adrian alphona, big box of comics, book review, brian k vaughan, Marvel Comics, omnibus, runaways
The Runaways Omnibus is the latest treasure I got thanks to this blog’s readers who help me earn store credit at MyComicShop.com when they click through my affiliate links to find the books they want. My big box of comics series aims to bring the love full circle by sharing those treasures with you.
Once upon a time, I had all the single issues of the first and second Runaways volumes. But they took me a few years to collect, and I read a bunch of them out of order at different times. So, it was great fun to finally kick back and read the entire Brian K. Vaughan run in its original reading order with this Omnibus.
Teenagers are the stars of this series and, it’s fair to say, the target audience. I don’t read many books like that anymore, and most of the “young adult” category of fiction is lost on me. If I never hear another thing about Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter, it will be too soon. But author Brian K. Vaughan lists Harry Potter as one of the influences on this series, according to the original proposal included in the Omnibus. So, what about this foray into overtly young adult superhero fiction appeals to me?
My favorite thing is the character interaction. The dialogue is PG in terms of cursing, but our teenage heroes fling savage insults at each other when they aren’t getting along. Their reckless insensitivity seems authentically adolescent, and it acts as a foil to the intentional diversity of Vaughan’s cast. One of the characters, for example, uses the word “gay” as an insult—as in “superhero costumes are gay”—which creates tension because one of the characters is a girl who likes girls. One character is repeatedly ridiculed for being chubby, and one endures transphobic insults for being a gender-switching alien. One encounters casual racism for being Asian, and a cyborg is constantly reminded that machines are soulless, unfeeling, and less than human.
I love a diverse cast of characters, but sometimes authors shy away from the conflict that naturally arises when you put wildly different people together on the same team. And when I say “natural,” I mean it is so prevalent that we even studied this conflict in my graduate-level management classes. Globalization means we often work on teams of people with a vast array of cultural, ethnic, and gender identities, and Vaughan mines that situation for dramatic conflict. But along the way, Vaughan imbues each character with depth and humanity, contrasts that with the way people flippantly dehumanize each other for being different, and ultimately makes the experience rewarding by showing how these characters grow to accept their differences, work together, and form bonds of true friendship—even love.
Another thing I love about Runaways is that while it isn’t about a dystopia like Hunger Games and a zillion other young adult novels, you could say that the real dystopia for these characters is adulthood. The kids become disillusioned and distraught about grown-ups when they find out their parents are all child murderers who are sacrificing the souls of other kids in a weird pact to bring about the end of all humanity (except for six survivors). If that doesn’t breed a severe distrust of adults, I don’t know what would. The other adults in this series—from Marvel’s Avengers to two warring alien races who cannot make peace, from parents to the police—continually reinforce the Runaways’ conviction that adults suck.
Even as the characters grow up and mature throughout the series, they express disgust at the idea of adulthood. One of the worst ways one Runaway can insult another is to say, “Now you sound like our parents.” And when one character turns eighteen, someone asks if he should even be included in the group anymore. That same eighteen-year-old, now legally an adult, embarks upon a mission that tempts him to become a killer just like his parents, driving home the point that adults can’t be trusted.
That story arc expresses a major concern shared by many young people. We all tend to become more like our parents when we age, but does that mean we are doomed to make the same mistakes as them? How many people in their thirties or forties have had a moment where they realized they sounded or acted just like their mother or father, despite their youthful determination to never let that happen?
I like how Vaughan explores this tension, and I love the way the artwork brings the characters to life. The Omnibus is an excellent reproduction of the original issues and their gorgeous covers. Upon re-reading the forty-two issues collected here, only a few flaws nagged at me.
First, the dialogue relies heavily on pop culture references—even ones that seem oddly out of place, like kids born circa 1990 quoting lines from “classic” rock songs from the 1960s and 70s. Similarly, much of the slang might have been relevant to teenagers at the time but is already beginning to feel dated. I see it all the time in novels and comics that are trying to be “relatable” to today’s young audiences by trying to sound current or hip. Maybe that helps sell more books at the time, but it tends to distract from the quality of being timeless.
The other flawed aspect of these stories is the mystical evil beings called the Gibborim. They have a stupid, nonsensical plan for world domination, and their power levels and abilities make no sense either. They say they need a sacrifice of one innocent soul for twenty-five consecutive years to bring about the end of the world. What? Why not get all twenty-five souls at once then, and get on with the apocalypse? Or, if they can appear on Earth, why not kill the kids themselves instead of hiring six married couples to do it? Evil plans should at least make some sort of strategic sense.
