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The Great “Runaways” or “Young Avengers” Debate!

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
The Great “Runaways” or “Young Avengers” Debate!

It’s VS! Welcome back to the column where Brett White and I pit awesome things against one another and pit ourselves against one another with only Opinion Bullets to defend ourselves (opinion bullets are totally â„¢ and © Brett White).

PREVIOUSLY ON VS: The Great Batman Movie Debate!

This time, we’re looking at two series we adore and that share so much in common that it’s going to be almost physically painful to debate them. That’s right — it’s “Runaways” VS “Young Avengers!”

For our purposes, we’re talking specifically about Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s initial “Runaways” volume, and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s standalone “Young Avengers” series. Of note is that while both titles featured amazing guest artist work, for this debate Alphona and McKelvie are considered the defining artists for their respective series.

KELLY: I think we should start by talking about the creative teams. Both have, frankly, awesome creative teams, but I think “Young Avengers” has the advantage here of its team being more seasoned when the books were created.

BRETT: Both Gillen and McKelvie had not only worked together on a number of projects prior to this, but they’d done a lot of independent Marvel work before this. “Runaways” was basically Alphona’s big comic book debut.

KELLY: Great point. Not only was each creator a bit more seasoned on “Young Avengers” but, as a team, Gillen and McKelvie were a well-oiled machine.

“Runaways” debuted a dozen years ago, so it was relatively early in the career of the phenomenally talented Alphona. And while it is sometimes beautiful and completely serviceable as a whole, for me it shows little of the depth, nuance or creativity of his later books. “Runaways” is also a bit uneven and inconsistent, especially compared with what we’re seeing from him these days on “Ms. Marvel.” Colorist and inker may have also had some effect on the finished work especially as it relates between Alphona’s work then and now, but overall (and especially with some distance and his more current work to compare it to) it very much looks like a young artist still learning his craft.

BRETT: While I do think it took Alphona’s art a little while to click, there’s a ridiculous amount of growth in those first 18 issues — specifically when Craig Yeung and Christina Strain get locked in as his inker and colorist. By the end of the volume, I think we’re seeing the work of a phenomenal art team firing on all cylinders. This is a different approach than what Alphona’s using on “Ms. Marvel,” for sure, but to me he looks like multiple fantastic artists all rolled into one. I love how dynamic and earnestly exaggerated Alphona’s expressions and proportions get, and I love his fashion sense.

I have to mention Christina Strain, who was the first colorist I ever really noticed and became a fan of; Karolina Dean’s energy signature is so beautifully done.

KELLY: For sure. There’s real growth in these pages. The last issues show a real leap forward and I am absolutely agreed on the signature coloring done on Karolina Dean — it’s almost the star of the book in some ways — just magnificent.

By comparison, McKelvie benefits from his “Young Avengers” being later work in his career, and some of the best work of his career. His character design and visual style feel very clean and modern, and the sense of style feels effortlessly on point. You never see a lazy panel in Mckelvie’s “Young Avengers” work, or a panel where it feels like he couldn’t quite figure out what he wanted to do. It’s insanely confident.

Most important to me, though, is that he is doing the most innovative storytelling work he’s ever done here. Gillen’s story, either by design or happy accident, provides McKelvie with a ton of opportunities to do crazy character design, creative alternate dimensions, and experimenting with panel borders and layout in innovative ways that level the story up in an awesome way.

BRETT: While I do love the Vaughan/Alphona collaboration, the Gillen/McKelvie one feels way more cohesive because of all those insane experimentations with form. The giant map/key fight scene with Noh-varr in the nightclub in #4 blew my mind and caused my mouth to do that “why are you hanging open?” thing. Every issue had something that came close to that. On the whole, though, the art teams themselves are equally cohesive; Alphona/Yeung/Strain is just as tight of a unit as McKelvie/Mike Norton/Matt Wilson. These are two books that look good and have art teams filled with Rogues and void of Lifeguards (we’re both lukewarm on short-term X-Man Lifeguard, right?)

