Like the heroes it features, The Runaways has always had to overcome the odds.
The comics franchise, created by Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona in 2003 to capture a new and younger audience for now-defunct Marvel imprint Tsunami, follows six high school kids in L.A., who, despite their differences, must band together when they discover their parents are engaging in human sacrifice. A meaty dilemma for any teenager, surely? Yet despite being deemed one of the best original concepts in the last three decades of Marvel comics, Runaways failed to find a readership and was canceled after just one year.
Not a group to go down without a fight, the series was revived less than six months later, after digest versions of the first volume started selling at rapid speed. At its new home, Marvel Comics, these dysfunctional teens managed to find a solid fanbase, and despite initially intending to write only six issues, Vaughan left the series in 2007 having penned 24.
Though rabid fans of the award-winning comic have been hoping for a live-action adaptation since the early 2000s, The Runaways’ journey to the screen was as challenging as its early days at Marvel. Scripts to translate the stories of “those kids in L.A.” to the big screen were commissioned, then scrapped, the sweeping storyline not lending itself to film the way other superhero journeys did. Even in the era of Peak TV, execs questioned the appeal of teen superheroes in the real world.
“We’re not allowed to say ‘fuck’ because that’s a Marvel rule. But we can say 'shit,’ and that is awesome.”
It wasn’t until The O.C. and Gossip Girl executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage walked in for a creative meeting at Marvel that the pieces of this puzzle started falling into place. “We didn’t view it as a superhero show,” Schwartz tells Playboy about the Hulu project that released its season 1 finale on Tuesday. “We really viewed it as a coming-of-age drama, and it’s a family drama where we got to tell that story inside of a Marvel show.”
The risks of adapting Vaughan’s stories for an extremely opinionated fanbase were not lost on the duo. Though this is not the first time Schwartz and Savage have adapted existing material into a television series, Marvel fans can be a particularly tough crowd. “Their audience demands such a high level of execution that when you step up to do a Marvel show, you have to meet that threshold,” says Schwartz.
Part of what was daunting, Savage adds, was the challenge of bringing Alphona’s iconic art to the screen. “Readers might have had an idea in their head of what some things were like in Gossip Girl, but they didn’t have volumes of graphic novels that actually told you that,” she says. “We’re translating [Alphona’s] visual world and characters.”
Yet the potential of the comic book series outweighed the risks. Savage, who wasn’t familiar with the source material, immediately responded to the comics when introduced to them by her writing partner. “When I read it, I fell in love with it, and I fell in love with Brian’s voice, the strong female characters, the amount of humor that was in the comic and the incredible cliffhangers at the end of every issue,” says Savage. “It felt like it was a story we wanted to tell and a world that we wanted to build.”
“There was a timeliness to it in that sense that we are in a moment right now where we are questioning our figures of authority …”
To broaden its appeal to a more mature audience, the television series spent equal time with the adults on the show, unlike the comic book series, which focuses mainly on the kids. The second episode was entirely dedicated to the events of the pilot from the point of view of the parents–a storyline for which Schwartz and Savage consulted Vaughan at length. “That’s been one of the great joys of having Brian in the room with us; just being able to [ask him], 'If you could dig into these stories and dig into these parent characters, what stories do they have to tell?’” says Schwartz.
Though initially insistent that his involvement be marginal, Vaughan became a frequent collaborator, a move that served as a seal of approval for fans of the original comic. “He came for lunch once, and he was hooked,” says Schwartz. “He gives notes on every script and cuts. I think he felt like it was a really collaborative environment and that we were here to honor the book. And how great is it if you wrote that book, and you’re like, 'Well, I could do things differently again.’ That just became a part of the process.”
According to Schwartz, Vaughan had always felt that his series was on the brink of being canceled, so he burned through lots of plot in a brief amount of time: “By the end of that first run, they had solved the problem of the kids versus the parents.” With a 13-episode guarantee at streaming service Hulu, and a recent renewal for a second season, Schwartz and Savage decided instead to slow down the pace for their version. “It was incredibly exciting to us, and to Brian as well, to make it sustainable and really open up the story and live inside of this conflict between parents and kids longer than the book did,” says Schwartz.
For those looking for pure escapism, no parallels to the real world needed to be drawn, but for viewers yearning for a timely hook, the show resonated even more in the Trump era. “There was a timeliness to it in that sense that we are in a moment right now where we are questioning our figures of authority, and if you’re a teenager, there’s no figure of authority that is more prominent in your life than your parents, right?” says Schwartz. “There’s also incredible diversity to the original characters and to our cast. Exploring issues of sexuality and coming of age feels like it’s timeless and timely.”
Speaking of sexuality, Runaways is hardly a profanity-laced orgy. But with no standards and practices to contend with, Schwartz and Savage did have more freedom than on their previous shows. “As far as language, sexuality, violence, a lot of the themes are adult themes, even in a young-adult setting,” says Schwartz. But that’s not what excited the creator the most. “It’s so fun to be able to say 'shit,’” he admits with a grin. “We’re not allowed to say 'fuck’ because that’s a Marvel rule. But we can say 'shit,’ and that is awesome. In the first episode, we probably said it too many times–just because we can.”
Those expecting the light tone of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the darkness of the Netflix shows quickly realized they were in for something in-between. “I think you have to be honest about our brand,” says Marvel executive producer Jeph Loeb. “We’ve been around for over 75 years, and anyone who’s a comic book fan knows that The Avengers is different from Runaways, which is different from Jessica Jones.”
Loeb believes their growing audience is smart enough to understand the broad range of Marvel franchises, and see the brand name as a stamp of quality. “The fact that they had the Marvel brand on them means that you’re going to get humor, action and drama, a great cast and great writing,” he says. “What we try to do is tell the best story we can first, and then figure out the cape and the cowl and the powers later. That’s the stuff that makes it fun.”