guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

January 2008

Brian K. Vaughn, Adrian Alphona, Joss Whedon, Michael Ryan, et al., Runaways (Marvel, 2004- ); $2.99, "monthly"

by Jared Gardner

From the start there was something refreshing about Runaways. Not exactly, I suspect, in the way Marvel intended: there was nothing particularly hip or even authentic in the story or its characters, and it always had a slightly desperate, pleading quality to it. The first run of the story in 2004 focused on the discovery by a group of privileged teens that their parents were not the kindly philanthropists they thought they were, but were in fact the Pride, a group of super-criminals who had made a pact with some outsized aliens to destroy the planet in exchange for eternal life and power for their children. Instead of embracing their patrimony, the kids take off and search for a way to bring their parents down. It is overwrought apocalyptic drama, but it works. Unlike Young Avengers, which felt like a junior league version of a big league teamup, the Runaways had distinct personalities, charms and faultlines that made them believable enough to swallow the outsized premise and outlandish coincidences that kept them running.

But the premise, it tuned out, was just the beginning of the crazy fun (unlike so many of the current half-baked miniseries these days which barely have enough plot to fill up 6 issues).. The plot twists and turns are exuberant and often irrational, as if trying desperately to compensate in advance for the plodding gracelessness of
Heroes. Originally launched as part of Marvel’s desperate attempts to plug into the manga craze (and still packaged in manga-sized trades), Vaughn was careful to avoid pandering too obviously at the feet of that particular golden calf and he was helped greatly by Alphona’s lush, energetic pencil work.

Part of the fun of the first run of the
Runaways and of the first six issues of volume 2 was the idea of a superpowered group with no capes, no costumes, no flash. Adrian Alphona’s work in volume 2 was especially ideally suited for this, making the occasional supervillain or do-gooder in high costume look absurd by contrast (including Captain America, RIP). The kids are awkward, relatively human teens: gangly or chubby, awkward in their skin, and trying to cover it all up with snappy dialogue that doesn’t always snap—and is all the more believable for often falling flat.

The book really hit its emotional stride with the death of Gert, and with Chase’s desperate attempts to bring her back, even to the point of sacrificing himself to the gods who held the key to her soul. And it his its over-the-top peak with the unleashing of a mega-demon (straight outta
Powerpuff Girls) in downtown L.A.. While the adults are off fighting their pathetic Civil War in N.Y., a group of orphaned teens are literally struggling with life and death on the other coast. The childishness of Iron Man and Captain America and their “war,” is brought into relief, as are the very adult problems these “children” are forced to deal with on their own.

In fact, these kids have always had to make up for the immaturity of their seniors, whether their criminal parents, the unbearably tedious Rick Jones, or the sanctimonious capes who only show up to pronounce on their case and then get back to “serious business.” Ultimately, of course, they can only run free for so long, and Iron Man and his team of the terminally unhip eventually track our team down to their secret lair beneath the La Brea Tar Pits. It is at this point, when the pathetic battles of the elders threaten to derail the much more interesting plans and adventures of the younger generation, that co-creators Vaughn and Alphona decide it is time to walk away from their progeny. But aside from a strange ellipses between iterations, the book has not derailed in their absence. Far from it, in fact, as the post-Civil War
Runaways has been picked up by the book’s long-time admirer, Joss Whedon, for a short run which takes the outlandish storylines of the book and, as the poet said, turns them up to eleven. Having (somehow) escaped Iron Man, the team has headed east, where they seek sanctuary with Kingpin who offers him his services in exchange for a device that turns out to have been invented by Gert’s parents, the time travelers. As happens all too often when kids play with time machines, the team finds itself transported back 100 years to 1907, where they encounter a world completely alien yet strangely familiar, populated by Wonders both good and bad, including the Yellow Kid and Difference Engine (playful homages both  to the origin of comics and the historical science fiction novel by Gibson and Sterling that serves as inspiration for the kind of writing Whedon is engaged in here).

Whedon is accompanied on his run by Michael Ryan, who has a hard act to follow after Alphona’s brilliant work on
Runaways. But he appears to be very much up for the task, following Whedon along on his over-the-top breakneck run through history and back again in the handful of issues they have together. And Alphona’s task now looks rather pedestrian by comparison, as Whedon has introduced a whole complex new network of superpowered gangs on the streets of turn of the century New York—including a lovely lass who dances on the air while drop-kicking strikebreakers. And the tortured relationships between the Runaways get only more tortured by their new travels. New recruit Victor (Ultron’s long-lost son) and Niko’s fledgling romance is threatened by the aforementioned lovely lass’s manifold charms; Karolina and Xavin’s complex courtship (she is a lesbian alien and s/he is a shape-shifting Skrull) has been muddled once again by Karolina’s love affair with 19th-century fashions; Chase has encountered Gert’s parents in the past and it turns out they do not approve (to put it mildly) of his romance with their soon-to-be late daughter; and meanwhile, the gang finds themselves lost in a past from which they cannot return with first recovering devices that Gert’s parents have planted in random places throughout the century. It is hard to imagine how Whedon will wrap this all up in a couple of issues, and frankly I hope he doesn’t.

There is just too much potential and fun here. In a few issues, the rumor has it, Terry Moore (of the much-missed
Strangers in Paradise) and Humberto Ramos will be taking the title for a spin, and the combination does indeed seem every bit as promising as what Vaughn/Alphona & Whedon/Ryan have accomplished. But I do hope that some continuities remain and that we don’t see the book breaking down into discrete mini-series. I am all in favor of seeing the kind of overburdened plotting Runaways has always favored, a welcome antidote to the decompression that made too many books overpriced pretentious posturing. But if the book is going to continue this formula of bringing in new creative teams every 5 or 6 issues, I hope someone (Vaughn?) is keeping an eye out for the big picture. And, Marvel, if you are listening, I think I speak for other comics history geeks when I say that we would not be adverse to seeing the Street Arabs spin off in their own title (one that will surely be more fun than the ill-advised earlier Loners spin-off). Meanwhile, let the wild rumpus continue!