KELLY: [Laughs] For sure. Lifeguard. Ugh.

When it comes to the writers, I am a massive fan of Brian K Vaughan, “Saga” is one of my favorite comics and never ceases to impress me. And “Y: The Last Man” stands tall even in crowded field of some of the greatest series of all time. I think his creation of the “Runaways” is incredibly important but, on the whole from a storytelling perspective, this is a lesser work to me.

BRETT: I too love “Saga” and “Y,” and I’ll even go to bat for his underrated “Ultimate X-Men” run, but I disagree! Pew, pew, opinion bullets! “Runaways” is very much my BKV work. That’s no doubt because it was the first work I read of his, but it’s also the one I’ve reread the most. As someone who loves the Marvel Universe, I really dig the core concept of this series and I loved the way he filtered Marvel tropes through these teens.

KELLY: Interesting! I think the net result has huge value — in establishing these characters and creating a lasting YA story that influenced future stories — but it just doesn’t land for me like his other work. Despite Vaughan’s total commitment to the concept of the evil parents and Alex being a turncoat, I just never fully bought it. The sort of caricature of evil supervillain parents willing to frame their kids, maybe kill them, and probably give up their quite young lives for them never totally worked for me. I get that it is also supposed to work at least in part as a metaphor, and feel young and from these kids’ perspectives, but I don’t know. I just never completely bought in. Alex going turncoat always rang false to me and bummed me out since he was one of only two characters of color, and even worse, a black male leading a superhero team, which felt straight-up painful to lose.

BRETT: I totally bought it, maybe because I was still in college when I first read it and was very much in my “Buffy” phase. I wanted to get to know these characters and, while it definitely would have been beneficial to spend more time justifying the parents’ motivations, I don’t see the focus on the kids being a detriment. “What if your parents actually were evil” is the hook of the series, so if you don’t buy that, that’s a big mark against it. I also loved how each family represented one corner of the Marvel U (time-travelers, mysticism, mutants, etc.). I started reading “Runaways” with volume two, so I knew Alex wasn’t around for some reason when I read volume one. This is also something that hindsight has affected, since I did not register anything wrong with Alex being the only male POC and turning bad. Privilege! You’re impossible to spell and you’re everywhere!

KELLY: I am glad to learn that I’m not the only one that has trouble spelling “privilege.” Every single time, I get it wrong!

Yeah, it’s true that the core concept didn’t work for me, and that’s a problem. I was willing to be convinced as I read, but it never happened. And just to be clear, I’m not saying the book should have been about the parents at all. Just that it being from the kids’ POV probably didn’t help me in understanding how the parents worked as anything other than caricatures. As I said, I may have just been a bit too old for the “parents are evil!” idea, which likely was massively appealing to the younger audiences it was aimed toward.

Though I am also a big fan of Gillen’s work, I would say Vaughn is technically a bigger draw for me. Yet I think this is a more accomplished work of Gillen’s up against a less accomplished Vaughan piece and so Gillen takes it. Overall, “Young Avengers” is definitely sharper and funnier, and, as we’ve discussed in other pieces, funny goes a long way for me.

BRETT: I think I could safely say that both of these works are my favorite works by each author.

KELLY: Yikes. This is a real “Sophie’s Choice” for you, then!

BRETT: VS. is all about making the tough call! While I do love “Young Avengers” and Gillen tremendously, I think I like the episodic structure of “Runaways” more. “YA” is essentially one monster-sized story with chapters of differing tone and execution, and I wanted more of a breather from it the Mother villain. I wish “Runaways” had a more inventive and thought out plot like “YA,” but I wish we got to spend more downtime with the “YA” cast like we do with the “Runaways.”

