This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on April 5, 2014.
Last weekend at Planet Comicon in Kansas City, I had the opportunity to speak with Dennis Hopeless on Saturday. Hopeless’ new series, drawn by Kev Walker, Avengers Undercover debuted on March 12th. It’s the sequel to their previous collaboration Avengers Arena, picking up directly where its predecessor left off.
We spoke primarily about the transition between the two series and Hopeless process in constructing a book in the mainstream Marvel universe, as well as the themes that emerged from the conclusion of Avengers Arena and his collaboration with Kev Walker.
CM: Let’s start by discussing the end of Avengers Arena and how that leads into Avengers Undercover. What initially attracted you to the concept and characters of Arena that are being continued in Undercover?
DH: Originally I was asked to pitch a re-launch of Avengers Academy. They wanted to do more of a PG-13, harder edged version with a whole new school, different teachers, and different students. They were going to graduate Christos’ (Gage) academy, so it could be a whole new thing. Initially, the book that I pitched was going to be teenage superheroes with more bullying and relationship stuff than they had done in the past. The third arc, as we were developing, was a Tri-Wizard Tournament involving Marvel Universe teenagers that devolved into a sort of Hunger Games when a villain got involved.
My editor (Bill Rosemann) took that element of the pitch and brought it to the editor-in-chief (Axel Alonso) and Tom Brevoort. They took one look at it and said, “No, this right here. Let’s just do this. That’s the whole book.” So we had done a whole bunch of legwork on this one thing and then it all shifted. I was really hesitant to do it. I wasn’t going to say no. It was my first ongoing and I loved the characters involved, but that threw me for a loop.
What eventually drew me to the concept, when I was trying to figure out how I was going to make this work, was that I can do all of these teen angst things, but with heightened drama. This is a worst-case scenario version of being a teenager: of being surrounded by everybody else, and learning who you’re going to be, and dealing with all of the egos involved. I figured out that I could focus on getting in all of the different character’s heads and showing this terrible experience from all of their perspectives. It could be really character driven, while also having this intense, high stakes environment going on the whole time. The drama would be there and driving the story. It took me a while to come around to it, but once I did, I really embraced it.
CM: It sounds like Tom Brevoort and Marvel’s editorial staff, in general, is pushing to try new things and that this was part of that effort.
DH: It makes sense from a marketing standpoint. If your book has a hook that sounds different from any other superhero book you’ve ever heard of before, it’s easy to sell that. That was the thing with Arena. It, obviously, drummed up some controversy and some people were upset when we first announced it. It was this big, crazy idea that was so different from what Academy had been that people understood what it was and could argue about it online. It makes sense from a creative standpoint to give us different challenges, things to change the character, new ways to go.
But also, from a marketing standpoint, you can sell these ideas. If it’s the Fantastic Four falling apart, like what James Robinson is doing right now, that’s an idea that people can understand. It’s not just issue four hundred and sixteen of Fantastic Four or whatever. It’s a new idea. Arena gave us an opportunity to do that. It was a high concept that was very easy to explain. I think by the end of issue one of Arena that everybody got what we were doing and what it was going to be. The rest was just playing it out.
CM: Arena had a balance of established characters, like Nico and Chase, and original characters, like Deathlocket and the Braddock Academy kids. How does your approach vary when handling characters with an established history versus original creations?
DH: The biggest difference is you can read the back story. You can sit down and read or re-read Runaways, one of my favorite series ever, and see who Chase and Nico are. Whereas, if you’re creating a character, you have to figure all of that out. There’s a character in the book (Avengers Arena #1), Red Raven, who dies right away, but I didn’t know that at the time I was developing this book. So I can tell you all sorts of interesting things about Red Raven that didn’t make it into the book. Now that she’s gone, they don’t matter. But you have to get into the mind of the character. For someone like Nico or Chase, the first thing you do is re-read their back story and figure out who that character is in your mind and what voice that character has. When you’re writing them you want them to be your characters, you want to take in all of what they’ve been, figure out what that voice is in your head, and take ownership. Otherwise, you shy away from changing anything or finding a new angle on the character or you try to make it too much like another person’s writing style. It’s going to be really difficult to do interesting new things. You do your research and you do your take on the character and run with it.
