Friday, March 15, 2013

Recommended Reading for 3/15: Runaways

Ever since Peter Parker donned that blue and red costume of his and went web slinging, teen angst has been part of superheroics. There are all sorts of critical theories that say that superheroics are at their core adolescent power fantasies (I can see that, but I feel the core of superheroes is the idea of a more fair world, but that's for another day). And when you're a teenager, your parents are evil, and you just want to tell them to shove it and go live with a bunch of other kids. We usually don't do that. But what if we did? And what if our parents really were evil? That's the story premise that starts off Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona's Runaways, published by Marvel Comics .

Runaways had an uphill battle when it was introduced. It was part of Marvel's short lived "Tsunami" line, dedicated to bringing a more manga vibe to Marvel comics in its art, and appealing to a hip, young audience. It featured a diverse cast, varied in race, age, species, and sexual orientation. And all of these characters were new, with no ties to the mainstream Marvel Universe. New characters are a very hard sell in the comic market today, and arguments over how diverse casts affect a book are still ongoing. And while Runaways was never a breakout sales sensation, it had a respectable run that never wavered in its quality, even after the original creators left.

Runaways opens with a group of teenagers, not friends but acquaintances, forced to hang out together as their parents get together for an annual charity meeting. The kids eventually sneak out of the area of the house they're supposed to stay in and find that their parents are performing the blood sacrifice of a teenage girl. Their parents are not the mildmannered families they seem, but are instead The Pride, the crime family that controls Los Angeles. The six children of The Pride, each with special skills and abilities derived from their parents, decide that what they need to do is stop their parents, setting up a classic parent vs. child dynamic.

The initial arc of the series has the kids learning exactly who and what their parents are, and finding out the legacies left them. Each member of The Pride, and thus each Runaway, comes from a typical sci-fi/comic book archetypal history. Alex Wilder, video gamer and bright kid, leader of the team, is a brilliant strategist, able to analyze situations and come up with quick plans to work for the benefit of his team. Nico Manaru, Goth but warm hearted, is a sorceress who wields the Staff of One, a magical implement that requires blood to activate, and can do anything its wielder wishes once. Gert Yorkes, tough and acerbic attitude hiding a sensitive side, has parents who were time travelers, and left a genetically altered Deinonychus with a psychic link to her as her protector, that she named Old Lace (who wouldn't want a dinosaur for a pet?). Karolina Dean, pretty miss popular who is hiding deep scars and issues, is a Majesdanian, an alien with energy and light controlling powers. Chase Stein's parents were mad scientists, with brilliant technological creations; Chase comes off as a jock, but turns out to be an able mechanic, and inherited a pair of powerful combat gauntlets, and the Leap Frog, a frog shaped transport. Molly Hayes, the youngest of the team, full of wonder and spunk, is a mutant with heightened strength and partial invulnerability, although using her power tends to leave her exhausted.

