I must admit, after months of vehement ranting against Avengers Arena, I never expected that one of my tweets would actually get the attention of its author. Yet sure enough, less than an hour after finding out that some of my remarks had been highlighted by a Bleeding Cool article (sadly, none of my useful ones, but still…), I checked my interactions page to see that my calling out of Dennis Hopeless had actually elicited a response.
I am in the process of writing an essay-length analysis of why I have very strong problems with the way Hopeless handled and is handling the Runaways in his book. I feel confident in saying that Nico’s recent death was entirely the result of ignoring continuity. I’ll save all that for the essay itself. But that was what was on my mind when I tweeted, tagging Hopeless, “My prior complaints about [Hopeless] notwithstanding, I did not realize he was actually *completely* breaking canon in Arena until now.”
To which he replied, “You seem upset. Did you have a specific question?”
Upset puts it mildly, but I didn’t want to abuse the opportunity for dialogue. And I want to make it clear right now, that while I still have serious problems with his writing, and while I definitely have seen some very insulting or callous responses to people in the past, that in my discussion with him I found him refreshingly courteous. I have included the transcript here for you to form your own opinions:
Me: My prior complaints about @HopelessDent notwithstanding, I did not realize he was actually *completely* breaking canon in Arena until now.
Hopeless: You seem upset. Did you have a specific question?
Indeed I am. I have many questions…but probably none of them can aptly be put forth via a medium like Twitter. My latest question is why you’re not more respectful in the letters section; you joked about killing Nico right after doing it. Considering she’s a character who has helped readers out of depression and/or thoughts of suicide, her loss is devastating. I suppose I just struggle to reconcile your ostensible “love” for the characters with the way you write them & address fans.
The letters section is a fun way to interact with fans. The tone of my responses has always been pretty light.
Indeed, but that’s my point. What you’ve done isn’t light, and has actually deeply affected people in a negative way. This is extraordinarily sensitive for many people and intended or otherwise making light of it feels like salt in a wound.
I don’t know what to tell you, man. I’m writing them in a death match series. We were upfront about that from the beginning.
You were. But you also suggested a passion for the characters and that this would respect/honor them when they had to die. While it will take an essay (which I am writing) to express why I feel that has not been delivered upon, suffice to say there are a decent number of people who have come to see this as the meat grinder they were promised it would not be.
I think maybe our definitions of “meat grinder” are different. I’m writing a character-driven story with a very dark premise.
Before I discuss my thoughts, I really do recommend taking a moment and internalizing the conversation, coming to term with what you actually feel was just said. Consider what was not said, as well.
Now it’s worth noting that I was shocked when Hopeless responded and panicked a bit, because, well, I’m verbose, and none of the continuity questions I wanted to ask seemed like something I could condense. Moreover I couldn’t figure out which I wanted an answer to most, how far back to go. He asked for a specific question and I blanked. Then I remembered the letters page of this issue, in which he tells a reader “Go buy the Runaways collections NOW! It’s a fantastic series. Read them once now and then read them again after I kill Nico and Chase.”
And that seemed like an easy enough question to ask: how can you justify acting like that? Particularly after killing Nico, considering how important she has been in a lot of people’s lives. Now in the interest of privacy I am going to be vague here, but I have had multiple people in the last couple days express to me that they didn’t simply like Nico, but that she had actually impacted their lives. People who had been in really dark emotional places had been able to relate to her and had actually been inspired by her leadership to clean themselves up a bit. She became a friend to them, the kind that only the best characters can be, who transcend what real people offer because they don’t fail you the way real people sometimes do.
She mattered. She symbolized hope. And then she was dismembered by her best friend before bleeding out in the snow thinking not of all the great friends she’d had in her entire life but only briefly of the events in this book and how she was alone and upset. And after that, literally on the next page, the writer who killed her actually cracked a joke about it.
So I called Hopeless out on that: on his lack of sensitivity, and on how he could do this and still claim to love the characters. His response was civil, but it also didn’t actually address my questions. In fact, it exacerbated things a bit because all it really did was confirm what I’d said; in effect, his answer boiled down to “I’ve never taken this seriously.”
I pressed the issue, trying to get more of a direct answer: given the real emotional and psychological benefit Nico has generated, it makes sense that her death (and such a brutal one) would generate real emotional and psychological damage. If Nico had saved people from self-harm or suicide, it makes sense that losing her could push some people — perhaps some of the same people — back in that negative direction. You’d think Hopeless might attempt to be more apologetic, yet he had, again, actually joked about that.
It’s one thing to kill the character. But why did he have to actually make fun of it after? Like I said, it feels like salt in the wound. Note: I did not ask him why the wound. I asked him why the salt. Yet his response — “I don’t know what to tell you man” — was the textual equivalent of a shrug or rolled eyes. He reiterated that this was a death match, where people, you know, become dead.
