(This article reveals major plot points for Marvel Comics’ Runaways.)
The teen superhero team is a comic-book staple, and over the years, certain patterns have emerged in the groupings of these extraordinary adolescents. Typically, they’re students at the same institution forced to work as a unit (X-Men, New Mutants, Avengers Academy, Gotham Academy), sidekicks and legacy heroes making a name for themselves by banding together (Teen Titans, Infinity Inc., Young Justice, Young Avengers), or gifted strangers that unite for the greater good (Legion Of Super-Heroes, The New Warriors, The Movement, We Are Robin). But Marvel’s Runaways takes a different approach. Created in 2003 by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona, Runaways brings five teens (and one tween) together through parental betrayal, sending them on the run when they discover that their parents are a cabal of supervillains called The Pride.
Elements of those teen superhero traditions are in the DNA of Vaughan and Alphona’s concept, but the familial angle grounds the story in recognizable emotional territory for adolescent readers. The Runaways are constantly learning, but they aren’t students. They’re trying to establish their personal identities, but they despise their legacy and definitely aren’t sidekicks. They’re barely even superheroes, primarily focusing on their own survival as teenagers living outside the established structure of authority. Instead of strangers fighting for the greater good, they are family friends that feel obligated to be heroes to make up for the evil of their parents. Those distinctions elevate Runaways above other teen superhero team comics by giving the series a clearly defined direction inspired by pubescent behavior, particularly the impulses to rebel against parental authority and create a new chosen family of friends.
Runaways is at its best when the theme of family is at the forefront, and the first 18 issues (composing the series’ first volume) are the strongest because they focus on the conflict between The Pride and their runaway children. Beyond the appearance of Captain America, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Invisible Woman, and Hulk as avatars in a MMORPG played by Alex Wilder, the debut issue of Runaways is completely separate from the rest of the Marvel universe and largely devoid of superhero elements, until the final scene revealing the true nature of the adult cast.
Instead, Vaughan and Alphona spend the first issue establishing the children’s relationships with their parents, building tensions and allegiances that effect how the kids react when they go on the run. Alex Wilder, Gertrude Yorkes, Chase Stein, and Nico Minoru all have hostile interactions with their parents in their first scenes, and they’re the four Runaways that witness the book’s inciting incident of The Pride sacrificing a young girl. Karolina Dean and Molly Hayes are the kids with the strongest attachments to their parents, and Vaughan doesn’t have them see The Pride’s ritual, a decision that reinforces those parental connections and creates more conflict for those characters.
The hostility experienced by the other four Runaways establishes their drive to escape their parents’ control, but the degrees of resentment vary: Alex is angry that his father is cutting off his subscription to his computer game and irritated that he has to host his parents’ friends’ kids; Gertrude yells at her parents because they won’t let her join her school’s Socialists Club; Nico locked herself away in her bedroom, raging because her mother threw away all her black nail polish. None of them have the same kind of baggage as Chase, who is introduced with a close-up panel showing his father’s fist slamming into his face.
Chase has the direst home situation of the group, and, as the oldest runaway, he’s already well into his anti-establishment phase. He knows the methods for escaping detection by his parents or the police, who eventually become a problem, and he’s the person who provides the means of independence like a vehicle (an unmarked white van) and shelter (a cave housing the Escher-esque, but still livable, ruins of a hotel buried in an earthquake). Chase is essential to the Runaways’ survival despite acting like an immature bro-in-training, and Vaughan spends considerable time exploring the nuances of Chase’s character, especially when Chase becomes an adult at the end of their run.
Chase’s abusive background becomes a major plot point when he embarks on a suicide mission to resurrect a recently deceased love one, and his parents’ cruel treatment of him degrades his self-worth, convincing him that he’s not strong enough to deal with the emotional trauma so he might as well just die. In his desperation, he strikes a deal with the Gibborim, the mythical giants that The Pride served, and inadvertently ventures down the same path as his parents now that he’s no longer child. This is the very last storyline of the original creative team’s time on Runaways, but its roots are planted in Chase’s first appearance, showing just how much care went into the plotting of this title. (Sadly, the writers that follow Vaughan ignore this character development and regress Chase back to his bro role.)
Alex gets the most attention at the start, presumably because he’s the Runaway that steps into a leader position, but by the end of the first volume, it becomes clear that Alex gets the spotlight in issue #1 because he has the strongest attachment to his parents. One of the plot threads of the first volume is that there’s a mole within the Runaways that is still loyal to his or her parents, and Vaughan misdirects the reader by giving Alex an antagonistic dynamic with his father and making him the guiding force of this teenage rebellion. But there are two big clues that Alex is the mole: He exhibits behavior that is directly inspired by that of his parents, and unlike the rest of the team, he doesn’t give himself a new identity after he runs away from home.
