. I feel like that’s the time period in a person’s life that’s most interesting. Your emotions are big, the changes are big, you’re becoming the person you’re going to be way faster and way more traumatically than any other time in your life. It’s an interesting time period, so I love all of those characters. I love Avengers Academy, even though it’s a very different book from what we’re doing with all those characters. Runaways is one of my favorite books from the past ten years.

We didn’t just take cast-offs; these are just characters that I liked and that I could get. There are obviously characters in other books that I couldn’t have that would work in this.

CA: Who did you want that you couldn’t get?

DH: I asked for Kenji from Generation Hope, and he’s dead, which I knew. I wanted to bring him back to life, but he’d just died.

CA: [Laughs] That would kind of undercut the drama of the series if you brought someone back to life just to have him in dager of dying.

DH: He had just died, too. The pitching process was a while back, so I asked within like a week of his death. My original character list had more Runaways in it, and we just pared it down for the sake of paring it down. I would’ve used all of the Runaways if I could’ve fit them, but sixteen characters is a lot of voices to write, and it’s a lot of pieces to move around on the board, so I lost some of them. I knew from the beginning that I would’ve loved to have some of the Wolverine and the X-Men kids, but I knew I couldn’t have them, because they’re in that book.

CA: On the subject of them being “cast-offs,” does that kind of enhance the danger for the reader? I know that going into it, if someone has a book and they’re doing something elsewhere, you know what the situation is. Wolverine is never going to die, because his name’s on the cover of the comic. But the Runaways haven’t had their own series in a while, so in a metatextual way, does that enhance the danger?

DH: I guess it probably does, but I don’t think of it that way. In my mind, those characters at the moment only exist in my story. They are their personalities, their foibles and all that. That’s what’s interesting about them. I think you kind of have to do that.

It’s true that when you get to pitch a book, you don’t get everything you want, and you don’t get every character you want, and there are real-world reasons for it. But once you start writing the book, it isn’t about that. To me, these characters are about the story that I’m telling. I assume for the reader, that does change things, but for me, not at all. For me, they’re all on the table. They can all potentially die, they can all potentially win. I didn’t put anybody in there for cannon fodder.

CA: I like Arcade specifically, but deathtraps in general are a big thing for me. Are they an interesting challenge for you as a writer, to think up new dangers, or is it more of a hassle of having to do something new every single time?

DH: Originally, when I came up with it, we started there. One of the challenges was trying to do a Survivor-type thing with it, almost. But eventually we figured out that what makes it interesting and unique is the characters, so everything’s very character-driven. It’s more about what would lead this person to kill or to refuse to kill, and how can Arcade as a great showman poke and prod at them to get these reactions. He’s almost like a producer. You put interesting characters together and manipulate them from the background.

Running Man is an amazing piece of shlock that has great death stuff in it. Battle Royale has amazing death stuff in it. There’s really cool stuff that happens in Hunger Games, and all of these things that we’re influenced by have done what we’re doing, so you have to find what’s different about it. I don’t think building more elaborate deathtraps was the way to go, necessarily, but that said, Arcade has built an amazing death arena. This place is really cool. There’s different climates going on, there’s an ocean, it’s a really big, crazy, impossible death every day.

CA: You mentioned that your take on Cable and X-Force is also very character-driven. What can we look forward to in that? Big guns, obviously.

DH: To me, the book is sort of two things. I’ve said this before, but my version of Cable is like Steve McQueen in the body of the T2 Terminator. He’s the guy that knows what’s going on, has a plan for everything, and probably isn’t going to explain that plan to you, but when it starts up you need to get out of the way or get in line. Then, I put a cast of characters around him that are going to be very upset with him acting that way.

The book is kind of Cable running a heist crew. All of these people are very good at their jobs, but don’t necessarily sit around and have coffee very well. You’ve got Forge as the junkyard version of James Bond’s Q. He can build anything out of anything, but he’s also this recently insane war veteran messed up guy who has his own agenda. Cable’s ex-girlfriend is in there, Domino, but they’re both so far removed from that relationship that it’s interesting. Hope’s in the book, and that’s Cable’s daughter, a relationship that’s a bigger part of him than his relationship with Domino, but he was only gone for a month in everyone else’s mind while all of that was going on. It’s all about how I can throw interesting personalities together in a very stressful situation and see how they react.

CA: I love the idea of Cable leading a crazy paramilitary heist crew. What kind of missions do they go on? What’s their niche?

DH: The opening is essentially that Cable and Hope both want to live normal lives now. Cable’s going to retire, because he’s all jacked up, and then it becomes a One Last Heist sort of story. There’s a thing we have to deal with, and then we can lead normal lives. But as One Last Heist stories go, that goes to s**t and snowballs and turns into “now we’re on the run from the Uncanny Avengers and the world sees us as mutant terrorists.” They’re on the run from the cops, saving the world in all of the most awful-for-them ways, because at the end of it they just look worse. They have to commit crimes and do horrible things to prevent other horrible things from happening, but no one knows that.

It’s a little bit like a heist movie, and a little bit like the middle section of a Mission: Impossible movie where they look like terrorists to the rest of the world, but we don’t give them that third act where they’re once again spies that everyone loves. It’s pretty exciting, and we’re definitely leaning into the ’90s stuff. All of the stuff that made x-Force cool when I was ten, the big guns, the crazy costumes, the explosions, all of that stuff is there. It’s just clamped on top of this very character-driven crime story.

CA: Were you an X-Force guy growing up?

DH: I loved it. I loved it until, like, puberty and then I decided it was lame, but there’s something about why I loved it. It’s like RoboCop. It’s badass for badass sake. Rob Liefeld really tapped into that, and there’s a reason we all loved it when we were kids. There’s something to it, so we’re going to use the coolest parts of that, and then do what I do best, which is character drama.

CA: Any more Elsa Bloodstone stories coming around?

DH: Elsa Bloodstone makes an apperance in one of those two books, but I won’t say which book and I won’t say how. I have typed her name into a script in the past two weeks.

CA: Okay, last thing: Tell me about this tattoo.

DH: My wife’s a tattoo artist, and when she was apprenticing, I was what she practiced on. I really like Batman: The Animated Series.

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