Dennis Hopeless and Kev Walker's "Avengers Arena" #17 is one of the better issues of the series, and that's actually a bit of a shame only because the book has just one issue left to go. While it does mean that readers will probably get a solid and enjoyable finale, it's also frustrating because the book has finally found its groove.
It helps, of course, that Hopeless at this point can just throw everything at the wall and go at it as a storyteller. With the series about to wrap, there's no reason for plot developments to need to be held off at arm's length. So there are finally interactions with Arcade, revelations on what happened to one missing character, and more Darkhawk-related developments than you can shake a stick at. Honestly, if "Avengers Arena" had always moved at this brisk of a pace, I think it would have held people's attention a whole lot more. "Avengers Arena" #17 actually feels exciting and dangerous, like anything can happen, and that's something that a lot of the earlier issues were missing.
Part of the problem was also that it took a long time to get to really know the characters. Ones like Bloodstone have finally received enough of a backstory and personality that readers care about them, now, rather than just being a face with a name. All of the remaining cast have turned into somewhat interesting characters with real motivations (even -- or rather especially -- the sinister Apex), and it's fun to see characters like Cammi who had fallen into the background get a chance to roar back into the foreground once more. In short, this is what I wish "Avengers Arena" had been from day one.
Kev Walker and Jason Gorder give the book a good visual punch as it heads towards the finale, too. A lot of Walker's little layout tricks, like the smooth edges of panel borders becoming more and more ragged and off-kilter as the action intensifies, still work quite well and are certainly appreciated. The fight scenes seems especially brutal and intense under Walker's pencil, and I think it helps accentuate Hopeless's story points because that hovering, awful face of Arcade is that much more nasty and hard to shrug off thanks to his depiction. Walker's one of those artists that I'm surprised isn't a bigger star at Marvel, and while I think that "Avengers Arena" has benefited from his presence, I hope that his next assignment is one that will bring him the greater audience that he deserves.
"Avengers Arena" #17 feels like the book is on track for a strong finale. While I don't think it's going to be the bloodbath that the comic promised for so long, it's certainly going to be violent and tense. Who knows? If nothing else, there are enough original characters created for "Avengers Arena" that the massacre could still happen. Honestly, though, I think that Hopeless has hit the point where there's not a need for character deaths to satisfy the audience. (I'd actually be more pleased if they didn't all die.) It's a little too late at this point, but "Avengers Arena" has definitely found its voice.