CM: Jumping into Avengers Undercover #1, it’s a very natural progression from where Avengers Academy ended. There seem to be a lot of themes and ideas that were left open for this series. At what point in Avengers Arena did you begin to plan for the next step?
DH: We always wanted to deal with the aftermath in some way. If we weren’t going to get a follow up series, and we didn’t know right away if we were going to get a follow up series, the final issue probably would have dealt with that as a coda, like what’s life like now that they’re back home? Once we knew we were going to get a follow up series, it changed the ending of Arena. I could just end it with that Arcade slap in the face, where Arcade puts the stuff online and now everybody has to deal with it. I get a whole new series to tell that story. So we knew that part was going to be happening in the book and we needed a hook, some sort of story idea that was going to sell, something more than: these are damaged kids who are trying to figure out how the world works. My editor pitched several different ideas of what we could do. I kind of wanted to do a road trip book where they ran away and went around the Marvel Universe, but that didn’t have enough of a hook. My editor pitched this idea of them going to super villain school, going the other way. I thought that sounded kind of hokey. After what Arena was, the tone of that would be really hard to get. But I liked the idea of them being surrounded by super villains. I had just re-read Rick Remender’s Secret Avengers run, which has this underground super villain mega city, Bagalia. I thought, what if we set the book there? What if there’s a way to get the characters down there? From that we got the idea of them infiltrating the Masters of Evil and going undercover.
CM: Reading Avengers Undercover #1, you can see that the scope has expanded. Whereas, Avengers Arena always had a limited lifespan with only thirty days to tell the story, Undercover feels like it could run much longer. Are you planning this in a similar way to Arena or is this being planned as an ongoing with no end in sight?
DH: It’s an ongoing, in so much as if it sells, it’ll keep going on. There’s a long version of this first big story and there’s a shorter version. We’ll play it by ear and see how people respond and how sales go. If it blows up and people are really into it, there are definitely stories I want to tell with these characters going forward. Whether that would be Undercover #27 or a new book, I don’t know. There is a story that has an ending, being the Masters of Evil storyline, but that isn’t necessarily the end.
CM: With the increased scope, you also get to bring in a lot of new characters. At the end of Undercover #1, there’s a great shot of the Masters of Evil featuring Baron Zemo, Constrictor, and some others. How much leeway did you have in picking out new characters?
DH: Absolutely. As long as no one else is using them in a way that would contradict what I want to do. No one could use the Avengers Arena characters until it was about to be done, because they were away. Same sort of thing, where if somebody is using a villain in a way that wouldn’t make sense, I would have to not use them. Beyond those restrictions, we can do whatever we want to. Baron Zemo’s a cool character, a cool old school Avengers villain that wasn’t being used. I wanted to use Constrictor again because the last time we saw him, Arcade smashed him with a hammer.
A lot of it grew out of what Bagalia was. What characters would make sense to be in this new Masters of Evil? That’s where Daimon Hellstrom came in. In Cullen Bunn’s Venom, Daimon Hellstrom broke up into five different versions of himself and one of them is evil. That’s awesome! I can use an evil Daimon Hellstrom to run the Helltown down in Bagalia.
CM: The first issue of Avengers Undercover picks up on themes that weren’t explored in Avengers Arena, specifically the commentary on reality TV, the nature of celebrity, and how that is affecting these kids. Is that something you plan to continue exploring in Undercover?
DH: It’s a big part of what’s going on in their lives. They went through the most traumatic experience of their lives, and the whole world has seen it, and everybody has something to say about it. It’s a unique element to their situation. Their life changes quite a bit after the first arc though, once they get down in with the villains.
