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Runaways: Pride & Joy

Some time back, I remember making a post on Fanboy’s very own forum about my dislike of the Tsunami line being launched by Marvel. At the time, it seemed like a very lame attempt by the demon that was Bill Jemas to tap into the booming manga market that so many of America’s youth have been causing, by crafting American comic books in emulation of Japanese art and storytelling methods.

I still believe that was the intention, but as the line progressed, it became clear that most of the books (Namor definitely not being one) were actually well written comics and showing the usual trappings of American comics (i.e.: attempts at making a story logical, flowing, and a general good read, unless you’re Chuck Austen). The Tsunami line has garnered plenty of critical acclaim, and while some of the books were aimed more directly at a younger audience (Sentinel), the Tsunami line widened its age range with the more adult oriented Mystique, as well as appealing to a wide range of teens with titles like New Mutants and The Human Torch.

And like most comics that are well written, they face almost constant threat of cancellation. The original trade paperback collections of the Tsunami books were cancelled; some titles have been scrapped or restructured, and the line itself has pretty much been scrapped in favor of the new Marvel Age imprint. So what happens when the line of comics gets cancelled? That’s right, the trades finally get printed.

Runaways was the critical darling of Tsunami and has finally seen collection under the Marvel Age heading, and with a creative team featuring the likes of Brian K. (Y: The Last Man) Vaughan writing and art by Adrian Alphonia, it’s not hard to see why.

Every year Alex, Karolina, Gert, Chase, Molly and Nico are forced to hang out while their parents divvy up money and cut checks to various charities from the comfort of Alex’s Malibu home. In lieu of spending yet another year playing board games and babysitting eleven year old Molly, Alex, Gert, Chase, and Nico decide to spy on their parents’ charity work. When the four of them manage to sneak their way down a secret passage to a view of the library, they see their parents dressed up like it was the costume competition at the Comic Con, discussing arms deals with extraterrestrial clientele and 4th dimensional crime. Operating under the brief illusion that their parents are superheroes, they watch as their parents stab a young girl through the heart.

Now the kids have to make some decisions: namely, do they confront their parents, call the police, run away, or all of the above? It’s up to them to discover who and what their parents are if they hope to avoid falling into their clutches and try to steer clear of the dark legacy their forebears have left them.

It’s rare that Marvel does”by way of” superhero comics. Powers (ironically moving to Marvel from Image) is a superhero book by way of police drama. Stormwatch: Team Achilles is a superhero comic by way of military fiction. The closest Marvel has come is Brian Michael Bendis’s run on Daredevil, making it more about the crime noir elements than the spandex.

Vaughan is writing a great superhero by way of coming-of-age story, and it shows his deft skill with writing that the coming-of-age element is the one emphasized. The kids are faced with some tough questions when they realize their parents are super-villains, and Vaughan never shies away from having the kids explore them. Did their parents really kill someone? If they’re super-villains, why haven’t they ever been on the news? Are they really evil, or are their reasons for what they’re doing?

Some of the best scenes are when the kids stand around and argue about what to do. They want to believe that their parents are good people, but they can’t deny what they’ve seen. This aspect of the plot parallels that time in our teens when we began to realize that, while we may love our parents, we may not like them. Alex, Nico, and the rest are suffering from a shift in perception: they now have to see their parents not as “Mom” and “Dad” but as people. Very bad people who like shoving sharp implements through torsos, but people nonetheless, and that’s a huge shift for teenager.

The characterization is godly. Each character has a personality that shines through in both the dialogue and the actions he or she performs, and never falters into the land of stereotyping. Alex is a stalwart leader and logical in his dealings with their situation, but never lacking in compassion. Nico is nervous and yet, unarguably among the most mature of the “Runaways,” who forms the hub of leadership when paired with Alex. Chase and Gert are insecure about a multitude of things, yet that insecurity is subtly placed under layers of cocky jock-ness and cynical world-weariness, respectively, while Karolina and Molly sit at the other end of the spectrum. Molly is innocent enough to not fully understand what’s happening, but clever enough to realize something is wrong in her life, and Karolina masks a lot of anger under her cheerful exterior.

The best part is that none of this is obvious to the reader, but finely woven into the plot threads and dialogue of the book so that their individuality is expressed, without making them wholly disparate characters. They are all kids and they have all been lied to. These elements are apparent in each character, which helps to form them into a unit, bringing them closer to each other despite their differences. It’s one of the most believable “team books” I’ve ever read.

While the kids are great, Vaughan also makes the parents interesting in that he manages to keep them fairly ambiguous when it comes to their “evil-ness.” They are unapologetic about their various criminal activities, but they express fear over their children’s welfare and regret that they found out about their parents’ other lives. They care about their kids, not as science projects or heirs to an evil empire, but in that very simple parent-to-child way. They seem to lean more toward the amoral side than the immoral, which makes the scenes where the Runaways are questioning themselves and the nature of their parents all the more valid: we’re not sure if the parents are all that bad. The reader is never given too much more information about the parents than the kids might have, which forces the reader to question the story the same way the kids are. This keeps the book refreshing and unpredictable, making room for Vaughan to explore a thousand plot directions.

The artwork is great, but I’ve never heard of Adrian Alphona before, and since Google has yielded no results, I assume that he (or she, never know though I think the female spelling would be “Adrienne”) is new to the comic world. His style is unique and possessed of a domestic quality that meshes with the familial themes of the book. There is good facial expression, good movement, the panels flow together well, and Alphona knows how to set the reader up for a splash page of surprise, especially when “Old Lace” is introduced, or when Karolina discovers the interesting benefits of her heritage.

It’s not innovative artwork nor as detailed as, say, J.H. Williams III on Promethea, but Alphona seems able to find a balance between minimalist and intricate artwork that gels well with the fact that this is a story about teenagers and meant to appear simple. The fine coloring of Brian Reber helps the artwork and the tone of the book, as the colors do more towards defining the pencils than the inking by David Newbold and Craig Yeung.

This is a great book and it deserves to be on your comic shelf, which by now is probably a comic bookcase. (I myself subscribe to the pile system of graphic novel storage.) Under the Marvel Age printing, Runaways is digest sized, and only costs you $7.99. That is cheaper than most manga, and rightly so since the packaging and price, and the cover of the collection drawn by Takeshi (Sidekicks) Miyazawa, are all clever ploys to get American children to read American comics once again. Hell, at $7.99, go buy multiple copies of the thing and hand them out at the manga section to kids thumbing their way through Kare Kano and Naruto. If we can get them hooked young, then we have them for life. That’s the American, and oddly enough, the Big Tobacco way.

Pride & Joy (Runaways, Book 1)

Robert Sparling

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