Run a ways for Runaways!

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So, you’re a spoiled little rich kid living in Las Angeles. Oh, sure you may not think you’re spoiled, and your parents may be strict at times and big on responsibility, but one glance around your bedroom, not to mention your own personal arcade, reveals that yes, you most definitely are a spoiled little rich kid. And, unfortunately for you, it’s That Day. The day you have to suffer through every year, as your super-rich parents meet with five other super-rich couples to discuss and plan charity donations for the next year.

No big deal, except that each of the other couples also has an equally spoiled kid, and you have to spend hours with them. Between you, there’s a shy gamer, an outspoken anti-capitalist, a well meaning but standard dumb jock, a goth, an overly cute eleven year old, and the perfect daughter of a perfectly perfect Hollywood couple. Naturally, extreme boredom ensues.

But fear not, salvation is at hand. Apparently the kid who lives there, who’s father is a security freak, discovered secret tunnels while hunting for Christmas presents last year, and you all get the idea to spy on your parents during their meeting. Hey, it’s better than nothing, right?

Better than you expected, as, when you get there, they’re all decked out in costumes, circling a table. Naturally, speculation rapidly ensues.

“Check out those costumes.”

“Are you guys thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yeah, our parents are totally gay.”

“No...they’re super heroes.”

That last one gets thrown out the window pretty quickly, as, moments later, they pull out a knife and slaughter a teenaged girl in a satanic ritual. Some charity meeting, huh? 

So begins Runaways , oft hailed as the best coming of age story and most refreshing take on super heroes since some guy named Spider-man showed up back in the ‘60s, and we all know how that turned out.

Runaways, written by critical darling Brian K. Vaughan, and illustrated and co-created by then newcomer Adrian Alphona, with covers by the amazing Jo Chen, is one of those books that critics adore and likes to show up on awards lists. If you aren’t reading it, then more likely than not, you haven’t heard of it. Unfortunately, a lot of people haven’t heard of it.

Runaways originally launched in 2003 as a part of Marvel’s short lived all ages line, to considerable acclaim, but not incredible sales. It was, in fact, cancelled after the first 18 issues (often referred to as “season one,” as opposed to “volume one”) only to be brought back due to critical acclaim and very high sales of the digests collecting the first season. It won at least another 18 issues and a beautiful hardcover collecting all 18 season one issues, the original pitch, a sketchbook, and a letter from some guy you’ve probably never heard of named Joss Whedon, begging reassurance that Runaways wasn’t really cancelled. The hardcover usually rests in a place of honor on my bookshelf, but is currently parked beside me for reference, and cover ogling. Possibly its greatest achievement, however, is being the first graphic novel to ever to make the American Library Association’s “Top Ten List for Best Books for Young Adults” for 2006.

And it’s earned it, on many levels.

On the surface, Runaways is a smart romp about a group of spoiled kids who learn that their parents are a group of super villains calling themselves “The Pride,” and so they become heroes by default. The police think they’re mad because mom and dad took away the X-Box, the Avengers have an answering machine that only forwards your call if you’re reporting a full scale alien invasion, and the only super hero L.A. has is Wonder Man, who doesn’t exactly stay home much.

This, of course, leaves the kids to take care of things, and I believe it’s time for a role call. We have our de facto leader, Alex, the shy, super-strategist, gamer, and the son of the leaders of the pride; catholic goth-girl Nico, daughter of dark wizards; loudmouthed, nerdy Gert, daughter of time traveling baddies; not-always-dumb jock Chase, son of genius mad scientists; outwardly perfect but inwardly troubled Karolina, daughter of alien invaders; and the youngest, extra-precautious Molly, the daughter of evil mutants.

In season two, another Runaway, Victor, super-hero groupie and the son of one of the Avengers’ biggest and baddest, is added to the mix. Under normal circumstances, most of these kids wouldn’t get within a hundred yards of each other. But then, seeing your parents ritualistically murder a girl drop kicks “normal circumstances” out the window.

Of course, super villain parents come with super villain paraphernalia, which the kids discover while looking for evidence against their parents. Things like x-ray goggles, flame shooting mechanical gloves, genetically engineered dinosaurs from over 6,000 years in the future, secret codebooks, magical staffs that make Dr. Strange’s biggest and baddest, Dormammu, run crying for his mommy with his cape between his legs, and, lest we forget, superpowers.

If you can’t see the inherent entertainment to be found in a group of spoiled teens from L.A. with these toys, running around and trying to prove that their parents are super villains, then there’s just something wrong with you.