We were upfront about that from the beginning.
Normally I’d focus on how he had addressed the wound, but not the salt, but actually I think his response here says something far more interesting: this is a death match, and it’s always been about that. The author’s response to questions about his seeming indifference is, well, indifference. The premise is the justification of the premise…truism, ho!
At this point the multitude of other questions (and about continuity and inconsistent characterization) flood my mind, but I figure it’s amazing we’ve had a back-and-forth and there’d be no way to ask any of the big questions without probably just making him stop talking, so I try once again to come back to the question of his purported love of these characters and respect for their fans. His response is that, as far as he’s concerned, he is writing a character-driven story.
Hopeless suggests that the issue is in our differing understandings of what a “meat-grinder” is, but I think it’s more our differing understandings of “character-driven story.” As far as I can tell, it’s the other way around, and most of these characters are being driven by the story. That’s what happens when a character speaks or acts inconsistently with their pre-established selves, and then that inconsistency causes something to happen which would otherwise not have; you could say the character is technically driving the plot, but the truth is that the needs of the plot were elevated above characterization, which means, again, plot-driven characters.
Laura Kinney was, by her own words, trained to kill with “maximum efficiency.” When other characters are prone to rushing into danger, Laura analyzes situations and figures out the optimal and most effective way of dealing with them. In a character-driven story, Laura would camp out, observe Apex’s actions, and almost definitely attack at night. She would likely consider the Sentinel to be the biggest threat and thus make sure not to approach until she could handily dispatch it before moving on. What she would not do is rush directly into a fight, in the open, without even the slightest pause for observation.
The fact that she did the precise opposite is why I contest that this is anything like a character-driven plot. If Laura and her training were considered in the writing of this issue it is likely that the book would already be over. She has previously encountered sentinels and would know how not to so easily be overcome.
So, that’s point one.
But if we pretend for a moment that this is a character-driven plot, where the characters behave in a believable fashion according to their pre-established motives, then Laura should no longer be alive. She poses the clearest threat of any participants in Murder World, and she has a healing factor which will ensure that any damage done to her will be recuperated if she is not dispatched permanently. If Apex is in it to win the game, then this right here would have been an easy step towards it. If this were a character-driven plot, Laura would be dead.
But wouldn’t it be more interesting if Laura survives to attempt revenge later (as if her being trounced in the first place weren’t entirely to do with her being written as incompetent)? Or perhaps she is being preserved merely so that people will think she is safe…to make her death near the end more “impactful” or “shocking.” Aside from the fact that I actually assume she will die simply because trying to shock is the most predictable thing about this series, the fact remains that that would be a plot reason for Katy not to kill Laura — not a character reason. So again plot-driven character.
Point two down.
The third example I’ll use sort of goes way back. While many have speculated on what exactly Nico’s final word will actually accomplish, the leading theory is that her cry for “help” will result in someone outside of Murder World getting tipped off on where to look. What a great, sacrificial way to go, you say. Surely you’re not going to try to say that THAT is out of character? No, I think Nico’s self-centered monologue and failure to give even a passing thought to any of the Runaways was out of character. And I think that monologuing about dying alone wouldn’t be the mental process of a person who says “help” — more likely she would be thinking “I need to get to that staff, I need to make this end, I am the only chance the others have of being rescued in this hell.” But hey, I’m not the writer. I’m here to talk about whether the character or the plot was driving things. And I completely agree that Nico would absolutely think of using a spell to signal for outside help.
You know, like, on DAY ONE.
And here is the plot-driven character moment that is probably the most infuriating, because it drives home the fact that the entire series sort of seems to be one case of bending things to fit the story after another (rather than, again, telling a story which uses these characters in a continuity-honoring way). Questions of having the wrong staff aside (not a character thing) and also disregarding the nerfing of one of the most powerful magical artifacts in the universe (because, again, not a character thing), the fact remains that “help” or “SoS” would have been the first thing that an intelligent and resourceful Nico would have tried. This is a girl who keeps track of every spell she casts and comes up with creative new ways to get around problems.
If the “help” spell works now, it would have to have worked on day one as well. And had it been cast then, help would have arrived long before the majority of this stuff happened. Long before Nico was even in real danger. Certainly long before she died. In other words, had this been a character-driven story, it wouldn’t have been a story at all, because Avengers Arena features characters like Nico who are far too powerful and creative to be bested by this situation. But this was not a character-driven story. It was a plot-driven story featuring characters.
There is one way out of that third point, I suppose, which would be that the “help” does nothing at all. Nico dies still hoping that she has accomplished something but the actual impact of her death is far lower. She may well have tried the help spell earlier and simply said it again as she died in the hopes that it would be one of those repeat spells which magically worked in Murder World…let’s forgive her for the logical lapse (if it didn’t work the first time recasting wouldn’t accomplish anything) as she had lost a lot of blood crawling towards that staff and probably wasn’t thinking straight.