The initial team from right to left:
(front)Nico, Molly, Gert,
(2nd row) Karolina, Alex, Chase,
(back) Old Lace
The first volume of Runaways, eighteen issues, was one big arc dealing with the kids and their conflict with The Pride. What the reader knows, that the kids do not, is that one of them is feeding information to their parents. Over the course of that story, they prove a thorn in their parents' side, are framed for the death of the girl The Pride sacrificed, run into a vampire, fight and team up with Cloak & Dagger in classic superhero fashion, and then head out to finally confront The Pride. The stories are strongly character driven, painting each of the kids as fully realized characters after only a couple issues. In a time of decompression, this series crammed as much as they could into each issue. Karolina struggles with depression and feelings of suicide, Chase and Gert begin to grow close, despite being two people who seem to have nothing in common, Molly's sweet naivete is charming, Nico becomes a den mother, and Alex plots and plans, and tries to keep the team moving forward. They are all tremendously likable characters, interesting to read about, and you find yourself unable to picture any of them turning out to be a traitor loyal to their parents until the big reveal.
At the end of the fist volume, the kids, having learned about the Gibborim, the extrademinsional being their parents serve, and their plan to wipe out all life on Earth with the aid of The Pride, go to stop the ritual that will empower the Gibborim. They learn that The Pride had been promised six people could be saved from worldwide annihilation, and had each had a child so they could be the ones saved. But being a group of villains, different factions within The Pride had plans to save themselves and their kids and leave the others to die. As the kids make their move, the traitor is revealed: Alex, leader and most confident member, has been supplying his parents with knowledge of what the kids have been doing. He asks Nico to join him and his parents in safety, but she refuses, and the remaining Runaways are able to stop the ritual. Alex and the adults die, and the kids escape. After going with social services, they decide they are better off on their own, and once more become Runaways.
The second volume of Runaways began with a dying  Gert from the future, telling the kids that they have to find and stop Victor Mancha, a boy who will grow up to become the greatest threat that mankind has ever faced. Victor, it is revealed, is the cyborg creation of Ultron, making him the "son" of the Avengers villain, who was designed to be his infiltrator and secret weapon against the Avengers. But Victor doesn't want to, and the Runaways, instead of destroying/killing him, they take him in. He's the son of a supervillain who wants to be better, just like they are, and his energy powers and genius intellect make him a strong addition to the team.
Runaways volume one was about dealing with parents, while volume two is about establishing your own identity and making your own way in the world. Choosing to trust no adult, not even the adult version of one of their own, is part of the Runaways mission; they want to live in a world without the rules of adults. Karolina, haunted by her feelings of inadequacy and her own sexual identity, finds love with Xavin, a Skrull she was betrothed to by her parents, who chooses to take a prime female form so that Karolina, who is gay, can feel comfortable loving Xavin as much as Xavin does her. Gert and Chase try to have a normal relationship, despite not living in a normal world. Molly is nearly taken by the X-Men to go to Xavier's School, but stays with her friends (when the Runaways eventually meet the Avengers, she punches Wolverine through a wall. Love that Molly). But when a time displaced Geoffrey Wilder, father of Alex, tries to form a new Pride to resurrect his wife and son, the team is once more drawn into conflict with their pasts, and another of the young heroes, Gert (my favorite all along) doesn't make it out alive. The kids having lost another friend, must do what is probably the most adult thing anyone has to: come to terms with the death of a loved one. Chase has the hardest time, trying to trade himself to the Gibborim in exchange for them resurrecting Gert, but his plan falls apart, and nearly costs Nico her life. The kids come together once more at the end of this story, the final by creator Brian K. Vaughan, and are forced to flee L.A. to escape Iron Man in his post-Civil War position as top cop of the Marvel Universe.
The final arc of the second volume of Runaways was written by Joss Whedon, legendary creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and eventual director of a little movie called The Avengers. It was a fun time travel story, where the team goes back to New York in 1907, pick up a new team member, Klara, who can control plant life, and run into the Yorkes, Gert's time travelling parents. The story was plagued by delays, a common occurrence when dealing with writers from Hollywood (I'm looking at you Whedon, Allan Heinberg, Kevin Smith, Damon Lindelof, et. al.), and the loss of momentum caused a sputter in the series rising sales. The final volume so far of Runaways started out with arcs by Terry Moore and Hunberto Ramos, and wrapped with a final arc by Kathryn Immonen and Sara Pichelli, and while the stories were still great coming of age superhero stories, the sales were at a point where the powers that be could not keep publishing the book and it was placed on indefinite hiatus, a nice way to say cancelled.
Eventually, the Runaways started popping up again, first in an arc of Daken: Dark Wolverine, and then in Avengers Academy. Currently, Nico and Chase are in Avengers: Arena, the Hunger Games-as-hosted-by-Arcade Marvel Now! launch. Victor will actually be starring in an upcoming on-shot tying into Age of Ultron, which makes perfect sense being the son of Ultron. I'm hoping this raised profile will see an eventual return of the Runaways as a series, as there's a ton of potential, not to mention dangling plot threads, from the previous volumes.
Runaways is a title that I feel is a great gateway comic for people who think all mainstream comics are just Batman beating on the Joker for twenty or so pages. While light on connections to the rest of the Marvel Universe, the book clearly had both feet planted in the shared universe. Character heavy, and filled with distinct characters, its a great superhero book for people used to reading the other works by creator Brian K. Vaughan like Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, and his current hit, Saga, or Strangers in Paradise, from later series writer Terry Moore. Anyone who enjoyed teen fantasy like Harry Potter or Buffy might also be a good bet to introduce to comics through Runaways, since we're looking at the same, "Magic/horror is a metaphor for growing up," themes, but presented in a superhero light.

Due to Marvel's confusing trade/hardcover program, I am unsure which volumes of Runaways, if any, are currently in print. But all three volumes, along with the team up mini-series between the Runaways and the Young Avengers that tied into Civil War and Secret Invasion,  have been collected in various forms, be it digest, standard trade, or deluxe hardcover, and they can be found at many comic stores. Hopefully, with the characters starting to appear again, and some rumblings of a big screen adaptation, we might see them all in print again in the not too distant future.


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