I’ve been reading superhero comics since I knew how to read, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to wonder why. For the most part they’re garbage. Today’s more literary-minded super-books are as junky and disposable as they were when the genre was invented in the late 1930s, only today’s stories lack the ridiculous fun and surprise that made the older ones so enjoyable. Yet I keep going back to that comic book store every week or so.

It might be nostalgia, or habit, but I think it’s mostly hope — hope for an immersive reading experience as awesome as Runaways, the ongoing super-book created by Brian K. Vaughan and mostly drawn by Adrian Alphona (NB: Brian recently handed over the writing reins to my personal hero Joss Whedon but I’m not up to those issues yet!)

Whenever a new volume of Runaways comes out (and by that I mean the paperback collections — you can’t beat that “6 Issues for 8 Bucks” bargain, kids!) I’m totally gonzo giddy until I get it home and start ripping through it. I just noticed this for the first time last week when I picked up “Parental Guidance” (Volume 6), and I also noticed how little I look forward to any other superhero comic by contrast. It set my mind to wondering what happened to those days of my youth when every comic brought that same feeling.

As a kid I was lucky enough to have a mom who fed me a steady supply of books and comics, so each weekend brought new worlds to explore. I knew how each story would end (Superman always wins, of course) but that was so much less important than the fact that, for a half hour or so, there really was a Superman, and more importantly, a Metropolis, a 31st Century full of superheroes you could travel to, and a thousand other things I never could have imagined on my own. In The Neverending Story, there’s a great break in the action when Bastian looks up from the book because he remembers he has to eat something. But partway through his sandwich he stops himself – he’s only halfway through the book or so. The journey ahead will be long and arduous, and he should conserve. That’s how I always felt about those bygone Sunday afternoons.

When reading this last installment of Runaways I couldn’t stop for a second — some major heavy crap was going down and I wanted to see the kids through. I love them partly because each of them are awesome people in their own way, and partly because, being so awesome, I want them to be OK despite all the bad stuff that happens to them every issue, starting with the revelation way back in the first issue that their parents were viscious super-villain bastards. For all the adventuring the kids have had to do to keep alive, stop their evil parents, stop other bad guys, and try to cobble together some semblance of a life, Vaughan always pauses once in a while to remind us that these are, in fact, kids — homeless kids at that — who have nothing and nobody but each other.

This is what makes the art form of the serial so beautiful, and so necessary to our culture: when done correctly, and artfully, the serial draws you in to a world you feel like you can reach out and touch, with characters whom you know as well as your friends, and it comes together to become so much more than a story. Those who do the serial poorly come up with indigestible leftovers like “Lost” or most of today’s superhero schlock — these creators feel that all they have to do is manipulate the loyal reader, throw some tricks and twists in their way as they go, and keep them guessing as to what might happen next so they keep buying or tuning in. On the surface I’m sure this results in some sort of boost in sales or ratings or whatever, but the stories aren’t real — they’re tricks, and obvious ones at that. They will never develop the kind of devotion that something like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Harry Potter” has, because the best serials benefit from one simple thing: lovable, believable characters. Everything else follows suit after that.

I know that when I pick up a copy of Batman or Spider-Man in the comic book store it’s only because of some vague loyalty to the lovable characters of my youth that bore the same name. But I don’t buy the books because these titles have become something else — vehicles for sales gimmick “events” and licensing material. Whenever a major superhero crossover happens and the PR says that “nothing will ever be the same” it’s pretty clear that the superhero publishers are now desperately grasping for a rope as they sink in the mud. The only way to drum up sales and interest, apparently, is to tell the readers that something terrible and earth-shattering is about to happen to their beloved characters, so we spend money to be outraged. In something like Runaways we don’t need something terrible to happen. We just need something to happen, and it does. Their creators breathe life into their creations, and because they have lives, bad things will eventually happen to them (as they do to us in real life) and so will many good things (just like real life). And we’ll love it because we’re included.

Terrible, life-altering things do happen to the Runaways, but it’s not to cynically drive up sales. They happen because Chase, Molly, Gert, Victor, Karolina, Nico, and that oh-so-cute dinosaur Old Lace face daunting odds and don’t always come out on top. At the end of this last chapter I found myself uncontrollably sobbing for a solid ten minutes. And I mean that sincerely — I actually tried to control it, as I was reading a comic book in a public place and felt remarkably silly, and I couldn’t. Stray tears kept streaming down my face. I wasn’t expecting it, and I wished it didn’t happen that way. But life’s unfair as well as beautiful and I know that both the thrill and tragedy of life will be found in stories to come as I stick with these kids and see where they wind up next. I hope they find a place for themselves and I hope their journey there will have the same page-turning adventures. I’ll be there for every step.