My guilty pleasure is one which culture keeps telling me I can drop the guilt about: comics. Specifically, the comics of Brian K. Vaughan. More specifically, BKV's — his fan name — brilliant graphic novel (OK, all right: his comic book) Runaways. It's going to be a movie soon, at which point I will feel slightly less guilty. But still a little guilty. I love a damn comic book.
Vaughan is a genius. He's what made Seasons 3 through 5 of Lost so terrific. Vaughan left the final year (haunted by an aspirational ghost: It wasn't his own show), and the comedy got lost with him. This was in a way a superhero story: one man bringing lightness to millions. (This is my pep talk, part of how I work through the guilt of thinking Vaughan writes the most crackling dialogue in the pop world.)
An example: In issue 29 (OK — Volume 2, No. 11, Page 11) of Runaways, a male hero and villain realize they're a lot alike and can stop trying to pound each other. A female villain turns to a female hero with irritation: "That's why we're not running the world, huh? 'Cause when women see a younger version of us, it just makes us angry."
Runaways is full of real-life moments like that — stuff I turn to non-word-balloon genres for. OK, the art in Volume 1 (by Adrian Alphona, who can make a corner mailbox look nostalgic and deeply cool) is also pretty great. And the plot — six kids discover their parents are a Legion of Doom-type supervillain squad controlling Los Angeles, and so take off — is brilliant, if you like comics or have any anxieties about Southern California. (Some of the best modern comics do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sideways, glossing stories we already know: It is a thrillingly wised-up medium now.) What would you do if you learned your dad was Lex Luthor or Dr. Doom?
But I bear the books a grudge. Marvel collected them — because their biggest fans were female teenagers — in tiny digests with girlish covers that were intensely embarrassing to read on the subway. I kept locking eyes with people I could swear had just shaken their heads. And, alright, I fell a little in love with one of the female leads: the great flying beauty Karolina Dean. Who turned out to be gay. A hardship I'd steered clear of in real life, and there I was stumbling into it in a damned graphic novel (OK, comic book). Runaways — while a consistently brilliant reading experience — has been an embarrassment festival. Way beyond a guilty pleasure. It has been a fount of guilt, awkwardness and grave personal doubts. Which is to say, it turned me teenaged again.
And yet — Volume 1 is the best superhero comic I've read since I was a kid. And Runaways won a Top Library Award, a Harvey Award and was the lone comic to make the Library Association's top-10 YA list. It won an Eisner award, which is the comic industry's Oscar. I tell myself these things to feel better. It sort of works. And then I open the damn thing — sweatily, guiltily — and it's just so good. And I remember how great reading anything can be. I forget the guilt, and it's just pleasure. The superhero lesson Runaways teaches us is not "with great power comes great responsibility." It is: Enthusiasm is the world's rarest quantity. Love generously and without guilt. Be grateful for loving anything.
My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.