By Spencer Irwin
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Miscommunication has always been a major threat in superhero comics: after all, one of the most famous tropes of the medium is the idea of pitting heroes against each other simply because they didn’t take the time to talk and explain themselves first. Of course, the Runaways have never really been superheroes, so the miscommunication that plagues their team is a more subdued, realistic one. Don’t let that fool you, though: it’s easily the greatest threat the team faces right now.
Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka still kick off Runaways 9 with a more traditional comic book misunderstanding (the team isn’t being attacked by Doctor Doom, but by Victor Mancha’s former Avengers AI teammate Doombot, who I guess is just being a jerk?), but quickly delve into far more subtle and relatable examples of misunderstandings and miscommunication.
For example, here Victor states plainly what he wants, but Chase and Doombot are too busy trying to one-up each other to even hear him. That kind of miscommunication, where one can say something and be completely, sometimes willingly ignored, is far too common because sometimes people just live in their own realities and only hear what they want to hear. Of course, Victor’s communication skills here are suspect too — he’s saying exactly what he wants, but leaving out the traumatic reasons why. It’s easy to understand why his friends might not take his requests seriously under those circumstances.
Poor communication prevails throughout the rest of Runaways 9 as well. Karolina can’t seem to nail down what she wants to say to Julie, just that there seems to be some unease, and she won’t give Julie a chance to speak at all. Molly’s requests for advice, meanwhile, lead to two incredibly awkward and unhelpful conversations with Chase and Gert.
Chase is me whenever somebody asks me a question: I get so caught up trying to figure out what answer they want to hear that I often never understand why they’re asking. Gert, meanwhile, gets so caught up in semantics that her advice is completely useless. Yet, much of the fault lies with Molly too, who keeps asking vague questions instead of just coming out and saying “hey, my friend gave me a magical cupcake that would let me stay thirteen forever, should I eat it?” Without that vital bit of info, there’s really no way Chase or Gert could’ve responded that would have helped Molly.
That’s what I love about the conflicts in this issue: they can be frustrating, but in a good way, because they’re rooted both in the individual personalities and flaws of these characters and in the common dysfunctions of human communication as a whole. By reflecting our own worst communication habits back at us, Runaways 9 is a perfect guidebook on how not to communicate.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately, including some truly great examples of episodic content like Killing Eve and Jane the Virgin. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about episodic structure. And episodic structure isn’t just about ensuring that an episode ends with an actual climax. It is about making sure that the episode isncomplete in itself, including thematically. What makes shows lime the ones I mentioned above is that everything pays off at the end of the episode. They begin with an idea, and develop it and develop it until the idea is completely explored, even as the overarching, more complex ideas are developed across the season. Which is, I think, my issue with this issue.
This issue certainly has the basics of structure done perfectly. A maybe overlong prologue with Doombot (and what an amazing design by Anka. So fashionable) that both sets up the attraction of an escape from angst and pain for Molly’s story and suffiently defuses the tension enough to make Karolina’s dismissiveness of the affair understandable. This lead to two competing, linked plots.
Molly looking towards authority figures to see whether growing up is worth it or whether she will escape into permanent childhood. Chase complains about his adult job while accidentally making Molly think she is valuable only for her cuteness. Karolina has relationship issues. Nico, the fashionista who makes her own clothes, failed to get the dream job at a boutique and instead works at a place that controls her fashion choices. And Gert is similarly confused as Molly. The choice to eat the cupcake is almost overwhelming, but she finally makes a choice at the end when she realises what she will be missing, as demonstrated by PG-13 movies. After an issue of grown up hell, she finally sees the joys of growing up.
Meanwhile, Karolina’s inability to commit to Julie and let her in causes a series of problems. All Julie wants is to be part of Karolina’s family, and Karolina keeps pushing her away. She constantly pushes Julie away, leading to the ending where Julie is utterly alone.
All this is great. But the actual climax of these two stories coming together… doesn’t. It is certainly a shocking moment, but it doesn’t feel like the right payoff.
Let’s use an example of a climax that seems big, but it utterly wrong (spoilers for the atrocious Avengers Infinity War). Infinity War ends with a big climax – a really boring sequence where half of Marvel’s heroes die, but you don’t care because the movie is so poor you’ve forgotten why you care for these characters in the first place and the only hero whose death you care about is when Deadpool is killed by Thanos on Colbert because the Colbert sketch actually made you care for the characters. The scene has a lot of other issues, like the fact that you don’t care for the characters. But it is also very, very wrong structurally. It pays off nothing. It takes away all the wallpaper characters, while ending a sequence that pays off no arc. Thor’s arc ends with him throwing an axe, which is a shitty payoff. Strange reveals that anything resembling a character arc from him was fake because it was all part of the plan. Thanos winning undercuts Wanda’s arc for no thematic purpose. Other arcs like Banner’s just get ignored. Thanos doesn’t even get his comeuppance. I know Thanos makes no sense as a character and is nothing but stupid decision after stupid decision and therefore you can’t get any coherent characterisation, but he’s supposed to be a man who is only doing monstrous things as he believes it is necessary. He’s supposed to be a man who sacrificed his love for his mission. Why did he smile at the end, then? Why was he happy? Shouldn’t he be sad that so much had to be lost? Shouldn’t the lose of Gamora make his victory hollow? But no, after a performatively sad moment in the Soul Stone, he is happy at the end.
Which is to say, Infinity War has a big climax, but it is very clear it completely fails as the payoff to literally everything.
