Runaways (vol. 1), Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Adolpha

Runaways has been sounding wonderful to me for a while now. It’s a comic book about a group of kids whose parents turn out to be supervillains. The kids witness their parents sacrificing a young woman; duly horrified, they run away from home. Their parents are supervillains and they all run away! Supervillains! Their parents are supervillains! As premises for comic books go, this is a fun one. With runaway children, and parents that are supervillains. It was adorable and charming in many ways.

I am sitting here heaving huge sighs of unhappiness, because I wanted to and in many ways did like this book. It made reference to The Prisoner. The kids all have different powers and do different things. I think it’s possible that if I had read this book in single issues, one at a time over several weeks, rather than in a big compendium of the whole run of comics, the problem that bothered the crap out of me would have bothered me less. But I didn’t do that. I read it all in one day, on the drive to and then back from visiting my grandmother.

Briefly, what stopped me enjoying Runaways was race stuff. I wasn’t happy with the portrayal of the only set of black parents. I’m about to spoil a whole bunch of things about this volume of the series, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading. Fairly enormous spoilers follow.

First of all, there are twelve parents, but the guy to shank the poor, innocent, teenage girl at the beginning is the black father. Then it’s the black mother who shoots the cop nonfatally, and subsequently, when the cop gets shot fatally, guess who does it? The black father! Oh, yeah, and check out the backstory. All the parents were engaged in their various activities when they were summoned by the Super Evil Evil People, who then set them on the path to supervillainy. One set of parents were scientists, one time-travellers, one mutants being persecuted, one aliens checking out the earth, and one magicians. Guess what the black parents were doing before they became supervillains? They were petty thieves! They robbed people with guns! That’s what they did before they became supervillains. Nice, eh?

Oh, but wait, I am not quite done. Hold for the really huge spoilers. When the book starts, and the kids are first running away, the parents get a note that basically says Dear parents, I still love and trust you and will tell you where we are soon; and then throughout the book you are always wondering who the mole is. Personally, I was hoping that the note was part of a cleverly masterminded plan to fool the parents. I was hoping that, and ignoring evidence to the contrary, because–why? Because I didn’t want the mole to be the one of the kids never really under serious suspicion of being the mole. But it was. It was the black kid. Who then dies in the final battle.

In short, the black characters seemed disproportionately criminal and wicked compared to the others, without any real plot reason for them to be that way. And the longer the book went on, and the more I wanted to find it fun and awesome, the more I felt I could not find it fun and awesome because I was so uncomfortable with the race stuff. Frown.

  • Oh, Lord. That’s unfortunate. How was the race stuff handled with Nico, if you don’t mind me asking?

    • Well, apart from their being rather exoticized (that’s a word, right? Firefox thinks not), Nico and her parents were fine. You know, the parents were evil, but fine otherwise.

  • I skipped the spoilery parts because I’m ridonkulously behind on my graphic novel and comics reading. This is one I’d like to get to, because I’d like to know if the same things bug me that bugged you. I feel an interlibrary loan coming on!

    • I will be curious to see if you have the same response I did. My sister read this right before I did, and she didn’t feel the same. So it’s very possible I overreacted.

  • This is so crappy! The fact that the black family in the story are so obviously targeted to be vile human beings really saddens me. You would think that the author would know better! I am not going to be reading this. Your observations have really hit home with me, and I am not going to be sucked in to such an obviously racist story, no matter how interesting the plot sounds.

    • And it was a good plot! And I doubt that the writers were in any way doing it on purpose. I just wish someone had leaned over their shoulders at some point during the development of the comic and said, Hey dude, you’ve given all the wickedness to the black characters. :/

  • It is so disappointing to WANT to love a book and find it just doesn’t quite work. Sometimes the flaws are relatively small, but even certain small flaws can interfere. Three incidents becomes serious.

    • Yep. I was already a bit uneasy with having the huge black father be the one to knife the girl at the beginning, and then the other incidents seemed progressively more and more unacceptable.

  • I was so looking forward to picking this up but your first sentence in your second paragraph gave me pause. Oh no, Jenny didn’t like this! What am I going to do now? Of course I stopped reading because I didn’t want to be spoiled with eh, spoilers 🙂 Sigh.

    • Well. I mean. I didn’t not like it. I thought the plot was really fun and cool! The book was certainly enjoyable! But there were elements that gave me pause and made it very difficult for me to enjoy the book on the merits of the plot and dialogue. *delicately avoids spoilers*

  • trapunto

    Ugh. It boggles the mind. I wonder if the creators never once stepped back when they were working on this this and said, “Um, do you know what I just noticed . . .” Nobody (even if they are) likes charges of racism leveled at them. I’d think they’d worry about it.

    • Exactly. I felt much the same way with some of the episodes of Angel that dealt with race. It’s obvious the writers weren’t intending to be all stereotype-y and awkward, but God, I felt so awkward for them. I wished I had been around at the time to ask them to please stop being so awkward.

  • Yuck! I’ve been thinking about reading this but now I won’t.
    🙁

    • I echo your 🙁 and affirm your discernment in not reading it.

  • Nothin’ like racism to ruin a perfectly enjoyable book 🙁

    • True story. And without even the excuse of being written Back in the Day, when everyone was racist. :p

  • I obviously wasn’t bothered by the race stuff, and I’m going to try to explain why not… but I’m not good at this sort of thing, so if I sound callous or insensitive, forgive me – it’s not my intent at all.

    I didn’t connect the fact that the Wilders were more evil than the rest of them to the fact that they were black, but rather I thought that the reason that the Wilders were more evil than the rest of them was because they were the leaders. Of course he’s going to be the one knifing the girl at the beginning – he’s the leader. (The fact that the Wilders were the only criminals in their pre-Pride days is less defensible)

    I think race is so sensitized an issue that a charge of racism could be leveled at the story no matter how the races of the characters were distributed. If the Wilders had been white and, say, the Steins had been black, then how come the black people are always the henchmen and never in charge? If the Deans had been black, does that mean that we’re identifying black people as aliens and therefore not really human? Etc.

    I’m not saying that racism isn’t real or isn’t a problem in society, or that the perception of racism isn’t a valid reason for not enjoying a story. Just that I think racism can really easily be read into things where it wasn’t the author’s conscious or even subconscious intent, so I tend to give most stories the benefit of the doubt.

    (Also, there are hints as the series progresses that there was more going on with Alex than we got to see in the first few volumes, just FYI.)

    • You don’t sound callous or insensitive at all! 🙂 And I don’t necessarily think that the authors were consciously or subconsciously being racist. I do wish, though, that someone had paused, looked at the way the story was going, and given it some consideration from the point of view of racial dynamics. Truthfully, the thing that bugged me by far the most was the Wilders’ past as petty thieves, and I’m sure that colored my reaction to their portrayal in the rest of the book.

      As far as the rest of the book goes, what I would say is this: It’s incredibly easy, given the long and fraught history of racism in this country, to write something that plays into a stereotype with a tremendous amount of cultural and historical resonance. When you write a story and draw a picture of a huge black man murdering a poor helpless little white girl, those two people aren’t just your characters in service of a story you’re writing; they’re placed–like it or not–in a long history of racism, propaganda, and hysteria. I’m not saying nobody can ever write a story where a black guy kills a white girl; it’s just that if you’re going to write that story, it behooves you to be triple-extra careful with it, because there’s decades of emotion behind an image like that.

      *climbs off soap box* :p