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Book vs. TV: Runaways

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Apr 30, 2019, 6:00 PM EDT

There's a brand new season of Marvel’s Runaways on Hulu, which is great news if you’re a fan of the comic book series about a group of teenagers who discover that their parents are actually super-villains. It might be slightly less good news if you’re a hardcore fan of the comic, because sometimes when a thing we love is adapted into a new medium, it can be hard to accept the inevitable differences. And trust me, there are a lot of differences. The interesting thing about Runaways, though, is that those differences, in many ways, serve to enhance the story as set up in Brian K. Vaughn’s original work, as long as you are willing to give up some of that comic book color.

The first season of Runaways made pretty clear some of the ways it planned to differentiate itself from its comic book origins. For one, it took place largely outside of the larger Marvel universe. The possibility of futuristic technology and superhuman abilities existed, but it was generally free from the need to reference things like the Avengers, references which appear frequently throughout the pages of the initial comic (which found itself in a different imprint than the main Marvel Universe but still existing within its sprawling continuity). This separation allows the series to, for lack of a better phrase, do what it wants without having to worry about explaining why the Avengers or SHIELD haven’t stepped in.

That grounded, separate, independent feel stretches into the rest of the show as it shapes itself around, not the letter of Vaughn’s series, but the basic skeleton of his ideas. Those overarching choices help to dictate what elements of the comic the series takes and which it leaves behind, creating a cohesive vision that is both respectful of the source material while still very much its own thing.


Credit: Hulu

Perhaps chief among those changes is the way the show treats the parent characters who, in the comics, are far more obviously evil than they are in the show. The parents are certainly still the bad guys, that’s not up for debate, but by grounding them in some real-world motivations and origins, the series crafts a cast of baddies who are understandable, even while they are morally questionable. Gert’s parents went from being time-traveling thieves to generally well-meaning, though opportunistic, biochemists; Molly’s parents are far more heroic than specifically evil, likely done as a way to decrease the size of the cast and make her mutant abilities less clear; Nico’s parents changed from being power hungry wizards to tech geniuses with a magical staff (we’ll come back to Tina Minoru in a moment). Only Chase and Alex’s parents remain largely unchanged from their position in the comics. While the Steins’ involvement in the story is nearly the same, Alex’s parents, specifically his father’s backstory, serve as a way to center the story in its Los Angeles setting, highlighting the economic differences between Brentwood and Compton which forms part of the core of the story.

Then there are Karolina’s parents, who represent probably the greatest change from book to screen. In the comic, the Deans are alien invaders with very little concern for humanity. Besides giving Karolina her abilities (and a later subplot in which she visits her home planet), their origins play very little role in telling the story. The same cannot be said for the way the Deans function in the television series, where they and the religious cult they’ve created become central figures in the larger conflict. They also serve as a way to marry the ideas of Karolina’s alien origins and the motivating force behind the formation of Pride. In the comic, the Gibborim are a group of ancient giants who live beneath the Earth and who summon the six couples to tell them they plan to destroy the world and create a new one. In the series, the Gibborim is just an idea cooked up by Karolina’s grandfather when he dropped a little too much acid in the desert. Those ideas are confirmed when he meets Jonah, a shiny alien being who uses the ideas David already believes to give himself greater power and manipulate large groups of humans. Once again, this simple change serves to do two things: it grounds and simplifies the story (marrying the alien and Gibborim ideas) while also providing fodder for larger storytelling commentary. Jonah and the Church of Gibborim becomes a jumping off point for conversations about religious faith, the ethics of cults as religion, and the sacrifices we will make for power.

Nico Minoru in Marvel's Runaways

Credit: Hulu

The big changes aren’t reserved just for the parents. The kids go through a few adaptations as well, mostly for the better. Chase, for example, sees what are probably the biggest changes from his comic book counterpart as in the TV show he becomes… useful? Chase’s defining characteristic in the first part of the comic book is that he’s an idiot. In the show, however, while the other Runaways still like to make him the butt of both their jokes and sometimes their anger, he is, as he points out “good at stuff.” Nico, meanwhile, though never lacking for interesting storylines or characterization in the comic, is given a lot more substance in the show. During the second season especially, Nico is forced to deal with a string of complex emotions and inner conflicts as she continues to deal with her sister’s death, her own anger, and a growing realization that the Staff of One may be the thing that is controlling her. Both characters also experience a much more complicated relationship with their parents, as Nico struggles with the idea that the Staff might make her more like her mother, and Chase, in his desperate need to be loved by his overbearing and abusive father, steps into a role vacated by the comic book version of Alex.

There is no such thing as a perfect story, and certainly no such thing as a perfect adaptation. Adaptation is, after all, one of the most difficult types of storytelling to do. While Runaways certainly falls into some adaptation traps, stretching out some things that might end up spread a little too thin, it also manages to capture the idea of its source material while finding myriad ways to expand and enhance the larger story.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal. 

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