Today, Spencer and Michael are discussing Runaways 4, originally released September 23rd, 2015. This issue is a Secret Wars tie-in. For more Secret Wars coverage from the week, check back Tuesday for our Secret Wars Round-Up!
“If there’s one thing I love, it’s teens who stay teens even when the situation is really dire, and so even when they’re running for their lives they never quite lose sight of crushes, pretensions, anxiety about their future and who they’re going to be. Sometimes those situations can feel just as life-or-death as…actual life-or-death.”
Noelle Stevenson, Runaways 4 letters page
Spencer: I loved Runaways 4′s letters page; the sheer unfettered enthusiasm and creativity from readers warmed my heart. But to me, the most insightful moment of that page is the above quote from Runaways writer Noelle Stevenson, which explains the greatest strength of both this mini-series and its finale magnificently. To these characters, coming to a romantic realization is just as significant as escaping from the Doom Institute; Stevenson and artist Sanford Greene realize that and treat every victory with equal importance. It makes for an uplifting, triumphant finale.
The first of those victories is won by Sanna, of all people.
Sanna’s ultimate victory is less about hooking up with Jubilee (although they both enjoy it) and more about realizing that everyone — Jubilee included — doesn’t hate her, that she’s allowed to like them. The first issue established Sanna as a stickler for following the rules — not only did this make the “bad-girl” Jubilee a forbidden fruit to her, but it likely blinded her to the fact that their bickering could just as easily be construed as romantic interest. Sanna clung to the Doom Institute even after discovering its true nature because that’s what she was “supposed” to do; she thought it her only option. Sanna’s revelation shouldn’t be discounted or looked down upon just because it involves “smooching” — it’s still a moment that changes the entire course of her future. Almost every moment in a teenager’s life carries the potential to be this significant, and by respecting this simple fact, Stevenson and Greene keep their story feeling relatable and realistic.
Thus, nearly every character gets a victory of some sort. Dagger, who’s always getting dragged along into one bad situation after another with no real control over his life, finally breaks the cycle by embracing the role of “General” Molly gives him; turns out he’s actually pretty good at it! Cho and Delphyne overcome their differences and finally hook up. The Doombot-head gets to forge her own identity. Even Molly and Skaar spark up a new friendship in the heat of battle.
Yet, the most powerful victory is their final escape from the Doom Institute, and not just because they managed to get out unscathed. That would just make them survivors; the fact that these kids were able to inform their classmates of the school’s true nature and rescue anybody who wanted to leave is what makes them heroes. They’ve overcome Doom’s corrupt regime that had groomed them from birth for a life of mindless service and broken one of the key pieces of that machine; that is, without question, a tremendous victory.
Of course, no victory comes without a price; in this case, it’s Bucky, who sacrifices himself to let the Runaways escape. Neither he nor Valeria can override the Doombots in the midst of such a large-scale rebellion, and Valeria’s favorite comrade ends up paying the price. It — along with Bucky’s final request, “No more killing” — hits her hard.
As tragic as it is, this too is a victory in its own way. Valeria believed the rhetoric Doom spun at her, and the deaths of her students didn’t phase her when they were just statistics, “failures” in a test she probably oversaw from a computer screen. But it’s different when she witnesses one of those deaths in person, with a victim she clearly adored (this puts the “lost tooth” scene between her and Bucky in issue 3 in a whole new context). Valeria’s lost her stomach for this project, and perhaps for a lot more. Bucky is a huge, tragic cost for Valeria to learn this life lesson, but isn’t that how it always works? Knowledge doesn’t come easy, especially when you’re young. If every teenager’s victory has the potential to change their future, than so do their losses.
Sanford Greene (assisted by Stevenson, who also gets an art credit this month) is still the perfect artist to bring this story to life. There’s just a fantastic energy to his work, his body language (especially with Molly and Valeria) is unparalleled, and he knows just how much — or how little — detail each moment needs to get its point across. My favorite example of the latter comes when Valeria tries to make Cho sell out his friends.