In volume one’s second story arc, which offers a twist on the book’s parent/child dynamic by introducing the Runaways to a teen vampire pretending to be the son of the people he sired, Alex spies on his crush Nico through a secret passageway, indicating a penchant for deception and surveillance that aligns him with The Pride. Even more telling is Alex’s refusal to take on a new identity, choosing to redeem the Wilder name instead of rejecting it. The scene where the kids come up with new names for themselves is where they start to form a new family unit, and Alex refuses to join because he’s still loyal to his parents. Vaughan conforms to genre conventions by assigning superhero names to his cast, but he gives these new identities extra weight by making them tools to distance the Runaways from their parents.
The six families of Runaways represent different corners of the Marvel Universe, and the things that make the teens super are inherited from their parents, giving them abilities that pull from the wide scope of Marvel mythology. The Wilders are non-powered street-level characters, and Alex has a prodigious mind for strategy and logic; the Minorus are mystics, and Nico inherits a magical staff that emerges from her body when she bleeds; the Steins are mad scientists, and Chase steals weaponized gloves and X-ray goggles from his parents’ lab; the Yorkes are time travelers, and Gertrude finds a telepathically controlled velociraptor from the future hidden in her basement.
Molly and Karolina have the best relationships with their parents, and they are also the ones with the most life-changing birthrights. The Hayes are mutants, and while everyone thinks Molly is getting her period for the first time when she keeps asking about changes in her body, she’s actually manifesting her mutant power of Hulk-like super-strength. The Deans are aliens, and Karolina discovers that taking off her med alert bracelet unleashes the power of her extraterrestrial background, turning her into a rainbow-colored being that can fly, shoot energy beams, and create force fields.
Karolina’s rainbow superpower has an extra layer of personal significance for the character, who is revealed to be a lesbian in the second volume of Runaways. (There are plenty of hints in the first volume, most revolving around her obvious crush on Nico.) Molly’s dedication to her parents is largely due to her age, but Karolina is well into puberty and still has a positive, drama-free relationship with her parents. She’s not fully convinced that her parents are evil until she discovers that they’ve been keeping her true nature a secret for her entire life, shattering her sense of self. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though; by shattering Karolina’s preconceived notions of who she is, the Deans give their daughter the opportunity to build a new identity that reflects her personal truth. Being an alien is part of that and so is being a lesbian, but it takes a while for Karolina to become comfortable with both of those identities.
Karolina’s alien awakening functions well as a metaphor for coming out, and her previously sturdy relationship with her parents is damaged by her life-changing adolescent revelation. She’s been denied this essential part of herself since birth, and when she finally embraces it, her parents turn against her. The Deans technically never learn about their daughter’s sexual orientation, but they would have disapproved of any romantic endeavors Karolina pursued because they already had plans in place to marry her off to the son of a Skrull prince. Even when the threat of her parents isn’t an issue, the consequences of their actions plague Karolina, and just moments after she comes out as a lesbian, her arranged alien spouse, Xavin, arrives on Earth and steals her away to become his bride. Luckily for Karolina, Xavin is actually a really cool person that doesn’t force her to get married against her will, and is also a shapeshifter with a fluid conception of gender, allowing Vaughan to explore transgender issues toward the end of his run.
The first volume of Runaways is about these kids forming a family unit to replace what they lost by abandoning their parents, so when The Pride is killed at the end of volume one, Vaughan and Alphona adjusts the book’s concept. Volume two spends much more time exploring how the Runaways fit into the larger Marvel Universe, adding two new members—Xavin and Victor Mancha, the android son of Avengers villain Ultron—and bringing in other superhero groups that represent the authority constantly trying to dictate how the Runaways live their lives. Excelsior is a support group of former teen superheroes that is hired to get the Runaways off the streets, and there’s a Cloak And Dagger-centric field trip to New York City that features a guest appearance by the Avengers.
There’s a stronger connection to the Marvel Universe, but the second volume of Runaways is still firmly rooted in family dynamics. The opening storyline spotlights Victor and his terrifying discovery that he’s the son of one of the world’s greatest villains, and positions Excelsior as an older sibling for the Runaways with noble intentions but poor follow-through. The second arc introduces Karolina’s arranged marriage, and the third uses the Avengers in a similar role as Excelsior, although the self-righteous, aggressive attitude of the Avengers gives them a more parental quality.
After returning from New York City, the Runaways encounter a new Pride made up of Alex’s online gaming friends and his resurrected father, igniting a war between Alex’s two families that ends up costing the life of a Runaway. The team’s grief over that loss dominates Vaughan’s final six issues, showing how the emotional fallout of a death in the family can fracture a group. The book’s creators end their run on an intimate note that highlights the complexity of the character relationships they’ve built, and the major problem with the writers after Vaughan is that they start simplifying.
