Runaways No. 15 review: Nico has fun with the Staff of One

The Staff of One has saved Nico and her friends many times! Yet, is the story behind it worth knowing?

Runaways No. 5

Writer: Rainbow Rowell

Artist: Kris Anka

Colorist: Matthew Wilson

The Runaways — the wayward children of a cabal of west coast criminals called “the Pride” — have their fill of problems. Chief among them are the spawn of the ancient deities who empowered their parents, the Gibborim, breathing down their necks. They want the Runaways to complete the ritual that they prevented their parents from completing in order to gain their true powers. In addition to this, their team founder, ex-leader, and traitor Alex Wilder has returned to the fold. Yet, long running drama with Nico Minoru promises to bubble to the surface.

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Chase Stein holds a meeting in their empty swimming pool; it’s a rare bit of leadership from him. He and his resurrected “sort of” girlfriend Gert Yorkes have translated the Pride’s own texts and tomes. Unfortunately, it’s given them no real way to escape the children of the Gibborim. One of them, Gib, literally stands guard at their front door. Furthermore, being carried around in a baby carriage by Molly Hayes seems to be the last straw for Victor Mancha, who finally wants a new robot body for himself. He’s feared losing control, but this and his crush on Gert have changed him.

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Awkward meetings by the pool lead to deeper things!

Alex Wilder wasn’t invited to the meeting, but he’s never allowed such technicalities to stop him. He’s manipulated demonic figures more than once to resurrect himself, even in an attempt to take over Harlem. Yet, it quickly becomes clear that none of the Runaways trust him, especially Nico. Having once dated him, her feelings towards Alex’s betrayal sting in a more than professional manner. However, Nico’s feelings about her evil ex being around pale in comparison to a magical manner.

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For some time, Nico has felt uneasy about summoning her notable magical instrument, the Staff of One. It belonged to her mother, who along with her father were potent (and evil) wizards. Nico bonded to it practically by accident during the first volume of Runaways, while they sought a means to battle their parents. It requires the drawing of blood to be summoned and allows Nico to cast any spell she can imagine. The trick is each spell only works once, and any attempt to repeat it triggers random, and potentially deadly, results.

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Yet, there are still many mysteries behind the Staff of One. When she lost her arm during Avengers Arena, it saved her life by “creating” an artificial one, which aided in her spell-casting for a time. She still had that artificial arm during her brief tenure teamed with legendary heroines like She-Hulk and Captain Marvel on A-Force. By the time Chase found her again to get help saving Gert, however, Nico had somehow regrown her original arm as if nothing happened. And, she’s scarcely used the staff since.

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What are the secrets behind Nico’s weapon?

The Staff of One has often seemed like it had a will of its own. It would gnaw at Nico until it was summoned. And now, it bursts forth from her chest without any blood at all. Only now, it isn’t a staff which is before her, but a strange man. Donning ancient Japanese garb and hovering in the air with white locks of hair, this stranger looks down at her and poses more questions than answers. While Nico has never seen him before, he knows her and the Minoru lineage very well.

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It quickly becomes clear that this man hasn’t taken her Staff of One; he is the Staff of One. He was driven nearly to madness without being summoned, and it seems like his ability to manifest himself is a rarity. Over the confused objections of Nico, he gradually reveals his origins over a plate of pancakes. In ancient times, Nico’s ancestor Tokiko offered to spare his life if he agreed to become her most potent magical weapon. Yet since he was powerful himself, he was able to negotiate certain terms for himself.

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These include the fact that the Minorus have to shed blood in order to summon his powers. Additionally, they include his ability to regain human form for a brief time when the Earth aligns with Mars in order to plead for his freedom. He will serve as the Staff of One until willingly freed by a Minoru, or when the last of the Minoru line dies. While Nico is eager to be rid of him, the rules of his agreement with Tokiko require informed consent, which forces the ancient sorcerer to fill in more gaps than he’d like.

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Just who is “the One?”

Nico is further angered and confused when this stranger reveals that he’s the one who mended her arm. She was so hopped up on medication that she didn’t remember his visit. While Nico had felt the stirring within her, she’s been less willing to shed any more of her blood to rely on the Staff’s terrible powers — even flinching when it means protecting her friends. She didn’t summon any spells when they were under attack by Doombot, for instance. Nico is willing to free the stranger without any preconditions.