And that’s what I feel here. What is Julie eating the cupcake supposed to payoff? It is big. It is dramatic. Hell, unlike Infinity War, it is emotionally affecting. But it doesn’t mean anything. Julie’s story was never about nostalgia or a wish to be too grown up. She’s just a mature voice. Meanwhile Karolina’s story isn’t served by Julie turning 13. Yeah, Karolina is retreating into her childhood past because of her fears of adult relationship, but the ways that she is aren’t served by Julie turning into a kid. If you want to give Karolina a ‘Gone Horribly Right’ ending, Julie would be removed from existence. Or reality would be rewritten where Julie was part of the team since the beginning, at the cost of her maturity that Karolina realises turns an adult relationship into something too juvenile (You could fit this idea into the existing arc easily by making the cupcake provide a generic wish. Molly is interested in it as a way to stop her aging, while Julie accidentally wishes that she coukd actually be part of Karolina’s life). But nothing about Karolina’s issues were about missing having a 13 year old kid sister in her life.
The ending is effective, but wrong. As dramatic as it is, it is actually the wrong payoff and hurts the entire story.
Which is a shame, as the rest of this issue is so perfectly written
I’d disagree about the payoff not fitting with Julie and her arc thus far. In issue 8 we have Julie waxing nostalgic about being young with Molly, which is part of why Molly’s having such a hard time making her decision. Julie’s reminiscing about how simple it was to be young because her relationship with Karolina has become so fraught and complicated, but it’s also crystal clear that, unlike the Runaways, Julie likes and appreciates growing up and all the opportunities it’s opened to her, including expanding her world beyond her family and being in a loving (if complicated) relationship.
Almost any of the Runaways might have embraced that cupcake’s magic under the right circumstances, so of course it went to the one character in the book who DIDN’T want it — that’s the tragedy of it. Also, beyond Molly, Julie is the character in this book most defined by her youth. The Power Pack will always be remembered as kid heroes, both in-universe and out, and as much as Julie loves her family, I can see her feeling confined by this pigeonholing as well. It probably feels like Julie will be 13 forever in the eyes of the public, so for that to LITERALLY HAPPEN TO HER is quite likely one of her greatest nightmares come to life. I think it’s incredibly effective, and I really felt for her when I got to that last page.
Where I will agree with you is that this issue suffers a bit from “middle chapter syndrome,” where it doesn’t really have an identity of its own, instead serving as a bridge from one part of the story to the other. I mean, it’s literally split in half between paying off last month’s cliffhanger and then setting up new cliffhangers and plots. There’s no resolution and nothing that begins and ends in this issue — it’s a classic middle chapter, putting the pieces together sort of issue. That’s not the end of the world, but it does seem to be something that happens in comics more than any other medium I follow (perhaps other than some prestige/streaming TV, especially the Marvel Netflix shows, which often feel like one story split into chunks based only off an arbitrary running time rather than to any thought of episodic impact).
I’ll say that this issue works much, much better than a lot of the middle chapters I’ve read in the past just because Rowell’s characters have such nuance and depth that I can get a lot out of them even in an issue that maybe isn’t quite as strong as ones that came before. Plus they’re just delightful to spend time with!
As you said, the Julie scene happened last issue, not this one. Which is a problem. I don’t think this issue has middle chapter syndrome, honestly, because it tells a complete story. It has a very strong beginning with Doombot that fantastically acts as the thematic inciting incident of both stories of this issue, and it tells a complete arc for each story, with Molly choosing Lord of the Rings over the cupcake and Karolina’s running away pushing Julie into despair. THe only problem is that the actual eating of the cupcake, as a climax, doesn’t fit into any of the issue’s story.
And honestly, I don’t think the scene last issue is a fantastic set up either, because I think it is quite clear that Julie is a supporting character in this arc. I don’t think the eating of the cupcake choice should go to the person it would be most tragic for, it should go to the person whose eating of it is the best motivator for growth and change. The advantage of one of the other Runaways eating it would be the fact that they want it would be a great example of ‘Gone Horribly Right’ and they would receive a good learning experience.
And yeah, again, the supporting character element is important. Everything you say about Julie’s history with the Power Pack and how that expectation may be confining is something that is certainly could be the case. I’d love to read a story about it. But it certainly isn’t the story of this issue.
Instead, she is defined primarily by the fact that her comfort at being an adult is so contrasting to the Runaways. Yeah, she as her moment of nostalgia, we all do. But she primarily exists as a supporting character whose adultness is contrasted to the Runaways, and I’m not sure I see a strong payoff to the choice.
If Julie was being performatively adult, trying to be more mature than she was in contrast to the ways that Moly and Karolina are doing the opposite to escape responsibility, I could see it working. But Julie is preformative. Nor is she someone falling for the same trap, whose fall can be used to teach the Runaways not to retreat into childish behaviour.
And as I said, I think there were better fates to the cupcake that Julie ate that served Karolina’s needs better.
It felt a little like tragedy for tragedy’s stakes, instead of something specifically rooted in the arcs of Karolina or Molly. I think most of this issue is great. Honestly great. Fantastic characters, fantastic arcs. Everything but that final page, that felt a bit more of ‘tragedy for tragedy’s sake’ than a satisfying payoff to the arcs of the story.
And even though I think this issue avoided middle chapter syndrome, it certainly is an issue in comics. I think a big part of it is that comics keep trying to replicate film instead of TV, and don’t realise that an issue model can’t do what a two hour movie can (video games make the same mistake, as the level by level model again makes TV the perfect comparison). But the fact that the rise of Prestige Drama has led to TV making the exact same errors is also a problem. Prestige Drama needs to have a look at a lot of the really good, often forgotten middlebrow TV like Jane the Virgin or basically anything the CW does these days, to see how they craft season long stories while making each episode in itself complete