‘Runaways’ #1 is captivating, heartbreaking, and 100% essential
By Don Alsafi. In 2003, Marvel launched a new book called Runaways to little fanfare, by a not-yet-known writer named Brian K. Vaughan. (He’d only just launched Y: The Last Man at Vertigo the year before.) It was initially cancelled after 18 issues due to low sales of the monthly comic – until numbers came back for the collected editions, which were notably higher than most. In that, it was something of an early success story for modern Marvel, especially in how the collections could target a bookstore demographic entirely separate from its monthly readers. (A similar thing would happen in recent years with books like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel.)
In time, though, Vaughan moved on to other works. A number of writers came in afterward – notably, Joss Whedon and Terry Moore had a turn – but the book never fully recovered its footing, and in time fell into obscurity.
But now there’s a TV adaptation in our future (set to premiere on Hulu November 21!), which means the publisher finally had added incentive to find the perfect creators for the concept. Fortunately for us, and for you, they did…
Written by Rainbow Rowell.
Art by Kris Anka.
Colors by Matthew Wilson.
Letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna.
Top-notch creators. Penning the teenaged heroes this time around is Rainbow Rowell, a novelist whom comics readers might not be familiar with – but they should. Her novel Landline features a telephone that was somehow able to subvert the boundaries of time and space, while Fangirl stars an introverted college freshman whose obsession with writing fanfiction features what is clearly a Harry Potter stand-in with the serial numbers filed off. It’s also an incredibly appealing story about a young woman on her own for the first time in her life, and finding the strength to discover who she wants to be.
Original series artist Adrian Alphona left some mighty big shoes to fill, but Kris Anka is surely up to the task. He’s only been with Marvel for a few years now, but he’s quickly establishing himself as one of their top-tier artists. Aiding him is colorist Matthew Wilson, who recently won a 2017 Eisner Award for his work on Paper Girls, The Wicked + The Divine, and more. Anka and Wilson recently took a turn on the current Punisher comic, illustrating a one-off story between two larger arcs, and their visuals were a large factor in that story being not simply good, but shockingly stellar.
It’s been a long time since the Runaways have had a monthly title, and two years have passed (in story) since those events. In the intervening time, the individual members have popped up in titles here and there, such as Daken, Avengers Undercover, and most recently The Vision and A-Force. With these long-lost friends hopelessly scattered and isolated, the first page vividly portrays member Nico Minoru living on her own in a tiny studio apartment, mattress on the floor, preparing a store-bought pack of ramen. It’s an incredibly powerful opening scene, and one that might feel hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s ever spent any time near-penniless. (“What do you call a Runaway with nowhere left to go?” a caption asks us. “Alone.”)
But then, into this quiet and sadly poignant glimpse of a life both lost and directionless, appears time-travelling former teammate Chase Stein, bringing with him a potentially-too-late medical emergency which strikes to the hearts of them both. The rest of the issue wisely stays in this one scene, as they tearfully struggle to save a friend long-since mourned.
What follows is a tense and emotionally-fraught race against vanishing time, magical constraints, and the mounting terror at having to go through a profound tragedy they’ve already suffered, all over again. Lesser creators might not have stuck the landing, but Rowell and Anka make you feel the desperate stakes deep in the pit of your stomach.
Breaking ground and breaking rules. One of the surprising and impressive things about this debut issue is how it actually defies convention in a number of ways. We’ve talked before about how frustrating it is when a book fails to introduce its core characters, or give you any reason to care about them or come back for more. And we’ve discussed how mystifying it is to get to the end of a first issue and still not have any idea what the ongoing book might look like. Too many series these days seem to assume that if a reader is picking up the first issue at all, they’re guaranteed to at least sit through the first arc. In reality, many casual fans sample a new comic with the hope that the story within might do something – anything! – to win their buying habits, and too few creative teams put enough thought (or any) into making sure that same new reader is completely bowled over from the start.
With such considerations, this first story makes some interesting choices that shouldn’t work – but do. In no way do we at all meet the entirety of the group, as Nico and Chase are the only ones we spend any real time with. But whether you’re a new reader or just someone who hasn’t read their adventures since the original run ended in 2009, by the end of this one issue you can’t say you don’t know Chase and Nico. We have an idea of what their powers can do – and precisely what they can’t – and we know from the heart-stopping, gut-wrenching drama within exactly what is most important to them: each other. Questions like where exactly the other Runaways are, and where they (and the story) go from here, remain unanswered – but by the final page, we’re dying to know.
The devil’s in the details. Tasking Kris Anka on art was an inspired choice; the expressiveness of his characters and his keen attention to detail is impeccable. (When we discover on the last page that a sinister figure has been watching the proceedings remotely, complete with a villain’s stereotypical cat sitting on their lap, it takes another moment or two to register that the mystery menace is also wearing an adorable kitty-cat wristwatch.)
On the other hand, it’s always a bit of a gamble when a novelist or screenwriter pens comics for the first time. Kevin Smith’s Daredevil run back in 1998 was captivating at the time but glaringly verbose, while Chris Roberson’s iZombie for Vertigo had a fantastic premise and winning cast of characters yet suffered in the end from a glacial pace – fine in a novel, but death for a monthly comic.
By contrast, although the story in this issue is simple and basic – exactly one thing happens, more or less – the scene conveyed is gripping and tense from page 3 right until the end. Fangirl was similarly light on plot mechanics, but its heartfelt and compelling character study enormously made up for any lack of moving parts. With a team book featuring such strong and captivating characters as the Runaways, a writer who understands character first and foremost is exactly what you need. And with Rainbow Rowell, that’s exactly what Marvel got.
If you loved Runaways back in the day and have been lamenting them ever since, go right out and pick up this book. And if you’ve never read any of their adventures before, go right out and pick up this book.
Maybe it’s too early to say, but this might just end up being one of the very best comics Marvel’s put out in some time.
9.5 out of 10