Collecting all 18 issues of the first series of Runaways.
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artists: Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa (p), Craig Young, David Newbold (i), Christina Strain, Brian Reber (colours), Jo Chen, Joshua Middleton (covers)
Runaways is one of those books that has always received good word-of-mouth but which I've never felt especially compelled to pick up. The concept of a group of super-powered children on the run from their villainous parents never particularly appealed to me, and I've always had a sense that the book was skewed a little young for my tastes. However, on finding myself with a little spare cash I decided to take the chance on a new book, and this hardcover collection of the entire first series caught my eye. Unfortunately, my concerns about the book proved justified, as whist it's a solid enough superhero title, I just didn't find Runaways to be anything special.
Brian K. Vaughan is a writer who has gained a reputation for intelligent, thought-provoking comics such as his Ex Machina, Pride of Baghdad and Y: The Last Man - all of which are books that I've read and enjoyed for their mature and layered storytelling. It's disappointing, then, that Runaways feels so pedestrian and lacking in depth. I understand that this is Vaughan's attempt to write a straightforward, accessible and child-friendly book, but that doesn't mean that the writer couldn't add extra layers of sophistication for readers who aren't as young. The plot is fairly simple and the story is fairly slow-moving, meaning that readers who look for something extra in their comics might feel that there just isn't enough to get their teeth into here - and certainly not enough to warrant collection in an expensive, luxury hardcover edition.
However, Vaughan does appear to put more effort into his characterisation. With such a large cast (six runaway children, each with two parents, as well as several auxiliary characters), it's important to make each one distinctive, and the six families that make up the super-villain society The Pride are all given well-defined character types. The parents might not be the focus of the book, but Vaughan has obviously put quite a lot of effort into coming up with a variety of super-villains, and considering how their traits might play into the personalities of their children. When it comes to the kids, there's an occasional sense that Vaughan is trying too hard to make the book 'edgy' and relevant (one runaway is a girl that needs to cut herself in order for her powers to work) and relying on some stock character types - the geek, the jock, the goth, the baby of the group - but the children develop distinctive enough personalities that these shortcomings aren't too apparent, and the group dynamic works well enough that the occasional stereotypical elements don't detract from the characters too much.
Despite the occasional derivative elements, Vaughan shows an admirable intention to avoid the clichés of the superhero genre and break new ground, locating the group in Los Angeles (rather than the standard New York of the Marvel Universe) and poking fun at the convention of superhero codenames. The core plot involving the Pride working on behalf of some evil godlike entities that plan to destroy the planet comes off as a little silly considering the more grounded tone of the rest of the book, but Vaughan seems to be going for emotional content rather than an intricate or particularly clever story, and on this level, he succeeds. It's also nice to see the writer set up a betrayal from within the group as a major plot point and refuse to take an easy way out, making good on the promise of earlier issues that one of the Runaways is secretly acting against the others. When the reveal comes, it's logical and understandable, but also fairly surprising and unpredictable, and considering I was expecting some kind of cop-out or double-bluff, I was pleasantly surprised to see Vaughan have the courage to follow through with the twist.
As for the art, it's very interesting to read these eighteen issues and watch Adrian Alphona's style evolve. Early chapters have a sparse, static feel which is off-putting, and the initially flat colouring doesn't help matters. As a result, it's a fairly uninteresting book to look at (redeemed somewhat by Jo Chen's great covers, painted in a very different style to Alphona), but as the book continues, Alphona really seems to find his feet. Later chapters show a more assured artist who is more comfortable with visual storytelling, and even if the manga-influenced style of the artwork still isn't completely to my taste, it seems to achieve what it sets out to do far more effectively. Action sequences are well-choreographed, with all of the Runaways' powers clearly illustrated and given extra emphasis by Christina Strain's colouring, which becomes more sophisticated and layered as the book goes on, bringing a liveliness to the characters that's missing from the earlier issues. Still, the artwork is never so complex or detailed that it really feels like it benefits from the oversized reproduction that this hardcover provides, although fans will be pleased to see a solid compilation of extras included here (including character sketches, promotional art, and the original series proposal from Vaughan).
Maybe the weight of expectation has hampered my enjoyment of this book somewhat, but the clunky art of the early chapters and the simplistic nature of the storytelling both put me off, and were a surprise for a book which has received such wide acclaim from readers and critics. On its own terms, it's a solid enough all-ages title which will probably appeal to younger readers more than older comics enthusiasts (and the cheaper 'digest' format of the original TPBs probably played a large part in the series' success in collected editions), and I'm happy to see a title carve out a niche for itself in a market which often isn't receptive to new ideas, but this first volume of Runaways never feels like anything more than an average superhero book for me.
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