Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

17 February 2009

Runaways, v. 8: Dead End Kids

Collects: Runaways (v. 2) #25-30 (2007-8)

Released: January (2009)

Format: 152 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785134596

What is this?: The young heroes find themselves transported back in time a century and struggle with the culture and villains to return home.

The culprits: Writer Joss Whedon and penciler Michael Ryan

When last we saw our heroes — almost two years ago for those who, like me, read the collected editions but are too cheap for the hardcover — Iron Man and his goons had just busted into their headquarters, saying some nonsense about registration.

This story doesn’t pick up from there. I have no idea how that played out. If you want those answers, go to Wikipedia. (And yes, I’m a little peeved Marvel offers no references. When you release stories in collected form, it doesn’t hurt to direct readers to previous efforts. If they think they’re missing a volume, they might stop reading the series altogether.)

Runaways, v. 8: Dead End Kids coverInstead, Runaways, v. 8: Dead End Kids picks up with the kids in New York, about to strike a deal with the Kingpin for protection. He has them steal an object for a client, which causes them to run afoul of the Punisher, ninjas, and eventually the Kingpin himself … before things get even worse.

Writer Joss Whedon seems a perfect match for this title. Young, sassy protagonists, strong female characters, sexual identity and authority issues … yep, they’re all here. It doesn’t give Whedon the chance to cast Eliza Dushku or Nathan Fillion, but other than that, great fit. His customary style of dialogue fits perfectly with the characters, and the plot is fantastic: the kids go back in time a century and find out superpowered violence and gangs are not just a product of the post-war world. Whedon even manages to tie the time-travel plot into the characters’ back story, which is impressive and fun. In fact, I would like to see more of that early 20th century powered world, populated with “Wonders” such as the Swell and the Yellow Kid (yes, that Yellow Kid). The climax of the story seems to rule it out, though.

The dialogue and characters of 1907 New York are so enjoyable, as a matter of fact, that they conceal some severe weaknesses in the plot. The hinge on which the story swings — two non- or low-powered characters living for much more than a century — seems farfetched. Nico’s subplot, in which her powers are expanded, is improbable, and the plot isn’t given enough space to make it believable.

Whedon gets the characters, for the most part, which is always a concern when a new writer takes over for a series creator. Whedon also emphasizes that the past is a different country, showing the reader how they do things differently there — sweatshops, child brides, lower standards of sanitation. One relatively sympathetic character from the past, Klara, freaks out when she sees two female characters kiss.

Whedon’s style is not for everyone. It can be grating, even for someone who enjoys it. Do people really talk like that, all of the time? It’s hard to believe. Yet the humor and wit do win out over the dialogue’s implausibility. Sometimes the jokes are a little tired: making fun of the Kingpin by having him interrupt a serious monologue with a chocolate bar, for instance, or playing up the effects of Molly punching the Punisher a little too much. The 1907 Adjudicator is a superior parody of the Punisher, in any event. And for God’s sake, would it have killed Whedon to get the issues out on time? (It could have been the artist’s fault, I know. But his Astonishing X-Men had the same problems.)

Kingpin's freaky hands -- with disappearing and magically appearing rings!I can’t really put a more definitive finger on what bothers me about Michael Ryan’s artwork; although I don’t like it, his style fits the title very well — modern, slightly manga, lean and glossy. On the other hand, sometimes his work is a little too manga for me to take seriously; for instance, he uses the comically oversized sweat beads on characters’ temples at moments of stress. And there are moments of art dodginess as well, as when the Kingpin displays a hand with five fingers but no thumb. However, I suppose I have to give Ryan tentative approval.

As a whole, Dead End Kids is a mixed bag — engaging plot, great characters, occasionally overindulgent, with plot holes that should have been caught and an art style I don’t quite appreciate. The delays work both for and against it — anticipation built to such a height can never be achieved, but readers are thankful to get something. But that missing reference to what the hell happened after Iron Man burst into their headquarters is what really sticks in my craw and keeps me from overlooking the story’s flaws and seeing an essentially enjoyable story.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (3 of 5)

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