Joss Whedon 101: Runaways

A major theme in the early years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the rejection of adult authority figures. Buffy and the Scooby Gang were constantly in conflict with symbols of authority. Principal Snyder was a perpetual thorn in the side of our heroes, a disciplinarian goon who took pleasure in berating the students of Sunnydale High. The Watcher’s Council turned out to be a corrupt organization, arrogantly treating Buffy like a disposable weapon. This theme was best demonstrated by Mayor Richard Wilkins III, the Big Bad of Season Three. Mayor Wilkins’s outer persona was that of a polite and charming small town mayor with a love of miniature golf and a no-swearing policy. In reality, he was an immortal sorcerer trying to complete his ascension to full-blooded demon.

Of course, there are benevolent authority figures in the Buffyverse. Buffy’s mother Joyce Summers grows to accept her daughter’s heroic responsibility as the Slayer. Rupert Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, acts as a replacement father figure to Buffy and her friends.

Runaways, the Marvel Comics series created by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona takes Buffy‘s theme of rejecting adult authority to the next level. The series challenges what Vaughan saw as a tendency in the superhero genre to put guardian figures on a pedestal and show that true heroes always respect their elders and blindly follow their teachings. In Runaways no adult authority figures can be trusted. Parents, police, teachers, and even superheroes are all antagonistic towards the runaway teens of the title. Unlike Buffy, the Runaways have no one to turn to for advice or to protect them. The group of friends are completely on their own, with only each other to depend on.

The central metaphor behind Runaways is a very simple idea. At some point in their lives, every teenager considers their parents to be evil. For Nico, Chase, Molly, Karolina, Gert, and Alex, their parents actually are evil. Living in Los Angeles, the families meet once a year at Alex’s house and the kids are forced to interact with each other while their parents discuss their charity plans. Alex convinces the older kids to join him in spying on their parents’ meeting. What they see is the murder of a young woman by Alex’s father, and they find out that their parents are actually a secret cabal of supervillains named the Pride. As the Pride, their parents are the secret crime lords of Los Angeles, (Vaughan makes clever use of Marvel’s tendency to set all their comics in New York; there are no local superheroes to fight the Pride.)

The teens go on the run, trying to find a way to end their parents’ criminal empire. Each except for Alex discovers secret powers or artefacts that their parents had hidden from them. Nico discovers that her parents are dark magicians and that she has inherited their magical ability. Chase finds out that his parents are mad scientists. Gert realizes that her parents are time travellers and she unlocks a genetically engineered Deinonychus-like dinosaur her parents had bought for her in case she was ever in danger. She names her new dinosaur, Old Lace. Karolina has to deal with the shocking revelation that her family are aliens who have been hiding out on Earth her whole life and that her abilities had been kept suppressed by her parents. Molly Hayes, the youngest of the group, discovers that she’s actually a mutant and is gifted with super-strength (with the minor drawback that using her power tires her out and she needs to take a nap to regain her strength.)

They discover that the police are on the payroll of the Pride and they are unable to get in contact with any of the established Marvel superheroes. The first volume of Runaways follows the conflict between the Pride and their children. The story climaxes with a twist as shocking as Angel becoming Angelus in Buffy Season Two. Alex, the de-facto leader of the Runaways, turns out to have been a mole for the Pride the whole time. Alex had been subtly manipulating the other kids throughout the series. The ending finally brings to an end the Pride’s criminal empire and the Runaways are split up and sent to foster homes by Captain America.

The influence of Joss Whedon is apparent throughout Vaughan’s work on Runaways. The cast challenges the traditional superhero team set-up. Superhero teams have traditionally been dominated by male characters, often containing only one or two token female characters…

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Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole — until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

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