Back when I was just hitting the perfect age to be swept up into the Marvel Universe, there were two things that hooked me more than anything else. The first, of course, was the 1990s X-Men cartoon that seemed to be scientifically designed to get ten-year-olds to care about Wolverine and Gambit despite their hilarious voices, but the second was a black-and-white paperback reprinting four issues where the X-Men battled against Arcade.

I read that thing until it fell apart, and even 18 years later, Arcade still ranks as one of my all-time favorite villains. So I've been pretty excited about Paul Tobin and David Baldeon's "Avengers Academy Giant-Size," on stands today, a story about two teams of teenage heroes slugging it out with the master of Murderworld -- an amusement park of death! How awesome is that? -- ever since it was solicited. And now that it's finally out, it's everything I wanted it to be.Of course, for a while there it looked like this was a story we might not get at all. It was originally solicited as a crossover running through three Annuals that would tie Avengers Academy, Spider-Girl and Young Allies together, but a monkey wrench was thrown into that plan when the latter two books were canceled, which was incredibly unfortunate even without the potential loss of a solid Murderworld story.

After that, it was solicited again as a three-part mini-series called Arcade: Death Game that would stand alone, and eventually solicited again in its current form, delivering the entire story in one shot for $7.99. It's a dishearteningly similar story to the rocky road to publishing traveled by last month's truly fantastic Captain America: The Fighting Avenger by Brian Clevinger and Gurihiru, another book extremely well-suited for younger audiences and new readers.

I'm sure that a lot of people are going to that price as being a barrier for the same kids and new readers that this story's so perfect for, but I'm not sure that it's such a bad thing after all. I mean, there are certainly readers who are going to see an eight-dollar price tag and leave it sitting on the shelf (while mostly buying a handful of comics they don't actually like just so they can "keep up," if my experience working in a comic book store is any indication), but anyone with even a slight familiarity with math can tell you that one $8 comic costs less than three $4 Annuals.

Maybe it's just the similarity with the format of that paperback I had as a kid, but I actually think this is actually a pretty great format for this story. Even with the higher price point than your standard single, it's got the big, oversized feel of a the classic 80-Page Giants, and could make a great sampler for trade paperback readers who are on the fence about dropping fifteen or twenty bucks to pick up Avengers Academy or Young Allies in that format.

But beyond all that, the real question here is "Is it worth it?" And it totally is.

If you've read his extremely underrated Doctor Doom and the Masters of Evil, then you're already aware that Tobin has an incredible knack for writing fun, fantastic villainy, and it's no different when he takes on Arcade, for whom fun villainy isn't an option, but a requirement.

The setup for the story even addresses one of the interesting contradictions about his character: For a guy meant to be one of the world's deadliest assassins, Arcade has spent the past 30 years completely and utterly failing to kill anyone. That's obviously going to be a problem that comes up quite a bit when you're a villain in mainstream super-hero comics -- especially one whose alleged deadliness is really just an excuse to do awesome set pieces that involve gigantic pinball machines -- but it's interesting to see it actually acknowledged in the story and used to give him a little more motivation than just the standard homicidal mania.

Especially when his solution to a tarnished reputation is to start murdering teenagers.

The whole thing is an incredible example of how to write villains that are genuinely sinister in a story that's still rooted in the lighthearted fun of super-heroics without having it feel completely out of place. Tobin's script is pretty straightforward in showing him as a guy who loves nothing more than killing people, but he never loses sight of the fact that he does it by sticking super-heroes into giant video games and theme park rides. Plus, Baldeon draws him to look like the unholy love child of the Joker and Conan O'Brien, and that's pretty much perfect.

And then there's the deathtraps. Arcade is a villain that invites creators to go insanely over the top in terms of set pieces -- heck, it's pretty much mandatory for him -- and it's here that the fun comes through better than anywhere else. There are, of course, the old standbys of Arcade's namesake: Firestar gets locked up in a trap that's like a MAD Magazine parody of the Saw films with a crane game thrown in for good measure, and Toro gets locked up in a gigantic Whack-A-Mole game filled with poison gas. Say what you will, but that is exactly what I want to see in a teen super-hero book.

The best idea, though, comes when Tobin takes Arcade to an entirely new level by making an improvised Murderworld out of the entirety of New York City. In fact, that was the only thing I didn't love about this comic. Not because I didn't like the twist, but because the idea of New York itself being made into a deathtrap for super-heroes is such a good high concept that I wish the entire book had been devoted to it.

Of course, all the flashy set pieces in the world don't matter if there's not a solid story behind them, but that's not really a worry here. In all fairness, the end feels a little rushed -- probably a result of having to set things up for one comic instead of three -- but Tobin and Baldeon echo the plot points of that story I loved so much when I was a kid by separating out the team into different deathtraps, and in the process, they give themselves plenty of opportunity to work in some great characterization. There's even the seeds of a romance planted here that I genuinely hope plays out in the pages of Avengers Academy:

Ah, young love!

And with that bit of romance, this is a comic that's got everything, and for as much trouble as it had actually making it to shelves, it's turned out pretty great. For everyone out there who's been lamenting the lack of solid, classic-style super-hero adventure comics with self contained stories that are still big enough to tie into and play with the fun stuff that comes along with a larger universe, this is exactly the book you've been wanting.


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