I talk about comics a lot on this blog, probably disproportionately often considering I only really got into them around December/January. I had read a handful of things here and there, but I didn’t actively follow any series, or keep up to date on news in the comics world. The biggest factor in that changing was when my best friend told me that the first issue of Sex Criminals was free on Comixology and lent me issues 2 and 3 to read over winter break. Then I got really hooked. And my friend has continued to make excellent recommendations.
Me and this friend share a common weakness, aptly summed up by this comment: “gangs of weird teens”. Awkward misfit teen superheroes might be my very favorite thing. So it should come as no surprise that two of the best things I’ve read these last few months were Runaways and Young Avengers. There’s a lot of similarities between these two books, including facets I wish we saw more of in both superhero stories and teen stories.
So, let’s start with the creative teams behind these books. I want to put it right out there that both of these comics are from absolute dream teams. Runaways (and here’s a good place to clarify I’m speaking only of volume 1, and even then mainly of the first 18 issues) is written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Adrian Alphona. Vaughan is mainly known for his work on Y: The Last Man and Saga; Alphona is the primary artist for the 2014 Ms. Marvel. The most recent Young Avengers series (sadly only 15 issues long) was written and drawn by the stellar Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, frequent collaborators who created Phonogram, and recent series The Wicked and the Divine. So basically these are all creators with great track records.
The concepts are pretty similar on the surface – gangs of teen superheroes, evil/useless parents/adults, saving the world with a fair dose of teen melodrama. The Runaways are a group of six apparently average teens who find out their parents are an evil organization planning on destroying the world, so they uh… run away, and try to stop them with the powers/tech/abilities their parents had hidden from them. The Young Avengers, on the other hand, were already established as heroes before teaming up, but when one of them accidentally invites a dimensional parasite into their universe, only teens are able to stop it and save everything. Coincidentally, one of the main Runaways has a couple of cameo appearances in Young Avengers, and I will never, ever stop hoping for a real crossover between the two (yes there was a mini-series during Civil War – no it doesn’t count to me because I hate the idea of Civil War).
One of the big thematic differences between these two is where they’re based – the Young Avengers are from New York City, aka oh my god you can’t walk two blocks without running into a superhero. At times in their series, they’re shown trying to get help from the Avengers and the X-Men, as would be prudent if you’re a junior superhero facing reality-warping dimensional parasites. Too bad they’ve been corrupted by the parasite and won’t do anything. The Runaways, on the other hand, live in LA, which is notoriously superhero free in the Marvel-verse. They try at one point to get any contact at all with the major hero teams, to no avail. At one point Cloak and Dagger, C-listers from the 1980s, show up and try to help, but are generally ineffectual. It achieves the same goal in different ways – adults are useless and you can’t trust them, or worse, they’re actually literally evil, a message my inner angsty teen strongly relates to.
One of the other great things about these teams is that they’re both way more diverse than the A-list Marvel teams. Runaways has Alex, a black guy; Nico, a Japanese-American girl, and in later issues (not explicit in the first 18 issue run, but hinted at strongly), Karolina comes out as a lesbian. The team is also initially four girls and two boys, which is almost the ideal gender ratio for superhero teams – two ladies for every dude. Young Avengers is even more diverse: we have Hawkeye (yes, I mean Kate Bishop); Hulkling and Wiccan, a gay couple; Miss America Chavez, a Latina lesbian; and Prodigy, a bisexual black man. Oh, and Kid Loki and Noh-Varr/Marvel Boy (who so explicitly exists as a subversion of the male gaze, being drawn to appeal to the female gaze for once). So basically, it’s perfect.
The other top excellent thing about both of these series is how incredibly teen they are. These are not adult superheroes writ small. They are actual realistic teenagers, with all that entails. There’s tons of kissing and crushes and hook-ups, parental trust issues, coming-of-age difficulties, feeling powerless (even if you have literal superpowers); these authors obviously tap into their own teenage years better than some I could name. And not a bit of this stops these characters from kicking nine kinds of ass or from being presented as fully-fledged people. Too many writers forget that, and write teens as sort of mini-adults who just aren’t finished yet. I mean, look at the titles of the arcs:
Runaways: Pride & Joy (read: to hell with parental expectations)
Runaways: Teenage Wasteland (I can’t say this without singing to The Who)
Runaways: The Good Die Young (ditto above, but Billy Joel)
Young Avengers: Style > Substance (damn straight)
Young Avengers: Alternative Cultures (teen rebels, hell yeah)
Young Avengers: Mic-Drop at the Edge of Time and Space (the most 2014 phrase ever)
One last thing that I want to heap praise upon would be the attention to detail shown in both these books. Let me point this out: I read the first six issues of Runaways, then the first arc of 2014 Ms Marvel, then the next twelve issues of Runaways. All drawn by Adrian Alphona, so I’m guessing this is his influence here. Both Kamala Khan and Alex Wilder are introduced in scenes where we’re shown famous Marvel heroes acting crazy and out of character, then we’re shown that it’s a video game (in Alex’s case) or fan fiction (in Kamala’s case) that our character is playing/writing. So we know right off the bat that these guys are nerds for superheroes – in a world where heroes exist. Then there’s the fact that both the Runaways’ and Ms Marvel’s first intentional hero-ings (the first time they see something bad happening and say “oh god I’m a hero now I can fix this”) are gunpoint robberies at copyright-friendly versions of Circle K (Circle A in Runaways, Circle Q in Ms Marvel). The Young Avengers are not shown interfering in petty crime or loitering at convenience stores, but only because the threat they deal with is escalated to a galactic scale in like two issues, I’m sure. Because loitering at convenience stores is a universal teen experience.
If you know me, you know that even when I’m raving about things I love, I still have to find something to complain about in every post. In this case – why is there not more of these things? Okay, okay, there are more issues of Runaways and older series of Young Avengers. But I won’t touch Joss Whedon’s issues of Runaways with a ten foot pole, and after starting with Gillen and McKelvie, it just feels like any other Young Avengers line-up will be a disappointment. There was a Runaways movie in the works for a very long time that just kept getting delayed and delayed until it was finally canceled after The Avengers became such a hit. Yes, I am a little bitter, because I didn’t care that much for The Avengers. You’d think that this would maybe open the door for a Young Avengers film adaptation, but I seriously doubt it. I keep seeing people petitioning for a Civil War or Inhumans adaptation, and my head will explode if we get those first. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough Hollywood producers or directors I would trust with either of these stories that I love so much. For now, I’ll have to settle for copious re-reads and waiting every week for more great work from these creators.