Originally Published November 25, 2011
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Drew Baumgartner and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Drew’s blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Nigtwing while Drew is hosting the discussion of Green Lantern Corps.
Patrick: I never read a Nightwing title before the new 52. Much like my experience with Batgirl, I knew Nightwing from his various appearances in other comics I was reading anyway or other Batman media. Nightwing – for those that don’t know – is Dick Grayson and was the original Robin. I may not have known that much about Nightwing, but I know Dick Grayson – he’s sort of been the go-to Robin when depicting the dynamic duo on screen. Dick’s origin story and Bruce Wayne’s origin story share one huge commonality – that of losing both parents at a young age at the hand of a petty criminal. But while this loss drives Bruce to obsessively reform the city and take impossible revenge, Dick’s reaction to the loss has always been a bit more mysterious. Does he fight crime to right some cosmic wrong? It’s always been hard to nail down what exactly Dick fights for. By this point in his run, he’s been Robin, Nightwing, Batman, and now he’s Nightwing. I suspect that he fights crime because that’s basically the only life he knows anymore.
That is, until his old life creeps back into Gotham City. In issue 1 of the new series, Haly’s Circus returns to town. Dick hasn’t been back to see the circus, or any of the friends he made when the Flying Graysons toured with them, since his parents were killed. He’s swept up in those warm feelings of nostalgia when he sees his old friends again, particularly foxy redhead Raya. She invites Dick to show off some of his old acrobatics skills and he obliges, but has to consciously tone down his prowess. For all they know, he’s been sitting on his ass the last 5 years, not flipping around Gotham fighting crime. But fight crime he must! Dick is attacked by an masked assassin named Saiko on his way home that very evening. Not content to keep his best assets hidden, Dick dons the Nightwing costume and engages the assassin in combat. They duke it out but Saiko escapes. Confused, but basically none the worse for wear, Dick heads home only to have his peaceful night interrupted by the aforementioned fox redhead. Raya takes him on a private jet to Atlantic City where Dick meets with Mr. Haly, the dying owner of the eponymous circus. Haly knows that, not only is he in failing health, but someone is trying to kill him. Cue Saiko! The assassin manages to kill Mr. Haly, but not before Haly wills the circus to Dick. Also, that private plane ride? Sex with the redhead. When he returns to Gotham, Dick finds that the circus folk aren’t nearly so welcoming anymore. Haly’s son blames Dick for his father’s death and refuses to recognize his authority as owner of the circus (not that Dick is eager to claim this right). At the funeral, Dick and Raya revisit some of their past Raya reveals that one of their former cohort hires contract killers for a living in Chicago. Dick goes looking for a lead, but ultimately comes back empty handed.
That’s a fairly dense block of text up there. When trying to gather my thoughts on Nightwing, I realized that an awful lot had transpired in these three issues. Most of the action revolved around characters and institutions that are brand new to me. The fact that I feel like I have a solid grasp on all of these moving pieces, as well as a pretty good idea of who all these people are three action-packed issues in bodes well. Batman is running a detective story at present, but Nightwing is a thriller. The storytelling isn’t revolutionary, but it is efficient and competent. What’s more, I think Kyle Higgins is getting to the heart of some issues that are unique to Dick Grayson.
Raya levels the following criticism: “You look forward instead of back, Dick. It’s who you are.” Raya’s read on this is 100% correct, and it seems to be the pivot point around which this incarnation of Nightwing spins. I think it’s keenly observed that the character has a past that he rarely lets define him, except where convenient. In the opening pages, Dick rattles off his caped past and even casually mentions his acrobat training, but all only to say that he’s powerful and able to handle anything that Gotham City may throw his way. He may not be running away from his past, but it is hard for Dick to embrace it. There are a number of spreads that include panels that appear to be lifted from another book, pasted haphazardly on the page, as though in a scrapbook. I originally found this affect kind of annoying – it’s always set off my a green or blue frame and, especially on my computer or phone, made the action tricky to follow. But once I landed on this idea of photo albums and Dick’s relationship with his past, I went back through the issues and enjoyed the technique.
Another thing I think the art is accomplishing very well is acting. Dick flashes so many smirks and each one conveys a slightly different meaning. Also, Haly’s grieving son had some really expressive moments. Eddy Barrows really catches a wide range of emotions in his faces and I think it serves the dialog and the action really really well. There are a few layouts that have weird panels – one in the shape of the bat signal toward the end of issue #2 comes to mind – but by and large the art is really working for me.
