Consider this Runaways Week in the Where the Wonder Women Are Universe!
Just when I thought I understood comics, and the Marvel Universe in particular, Runaways came along to shake up my perceptions. The original self-contained Volume of 18 issues (2003-2004), created by Brian K Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, is an edgy teen paranormal story about six kids who have to entertain each other once a year when their parents gather for a secret meeting… and finally discover the horrible truth that their parents are in fact “the Pride,” a group of criminal magicians, super-villains, aliens and so on.
The kids go on the run, in a story that feels far more like a Scott Westerfeld novel than a comic, except for the fact that they are grounded in the Marvel Universe – characters such as Cloak and Dagger and even Captain America cross their paths from time to time, and ultimately it is superheroes who are responsible for the resolution of the story and the “happy ending” temporarily created for the runaways (which they ultimately reject because superheroes, what do they know about real life?).
But for the most part, despite the universe they belong to, the Runaways of the original series are in their own genre, telling their own story. They’re not out to save the world or fight for justice – they just want to escape the fate that their evil parents have in store for them. And along the way they discover their own innate powers or gifts: one of them is a mage, one a mutant, one an alien, one has a telepathic connection to a dinosaur, one has his father’s futuristic tech-gloves, and so on.
It’s not a happy story, but these misfits form a fractured and dysfunctional family group to replace what they have lost. Right up to the point that they discover that one of their own is every bit as evil as their parents…
Really trying not to spoil the main narrative of the original volume here, but chances are I will.
I’ll admit right here that I haven’t read beyond the original series, largely because I found out the fate of one of my favourite characters, got angry about it, and refused to read further, despite the involvement of Joss Whedon, Sara Pichelli and other comics creators I respect in the various volumes of the series. I have come across later versions of these characters as they are folded into the Marvel universe, and with a Civil War crossover featuring the Young Avengers, but I have gaps. I may always have gaps.
Where Runaways is special is that it is thoroughly modern in its attitude to teenagers and young adult storytelling – far more realistic than the usual combination of teenage characters and super heroics. The characters are diverse, interesting and imperfect, and as with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider-Man (the two best examples of this I can think of) the supernatural elements in the story are used as powerful metaphors for all the other crap that teenagers have to deal with.
The boys are cute, don’t get me wrong, but I’m here to talk about women in superhero comics, and Runaways gives us some brilliant examples of this – not to mention, in the original lineup, a gender balance where the girls outnumbered the boys. THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN TEAM BOOKS. Well, except in overtly female team books like Birds of Prey. Runaways isn’t waving a big old feminist flag – it’s just discreetly hanging it in the background.
So who are the women of the Runaways? Let’s start with Nico.
A Japanese-American goth girl who dresses in fancy black lace outfits, Nico is one of the first of the group to realise that while they have fled their parents, they can’t outrun what they are.
She has inherited the magical abilities of her parents, dark wizards, and has a really disturbing power staff which requires her to draw her own blood in order for it to emerge FROM HER CHEST. There’s an obvious connection here to teen self-harm, such a common phenomenon among young women, and it is squirmy to watch her come to terms with her power and the weapon she wields for this reason.
On the other hand, that time she was being fed on by a vampire and her staff burst out, staking him through the chest – that was pretty awesome.
Later on she cuts herself less to bring forth the staff and utilises other means, such as brushing her teeth *really* hard. Also her menstrual cycle is addressed: when she has her period, the staff is always available!
I very much enjoyed the limitations built into Nico’s spellcasting ability – she can do absolutely anything with her staff but can only cast a spell once, which means that as time goes on she has to become more and more creative with how to get the job done. “Freeze” once used is gone forever, and any accidental or deliberate attempt to repeat a spell results in disaster.
There’s also an emotional component to her spells – if her staff represents self-harm, then her spell casting verges on depression at times, with her having to call up negative and sad memories in order to make the spells work.
The runaways all choose ‘hero’ names for themselves, but later drop them as holding on to their original identities becomes more important to them. Nico’s chosen name was Sister Grimm.
In later volumes of Runaways, Nico has taken on the role as the leader of the team. Her powers have been developing in strength as well, so that she is capable of far more than when she started.
As part of the current Marvel NOW releases, Nico and her fellow Runaway Chase will join new title Avengers Arena which mixes up a bunch of teen characters from Avengers Academy and other books into a Hunger Games style scenario on the charmingly named Murder Island: kill or be killed.
My money’s on Nico to make it to the end.
Where the Wonder Women Are:
1: Black Canary
4: Black Widow
5: Wonder Girl
6: Captain Marvel
8: Abigail Brand
15. Jean Grey
17. Emma Frost
19. Lady Sif
21. The Wasp
23. Misty Knight (and Colleen Wing)
25. Kitty Pryde
26. Crimson Fox
27. The Invisible Woman
28. Dr Light