After a huge run on Astonishing X-Men but before becoming a driving voice in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Joss Whedon writes Runaways for six issues, sending the Runaways back in time to 1907 New York City for a story doesn’t stray too far from the tone and themes of what preceded it. Vaughan and Alphona leave the book on a cliffhanger that forces the team to go on the run, and because the characters have roots in so many different parts of the Marvel Universe, creators can find a way to take them just about anywhere. Whedon and artist Michael Ryan send the teens to New York City, which isn’t the most challenging decision considering how well trodden this territory is in other Marvel books, but then they end up in the past, taking advantage of the Yorkes’ time travel to send the Runaways into a dramatically different environment.
The presence of Gertrude’s parents and Nico’s great-grandmother give Whedon’s story the requisite family ties, and while the run has some characterization problems, it still feels like the same team from before. The main problem is that Whedon’s Hollywood schedule leads to major delays, killing the book’s momentum with the release of six issues over the course of 14 months. The sales tanked and Marvel relaunched Runaways with a third volume by writer Terry Moore and artist Humberto Ramos, and that’s when it flew off the rails. Ramos’ youthful, energetic style fits well with the characters and their world, but Moore gives the book a bland new concept and has a weak handle on the cast’s established personalities and relationships.
Vaughan and Whedon wrote the book with a tone similar to the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series, telling metaphorical stories about typical teenage emotions that balance darker elements with a strong sense of humor, but Moore’s run is more like superhero Saved By The Bell, generally light and juvenile with occasional moments of saccharine sentimentality and overwrought melodrama. Moore’s opening arc retreads narrative territory when aliens from Karolina’s home planet come to Earth to make her pay for her parents’ crimes, and that’s the extent of the family connection in Moore’s run, which concludes with a disastrous story about an evil shock jock that turns Los Angeles listeners into zombies.
The third volume alienates the book’s loyal fanbase, and although writer Kathryn Immonen and artist Sara Pichelli do exceptional work when they take over the book, the plummeting sales result in Runaways’ cancellation four issues into the new creative team’s run. That’s a shame because Immonen and Pichelli make major course corrections, bringing back the contrast of melancholy and joy, introducing a new family member villain with Chase’s uncle Hunter, and heightening the danger for these kids. It’s a major improvement, but it’s not enough to save the title, and there hasn’t been a Runaways ongoing since.
This year, writer Noelle Stevenson and artist Sanford Greene revived the Runaways name for a Secret Wars miniseries, and while it deals with a lot of the same thematic territory as its namesake, it doesn’t have the familial roots that make the original team stand out. The new Runaways miniseries is a fun book for fans of teen Marvel superheroes, featuring a cast of alternate reality interpretations of established characters like Jubilee, Amadeus Cho, and Bucky Barnes, but these characters are students at the same school, putting them in a different teen superhero team category than the original Runaways.
For a brief period of time, Marvel Studios had a Runaways film in development with a script by Drew Pearce, who went on to co-write Iron Man 3. The production makes it as far as an open casting call, but stalls as Marvel focuses The Avengers and its related franchises. Since then, Marvel Studios has become a media juggernaut with a significant television presence, producing multiple live-action series on ABC and Netflix and animated series on Disney XD. The Marvel Studios brand is steadily expanding, and Runaways would be the perfect property to tap into the lucrative YA market that has turned franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games into major moneymakers.
Runaways is an adolescent ensemble drama featuring a primarily female cast and diverse representations of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, all qualities that superhero films and TV series are lacking right now. Vaughan and Alphona’s opening arc would function as a thrilling pilot episode, and the concept’s distance from the rest of the Marvel Universe makes it a property that might appeal to those that typically avoid superhero narratives. Guardians Of The Galaxy proved the benefits of veering away from the familiar, and Runaways would be a fitting introduction to the new generation of Marvel superheroes who break the established mold.
The Runaways aren’t a bunch of older white guys. They don’t wear costumes, despite the incessant pleading from Molly that they start, and their superhero identities are pulled from online usernames and favorite movies and songs. They’re young, volatile, and desperate to find a support system to replace their evil parents, which is a solid foundation for building a teen superhero team TV series. (Plus they’ve got a pet dinosaur, which makes everything cooler.)
The emphasis on family relationships gives Runaways a highly relatable emotional hook, and a TV series would be a great opportunity for Marvel Studios to explore character dynamics that haven’t received much attention in its properties. Vaughan and Alphona gave the comic a grounded narrative perspective and visual sensibility that wouldn’t be difficult to translate to live-action, and there’s enough freedom in the concept that writers could incorporate plenty of original material into the framework laid out by the comics. It’s the kind of fresh, imaginative concept that Marvel Studios could use as it begins to phase out its starting line-up of heroes, taking superhero conventions and reinterpreting them in a new context that is still fantastic, but rooted in personal relationships.