I was going to lay into Saiko as sort of an uninteresting villain, but that may be a bit premature. Batman, Nightwing and Batgirl are all featuring new villains – all of which are killers. But Batman’s Talon is tied up in the history of Gotham and is therefore thematically linked with the rest of the book. Batgirl’s Mirror perhaps too directly relates to Barb’s survivor’s guilt. But Saiko? At this point in the series, he’s little more than a hired thug is a neat costume (the costume is neat – props there). That Saiko’s strings are being pulled by ***SPOILER*** Haly’s son is sort of interesting and ties to the idea that Dick cannot escape his past, no matter how far away it feels, but I think we need a little more time with the characters to get a real sense of the psychology behind it. I am hopeful Higgins will not disappoint.
I don’t want to complain about the following too much, because it’s not really effecting my ability to enjoy the title. Due to the reboot/not-reboot, the timeline is a little messy. As a function of ignoring some Batman-history and embracing other Batman-history, it appears that fewer than 5 years have passed since Dick’s glory days at the circus, but also enough time has passed for Dick to go through all of these transformations (Robin to Nightwing, Nightwing to Batman, Batman to Nightwing). A lot of the DC stable have this implied problem, but Nightwing makes a specific point in the first three issues to state that the old continuity is simultaneously true and untrue. Did you pick up on this Drew? I’ve seen that criticism made of the Hawk and Dove, and at the time I thought “GET OVER IT NERD” but now I’m having a hard time getting over it. Nerd.
But I am digging Dick’s solo adventure. It’s a little strange that Batgirl #3 featured Nightwing and Nightwing #4 seems like it will feature Batgirl. Both characters are wrestling with their pasts and they both sorta operate out of shitty apartments in Gotham City. Plus, there’s all that shared history, all that flipping-through-the-city flirting. I had guessed from his appearance in Batman #1 that Dick would be a greater presence in that series, but I’m starting to really like the idea that Batgirl and Nightwing can act as companion pieces. I’ll raise a glass to the on-going adventures of Dick and Babs.
Drew: I have to admit, I also got juked pretty hard by Dick’s appearances in Batman 1 and 2. I thought for sure the evidence that pointed to Dick in Batman’s John Doe murder was related to Saiko’s claim that “Dick Grayson is the fiercest killer in all of Gotham,” but now his motives don’t aren’t as clear. I’m not convinced that Haly hired Saiko (the reveal at the end of issue 3 makes it seem like he actually has no control over whether or not Saiko kills Dick), but I have no idea what that last scene didmean, or what any of this has to do with the secret Haly Sr. alluded to as he was dying. I think there is a bit of a detective story going on here, it’s just that Dick is more of an action hero than a sleuth.
Like you, I’m more familiar with Dick as Robin than as Nightwing, but I think this is a great time to be getting into the character. He abandoned the Robin mantle largely because he didn’t want to become Bruce, and after actually having been Batman, he’s returned to Nightwing, the life he’s made for himself. Of course, embracing who he is means embracing his past, both his crime-fighting and circus family sides, even if it’s hard for him. I’m not sure I agree that he fights crime because he has no choice — his taking up of the Nightwing mantle twice over and his struggles as Batman (I just picked up Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin volumes 1 and 2) suggests that he still has tastes and affinities within the realm of crimefighting — but you’re right in assessing this title as largely being about a young man dealing with his past, and how that past effects his identity. These are pretty deep themes for a superhero comic, ones that resonate all the more with me given that my blog is more or less devoted to examining the same themes in my own life. I talked a lot about theme in [last week’s write up of Batman], and how those themes tied into the concept of Batman as a timeless character, but I may actually be more fond of the more personal themes being explored here.
I like your read on those weirdly framed panels, but I’m not sure the points where those happen are significant memories for Dick. It’s used kind of indiscriminately (and not at all in the third issue), and seems to me more of a way to kind of have (double) splash pages without giving up whole pages, but it really feels like there should be a compelling narrative reason for these weird layouts. Unfortunately, I’m not as convinced as you that there is one.
I’m with you on the weirdness of only five years having passed. I imagine Bruce’s training regiment for Robins wouldn’t allow for Dick to have been Robin long enough to decide to leave, become Nightwing, take over as Batman, and return to Nightwing, let alone have trained four Robins in that time (granted, Damian didn’t need as much training, but that’s still like a Robin a year. There’s essentially no timeline wherein a kid sidekick could take over for his mentor in five years. Even if Dick is 20 currently (and I feel he must be a good deal older than that), he would have been 15 when Bruce took him in. Bogus.
Like you, I’m finding myself thinking about this title along with Batgirl, mostly for the way their going about characterizing their leads. Babs is a little more developed as a character, but I’d say the level of characterization is comparable, if that makes any sense. Dick’s voice isn’t coming through as strongly as Babs’, but I’m recognizing this as Dick Grayson; he’s an incredibly skilled acrobat, he has a penchant for talking while fighting, and a predeliction for redheads. When this is tied in with the (age appropriate?) themes of identity and its relation to the past, the result is a striking pallate for developing Dick as a human being. I’ll raise my glass to exploring that.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Justice League of America, Batman, Batman & Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Wonder Woman, Action Comics