Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways is one (technically two) of the finest Marvel runs of this century. It was everything good about the modern age of comics with all the old-school creativity and focus that its peers lacked. But despite the strength of the concept and the charm of the characters, no one has managed to capture that electricity again. Even big names like Joss Whedon and Kathryne Immonen met with lukewarm reviews and the kids themselves have only popped up occasionally, usually to the horror of fans worried about how they would be treated rather than joy to see them again.
But now Rainbow Rowell has stepped up to the plate to return the Runaways to their former glory and, to get right to the point, she may just do it.
Runaways #1 is not what you’d traditionally call a good #1. It’s comprised of a single scene, it doesn’t do enough to introduce new readers to the core concept, it looks backwards rather than ahead, there’s really no mission statement for the series, and therefore it simply doesn’t do what a first issue is ‘supposed’ to do. Except it gets you incredibly pumped about this series. And what more could you really ask for from a first issue?
Rather than racing to get the band back together in twenty pages, Rowell instead throws all of her considerable talent into telling a simple but significant story to the best of her ability. I actually don’t know that I’ve ever seen a comic try to launch itself so completely on the quality of its execution, but it really works here.
There’s no earthshaking fight and the big reveal comes on the title page, having been spoiled long ago. No, instead Runaways #1 proves that Rowell can can breath tension, reality, and charm into a scene and do all of it at once. The result is an issue with a staggeringly narrow focus, but its one that readers new and old will explore with baited breath and growing anticipation.
Rowell’s writing is every bit as bold and tactile as her prose background suggests and she cleverly utilizes narration to support but never overwhelm her dialogue. And though the issue’s captions are mechanically skillful they really shine as a way to influence tone.
Though this issue claims its only been two years since Gert died, a lot has changed since she passed in Runaways vol. 2 #18 (2006) or since she joined the team in Runaways #1 (2003). Teenagers have grown up. Not just the literal teenagers who were young and restless during those early years of the new millennium, but teenagers as a concept.
Cliques and goths have fallen by the wayside. Todays Runaways are defined as much by the traditional trappings of adolescence as by the newly gained knowledge that independence means isolation, debt, and struggle. Runaways vol. 5 acknowledges and incorporates that strange, modern ennui of youth without feeling like it’s chasing a trend.
The book is fun and humorous, if never fully funny, but that’s mixed with very real stakes. It’s thrilling, and in a very different way than your average Marvel mag. Though there’s a very valid criticism that this Runaways might be retreating back to the last time the series was unambiguously loved rather than pressing ahead, it’s also true that Rowell has aged these characters beautifully. The feeling of reconnecting with someone who was a kid last time you saw them is definitely in play here.
As if a reboot of a BKV classic and the comics debut of a celebrated YA novelist wasn’t enough, Runaways vol. 5 also boasts Kris Anka as its ongoing artist. Anka’s famously stylish art is a fine fit for Rowell’s tone and characters.
Simple lines and emotive compositions define the look of this issue and the layouts are purposeful, driven by the needs of the scene, with a hard, punctuating cut between each panel. The pencils are definitely reaching more for realism than Anka’s previous work,. The result is not quite as pleasing, in my opinion, as the more geometrical style that Anka employs for design work or some of his previous comics, but there’s no denying that it serves a function.
Runaways #1 captures the messy reality of young adulthood and Anka eschews attractive iconicism in favor of a style that can really communicate the difference between tears that come because you’re afraid and those brought on because you’re not allowed to break.
Though Nico spends the entire issue in what may well be her nightgown, short and lacy as it is, it is incredibly telling that she’s never once sexualized. Any sex appeal that this issue brings comes from Chase’s jawline or Nico’s arms, not skimpy outfits or questionable poses. Anka does a fantastic job of representing the sheer power of Nico’s magic without undermining her fear and helplessness.
Set in the dim lighting of an empty apartment, Runaways #1 is a book deeply indebted to its colors, provided by Matthew Wilson. Wilson imbues the book with a fantastic eye for contrasts, for the little accents that make a panel pop. Often this means a slight burst of color against the warm, limited light or playing off of Nico’s pre-colored dyed hair, but Wilson and Anka find plenty of opportunities to let the colors of this issue sing.
Nico’s color palette is defined early, with her powers strongly identified with a wonderful range of teals, pinks, blues, and purples. The results are stunning and would be beautiful even without the context of the story of the insinuations of the linework. And of course, those cool, neon colors make it all the more striking when we jump to a long ago time and things shift to the warmer side of the spectrum.
The newest Runaways #1 is a strange beast, intent on telling a limited story brilliantly rather than tell than a grand one as just fine. Rowell, Anka, and Wilson’s voices are clearly tuned to the same note and it’s a beautiful one, full of honesty and longing and cries for a world that got tired of your complaining long before you actually needed help.
The power of the original Runaways’ concept and characters are the franchise’s greatest strength, but it also stands as a seemingly unreachable monument above any attempt to follow that act. Buoyed by stylish art, Rainbow Rowell, literally, takes us back to the golden age of Runaways, mixing a return to basics approach with a potent reevaluation of what it means to be a teenage hero on your own fourteen years later. A knack for tone and a script the centers quality of writing and depth of emotion ensure that this issue is distinct in the best way and that Runaways #1 is a worthy successor and a must buy for fans.