"Avengers Arena" #9 by Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker is an odd beast. On the one hand, there's a very clear superhero death match high concept and instantly-defined location (the Murderworld island), which provides the ideal setting for a tense potboiler of a comic. Yet, in the execution of it, you end up with a cast of characters so randomly assembled that an issue like this, where someone spends the bulk of it on exposition, isn't uncommon.
Perhaps it's reasonable to expect that if you got a bunch of teenagers together they'd spend more time talking about themselves than doing anything else, but it doesn't make for a particularly dramatic comic. Admittedly there's a gripping cliffhanger (something this book is very good at delivering month in, month out) but too much of the issue before it involves the cast trying to make sense of the previous cliffhanger.
There's also a sense that the "death every issue!" is starting to feel less like a gimmick and more like a rod for the book's back. Bringing a thought-dead character back and then killing them off again (in a much less satisfying manner) seems like the act of a writer desperate to fulfil his brief without shrinking the cast any further. Worse still, brief returns like this damage the book's premise, because how can dead be dead if characters come back? Normal comic book rules about death should be sparingly applied if we, as an audience, are genuinely intended to fear for anyone's life.
But criticisms aside, there are things to like here. The characters are all well-defined, their interactions feel natural and real. Hopeless seems to struggle to get the broad strokes across without stumbling, but the smaller moments are note-perfect. Scenes like Death Locket learning how to use her gun-morphing powers are more than enough to keep the title enjoyable even when the plot grinds to a halt so we can have a new character introduce themselves.
It helps that Kev Walker is drawing the book. His artwork here is as fantastic as ever -- a bit punky, but not grimy. It's perfect for teenage characters with outrageous hair, which is lucky because that describes most of the cast. Colourist Jean-Francois Beaulieu also gets in on the action, helping to sell the dramatic moments and atmosphere with a careful choice of palette, all oranges, purples and pinks -- except for a death scene, which is backed with bright red to fantastically rhythm-breaking effect.
"Avengers Arena" #9 is odd, because it seems to read better than it's objectively written. It's tough to say whether that's because of the book's strong premise, its fantastic art or Hopeless' convincing character work, but it's enough to make me think that yet again, it's worth sticking with.