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Unfortunately, the stranger, known as “the One,” overplays his hand. He makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he’s a magical maniac, intent on using his terrible powers for personal conquest. Tokiko Minoru hadn’t imprisoned him because she was good; she was merely a more powerful and efficient wizard than “the One” was. While Nico doesn’t want to use his powers anymore, she also doesn’t want to unleash his wrath upon California. They’re at an impasse!

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Fortunately for the One, magic is essentially a game with a series of rules. And like any game or legal proceeding, rules can be renegotiated. The One promises to allow the staff to be summoned without blood, so long as Nico allows “a drop of himself” to drip into her in exchange. As such, his own ability to hear what she hears and speak to her will gradually increase the more Nico uses the staff. Not being any sort of magician herself, Nico agrees to the terms. Yet, has she made a devil’s bargain and only delayed the inevitable?

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Does Nico make the right choice? Is there a right choice?

Rainbow Rowell tells a simple story in this issue, filling in a lot of the gaps left over from previous volumes. The benefit of story elements which are left mysterious within serialized fiction is that a future writer can embellish them at his or her choosing. Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction did such during their masterful run on Immortal Iron Fist, for instance. And, Rowell is doing something similar to both explain the source of Nico’s power, but how her arm managed to come back!

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On the surface, things could seem a bit strange. The Staff of One, like many magical artifacts, was itself a Deus ex machina. It could cast any spell a story needed to solve a problem and was automatically potent enough to even make figures like Dr. Strange or Dormammu shake. Yet, revealing it was really an imprisoned Japanese wizard, who has a fondness for sourdough pancakes and word games, could seem like a step too far. Compared to plenty of Marvel Comics, though, such a revelation is par for the course! Just look at Wolverine’s crazy origins alone!

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Ultimately, the root of the story is about temptation and uneasy decisions. Relying on the staff was a habit that Nico was trying to kick, least of all because it caused her literal and physical pain. Yet, simply bottling such urges and ignoring them isn’t enough to resolve it. Temptations have to be negotiated instead of denied and done so with as much information as possible. And ultimately, there are few easy decisions which have clear winners or losers. In the end, it can be as simple as figuring out how to best survive short term.

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Subplots ahoy!

Rowell also furthers along several other subplots as well. Gib and the Gibborim are still here, and it continues to look like Gib is more merciful than he appears. He was willing to feed Old Lace last issue and allowed Nico to escape the Hostel for a brief time for fresh air. Perhaps the Gibborim could be reasoned with? The distrust of Alex Wilder continues, and it remains unseen whether he genuinely wants to reform or is planning his next long con. Victor wanting a new body despite his fears of becoming a war machine again, however, is the biggest development.

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In addition, Rowell understands that the Runaways were never about clear cut rules of good and evil, but shades of grey. She demonstrates by often having her antagonists have fair points. Alex may be sleazy and untrustworthy, but he’s not wrong in stating that Nico and the Runaways have to get better at acting as a professional team. Lightspeed said as much when she dated Karolina. And, the One is not altogether wrong when he chides Nico for dabbling in things like magic without really understanding them or caring to.

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Great art further cements this great volume of Runaways!

The biggest visual change from the previous few issues is the return of regular artist Kris Anka. He hasn’t drawn anything but the covers since issue 12, and his pencils have been missed. It took two artists to fill the gap, including one from the Runaways’ past! And while they were talented, this volume has really become Anka’s, who has defined it with the best work of his career. He mingles manga sensibilities with a Western style which is totally unique and his own. The One would be boring under anyone else’s hand, yet under Anka, is emotive and interesting!

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In fact, this entire issue is a testament to Anka’s skill at body and facial language. It is essentially one long conversation between two figures, yet between the two of them, it’s more riveting than it might otherwise look. The colors by Matthew Wilson also capture the shifts in the skyline and setting, from the mountain to the diner. Nico Minoru has been drawn by a variety of talented figures, yet she’s rarely looked better than she does here, under Anka’s hand.

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This issue represents a bit of a milestone in Runaways history. It has officially lasted longer than the third volume, which published 14 issues from 2008-2009 as written by Terry Moore. It’s longest volume was the second, when the former Tsunami imprint title ran for 30 issues from 2005-2008, and it featured the series’ original creators Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, along with writer Joss Whedon (yes, that Joss Whedon). While there is no telling how many more issues Rowell and Anka will have, they’ve already made a positive mark on an innovative franchise.