KELLY: I can agree to the downtime argument for sure. Though, ironically, the “YA” kids definitely eat more meals than the “Runaways” kids, who eat about one time and have 19 dollars between them but are apparently gone for months?!? That read really weird to me on my re-read! It’s funny — although they’re both young adult hero stories so maybe it’s not that surprising — both stories employ the evil parents angle as their entire focus. But Gillen’s to me is much more believable and has the benefit of a “body snatchers” type of story which I love. As a result, I don’t spend anytime worrying about that or being annoyed and can just enjoy the ride.

KELLY: Character is where I think it really gets tough because both books bring so much to the table. First and foremost both of these books are better than most when it comes to diversity. “Runaways” has time working against it in that the comics scene 12 years ago was tougher on this kind of book, and yet it excelled at diversity — especially female characters at a time when that wasn’t nearly as prevalent as now. From go, this book has four girls and two boys, and that was (and with rare exceptions still is) unheard of and thus super impressive.

BRETT: Yep! I will credit “Runaways,” and also “Buffy,” with opening my eyes to the gender imbalance that is prevalent in pop culture. I remember 20-year-old me noticing the gender ratio in this book and being… not mad about it, but definitely noticing it. I now realize I was feeling a variation on the way women feel when they see that every team only has one woman on it. “Runaways” pushed my brain away from where patriarchal pop culture wanted it to stay, and I’m grateful for that.

KELLY: For sure. Both books are about even when it comes to race, with “Runaways” fully ahead until Prodigy shows up partway through “Young Avengers.” However, technically “Young Avengers” ends up on top at the end of the book since Prodigy is solidly with the team and Alex has disappeared.

“Young Avengers” is way ahead on the LGBTQ+ characters. With not only two out gay characters that are actively in a relationship (thus making it something tangible in the story and visible on the page) but at some point it becomes clear that nobody is straight in the book except for Kate Bishop (and even she is “not that straight” according to America).

BRETT: Confession: the very first time I acknowledged my gayness out loud was by saying, “I’m not as straight as you think I am” to the guy I liked. Comics and life, they mirror each other!

KELLY: Comics are real, yo. The LGBTQ+ diversity in “YA” feels straight up revolutionary, even for 2015. By contrast, in the first 18 issues of “Runaways” we definitely get the hint that Karolina isn’t straight, but it’s not made clear on the page. If we were to look to later issues of “Runaways,” namely the introduction of Xavin, we’d see more diversity, but that’s not on the table today.

BRETT: She does try to be straight in issue #9 with the vampire Topher by saying, “maybe you are sorta cute? I guess?” As a gay man that tried to date women in high school and college, that “I guess?” is so accurate to me.

I have to mention just how important all the Karolina stuff was for me. I definitely read my first “Runaways” issue (volume 2 #1) just a few months before I came out to anyone or myself. I know I read volume one at some point in the wake of acknowledging — and questioning — my homosexuality. Gay characters in superhero comics were few and far between; “Runaways” and the initial “Young Avengers” volume helped change the landscape at Marvel in a big way, so actually reading a character go through the process of coming out in this volume and the next one really resonated with me. And while there are only hints of Karolina being queer in these 18 issues, reading it while questioning my sexuality and knowing where she ends up caused a lot of things to stick out.

KELLY: That’s super powerful. I have no problem with the way Vaughan handles Karolina’s sexuality — even before you shared your personal history I would have said it felt very real — and now I feel doubly so. But (especially) twelve years later it does feel like we need more visibility in this regard and just more stories so that we can still have subtle ones like Karolina’s transition and also the super matter of fact ones where characters are just out and have been out forever and it’s no big deal. It’s just like anything else, having more variety can only be good for everyone!

BRETT: And that’s where “Young Avengers” builds upon the foundation laid out in “Runaways.” So much variety!

