Runaways 1: Discussion

by Spencer Irwin and Taylor Anderson

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

Spencer: Runaways 1 has to be one of the most unusual first issues I’ve ever read, especially for a team book and especially for a book from the Big 2. While I’ve read plenty of good, sometimes even great, first issues, there’s certain objectives most first issues have to achieve — introducing the series’ cast, premise, and villain, for example — that can lead to them all feeling like they’re cut from the same template. Runaways 1, though, shatters that template completely; Rainbow Rowell, Kris Anka, and Matthew Wilson essentially skip to what would probably be issue 4 of any other series, immediately immersing readers deep in a tense, life-or-death scenario. It’s a marvelous decision.

It’s also a decision that makes the creative team’s priorities crystal clear. They waste no time in “resurrecting” Gert, thus taking steps to reassemble the original Runaways line-up (minus Alex Wilder, who was last seen stirring up trouble in Power Man and Iron Fist) as well as the line-up that will be used in the upcoming Runaways live-action television series. Moreover, Rowell and Anka demonstrate their dedication to character and storytelling over convention, a direction that I think will make this series something special.

It’s a smart choice to focus so much of this debut issue on Nico Minoru as well; thanks to A-Force she’s probably the Runaway most clear in many readers’ memories. I haven’t read the original Runaways (something I hope to rectify soon), but I fell in love with Nico’s power-set while reading A-Force, and Rowell clearly understands what’s so compelling about it; Nico can do almost anything, but only once.

Nico’s abilities rely on improvisation — on remembering what spells she hasn’t used yet and finding work-arounds on the fly for the ones she has (the focus on improvisation being their defining trait echoes the cast being teenagers and reactive runaways as well). It takes a massive amount of creativity to write that kind of character, and Rowell proves herself more than capable. It also leads to tense situations — what can Nico do? What can’t she do? It’s a perfect blueprint for drama; there’s more than a few missteps on Nico’s path to fixing Gert, and each one becomes more frustrating, more heartbreaking than the last.

In that same vein, Rowell also succeeds by finding the pathos in Nico’s abilities.

In many ways Nico is becoming less powerful as times goes on, with many of her most obvious and powerful spells already used up by this point. There was a time when Nico could have healed Gert in a word, but now it takes her 12 different spells to do it. It has to be a frustrating situation for Nico even before you factor in the possibility that one of her closest friends could die because she’d already used up her more powerful spells. That frustration makes Nico compelling and sympathetic, and makes me root for even when I personally don’t have much invested in Gert yet.

That same frustration is reflected in Chase as well. Both Nico and Chase just want to help somebody they love, but neither the dwindling magician nor the bumbling time-traveler have the control they want over the situation, and their fear and frustration leads them to bicker and lash out at each other. I admit that their arguments probably have more significance for long-time Runaways fans — some cursory research shows that there was a bit of a Nico/Chase/Gert love triangle going on at one point, which no doubt creates some subtext to this issue that’s going over my head — but even to a newbie, this issue has clear and compelling stakes, interesting character work, and wonderfully creative plotting and ability use. It really is a slam dunk.

I also think that Rowell and Anka do an impressive job balancing reintroducing the Runaways with telling the issue’s story. The creative team doesn’t go into depth about any individual facet of their characters’ or their backstory, but gives newcomers just enough information to understand the situation and the characters’ motivations.

Take Chase’s rescue of Gert, for example. We aren’t told the exact story of how she got stabbed nor of how Chase got a time machine, but we understand that she’s only got moments left, and that Chase is inexperienced and desperate. Newcomers might not understand exactly who Old Lace is, but Rowell lets us know that Chase can control this dinosaur somehow. In every new situation the creative team provides just enough information to keep all readers on equal ground and draw them into the story, relying on the natural drama of the story to do the rest of the work.

