Friday, June 13, 2008

Runaways, vol. 1

Runaways, vol. 1
by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Adrian Alphona (mostly)
Marvel, 2006

Hillary Brown: So I was a little bit worried that re-reading Runaways, vol. 1, would be disappointing, as I've probably built it up a bit in my memory. It was a formative comics-reading experience for me, one of the first things that I just couldn't put down. All I wanted to do was read it and then the second volume and the third. It was sort of like the equivalent of watching Buffy on DVD (I would say 24, but I've never had that experience, and my guess is that revisitation points up that series' flaws), where I pretty much just wanted to plug the media I was experiencing into my head, like a rat pushing the pleasure button over and over again. The answer is that, yes, it suffers a little bit, especially as much of the plot is built on surprise--a particularly pleasurable element for me, no matter the medium--but it doesn't suffer a lot. The central premise of the book (yes, your parents are evil) is just so darn brilliant in its simplicity, and if there's one thing you can pick out that Vaughan is particularly good at, it's pacing. If you want a book that makes you read slowly and think about the history of comics, I'd have to say this isn't it, but it's marvelous narrative-driven stuff.

Garrett Martin: First off, although, yes, there's no surprise or suspense in rereading Runaways, you can still marvel at Vaughn's craft and how deftly he handled that last-act reveal. As a story, from conception to execution, few recent mainstream comics can compare to this book. Still, I don't if I'd call it a truly great comic. But so, I read Runaways in those little tiny Archie-style digests. The store was selling the first one half-off, I took a flyer, and had to head back the next day to pick up the rest of the first "season". I hadn't realized how ridiculously addictive good serialized comics in cheap digest form could be beforehand. It totally made me understand why manga is so huge. And your comparison to Buffy and 24 is apt, as, like most of Brian K. Vaughan's comics, Runaways feels more indebted to television than comic books. Structure, dialogue, character development: almost everything about Runaways (and Ex Machina, and what I've read of Y the Last Man, etc.) recalls tv shows more than Stan Lee or Julie Schwarz. Of course Buffy was influenced somewhat by comics, so it's probably silly and hard and pointless to suss out the inspiration trail; snake be eatin' some tail. But I'm sticking on this point because that's my biggest problem with BKV (the bigger of, like, two problems, so don't go thinking I dislike the guy). The cinematization (televisualization?) of superhero comics has lead to some great stories, but those stories tend to lack some of the imagination and impossibility inherent to the genre. And so often the stories are slow and kinda boring. Vaughn avoids this trap better than almost any other similar writer (perhaps because he started in comics before moving to tv and not vice versa), but even with Runaways, which is really damn good, he doesn't take enough advantage of the freedom and possibilities of the comic book form. Which, again, isn't to say Runaways is bad in any way, but to explain why I don't consider it or Vaughn to be in the highest echelon of mainstream genre comics or creators. Which is also to say that, although I really like Vaughn and his work, I think both are slightly overrated.

HB: Well.... Hmm. I think your quibble is a little weird, as that's something I was looking for specifically this go-round, due to hearing it from you before. I'd actually say that Runaways works kind of a lot within its medium, with plenty of references to history and genre. You may have to be more specific about how he's not doing what you want him to be doing. Is it that his characters comment on their situations as implausible from time to time? That may be modernity more than genre.

GM: You know, it is a weird quibble. I don't know if I can justify it on any intellectual or critical basis. But I'll try.

What I mean is, I can't call Runaways a truly great comic because it doesn't speak to me in any novel or interesting away about either the human condition or the artform it is a part of. Like Buffy (for a while), it's good in its characterization and great in its storytelling, but, y'know, Buffy wasn't The Prisoner or the first season of Twin Peaks or (I'm gonna get it on this one) even Lost, and, similarly, Runaways isn't All-Star Superman or Casanova. I just think the series has more modest aspirations, and even though it hits almost every one of them, that necessarily leads to more modest results, and thus makes me reluctant to call it truly great. It also doesn't help that the voices of the different Runaways occasionally sound the same, especially when they quip and crack wise. So basically Runaways is a really well-made piece of genre work that doesn't fully transcend its two genres of superhero comic and teen ensemble drama (or dramedy, whatever).

