I’ve talked about it here before, but I just want to say it outright: Runaways is easily one of my favorite comics of all-time. I might even go as far as to say it’s #1 on my list, if I put more meticulous thought into those sorts of things.
Although, in the interest of full accuracy, series creator Brian K. Vaughn’s run was the part I’m referring to when I speak that highly of it. Joss Whedon’s follow-up story is close enough in quality that I don’t mind much. Everything after Whedon is where it gets rough, which is why I was a little hesitant when Marvel announced they’d be bringing the series back in 2015 under a new writer, Noelle Stevenson. The main series was essentially batting .500 on writers.
And then they announced that the return would be a part of the Battleworlds* stories, and that most of the cast would be unrelated to the original group. Could it recapture that original Runaways charm when it was a bunch of newbies dealing with a Dr. Doom-led Sky High-like institution instead of kids on the lam from supervillain parents? Could the characters recapture the likability of Nico, Victor, and the rest of the group**?
*For those not in the know, this was part of Marvel’s Secret Wars even. Long story short, the Marvel multiverse went through a weird “cosmic reshuffling”-type of event, with the end result being the company gave writers free reign to make stories up using whatever alternate universe characters or settings they could imagine.
**It seems we won’t be getting any more of the original team, either, which is a shame. But even worse is how most of the cast is under-utilized at the moment. Right now, I believe it’s basically just Nico on A-Force in the larger Marvel Universe. Victor showing up as a glorified cameo in the first issue of Nick Spencer’s Ant-Man: Second Chance Man is one of the greatest disappointments I’ve had, and in what is otherwise a great story. Maybe the inevitable next Young Avengers reboot could take some of them on?
I initially didn’t think I’d read it, but good word of mouth and my curiosity led to me picking up the trade paperback. Noelle Stevenson absolutely nails the tone, and even with the new cast, setting, and entire universe, it feels like a natural extension of the original story. There were even times where I forgot as I was reading it that it wasn’t related to the previous Runaways stories. It’s easy to get caught up in Stevenson’s brisk, fun pacing and artist Sanford Greene’s inviting stylized look.
This feels like the platonic idea of the concept of a spiritual successor. Stevenson does a great job of recapturing the youthful energy and rebellious spirit of the original with a similarly memorable cast, all while pushing her premise in unique ways. In fact, it feels like in every way that Stevenson could zig the way the original did, she zagged. Whereas the original Runaways were united in their home life, these ones are bound together by the other major setting for young-adult-based fiction, school. Where the originals were tightly bound and close together, this one is immediately split, with members staying behind or splitting up. Where the original group had treachery below the surface, this one makes it obvious right away.
The best distinction, though, comes with the choice of antagonist. The new version eschews the original’s kids vs. parents aesthetic not just by setting the conflict in a school, but by then making Valeria von Doom, Dr. Doom’s supergenius six-year-old, the acting headmaster and foil to the team. The villains are all just like the heroes, going through their own growth parallel to the heroes.
There are some differences between the two, and in the end, the original is still the best. Stevenson resists the short-hand of making the new team correspond directly to the old team, which is admirable and makes for a more interesting lead, but also means that she needs to set up even more characters*, as well as the much-stranger alternate universe the story takes place in. None of the characters quite get the focus the original sextet (or their later add-ons), and although they are still just as fun to watch bounce off each other, it still doesn’t feel like enough. Most of this can be blamed on the constraints of the larger event it took place in; the new team got four issues to the original’s eighteen (before its renewal). The new series needs one whole issue of setting everything up before it can get to the shocking twist in the second that forces the team in motion, something the original series could pull right away since it was on a fundamentally more recognizable Earth.
*There is some short-hand involved in Stevenson’s characterizations: all of the characters are versions of existing Marvel characters. But given that the main cast is a dozen-strong, that’s definitely understandable.
And really, that’s probably the greatest tragedy of the new series. I know I complained earlier about how the original Runaways would probably never get another series, but this team’s universe literally doesn’t exist anymore. Their story wrapped up (on a “the adventure continues!” sort of note, so sort of open-ended), but it felt like an amazing appetizer to a meal that won’t ever be arriving. There’s a great imaginativeness at play here that I wish could have been explored more, and I hope that Marvel can one day find some way to bring it back (although I wouldn’t hold my breath on that). All the same, I’ll take the brief brilliance in Volume 4 here over the drawn-out-but-wildly-inconsistent (at best) volume 3.