With issue #3, the new iteration of Runaways turns its eye on Karolina Dean. Karolina was always the softest member of the team. She was the most empathetic, the best ranged fighter, the most frightened, the wealthiest. She never had the anger that the others had, but she was a Runaway as much as any of them because Karolina Dean was always looking for a way out. She accepted a suicidal deal with a hungry vampire, she was the one to gather the group at the James Dean Memorial, and she was the first one to leave the Runaways when she returned to Majesdane to be somewhere that she could be normal.
Fast forward to 2017 and, like many a tormented millennial teen, it turns out that the way out Karolina was looking for was the freedom and responsibility of college life.
Rainbow Rowell, famed for her prose, remains unsurprisingly masterful, and restrained, in her use of narration. In the issue’s first pages she swiftly sums up Karolina and brings us up to date on where she is in her life. Rowell obviously latched on to the ways that Karolina is different from her teammates and crafts a happy ending for her that feels at once joyously beautiful and quietly tragic.
The degree to which Rowell just gets this character is a huge part of this issue’s appeal. Even little things, like the way that Karolina doesn’t drop her cup when Gert appears at her door until she spots Nico, speak to the myriad writing choices that are inherent in each of the characters’ actions.
But of course this issue isn’t called Lucy In The Sky, it’s called Runaways. Chase’s quiet acceptance speaks volumes about his emotional state and Nico’s explanation of why she isn’t of the same mind as Karolina not only reveals some serious troubles weighing on her mind but, in a series that’s been exceptionally thoughtful about how its characters react, deepens the mystery of exactly what Sister Grimm was up to between Avengers Arena and now. But it’s Gert who proves the most compelling character going forward.
Rowell returns Gert to us with exacting accuracy. Gert is a delightful smart ass and a forceful lead, but, if you haven’t busted out your old copies of Runaways in awhile, Rowell remembers that Gert can be kind of the worst. Named after a poison, Arsenic has always been a deeply caustic personality, preternaturally able to zero in on bullshit, but blind to her own flaws and toxicity. This issue captures that quality without demonizing Gert, showing how the same confidence and passion that make her an invaluable member of the team can hurt and manipulate her friends in the wrong circumstances.
Runaways is not quite like any other book out there right now. Certainly there have been decompressed reads, but very few books have had the commitment to the present moment that Rowell’s Runaways does. With three scenes, one taking place outside immediately following the prior, and the other one page long, Runaways #3 is uniquely and critically focused on its character’s interactions. The simple drama and emphasis on dialogue almost recalls a fine stage play. And despite the presence of a single character who unambiguously dominates each scene, Rowell is consistently building up multiple members of the cast and the relationships between them. It’s a style we don’t often see done right.
That said, there’s no denying that this is a series written for trade. Given the comic book industry’s sales data, I honestly can’t blame Rowell for writing with an eye towards book stores. However, prospective readers should be aware that they are buying a single serialized story rather than an episode in a larger narrative. Not only that, there’s just a bit too much dead air in this issue.
Rowell makes great dramatic use of this breathing room and does her best to fill those other moments with charm and humor, but, in the end, that just means that we’ve got a very decompressed read that is easily two to four pages longer than it needs to be. I’m pretty certain that the last scene, addressing the greater arc plot, is only there to remind monthly readers that they aren’t forgotten and to fill space. And, loath as I am to punish Rowell for her success, with the series firing on all cylinders elsewhere, this just serves to remind how many possibilities are squelched for filler. What could have been, I wonder.
Nevertheless, Rowell has taken to the comic book form like a natural. This really is what you hope for when you bring in a writer from a different art form. The most obvious example of her adaptation to the medium comes on a very clever page that requires two different orientations, but overall there’s just a strong sense of blocking and pace that ensures that, when something is happening, no matter how small, you care.
It feels redundant to talk about how Kris Anka is the comic’s equivalent of dream casting for this book, so we’ll skip the obvious. Needless to say, Anka has a fantastic ability to communicate the highly specific emotion that Rowell’s script demands and a sense of style that instantly makes the runaways just as cool as they ever were.
Despite his obvious grasp of his craft and the strong impression he leaves on the book, Anka’s work here still lacks some of the punch of his design and cover art. Perhaps its just the difference of time pressure or maybe its just an artistic choice, but whatever the reason, Anka delivers a finer style than in his fanart or even recent Marvel work like Starlord. It’s nitpicking, yes, but, when you set the bar as high as Anka has, even a drop from fantastic to really good feels noticeable.
Still, anyone being honest with themselves can see that this is a very pretty issue. The opening pages of Karolina dancing are just great, and Anka really sells the energy of each character. Chase is particularly noticeable not only for the contrast with his relatively secondary role but for his distinct expressions. But, of course, the real star is Old Lace. Who knew that Anka had such a knack for drawing dinosaurs?
With Runaways #3 we see our first real introduction of another classic cast member and another example of Rowell’s unique plotting beautifully realized. Though this issue feels a little padded out, everything that’s there is telling, poignant, and notably fresh. Rowell and Anka get these characters and continue to adapt what is essential and meaningful about the Runaways to a new decade and a new stage of life.
Few books have the emotional honesty, bold focus on character, or timeliness of this one. My greatest fear for this series is that too many readers will tradewait it or simply not realize that it’s out there for them. But if you loved Vaughn’s Runaways or are feeling stuck between adolescence and adulthood, or honestly have ever held headcannons about who a teen superhero really is between adventures, you owe it to yourself to give this series a look.