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Runaways: Another point of view

May 11, 2016

Runaways

About ten years ago I read Marvel’s The Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan. The idea was to attract new readers and the manga audience with the Tsunami Imprint. At the time, manga was starting to become popular and they were trying put out something to combat it and the Anime market as well. I started reading it after watching the first season of NBC Heroes. It was ok until I began to notice how the comic was treating the black characters. Albeit unintentional, it was racist towards African Americans. I’m going to talk about Vaughn’s run of the comic and the initial characters for the sake of discussion. WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE COMIC AND POSSIBLY THE SHOW.

 

The story is about six teenagers. There is Alex Wilder, the genius prodigy son born to rich parents, The Wilders; Nico Ninoru, a gothic girl with magic powers passed down from her family; Chase Stein, the son of scientists; Molly Hayes, who was a mutant; Karolina Dean daughter of alien invaders; and Gertrude Yorkes, a daughter of time travelers. At the start of the comic, the parents meet up at the Wilders to plan for a charity event and let their children go off to a separate part of the of house. While the teenagers were together, Alex has an idea of spying on their parents. Then, they stumble on a ritual where Alex’s father kills a young woman and it’s revealed that their parents are part of a cult called the Pride. Their goal is to help the entity called Gibborim and destroy the world to bring about a Utopia with their children. After discovering this, the teenagers turn against their parents, thus creating a group called the Runaways. So in the final battle with Pride in issue 17, it is revealed that Alex was the mole in the group, loyal to only his parents and their cause. He uses his friends to save Nico and his parents so that they can have a chance to live. Alex dies within the the same issue when he came out as the mole along with the team’s parents ending the first arc.

 

Let’s get into Alex’s personality within the comic. He would rather be alone playing games than around people and in the first arc, he is shown to have logical and strategic skills. Although it was troublesome that his team, who is mostly white, have powers (I’ll get to that), he was seen as the most level-headed in the group. Usually in media, young African American males are either shown as loud and street smart, reflecting the hip hop culture or are the black and nerdy trope. Alex didn’t fall into either of these. He was well-rounded and not a one-off character which was what kind of sets him apart from the rest of the Black superheroes. In that, he is just human and not someone who was hatched from the blaxploitation films (Luke Cage), or someone from the government (Falcon), or Africa (Black Panther). Keep in mind that this is before Miles Morales came onto the scene.

 

Even when Alex was with the rest of the group, he didn’t have any powers except his intellect. I mean, if Vaughn gave him something like martial arts, he would have at least been on par with Robin from Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans. Then again, it might look like they was doing a ripoff. During his time with the Runaways, he fell in love with Nico Minoru. That was kind of a rare pairing because it’s not often you get to see a Black man with an Asian woman (more rare than Black woman with Asian man). Most times in the media when there is an interracial couple, it’s usually a white man with a WOC (woman of Colour). Rarely do you see a man of colour with a woman of colour outside of each other’s race. This is usually reflect by the so-called dating demographics within dating sites.

Alex’s dad, Geoffry Wilder, was treated no better by the writers. During a flashback, we learn that the Gibborim chose the parents from all walks of life. The Minoru’s were dark wizards, The Yorkers were time travelers, Steins were inventors, Hayes were mutants and the Deans were alien invaders. The Wilders were shown as street thugs and this is problematic. Again with Black people being stereotyped as thugs and gang bangers. The rest of the cast are shown as something from the extraordinary like wizards or aliens while the Wilders are shown as stereotypes. Now some would argue that yeah, they are suppose to be like that because of their role as thieves, but why not make them jewel thieves or something more than a Black stereotype? Again this is an example of the writer not knowing how to write Black people properly.

 

From a narrative perspective, the problem I had with the story is that Alex’s betrayal came out of left field. It was hurried and served no purpose other than shock value. His motivation was rushed and wasn’t fleshed out. There weren’t even a sufficient amount of clues that led up to his betrayal. From the looks of it, Vaughn and Marvel were up in a corner and didn’t know what do with Alex so they made him into a mole. Some readers pointed out that his serious mindset, his distance from the group was the clue. But, from a narrative point of view it doesn’t work like that, unless this is a M. Night Shyamalan film where quirks are what define a person. As a villain, he wasn’t very good either because as soon as he came out, he was killed by Gibborim along with the parents. There was no room for him to grow as the mole or the villain. It was more like they didn’t have anything for him so they killed him off which seems to happens a lot with characters of colour in movies or films.

 

When a writer is doing diversity at face value, usually the POC characters get the least of everything, including story. Alex was rarely mentioned until Avengers Undercover (I’ll get to that on later on). It would have been more logical to outsmart his father by pretending to be the mole and then put an end to Pride with the rest of the Runaways . Then later on as time went by, he could have grown as a character along with the rest of the team. Some might say that it would have reduced Nico to his arm candy and defeat the feminist angle. No, allowing Alex to grow was not going to hurt Nico’s growth at all. Just because people are together, that doesn’t mean that they can’t explore or that they will become complacent. Real life relationships work out like that. If they would have stayed together, I don’t know, but it would have been interesting to see what could’ve happened. It’s really rare to explore the dynamic of Blasian relationships in fiction. Especially in a Young Adult fiction. If Runaways was made into a show or movie, it would be categorized as such.

