Parents play a huge role in shaping who we are. Their choices about how to guide us (or be completely absent) in our formative years can sometimes shape us into happy adults in the best of cases or neurotic creatures in desperate need of therapy in the worst of cases. This is particularly true of superheroes. For a number of heroes, the parents (or parental figures) are the ones who guided the characters into becoming superheroes in the first place. What would Spider-man be like without Uncle Ben? Or Batman without the death of his parents? In the case of The Runaways, this parental guidance has come in a rather unusual fashion. In The Runaways, Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona tackle a rather interesting question: what would you do if you found out your parents were supervillains? The series is comprised of eleven volumes, with Brian K. Vaughn writing the first seven and being replaced by Joss Whedon, Terry Moore and Kathryn Immonen in succeeding volumes. The artists include Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, Michael Ryan, Humberto Ramos and Sara Pichelli. I’ll be attempting to cover all the volumes although the quality varies significantly from creator to creator.
Karolina, Chase, Gert, Molly, Nico and Alex are all regular, if rather rich, kids whose only thing in common is the fact that their philanthropic parents get together once a year to decide which charities to invest in. But this year, the kids are old enough and bored enough to check out exactly what their parents are talking about this time. To their shock, their parents are in fact part of a supervillain group named The Pride and when they witness their parents’ involvement in the death of an innocent, the teens decide it’s time to act before they’re next! Having discovered abilities and tools of their parents, the kids take on superhero alter-egos and form a new group: The Runaways. They go into hiding to escape their parents and are determined to act on the side of good rather than evil. The struggles of the teens in dealing with the fallout from finding out their parents are evil, combined with the tough life of young superheroes and a struggle to oppose The Pride all make for a dramatic, but actually very funny series. And tension is added with the knowledge that one of the teens is a mole who may still be working on behalf of their parents. Will they find the mole before the Pride finds them?
The greatest part of the series is easily the characters. Vaughn quickly establishes each teen as an individual with their own strengths and weaknesses. As rich kids, these teens are used to getting their own way and struggle at first to work together as a team. As is usual for Vaughn, the dialogue is witty and interesting and I really enjoyed getting to see the Runaways learn to trust one another as they try to carve out a space for themselves away from the taint of their parents’ actions. As you might expect for a book with teens, there’s a lot of teenage angst and a fair amount of romance (including a same sex couple that was pretty damn well written) but at least while Vaughn’s writing, it rarely overwhelms the humor and good silliness of the series. The one downside is Molly. She’s the youngest of the group at eleven years old but is consistently written as if she were five. Eleven year olds don’t generally still talk like toddlers and she’s a bit too babyish to be believable. It’s a bit jarring but having one weak character among five strong ones is a decent trade off.
Unfortunately, the series cannot maintain its quality without Vaughn. The eight volume, written by Joss Whedon, is a good story if a bit odd considering that it sends the Runaways back in time. It also follows some major drama after the heartbreaking loss of one of the group. After Whedon though, it’s all downhill. The Runaways moves from being an interesting, if occasionally silly and dramatic, take on the children of supervillains trying to do the right thing and moves straight into ridiculous, dramatic trash. The final three volumes are almost unreadable. I wasn’t a huge fan of the art by Alphona but then the series moves into a more manga style that is very jarring and aggravating in its odd stylistic choices for characters. Instead of epic parental showdowns, the readers are given stories about DJs who turn people into zombies via plastic surgery and that’s not even the most ridiculous part. If you read Runaways, do yourself a favor and stop after Whedon.
I have always loved superhero stories and the originality of The Runaways as a premise was incredibly exciting. It’s not often that you have the children of super villains trying to figure out whether they should be good or bad and just how the hell to go about figuring that out all while trying to hide from the influence of their parents. It’s disappointing that the series cannot keep up with that interesting premise throughout the various story arcs but if you like superhero stories, it’s worth checking out for the first half of the series.