Creating an enduring new series that takes place in the Marvel or DC universes is never easy. Most of the best selling super-hero books today are ones centered on classic characters like Batman or Spider-Man or are spun off from their books. The problem is that most new concepts aren’t terribly original or can’t sustain an entire series. Or sometimes there’s a potentially great series but loses its way after a few issues. Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s series Runaways is still original and exciting after 3 years and it doesn’t look like it will be slowing down anytime soon. Unfortunately, the series creators won’t be around for the ride.

For those who aren’t familiar with the premise, Runaways focuses on a group of teens (and one pre-teen) that discover that their parents are evil super-villains bent on destroying the Earth. While there are plenty of teen team books out there, Runaways feels very unique and isn’t hampered by a storied continuity despite being part of one. It introduces the reader to Marvel continuity in a comfortable manner so readers unfamiliar with the Marvel universe learn about it along with the characters. In this story, the teens find themselves facing a new Pride (the team that the Runaways’ evil parents formed) lead by a foe that they never expected to see again, in a fashion that’s even more unexpected.

Though Vaughan and Alphona still have a couple issues to go before their run ends, this is the story-arc that feels like the climax to their run. It features a big threat, a much-hyped character death, lots of action and big character moments. But above all it’s very, very good. The aforementioned death probably would have been more effective if readers hadn’t been told a character would die months before the issue came out. Still, in a world where character deaths are a dime a dozen, the death itself is a surprisingly powerful and touching moment. There are also some great character moments that help make the characters more endearing. In a sweet and heartbreaking epilogue at the end of a one-shot story, 12-year-old Molly dreams of a tender moment with the parents she lost after helping enslaved kids return to theirs. There’s also a nice moment where the skrull Xavin tells Karolina (a glowing alien girl raised on Earth) that he’s teaching his royal band to play “Lucy in Sky with Diamonds” for their wedding reception.

Vaughan is at the top of his game with this volume. While I always like Vaughan’s writing, he often adds pop culture references that can take readers out of the story. It feels like he’s pointing out music, movies and books he thinks are cool, but here all of the references feel much more natural and appropriate to the characters and story. The new Pride introduced in this story, a group of nerds who meet in a Marvel-themed MMORPG, are entertaining and likeable, if a bit unsurprised by certain events (they seem surprisingly unfazed when one of their number is vaporized). Still, Vaughan manages to build on his little corner of the Marvel universe, making it a lot fresher than many Marvel books that tend to retread beloved and overly familiar stories.

Adrian Alphona provides some fantastic art as well. When I first started reading the series, his art struck me as being a little too similar to Salvador Larroca, but this story shows what he’s able to accomplish with his take the realm of the Gibborim (as crazy and original as Steve Ditko’s take on Dormammu’s home dimension in Dr. Strange) and Nico’s spell that summons little fairies. His character designs are also pretty great too, especially the new Pride, who have as much personality in their appearance as they do in their dialogue. It is in some ways reminiscent of Pascal Ferry’s art — it looks good to begin with but looks much more impressive with the right colouring that Christina Strain provides. Her vibrant colours give the characters real texture, as well as a sort of animated feel.

Though it’s a shame to see the team who created the series leave it, the new creative team, Joss Whedon and Michael Ryan, look like they have a promising run ahead of them. While a large part of this prediction comes from the talent of the new creative team, it also has a lot to do with quality of the characters and story that the old team had created. The advantage of a series like Runaways is that it can be both part of it’s own little world, yet still fit perfectly into the tapestry of the Marvel universe. Vaughan had always intended the characters to go on without them and to become a permanent fixture for Marvel, and the way I see it, there are still so many possibilities for these characters in an industry where the so many of the iconic characters’ stories have a “been there, done that” feeling to them (how many times has Spider-Man been a fugitive or promised to quit being Spider-Man?). As long as Marvel keeps putting out series like Runaways, I’ll believe that there are new kinds of super-hero stories to tell in the Marvel universe.