I’d say they succeeded in that respect: it’s only one issue, but I’m hooked on this book. Taylor, what about you? Did you get as much out of this issue as I did? Is there anything you wanted to bring out about Anka’s art or Wilson’s colors? And hey, how did Chase’s time machine even fit in Nico’s apartment? Did it just crush her bed?

Taylor: Great question! The time machine only appears in one panel but after that it is mysteriously absent from all subsequent panels. My best guess is that the machine appears only briefly when in use and otherwise hangs out in a bubble outside of time awaiting Chase’s next instructions. How else would you explain it being gone? As for Nico’s bed? That thing’s totally history.

In terms of the story itself, I was also pleasantly surprised to see Rowell ditch the usual first team issue format in exchange for something much more interesting. The funny thing is that Rowell tricked me at the beginning into thinking she would introduce all the team members given that she spends a couple panels discussing Nico’s abilities. However, this way the introduction is worked seamlessly into the suspenseful plot rather than the other way around.

Here, the fact that Nico can only cast a spell once isn’t just an interesting tidbit about her character. Instead, her inability to cast a generic healing spell makes for the primary conflict in the plot. The suspense in this issue is all built around wondering if Nico will be able to come up with new enough spells in time to save Gert. This at once makes for a great and entertaining first issue and shows us some important aspects of Nico’s character.

On her character, the thing I like the most about Nico is her ability to essentially trick her magic staff into doing her bidding by being clever. In order to save Gert, Nico has the staff transport a doctor to her apartment. Once Gert is safe and the doctor is no longer required, Nico needs to send her home but can’t use a simple “return” spell. This being the case, she improvises.

Invoking the name of Dorthy Gale, Niko casts a spell to return the doctor from whence she came. This little detail shows just how clever Nico has to be in order to use her staff effectively. I can only infer that Nico has already used the phrase “there’s no place like home” to return someone from where they originally came, so instead she settles for Dorothy’s name to get the job done. This is a clever ploy on Nico’s part and it’s fun seeing her use her improvisation skills to get the job done.

Rowell does a great job writing an entertaining first issue, and Kris Anka deserves credit for rendering this story in such a clear way. Anka deserves praise both for his clean lines and panel layouts in this issue which make it easy to read. There’s several pages which demonstrate this, but page 14 exemplifies what I’m talking about to a T.

This layout has 21 panels, but it certainly doesn’t feel or look like it. One reason this is the case is that Anka doesn’t feel tied to any particular panel size and effortlessly switches sizes throughout this sequence. Some panels are but a sliver showing Nico’s eyes while others take up a third of a page showing three characters all at once. This flexibility goes a long way toward making this a clean page. Anka also employs very clean lines in his artwork and that works to this issue’s benefit. Notice how even the smallest panels featuring only Nico and Chase’s faces are still detailed and easy to understand. That’s possible because Anka has put in the time to pick and choose what lines go where, without any unnecessary marks. Paired with the paneling, Anka’s skill with the pencil makes for a easy, enjoyable read.

Really, that can be said for the issue as a whole. Having never read the Runaways before or even knowing anything about them previous to this issue, I find I understand their world, some of their group dynamics, and most importantly, why I should care about these people. As long as this keeps up, this is a series that will enjoy runaway success.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?

One comment on “Runaways 1: Discussion

  1. It is issues like this that shows why I love first issues…

    The only way to discuss this is to begin with the first page. And by that, I mean the cover. The cover itself is a bit generic. The core Runaways (minus Alex) in a traditional pose, with Gert haunting in the background. But that isn’t the interesting part. The interesting part is the title. Using the classic titling, with slightly more modern design, is one word. Runaways

    So what does Runaways mean? The first thing that comes to mind is the idea of a kid running away from home. If you told me that the book was called Runaways, I would think of a story about kids running away from their parents and their life afterwards. I couldn’t tell you much else. Couldn’t identify the genre. But the very word suggests that sort of story

    But there is a second one. It is the name of one of the all time greatest premises Marvel has ever had. It seems like, once a decade, a book like this comes along. A singularly perfect premise, that creates a great run even as it creates something whose magic can never be recaptured after the story runs out of premise and relies on iconography. Suicide Squad. Thunderbolts. I’d guess Gillen’s Journey into Mystery will be the latest.
    And Runaways certainly has that. Superhero story about six kids who learn that their parents are secretly supervillain, and run away from home. Perfect. Add in all the other elements, like the LA focus and you have one of the freshest and best premises around*.

