Long Live the Runaways, Marvel's Toughest Teen Superheroes
The original and new creators of Runaways discuss the book’s creation and evolution.
Runaways #1 cover by Jo Chen
Marvel Comics' Runaways has been an underdog in superhero comics. Originally introduced in 2003 as part of Marvel's Tsunami line of comics inspired by the storytelling of Japanese manga, Runaways followed a group of teenagers (and one pre-teen) who ran away from home after discovering that their parents are secretly supervillains. Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona immediately distinguished the series from other superhero comics by focusing on the characters and downplaying their connection to the larger Marvel Universe, building a loyal, passionate fan base in the process.
"In a lot of comics, it felt like the message was to respect, if not outright revere, authority figures, especially your parents," says Brian K. Vaughan. "But if Bruce Wayne's mother and father had still been alive when he was a teenager, he'd have constantly gotten into screaming arguments with them about politics instead of just lovingly staring at their portrait. I wanted to write about young people who became heroes by fighting against their elders."
Vaughan had the ideal collaborator to create this separate corner of the Marvel Universe: artist Adrian Alphona, whose stylish, expressive artwork brought these characters and their setting to life. "At first, I was entirely focused on learning how to draw a comic book and tell a story in a hurry," says Adrian Alphona, who was 23 when he accepted the Runaways job. "Once I found a bit of footing, I turned my attention to our little pocket of the Marvel world to make LA feel like it was a character in the series. I tried to design every character like they were the main character in their own book."
"Runaways never would have succeeded without Adrian—one of the most unique artists who's ever worked in comics," says Vaughan. "I sort of grew up working on Runaways," Alphona adds. "Looking back at the series makes me cringe—like I'm looking through childhood photos." But his issues of Runaways still stand as some of the best examples of evocative costume design in superhero comics, and focusing on personal wardrobes rather than superhero costumes helped hone his skills as a fashion illustrator.
Christina Strain wasn't the original Runaways colorist, but she stuck around for the three runs that came after Vaughan and Alphona left the book in 2007. "Runaways is really a teen family drama disguised as a superhero book," says Strain. "They're misfit teens trying to cope with the realization that their parents are supervillains. Sure, they wanna 'save the world,' but they're really just trying to get along, feed themselves, and find a dry place to crash at night."
For a minute, it seemed like Marvel was going to keep Runaways in the spotlight with Joss Whedon writing the series, but Whedon and artist Michael Ryan suffered from serious delays, visuals that lacked the personality of Alphona's work, and a story that sent the team to New York City. The Runaways made their way back to Los Angeles for writer Terry Moore's run with Humberto Ramos, but Moore's difficulty with teenage voices and his aimless plotting resulted in a major dip in quality. The book would bounce back with writer Kathryn Immonen and artist Sara Pichelli, but by then it had lost readers, the series was cancelled just as it was hitting its stride again.
The Runaways would occasionally appear in Marvel titles throughout the next eight years, primarily books with ties to the Avengers: They visited the Avengers Academy campus. Nico and Chase were put in a Hunger Games-style superhero deathmatch in Avengers Arena and worked with supervillains in Avengers Undercover. Nico became a member of the all-female superhero team, A-Force. Victor joined a team of robotic heroes in Avengers A.I. and played a major part in The Vision. Alex became a Harlem crime boss in Power Man & Iron Fist. The Runaways title was revived for a Secret Wars miniseries that had teen superheroes rebelling against a corrupt authority, but the majority of the original characters were absent.
It's been a long time since the gang was together, but it's the right time for a Runaways reunion given that the property is about to experience a huge profile boost with a new TV show. Marvel's Runaways debuts on Hulu on November 21, but Marvel Comics was already planning to revive the property before the TV series came to fruition. Marvel editor Nick Lowe had been looking for the right project for best-selling novelist and long-time superhero comics fan Rainbow Rowell, and there was no other choice but Runaways.
"A few years ago, I read Rainbow Rowell's excellent Eleanor & Park and was perfectly emotionally destroyed," says Nick Lowe. "The parts of the book that center around The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were like a big neon sign blinking, 'GET RAINBOW TO WRITE FOR YOU!' I was able to finagle a lunch with Rainbow and we talked about making comics. When she admitted Runaways was her favorite comic, I knew it had to happen."
"There are some things you read for plot, and some things you read for the twists and turns, or because you're in awe of the character's powers," says Rowell. "But you read Runaways because of the characters. For people who haven't read comics, you can hand them Runaways and say, 'You're going to fall in love with these characters.' Each character has everything they need built-in to be a good character and to be appealing." Rowell's novels showcase her sharp talent for getting into the heads of her characters and creating compelling personal relationships, and that's exactly what Runaways needs to recapture the spirit of the original run.
Overwhelmed with other deadlines, Rowell had to initially turn down her dream Marvel Comics gig until she had fulfilled her other commitments. "I cried," says Rainbow Rowell. "It felt terrible. I figured someone else was writing it. I wrote all my stuff, took three months off, and was like, 'God, I wonder who is doing Runaways,' so I emailed Nick. He was like, 'Nobody is doing it. Let's do it!' It was a very long arrangement, but then it happened really fast."
Once artist Kris Anka came on board, she became even more enthusiastic. "[Kris] is a very thoughtful reader, and he's very insightful," says Rowell. "I used to work in advertising, and I would often be working with artists. Not everyone likes to read, so you communicate and you work together in other ways. But Kris really likes to read, so I talk to him all the time about my choices."
As a Los Angeles native, Anka has a deep personal connection to Runaways, which was one of his gateway books into superhero comics. "[Runaways] hooked me immediately because I felt like I knew these kids," says Kris Anka. "I knew a Karolina, I knew a Gert. Victor was me. So much took place in New York that it was nice seeing [a comic based in] LA. One of the things Rainbow and I agreed upon early on is LA is just as important a character to this series as the kids are. It's taken a back seat in these opening issues so we can focus on the kids getting back together—but LA's always in the back of my head."
Anka's knowledge of fashion design is a big reason why he's the right person to handle the next phase of these characters' lives—and he's using Alphona's work on the original series as the foundation for the Runaways' new wardrobes. "[Alphona] had so clearly defined their styles that it was so simple to translate into 2017 L.A. Nico's gothic lolita look isn't around much anymore here but it has become the witch look. Of course Karolina would be a 'festival' kid. There is just as much character work you can do to tell the audience who these characters are in their design and wardrobe that it's not something that should be just an afterthought. Even plain clothes tell a lot about a person."
In a surprising move, the new Runaways series isn't part of the upcoming Marvel Legacy initiative, but it's a smart decision that reinforces the title's place on the periphery of the Marvel Universe. "The Runaways' place in Marvel's line-up is pretty much the same as it was in the best of times, off-center," says Lowe. "They aren't your standard superheroes. Heck, they aren't really superheroes at all. They're kids who got in way over their heads in the Marvel Universe."
Rowell and Anka understand exactly where this team fits in the Marvel landscape, and by focusing on the characters' relationships with each other and their LA environment, this new creative team is ushering in a promising new age for the Runaways. They may be underdogs in this superhero world, but that's what makes them so captivating.
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