Later in the series, the Gibborim have been banished to a kind of limbo where they need to eat another innocent soul to escape. But they didn’t seem to be doing anything about that until the plot allowed one of the Runaways to find them in limbo. So, these beings who are powerful enough to end humanity are… totally impotent? Pick one!
The only way I can see to resolve this problem is to assume the Gibborim were lying to the Runaways’ parents from the beginning, that they never had the power they claimed to have, and that the parents bought into a total scam due to their own greed and stupidity. I doubt that is what Vaughan had in mind, but it’s the only explanation I can think of that is consistent with the plot and fits with the theme that adults are bad.
Finally, I would gladly trade the “bonus material” in the Omnibus in exchange for the six-issue story by Joss Whedon that finished the 2005 series. I recall it as a good coda to Vaughan’s run.
Despite these minor problems, the Runaways Omnibus is a terrific read with great characters who have some wild adventures while dealing with the conflicting emotions and traumas of adolescence, struggling to create new identities for themselves after all that was familiar and secure about their childhood has been torn away.
Collector’s Guide: Runaways Omnibus, Marvel, 2018. Collects #1-18 of the original Runaways (2003) and #1-24 of Runaways (2005). The Omnibus is also on Amazon. For a less expensive digital version, you can now get a $55 edition for Kindle/Comixology called Runaways: The Complete Collection, a four-volume set with everything in the Omnibus plus the continuation of the Runaways series after Vaughan left.
I love Runaways. I came across it on another blog “The Middle Spaces”, a scholarly blog on comics. Once I found out that BKV wrote it, I picked it up and loved it. Occasionally a trade is on sale on comixology. I have decided that BKV is a god.
You know, that phenomenon you noticed when characters use phrases or references that seem unlikely? It’s a bit of being between a rock and a hard place. Who’s the audience? I mean, even when you read older lit or foreign lit (and thank God for the Internet), there are often references that are now obscure but were timely then or unknown to you until someone explains it. How exactly should characters speak to one another in an historical novel or a far future novel? I struggled with that and felt daunted by trying to create future slang. How do you keep up with contemporary slang other than hanging out with younger people or parents who have high school-age children? Or do you just make up language and metaphors that you hope will withstand the test of time? I think about the fake slang language in A Clockwork Orange. In that case, Burgess mashed up the Russian language to show the influence of Russian culture on future society.
Okay, some great writing here. You really did a great succinct job of laying bare the virtues and vices in the series (kinda spoiled a few things that I haven’t read) but I’m in for the journey, not just the destination. I have to go. Sorry. Great post Mars!
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Mars Will Send No More said:
Sorry for the spoilers! Have you read BKV’s Ex Machina and Y The Last Man? Monumental stuff I might need to pull from the archive.
You pose great questions about the problems of writing slang and period-specific language. I expect all fiction writers run into them eventually and find their own answers. My solution has been to stick to slang that has been around for a while and stood the test of time. For example, “dude” has survived multiple generations. I don’t think “yeet” or “pwned” will. Also, last year, I started footnoting slang and foreign-language phrases in my fiction, because my workshoppers were always asking about Mexican gang and UK slang. It might be an inelegant solution, but at least it eliminates the mystery.
One of my workshoppers solved the problem for his futuristic sci-fi novel by including a glossary of words made up for the series. I’m not crazy about needing a glossary for fiction, but considering how detailed and relevant his world-building is to the story, it’s a solid solution.
Future slang and history share the same problem: will the reader be able to understand it? One of my workshoppers, for example, wrote a historical piece where Old English would be appropriate. But if you’ve seen actual Old English, it’s indecipherable to modern readers. So, the author found a compromise: using “thee” and “thou” and other words to convey the historical feeling but still be readable.
And maybe I was too harsh on the dialogue in Runaways. Other people might look at it as a cool time capsule of teen culture circa 2005. There’s nothing wrong with being period-specific. If this series was set in the 1980s, it might refer to Bulletin Board Services that are so bogus you could gag me a with a spoon. Kind of like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
But you make a good point. When I read stuff from the 1700s, some of the language and spelling is difficult, not to mention the random approach to capitalization and utter disregard for hyper-flowery run-on sentences. So, sooner or later, all of our current dialect will be outdated. Why worry about using authentic gamer slang in a story set in 2005?
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