Considering that the alternative to Nico looking like an idiot for waiting so long to cast an obvious spell is Nico dying a delusional non-martyr, I honestly don’t know what my preference is (though the issues are written, and we’ll see soon enough). No matter which way you cut it, however, plot trumped character. Drop point three and you have one and two…and two out of three, as they say, suck when it means more dead kids.
Now one thing I kind of wish I had been able to ask Hopeless, and this falls under the category of “not really the best for Twitter,” is the matter of whether he’s really writing a story he wants to be writing. He can’t answer that, of course, not without wrapping it in some red tape first. But one of the common accusations I’ve seen (and one of the things that exacerbates people’s dislike of him) is that he has a bias towards his own characters and is building them up at the expense of established characters. Despite constituting less than 2/3 of the participants, pre-established characters make up 80% of the current death toll (with another pre-established character MIA for seven issues and counting). I think it’s a fair question. But I also think it needs more than just a “hey, are you biased?”
Because frankly, the story he originally had in mind may have involved more of his own original creations, and he may have really hoped to see some of these ones live longer than they are now going to. Which means while the other characters have at least had their chance to shine in other stories, some of these kids will only ever exist in Arena, and then they are gone again. Now I’m purely musing. Maybe he had all this precisely in mind as it is, and maybe he only ever meant for these characters to inhabit this story, and they will all be dead at the end. But it is, like I said, a question I wouldn’t mind getting an answer to. How did Avengers Arena take the form it has taken? Did he pitch this book as is? When he says he hand-selected the characters in this book, what does he really mean? Did he have control over everyone’s fate, or was he forced to kill anyone he hadn’t wanted to when he initially picked them? I’m cynical, sure, but that doesn’t mean the questions aren’t valid. Who knows? Maybe the truth is a little more forgiving than the haters want to admit. Or maybe it’s precisely what they’ve been saying all along.
Observing some of Hopeless’ responses to other Twitter users, one thing I’ve seen come up several times is something along the lines of “this is the story we are telling, and we are telling it as well as we can.” I’m not going to go so far as to say this sounds like his arm is being held behind his back or anything, because his enthusiasm for the book and for having gotten to pick the characters for it has been pretty clearly established, but the subtle undertone of his responses seems to be a kind of tiring of being held solely responsible for the content of Avengers Arena. Hopeless is the one we attach this to but he does indeed have editors like Bill Rosemann, and he does indeed work for a company which is paying him to write a book in which characters are brutally killed off.
It won’t make me or anyone like him any more — particularly given the aforementioned enthusiasm and his joking about things we find patently unfunny — but he makes a fair point. If we are upset about Nico dying, we can blame the company that okayed that decision as much as the writer who actually wrote the scene. I’ve defend Tom Taylor’s writing in Injustice before along a similar line, so I owe Hopeless the same benefit of the doubt here: he had to kill people. He could have done it worse. Sure, he could have done it better, maybe even a lot better, and maybe he should have picked different characters if he was going to have to make them act out-of-character in order to hurt them. But he could also have done it worse, and he tried not to. Granted, that’s little consolation to the people who are very emotionally damaged by this turn of events — as I said to one friend, sh*t with sprinkles still tastes like sh*t — but it’s something. Enough to remind me for a moment that he doesn’t deserve all the anger, and that in fact he has to do what he’s told — which means if Marvel decided tomorrow that he has to rewrite the next issue so that Nico comes back to life riding on a diamond unicorn, he’d have to do that, and if it was ridiculous he’d get pinned for it even though it was simply his job to make it happen.
Marvel’s not going to do that, but the point is that they, and only they, can fix or undo any of this. Hopeless’ job was to kill Nico. It’s not his job to make sure she stays dead. So while we will, I’m sure, continue to be angry, and at him, and I will absolutely still be talking about why canonically most of this shouldn’t have been able to happen in the first place, I’d recommend people divert more of their emotion and energy into trying to get Marvel to retcon this. Flood them with letters of what the characters mean to you. How they’ve helped you. How their deaths have affected you, personally. Saying that this is stupid — even proving the existence of major plot holes — would not, likely, have any effect whatsoever. But an outpouring of love and passion from fans may make the difference between Nico staying dead forever or Nico being revived in a year or two; and while I’m not one to say that a year or two is an acceptable amount of time, it’s still better than forever.
I’m going to still write that essay because I’m stubborn. But you? You can be better than that.
Stop saying you don’t want this to stick. And stop saying it shouldn’t have happened. Because right now, it has happened, and the rest of this season, this story — character-driven or plot-driven, I’ll let you be the judge — will happen. But what comes after, that you stand a chance in impacting. I had a civil conversation with the man who directly wrote the murder of one of my favorite characters. If that can happen, I honestly think anything could.
Maybe I am a True Believer after all.