    And lastly, it brings to mind the original run. If we really want to go meta, we can bring up that it was written by Vaughn, both then and now one of the industry’s best voices. But we don’t have to go that far. Because the original comics are rightly acclaimed as an absolute classic.

    The very first word we read brings to mind all of that. And this book isn’t any of those. It isn’t about teen Runaways. Gert died two years ago, which makes Nico 18 or 19. An adult, just barely. More importantly, an adult with an apartment. She isn’t a runaway. And this certainly isn’t that amazing premise from all those years ago. That’s been gone since the Pride died. And it certainly isn’t Vaughn’s run.

    But that’s the entire point of the issue. What is Runaways? Those three things. This is an issue about what it means that those three things no longer apply. Or, to put it another way, it is a story about how Nico peaked at high school.

    It is easy to say that the status quo is God in comics, but that is wrong. Changes do happen, and YA characters are the clearest example. We’ve seen four generations of Robin (counting Tim and Steph as part of the same generation, because their terms overlap). We’ve gone from New Mutants to Generation X to New X-Men (how I miss them. When will someone do more with Surge and the gang) to Generation Hope to the Original Five. In the two years since Gert’s death, Kate Bishop went from 16 to 21 (people grow up in comics, but at very different rates). And that is what this issue confronts. The Runaways have grown up, beyond the original premise.

    So, Nico now no longer fits everything that made Nico great. She grew up

    Which brings me to powers. The Runaways have fantastically chosen power sets. Molly, the young girl just about to enter puberty, is of course the classic Marvel puberty metaphor of a mutant. The fact that using her powers makes her sleepy is just more teenagerness. Chase has no powers, just tech scavenged from his parents. As a fuck up with no success of his own, his ability to be a hero is dominated entirely by the privilege of his parents. Were his parents not successes, he’d be useless. That’s Chase. Gert, the one who retreated into childhood the most as a rejection of her parents, gets the ultimate childhood pet, a dinosaur. The fact that the dinosaur is from as previous era just builds the metaphor. Gert, initially, was going backwards in time. Karolina’s power is the ability to reveal her true (alien) self. Her strength comes from embracing her own identity as a giant Pride flag, essentially, in what has to be one of the most visually spectacular power sets when coloured properly.

    But Nico’s is the best power set. Not just because it is original (though it is one of the most unique and original power sets ever). But it all comes together perfectly. The blood requirement is an obvious, but good, metaphor for puberty. A metaphor made explicit early on when it is made clear that Nico doesn’t have to cut herself to summon the staff when she’s on her period. But that isn’t the best part. The best part is the staff itself, which represents the infinite potential of youth and the way that our decisions shape us.
    When you are young, you have infinite potential. But every choice you makes limits you somehow. If I choose to study Chemistry over Biology, I am limiting the potential I have to become a great biologist. Same with Nico. Every decision she makes, every spell she casts, limits her potential in the future. Like all kids undergoing their Coming of Age, at the end of the journey she is only as strong as the choices she made.

    So it says a lot that she’s running out of spells. But such signs are everywhere. When Nico was 16, she saved the world. Now, she struggles turning the stove on. And she has something up with her hand. She had all the potential to become a great superhero. And instead, she became no one special. Rowell has taken the fundamental challenge of reviving Runaways, and embraced it as theme.

    And oh, it works. It isn’t just that it neatly deals with the very challenges, but creates a real character. The emotional core of a Nico, defeated, getting the chance to reconnect with that past through Gert, returned exactly as young as she was when she died, and the balance between getting to reconnect to that glorious past and the struggle with the fact that she can’t get it all back. She can’t change the fact that her real world circumstances still apply. She’s running out of spells, of everything.