HB: Oof. You might be gonna get it on all of those analogies. Basically, if you make me pick between Buffy and a piece of (admittedly beautiful) hogwash like The Prisoner or even (I'm gonna get it for this one) Twin Peaks, not to mention Lost, which you obviously remember I'm not a fan of, I will take Joss Whedon's side one hundred percent of the time. Sure, if you want ponderous obscurity and things that could be meditations on the meaning of life but could just as well be not knowing what you're trying to talk about, you might want to pick those shows, but that is absolutely not what I want. Saint Augustine is allowed to think about man's place in the universe and the nature of God and so on, but few other people are because it degenerates into pot-head babbling, and what I love about Whedon's work (mostly) and Vaughan's is their sharpness. They've already edited themselves and removed most of the extraneous hoo-ha.

Whew. That said, you're right that Runaways has weaknesses. It's true that everyone is smart and wise-cracky, and in similar voices. And I think Alphona's art doesn't particularly take advantage of the form--much less than the writing, which has plenty of comics jokes (gamma rays, initial meeting superhero fight, woo-woo costumes for the ladies). The coloring is kind of yucky and modern. The crossover bit isn't great. I think Vaughan probably has greater things in him in some ways, but I hate to ghettoize genre work. Honestly, what's not genre-fied when you get down to it?

GM: I'm not trying to ghettoize anything; 99% of what I read is superhero junk, and I'm not nearly as embarrassed about that as I probably should be. And Runaways is better than almost any of that. Still, if I'm reading a comic and one of my two most constant thoughts is "wow, this would make a really good tv show", I'll have a hard time ranking that comic among the absolute best of the form. Despite whatever advances in CGI, there are still more possibilties with pen and ink than with real actors trying to interact with real or digital sets and effects. Most comics don't make use of that potential, of course, and I don't really hold it against them, but when a writer and/or artist do succeed in creating something that can't easily be translated to another artform, something that is distinctly and incontrovertibly suited for comics above anything else, while still telling a good story, then that work will definitely be elevated, in my view. Runaways doesn't do that, which isn't it's fault at all. It doesn't have to, and shouldn't, be anything other than what Vaughan and Alphonsa wanted it to be. But that's why I can't say that it's an absolutely great comic or a personal favorite. Runaways is really good, probably great, but once I was done reading it I was done thinking about it. Y'know? I'd definitely recommend this to anybody, especially people who do like tv shows like Buffy but have never gotten into comics. I could see it being a great gateway book, and that's awesome.

Perhaps I took a wrong turn here, deciding to immediately explain why I don't like Runaways as much as you and many of its supporters do, instead of actually discussing the comic's merits first. We've talked about this before, though, off-site, and so I wanted to jump straight into the debate. Also I've got a new boss buzzing around after months without one, and so shit's more urgent on my side. Had to get straight to the point, y'know.

HB: Still, the only thing I can think of that can't be translated to another artform/medium is jokes about panels, and even those have their parallels in the world of animation, which has plenty of jokes about cells and frames and so on (e.g., "Duck Amuck"). On the other hand, perhaps you really do mean "translated well," with such examples as that ridiculous looking Hulk serving to show just how bad CGI can still be. But that's not exclusive to comics either. I also can't translate my imagination perfectly into an embodied form, and I'm sure that comics don't perfectly translate what's in their creators' heads. So is the imagination a superior medium to comics?

Anyway, I think what we have here is just a fundamental aesthetic disagreement. I tend to like things that are neatly done, compact, tight, and yet surprising. You prefer stuff that's more expansive and imaginative. Neither of these is a particularly good summary of our differing aesthetic preferences, but it sort of points up the reason I may like Runaways better than you do. Note, also, that I don't think anything following it is up to the standards of this first volume, because they're more meandering, more crossover-oriented, and less well structured.

GM: I don't mean metafictional moments like "Duck Amuck" or some of Morrison's stuff. And cartoons kinda sit this argument out - they split the difference between comics and film anyway, and thus might be the greatest artform ever invented. But so, I suspect the Watchmen film will be a good example of what I'm talking about. Watchmen the comic combines text, images, and linear and non-linear storytelling in ways that can't really be done effectively in film or literature, while still being commercially accessible and successful. The movie won't be able to do that. A serialized tv adaptation would maybe be better suited, but still couldn't replicate the depth and breadth of the original.

HB: No, that's fair. I don't think that kind of thing precludes good adaptation, but it's certainly harder, especially the text aspect (although you can do it with voiceover to some extent, as we've discussed). I don't have faith that Watchmen the movie will do it successfully (it's also not my favorite comic), but that doesn't mean it can't be done.

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