She’s an alien, she’s (sort of) a rainbow, and she’s a lesbian. Without going any further, it’s already pretty obvious why the star of Rainbow Rowell‘s acclaimed series RUNAWAYS is such a fan-favorite character. Thanks to Karolina Dean’s recent on-screen debut in the TV show RUNAWAYS, her popularity has grown even more, making her one of the most well-known lesbian characters in the comics industry.

Readers and viewers alike adore Karolina Dean for her free-spiritedness and diverse background. But I think there’s more to Karolina’s character than just what’s on the surface. Yes, she’s a rare gem in a sea of heterosexual heroes, but she’s also one of the best role models Marvel has (which might not be saying much but you get the point). Like so many real-life queer teens, Karolina struggled to understand her true self: as a superpowered alien and as a lesbian. She also was able to overcome those struggles and find self-acceptance. As readers, viewers, and fans, we can take our own challenges and use Karolina’s model to become the people we want to be.

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Running and Running

Before diving into what makes Karolina a lesbian role model, let’s take a quick look into her history. Karolina made her first comic appearance in 2003 in RUNAWAYS #1. Like the other Runaways, Karolina’s parents were members of the Pride — a secret criminal and occult organization. After witnessing the Pride murder an innocent girl, Karolina and the other Runaways ran away from home. According to the title, that should be the end of their story…but it’s really just the beginning.

Karolina’s parents kept her alien heritage a secret by controlling her powers via a metal bracelet. In RUNAWAYS #3, Karolina breaks that bracelet, revealing her bioluminescent appearance. Karolina’s parents were from the planet Majesdane, and they gave their daughter the typical Majesdanian traits, including solar energy manipulation, flight, and enhanced strength. At first, Karolina is disgusted with the discovery of her heritage. But, over time she learns to use her powers to help her friends survive in a world that wants them dead.

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Growing Up

In the most recent RUNAWAYS series, Karolina Dean goes to college and has a relationship with fellow hero Julie Power. She’s more comfortable with herself than she’s ever been before, but her journey to that point wasn’t easy. So, what helped her go from being a scared, closeted alien to a proud lesbian who exhibits her rainbow colors openly? In short, a lot of things.

What’s so great about Karolina’s character is the fact that we see every step in her transformation. Before she runs away from home after her parents’ deaths, Karolina is sheltered. She doesn’t know about her alien heritage, and she hasn’t come to accept (or even acknowledge) her queer identity. Discovering that her parents are villains bent on causing chaos isn’t an easy thing for Karolina to process. Running away and learning to call a group of other teenagers family isn’t easy either.

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

But, it’s this huge event in Karolina’s life that starts developing her self-confidence. As awful as things are for Karolina in the beginning, over time she begins to see the positive aspects of her new life with the other Runaways. She realizes that her parents, though seemingly kind and accepting, wrongly hid a part of her identity. They wanted her to look the same as other kids, even though she’s not anything like other kids.

Since the Runaways are a sort of misfit bunch, they encourage Karolina to celebrate the things that make her different. The Runaways frequently rely on Karolina’s powerful abilities to get them out of sticky situations, which also helps build Karolina’s confidence.

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The Trials of Maturation

You probably didn’t have to run away after finding out you alien parents were in a criminal cult, but chances are you had to face some uncomfortable and even traumatic events when growing up. For the most part, everyone does — that’s just a part of growing up. Whether it be divorce, mental illness, death or all of the above, growing up can offer some serious challenges. And while often times those challenges can feel impossible to overcome, it’s important to remember that everything can be made better in the long run.

Take Karolina’s situation as an example. She lost her whole life when she and the other Runaways left home. Her parents, her childhood house, her other friends — everything was left behind. Of course, Karolina was sad about it and mourned her losses but, thanks to her friends’ help, she recovered. And as she did, she became a better person with a stronger sense of self-identity.

karolina dean
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Coming Out

Karolina Dean learned to accept, and even love, her alien heritage by the end of the 2003 run of RUNAWAYS. However, her homosexuality is a completely different story. Karolina doesn’t officially come out as gay until the 2005 run of RUNAWAYS in issue #8. This offers a whole new level of conflict for Karolina. After coming out, she isn’t just the only alien on the Runaways team; she’s also the only lesbian. Her teammates try to be there for her, but Karolina shuts them off. Being an alien is one thing. All of the Runaways are “aliens” in that they’re far from home and trying to survive in a foreign landscape. But being gay is what, in Karolina’s mind, ultimately makes her a freak.

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It isn’t until Karolina meets her future girlfriend, Julie Power, that her feelings surrounding her sexual orientation begin to really change. Meeting someone else who is also attracted to girls changes how Karolina views herself. It makes her feel less alone, and it shows her that her attraction isn’t freakish. Once Karolina and Julie begin officially dating, Karolina’s confidence in her lesbian identity is finally solidified.

karolina dean
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Branching Out

Coming out to friends and family is extremely difficult, no matter your backstory. Like a lot of members of the LGBTQ community, Karolina Dean is the only gay person in her friend group. Thus, in a weird, small-minded sort of way, she feels like the only gay person in the world. The Runaways are a very close-knit family, and it was easy for Karolina to become absorbed in her family’s dynamics. When Nico shut down Karolina’s advances and made clear that she didn’t have feelings for her, Karolina felt completely and utterly alone.

For some problems, your family and friends are so incredibly important. In Karolina’s case, it’s the other Runaways who help her accept her alien heritage. But, in some instances, you have to go out into the world and see beyond your inner circle. Karolina’s realization that she’s not alone comes after meeting a fellow LGBTQ character for the first time. Her Runaways friends could be there for her, but they couldn’t give her that realization.

LGBTQ youth who are trying to understand their identity can really benefit from larger support groups. Branching out and talking to other people who have faced similar problems is one of the best ways to grow as an individual. So often, gay people find their heterosexual friends and family members make them lonely. This isn’t because allies aren’t understanding and supportive but because they don’t understand what it’s like to be gay.

For Karolina, she needed another queer person to show her that her feelings were valid and okay. Whatever your situation is, it’s so important to remember that there’s someone else out there struggling with the same thing and that you are not alone in your battle.

karolina dean
RUNAWAYS #8 (2005). Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Final Thoughts on Karolina Dean

Few LGBTQ comic characters offer the unique perspective that Karolina Dean does. A self-proclaimed “freak” within a group of misfit runaways, Karolina started her journey with little hope for the future. As an alien and a lesbian, Karolina thought she would never be able to fit into the world she had always imagined for herself. But, as time and series went by, Karolina’s character blossomed thanks to loving support systems both within and outside of her inner circle. Her character gives hope to those facing similar issues.

Today, Karolina stars in the newest rendition of RUNAWAYS. She is so different than the character she was in her first issue of RUNAWAYS, way back in 2003. She is mature, confident, and never once refers to herself as a freak. Although she may not be going through relatable struggles anymore, I still think Karolina’s character is a role model for readers. She’s there to remind people that life can always get better — even when it seems impossible.

Marvel does a great job of including LGBTQ characters in their comics, but I’d really like to see more series dealing with the coming out process — particularly for lesbians. ICEMAN is a great example of a coming-out series, but it’s important for girls to have a relatable role model as well. Still, I’m glad Marvel gave us Karolina — the rainbow, lesbian goddess we all need.

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