Throughout the page Valeria’s face is mostly obscured, hinting at her duplicity; when we do see her expression, she’s wearing a clearly fake smile she must have practiced for just this situation. In either case, we have just the amount of detail we need to understand Valeria, and nothing more. Cho’s expressions are likewise kept to a minimum in the first few panels, but then we get that intense, detailed close-up in panel 4 — it’s when Cho finally gets serious, and Greene’s art follows suit, selling Cho’s determination for all it’s worth. Greene’s work is equally great from start to finish — if I could just devote the rest of this article to a montage of Molly expressions, I totally would.
Michael, I have to stop myself here before I just start gushing. I absolutely adored this title, and I’m strongly considering writing Marvel to ask for some sort of post-Secret Wars continuation — I need more of these characters and this creative team. It’s really something special. Michael, what are your thoughts? Did you enjoy this as much as I did? Is that even possible?
Michael: To answer your question Spencer: no, I don’t think that is possible — I did enjoy this issue however. I liked how you pointed out that Stevenson doesn’t shift gears and turn the teenagers into hard-boiled adults in the face of danger. After Cloak and Dagger broadcast the truth about the murderous exams throughout the school the students decide to fight back. While their revolt against the Doombots and the school is partly out of righteous rage, it is also out of joyful rebellion. They may have just discovered that the school that they have been attending has been killing off the “inferior” students, but they are also teenagers who hate school and relish in the chance to rebel. After Molly rips through a Doombot, the resounding cheer of “REVOLUTION!” could easily be replaced with “FOOD FIGHT!” Adult heroes might not have been able to shake off the serious circumstances and energetically fight back the way that the students did. Kids are resilient that way.
In general kids can be pretty selfish; meaning that they aren’t as concerned with problems that might not directly affect them. That’s why teachers often hammer the concept of the golden rule into children’s minds — treat others the way you want to be treated. There are a couple of instances in Runaways 4 where this gets implemented and the kids take the opportunity to step outside of themselves. The Runaways don’t decide to return to The Doom Institute until Delphyne and Cho are captured; which makes them heroes, as Spencer said. It’s at this moment that the danger that the school poses to all of the students — not just the Runaways — becomes real. Delphyne and Cho are being taken back to the school where they are likely to be killed, along with many of their fellow students. Dagger realizes that going back to school and rescuing their two friends is not enough; they have to go back and rescue all of their fellow students.
Another example of this loose reading of the golden rule is the aforementioned scene where Valeria watches Bucky die. The severity and cruelty of Doom’s law doesn’t become real to Valeria until it directly affects her by watching her friend die. I don’t think she has done a 360 on her beliefs or her loyalty to her father, but the situation has certainly shaken her. Valeria is unsure of her feelings, so like any child her age she would much rather be comforted by the familiarity of home.
As a collective audience, we have probably endured more than enough stories that warn about the dangers of “the machine.” Nevertheless, the metaphor of us all being cogs in a machine is a potent one that provides a lot of philosophical conversation. While touching on this concept, Stevenson doesn’t lay it on too thick and allow it to overshadow the character development of the book. Cho shuts down Valeria’s sales pitch by telling her “no one wants to be part of just a machine.” To repeat myself a little, these are teenagers who are always looking for something to rebel against; they want to rage against the machine!
From start to finish Runaways has been about fighting against a corrupt system, so it’s fitting that the final issue dwells on it a little bit. One of the treacherous parts of adolescence (or pretty much any age) is forging an identity for yourself. The Runaways have torn off the labels that Doom’s system pinned on them and are looking to a future where they call they decide their fate. I think that this was best exemplified in the appropriately, economically used Doombot now known as Emily. Emily was literally a worker bee assigned a simple task, but over the course of this series she has usurped her programming and taken on an identity of her own. Emily FTW!
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?