 

When I pointed this out, I got a lot of backlash from mostly white comic-book readers. Some said it was a good move and that they love it, while other were outright insulted. Most of the geeks of colour understood where I was coming from although they still liked the story. Considering that the majority of the media is white, white audiences often do not see the problem of POC getting sidelined. It’s kinda hard for them to see how problematic this really is. Although, it did get me to thinking, maybe some people like the idea of a Black villain. Not just a “Hey, I’m a villain”, but someone who betrays your trust and becomes an undercover cautionary tale to never trust a smart Black man. Kind of like how Denzel Washington got an award for playing a crooked cop in Training Day instead of as Malcolm X or John Q. The comic book would have flowed better without the betrayal or perhaps with Alex pulling the rug out from underneath his father. What was mind boggling though is that when I suggested this, most people began crying out saying that he would have be just ended up being a token character. Someone recently told me that we should have more Black villains. To some white people, it’s kind of hard to grasp a good smart Black man that doesn’t fit into stereotypes as the lead in the story, even in recent times. When there are stories with intelligent Black leads, some people can’t grasp that or they just outright call it author insert. Even Black Panther and other Black heroes gets some flack from readers and from their respective companies.

 

With the current events of POC not getting their stories told, and media whitewashing, people of colour need heroes. Not just the ones that have been around since the 70’s and were the products of Blaxploitation. Or even martial art films or something made akin to HBO “The Wire” (it’s a good show, but Black people need to see themselves more than just problems in the inner city). If there is a good POC character as the lead, white people will usually stop watching it because they feel that they can not connect with the character due to race. This is usually followed by the producers or editors pulling the plug or kill off the character to make room for the white ones. Recent studies have shown  that African Americans are affected by what they watch and in this case read.The Runaways’ message, regardless of it being intentional or not, is a statement on how the creator or company at the time viewed things. Truth be told, the remaining cast that stuck around is mostly white. Yeah, Nico Minoru is leading the team…but it kind of reflects the stereotypical geek demographics, just switched gender. It wouldn’t have been such a problem if, during the reveal, they’d had another Black character to balance it out. After sometime the comic introduces, Xavin the Skrill who are aliens that can shape-shift and Victor who is Latino, but they are quickly put on the bus later on in the series. Outside of Nico, people of colour are either dead or put on the bus.

 

Recently Alex was brought back to life but the way that it was depicted on the cover was very disturbing. Some people would say ‘oh he’s coming back from the dead so it’s ok,’ but not really. If you want to show a zombie Black guy, ok…but the image seems similar to the examples below. Black man showing himself as a monster while a woman (in this case a Japanese American) is the victim. In media history, Black males are usually seen as brutes, token sidekicks or in this case an intelligent brute. It’s revisiting the Black man is not human trope that was seen in the past, which dehumanizes African Americans. Although it’s not as overt as it was back in the day, it still shows up in some works of fiction.

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Notice the similarities to the cover of Avengers Undercover and the Vogue Magazine. In this sense black males are depicted as handling the woman in animalistic manner. Alex was suppose to be a zombie, but there are other ways do pull that off without coming off as problematic.

 

 

 

It is pretty safe to say that the handling of the Black characters in Runaways is racist. As a Black man, I’m tired of seeing Black characters treated this way and we need to let the creators know. Not sometimes but every time. With the release of Runaways on Hulu and Free form. we have the opportunity to push back on these types of narratives and demand better treatment for Black characters.

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The hastag #boycottrunaways is meant to create a discussion and raise awareness to the issues surrounding Runaways and its problematic elements, similar to the boycott of Iron Fist and Dr. Strange. It is meant to encourage people to come up with ideas of proper representation of POC/LGTBA characters so that people don’t feel left out. Diversity matters so does proper representation.

 

To conclude, in one of my conversations with a friend of mine: “The problem with Alex for me was always the fact that in him we had a young black male generally devoid of the classic stereotypes of black masculinity and a ripe opportunity to explore some different narrative themes and instead they fell on the trope of the idea that you can’t trust an educated black man. Yes, eventually you get other examples of black men on the heroic side but Cloak and Dagger don’t show up for a while and it’s not their story. Alex as the mole was one way the story could go. It was not the ONLY way the story could go. His turn was also painful because it felt like a betrayal of the reader. For me, Alex was the first time I had a character I could overlay myself onto. I didn’t need to insert myself into Runaways because Alex was already there. That was a new feeling for 16-17 year old me. There are a lot of narratives telling black boys they’re destined to be criminals or villains already. It takes a lot of mental effort to rebuke those narratives and Alex’s turn to the darkside carries more problematic baggage because of it. Couple that with his parents being drug dealers of the most stereotypical sort, it strikes me as a somewhat pathologizing. Especially because we never get a really good explanation of why Alex sided with his parents that I remember. He just knew about them earlier and the series decided to use that old anti-intellectual idea of “Smart people let their smarts make them amoral/evil” that we see in a lot of fiction. It’s not at all surprising that none of the other runaways are much above average intelligence (Nico is clever and the little girl is occasionally wise in the way pre-teens can sometimes be but intelligence isn’t a strong suit among the runaways) As for the redemption aspect of this… well that plays into the idea of the black man needing redemption and saving from his inherent evil nature doesn’t it.

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2 Comments
  1. Awesome…gonna read again when I’m not at work rushing

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