    And that fantastically strong core is combined with an honest to god great plot. A single sequence, one long ‘action sequence’. I’m reminded slightly of Mad Max Fury Road. Every piece of story told through action. Here, it is just an operation instead of a car chase. And it is a fantastic sequence, constantly high stakes. Throws problem after problem, in a tense, difficult encounter that tells an entire story by itself.

    This is how you start a story like this. Start small, but intense. Karolina and Molly can be introduced later. Hell, even Chase is barely a character. Despite instigating the story out of his love for Gert, he is wisely used with restraint to focus on Nico, the leader and core that the Runaways orbit around. Starting small like this, however, creates a thrilling start that can introduce nearly every key idea. Don’t force the story into bad places to reach the second act quickly, when the book is just better like this.

    I always get nervous when I hear about resurrections. I’m not opposed to resurrection, but I always am afraid that the resurrection is happening out of nostalgia than out of true story purposes. That it is happening so it does happen. Not because there is a story to tell. But Rowell quickly proved me wrong, with how fantastically she created a rich, thematic, thrilling comic out of the resurrection itself. One that used Gert’s status as dead for thematic reasons. Hell, I was worried that Runaways would no longer work in a world where Nico and Victor have been on Avengers teams (I know Victor is dead at the moment, but that doesn’t change the point).

    But this was masterful, in how everything came together. Rich, thematic, intelligent, character focused, emotional, thrilling… One of the best examples of a first issue ever. Even Anka’s art was fantastic. I’ve loved Anka’s art since long before he was making actual comics, seeing his art on Project Rooftop. But I think he ha struggled with the act on taking his great art and converting it into great sequential storytelling. Until now, of course. This was fantastic.

    An almost perfect issue, one that left me amazed and with a need to devour old Runaways books just to spend more time with the characters (Spencer, Taylor, read Vaughn’s run now. You won’t regret it). This is up there with All New Wolverine when it comes to perfect first issues.

    Sensational

    _______________________________________________________________

    *While I stand by the comparison between this and Suicide Squad/Thunderbolts, it is interesting why Runaways ran out of premise. Suicide Squad suffers from having the members become iconic. The moment Deadshot and Captain Boomerang became iconic, the idea of the squad collapsed. The moment there is an iconic line up, the premise is dead. Meanwhile, the big problem with Thunderbolts is that a story about the characters constant struggles with morality had to come to an end. Eventually, the core cast have to move on, and the Thunderbolts concept has to evolve.

    Runaways problem is a bit different. The concept could have run indefinitely, but it needed the Pride. Killing the Pride, after only 18 issues, really hurts the premise of the book. Running away to escape their evil parents is a great hook. Tied everything together. Running away again because they want to just lacked the same strength. With some actual focus on the problems with the foster care system, the problem would be mitigated, but doesn’t change the fact that the existence of the Pride made the premise great. Without the Pride, something is missing that the book couldn’t get back.
    While the Gibborim are thematically appropriate and are used effectively to strengthen every other plot line, they always felt like the least interesting element. If I was going to do as full reboot of Runaways, I’d throw them away, and focus on the parents more. Less of a cult, more of a magical, time travelling, intergalactic, high tech mob. And never bring down the Pride, but instead use them as the Runaways arch enemies that they can never fully bring down.

    This would mean you keep the strong premise, able to support many different story types without losing identity like the original book did without the Pride. You can tell stories of the Runaways fighting the Pride, you can tell stories of superheroes/child protective services hunting them to return them to the Pride and you can tell stories about them dealing with other threats they encounter, complicated by the pressures of the first two. Used the third story type to introduce Victor, then you give yourself a fourth storyline around Victor/Victorious/Ultron. And by never giving a game ending victory against the Pride, you get to keep the amazing premise

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