They’re no longer dealing with the same things they were in their old lives. So it’s a big part of where they start, but the things they’re going to be dealing with going forward are going to be different. I definitely wanted to address that because I think it’s an interesting part of our culture. There’s something sort of terrifying about being famous, the idea of everyone caring about your every move and having an opinion on it. I wanted to address it up front, but it’s not a huge theme going forward.
CM: The thing I found most striking about that in the first issue was how dehumanized they were to everyone watching the videos. It’s analogous to how we look at celebrity and reality television. It pushes the reader to reflect on how they look at those concepts.
DH: Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why the kids, once they start interacting with the villains, those are the only people who don’t judge them. They didn’t see the arena. They don’t think these kids are monsters. They just did what they had to do. That’s the perspective of the villains. The villains in this book aren’t going to be like moustache twirling villains. They’re just people who have decided to use their powers for their own self-interest. It’s a really un-super heroic idea, but it’s a very human idea. It’ll be fun to watch the kids walk that line and decide where their allegiances lie.
CM: Turning our eye towards craft, Kev Walker drew the majority of Avengers Arena. It also appears that he is drawing most of Avengers Undercover going forward.
CM: What kind of scripting process do you two use when creating an issue together?
DH: I write full script, but, especially for action sequences, I tell Kev these are the beats, do whatever the hell you want to do. Part of my process is that I have to make sure it fits. I write full script, so I can see it in my head, but I fully expect and love the ways that Kev changes everything. Like in the action sequences, he’ll take what I wanted to do and twist it through a filter and make it better every single time. The more we work together, the more I make it clear that I just want him to do his thing. He nails the quiet moments, which are a big part of my writing: the little dialogue moments and little character beats. He always hits every facial expression without having to have it be explained by the dialogue. Then he makes these killer action sequences, so I just try to stay out of his way, while trying to write the script that allows me to move the story along.
CM: A few other artists contributed to Avengers Arena: Alessandro Vitti, Karl Moline, and Ricardo Burchielli. Does your process change much when working with different artists on the same series?
DH: It doesn’t at Marvel because you have the intermediary of the editor. I send the script to Bill Rosemann, who’s the editor, and he and I will talk about it, then he presents it to the artist. If the artists have questions, they’ll come back to him. A lot of the time, because most of those guys only did a couple of issues, they’re not as involved in the building of the story. They’re just working with Bill and me on that one thing. Whereas Kev is a huge part of figuring out the story and all of it, because he’s going to be involved much more. For the most part, it’s the same because I’m working through an editor. Now on a creator-owned book or something where you’re developing it with the other person: you own it fifty-fifty and they’re right there with you talking on the phone, it can be something very different. Some people want very detailed full script and some people will take a black marker and mark out anything but the action on a panel description. You learn with your artists and I’ve definitely done that with Kev. I’ve adjusted what I do with Kev, but working with those artists over a shorter period of time, it’s a different thing.
CM: One thing about Kev Walker is that he’s illustrated over 700 comics, starting off at 2000 A.D. in Britain. How was the experience collaborating with someone who had been in the industry much longer than you?
DH: Working with Kev has been a fantastic experience because he always makes us look good, makes me look better. The other thing he brings to the table is that he will scrutinize everything from a different perspective. Kev thinks of things in different ways. He has to understand how a gun works before he can draw the gun. Kev will bring up stuff that fans would ask. In the scripts page, he’ll say that we should probably specify what this is or he’ll ask me a question that makes me realize this has to be clearer. That’s fantastic to have that other person that’s really thinking it through and wrapping their mind around it to make sure it makes sense. Some of that has to do with his experience and being a really intelligent artist.
CM: That sounds great. I’m really looking forward to the next issue of Avengers Underground and the rest of the series. Thanks for taking some time to talk about it.
DH: No problem.
Avengers Undercover #1 is out now and the entirety of Avengers Arena has been collected in three volumes.