But, as I said, all this is just the surface. Scratch the surface, and you have, in addition to one of the best and funnest team groups in years, an in depth look at kids coming to terms with learning that their entire lives are lies. Some, like Molly and Karolina, refuse to believe it until there’s no way to deny it any more, while others, like Chase and Gert, just see it as finally acquiring proof that yes, all parents are evil. But there are far deeper issues at hand than realizing that walking in on your parents isn’t always the worst parent/child revelation that can come to pass.

While Molly, young and eager, gleefully embraces her status as a mutant and begins plotting her future marriage to, of all people, Wolverine, Nico and Karolina have far more trouble adjusting to the changes in their realities. Though her goth exterior may lead some to assume otherwise, Nico is a very strong Christian with a Catholic upbringing, and saying that learning her parents practice black magic is a shock is a vast understatement. But, as her mother explains, “Faith is a complicated thing, sweetie.” For Karolina, already undergoing an identity crisis of her own, learning she’s an alien only makes her feel like more of an outcast, and almost sends her over the edge. When a kid in the marvel universe would rather be seen as a mutant than as an alien, you know she has issues.

Take six kids who normally wouldn’t have anything to do with each other in varying stages of identity crises, five sets of raging hormones (one set pending) and lock them up in a decaying mansion for months on end, and watch them combust. And, unlike most teen heroes, they aren’t even allowed to use the “super villain mind control” excuse to explain their behavior. At one point, Nico confronts a villain, trying to use this excuse: “You have some kind of... of hypnotic stare. That’s why we’ve all been acting so strange around you.” To which she’s told: “No, you’ve been acting so strange because you’re teenagers. You’re stupid, predictable, and easy to manipulate.”

Runaways is also about familial love. For all that they are unquestionably despicable people, The Pride love their children, and would do anything for them, and the Runaways , despite their protests to the contrary, love their parents. In fact, one of them loves their parents so much that their actions make them a hero in their child’s eyes. And, unlike so many of today’s writers, Vaughan realizes that, all too often, familial love means sacrifice, not merely of comforts and conveniences, but of yourself.

And then we have the art. Until I read the hardcover, I hadn’t realized that Runaway’s #1 was Adrian Alphona’s first comic ever. I knew, of course, that he was new to the business, there was no mistaking that, but I had assumed that he had at least had a few fill-ins before. It’s rare that I’ve seen an artist come so far in so short an amount of time. While his early Runaways art was far, far from bad, it was more servicable and acceptable than anything else, with potential. Alphona has come a long way towards reaching that potential. 

The Runaways actually look like teenagers, as opposed to slightly smaller and less developed adults, and it’s easy to tell their respective ages. He also has a great gift for imagery. Cloak, for example, is drawn to his name, an almost menacing figure with the man almost an after thought, a shape that the cloak uses to give it form. Victor, only newly come into his powers is often drawn with sparks coming out of his mouth unless he’s calm and relaxed, like an overheated engine that’s been run too hard and too fast, about to blow.

For most of the series, Jo Chen has been the cover artist, though she hasn’t done the last two covers, nor is she the cover artist in any of the solicits, and I can only hope that that’s a temporary thing. While she commits two of what many old school comic fans consider to be a crime, her covers are both “iconic” as opposed to “storytelling,” and look painted; she is far and away one of the best cover artists in the business. Not only are they stunning, but she manages to perfectly capture the spirit of the characters. Alex’s cunning, Karolina’s desire for freedom, and the closeness to it that flight gives her, Nico’s loneliness, Molly’s power and innocence, Chase’s mischievousness, and more, are all evident in her covers. I can only hope that she returns to the title soon.

Currently, the Runaways have just finished helping seasonal guest and ally, Cloak, clear his name in regards to his partner, Dagger, being attacked. A trip to New York that involved Wolverine getting his butt handed to him by a twelve year old with a crush on him and sushi with Spider-man. They are returning to L.A. just in time to meet the “new” Pride, apparently headed by a not-so-dead old friend.

So for those of you out there who aren’t reading Runaways , and I know that there are far too many of you out there, I have to ask “why?” And if the answer isn’t along the lines of “well, I hadn’t really heard a lot about it until now,” I’ll sic the genetically engineered dinosaur from the 87th century who’s physically linked to an embittered anti-capitalist fifteen-year-old on you. Don’t worry, her mistress will approve.

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