KELLY: Exactly. I mean, we picked “YA” and “Runaways” to VS! because they’re not only both great, but it definitely feels like “Runaways” makes “YA” (and so much more) possible. Okay, so “Runaways” slightly edges out “Young Avengers” when it comes to body diversity because Arsenic/Gert is technically not a supermodel, but she’s drawn a bit inconsistently depending on the artist involved (if you include covers and things) and so the net effect of Gert not having a standard superhero meets supermodel body type was often blunted. Still, Gert meant (and means) a great deal to a lot of readers for her distinction of not being supermodel beautiful. Including me. I never was and never will look like a supermodel, so like you with Karolina, it was a huge relief to just see someone who looked a little more like me on the page. But I also remember being frustrated because sometimes (especially on covers) she would just look like everyone else.

BRETT: I do think that Alphona and Miyazawa are on the same page when it comes to Gert, so she does appear consistently throughout these eighteen issues at least. She looked so much like one of my co-workers at the movie theater back in the mid-’00s. I have a lot of memories tied up with this book!

KELLY: You really, really do! Still, the entire cast of “Young Avengers” look like they could be on an MTV show (“Teen Wolf” springs to mind) with their levels of hotness — which let’s be real, is super fun, but not exactly pushing on any boundaries.

BRETT: What I would not give to see a man with Foggy Nelson’s frame placed in every one of Noh-varr’s fantastic stretchy outfits! I’m predictable and delightful!

KELLY: [Laughs] I cannot watch “Daredevil” without thinking about you thanks to this Foggy Nelson thing of yours. So…we’ve tried to be very scientifical, buuuuut none of this stuff really matters when I think about how much I love Kate Bishop or America Chavez or Molly Hayes. Sometimes you fall in love with characters just because, right? At the end of the day, “Young Avengers” holds more characters that I’m closely attached to, including one of my favorite characters of all time in Kate Bishop. But you can take Molly Hayes from me (especially Future Molly Hayes!) when you pry her from my cold dead hands!

BRETT: The “Runaways” feel like my characters over the “YA” crew in the same way “Generation X” feels like my student body instead of “New X-Men.” I like the “YA” cast, but none of them resonate with me as completely as Chase (who is so dumb but so great) or Gert (who is 100% every person I hung out with in high school) or Molly (she’s Molly!). Or Old Lace. Lord, I love it when action stories have animals in them! The only “YA” member that really comes close for me is America Chavez, who’s one of my favorite characters just based on her visual and her M.I.A. “Bad Girls” attitude alone .

KELLY: I agree with everything you’re saying, and yet all I can really hear is KAAAAAAATE BISSSSSSHHHHOOOOOPPPP. 😉 So I (sorta?) hate to do it, but I have to vote “Young Avengers.” In addition to slightly edging out my character love, it’s just the more accomplished, consistent and cohesive work and it makes me laugh more. Let’s be real: “Runaways” paved the way for a lot of things we’re seeing today, including the original “Young Avengers” that came out in 2005 and the recent version we discussed today.  

BRETT: Let it be known that I own fancy hardcovers of both of these runs. I have to go with “Runaways” — but remember, “YA” was my #4 favorite series of 2013 and “YA” #4 was my favorite single issue of 2013. I love that book and so much about “YA” is everything I want comics to be; I just happened to be at the right place and at the right time of my life for “Runaways,” and that’s a love I cannot deny.

KELLY: All right, kids, that’s all for this week! Don’t forget to vote on “Runaways” or “Young Avengers” in the poll.

By the way, this whole “VS” column was a bit of a test to see if you guys liked it, and you really, really did. So we’ll be back soon with new columns on a bi-monthly schedule. See ya soon!

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

Kelly Thompson is the author of the novels “The Girl Who Would be King” and “Storykiller.” She’s also the writer of IDW’s “Jem and the Holograms,” the Graphic Novel “Heart in a Box,” and co-writer of Marvel’s “Captain Marvel & the Carol Corps.” You can find Kelly all over the place, but twitter is easiest: @79semifinalist

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