Originally Published January 6, 2011
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Patrick Ehlers 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 Patrick’s Blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Nightiwng, while Patrick is hosting the discussion of Aquaman.
Drew: The biggest problem I’m having with the New 52 is that whatever title I’ve just read is always my favorite. Don’t get me wrong — if I could have any problem with the relaunch, this would be it — but it does occasionally make me insecure as a critic. Is my love for comics in general getting in the way of my ability to view them objectively? This isn’t really an issue I want to get into here, so I guess this is just a way of saying that, like Animal Man, Batman, Batgirl, The Flash, and Wonder Woman, I’m enjoying the hell out of Nightwing.
I liked this title well enough when we reviewed it in November, enjoying the opportunity to spend some time with Dick, even if I didn’t think it featured groundbreaking story telling. Held up against the dense mythology weaving of Batman or the on-point character work in Batgirl, Nightwing seemed a bit anemic. It was fun, but lacked the substance of some of the titles we’ve already lavished praise upon. That characterization is completely upended with this month’s installment, which takes a break from the plottier elements of the story to focus on Dick, this time through the lens of his relationship with Barbara Gordon.
After a brief prologue, issue #4 finds Dick in bed with Raya, having a flirty, post-coital conversation about classic films. Raya cuts the conversation short, acknowledging that Dick will only be around long enough to figure out who hired Saiko to kill Mr. Haley. Babs shows up out of the blue, which clearly makes Raya a little jealous, in spite of her stated desire to “not pretend this [relationship] is something more than it is.” Raya makes a quick exit, but Babs is too preoccupied to care too much about her poor timing; she’s here on business. As a kind of olive-branch after their, shall we say, combative run-in in Batgirl 3, Babs is asking for some help on a case she’s working; staking-out a buy of stolen microchips.
The requisite wrinkle is that the seller is a shape-shifter known as Spinebender. After waiting for hours for him to show up, Dick realizes Spinebender may be on to them just in time to save Babs from getting brained by a disguised-as-Nightwing Spinebender. They rout him pretty ably with the help of teamwork (!) and make it back to the circus train before anyone notices their absence. When asked how she was able to tell Dick from his, doppelganger, Babs tosses off a line about “looking at things from the right angle,” which gives Dick just the clue he needed to figure out what Mr. Haley’s cryptic last words meant. In true mystery story fashion, this lead only brings Dick to another clue, this time in the form of a book filled with names, all of them unfamiliar — except for Dick’s.
This closing act of knitting this story into the title’s larger plot is handled well, but the story here is really hijacked by Barbara’s visit. Kyle Higgins spent the first three issues getting Dick to embrace his old friends, culminating in his arrival at Raya’s doorstep with the promise that he’s done running from his past. Higgins then throws a big ol’ wrench in this pat arc by suggesting that Dick could really only return to that past by abandoning another, which traipses in in the form of Barbara Gordon. This idea should be familiar to anyone who has ever returned, however briefly, to a past life, and I think resonates especially with a younger audience who may still be actively juggling independent spheres of high-school, college, and even post-college friends. It’s a mature take on the “you can’t go home again” story, showing Dick enjoying both of his lives, but showing that he can’t hope to keep them separate. Nothing illustrates that point better than the final conversation between Raya and Barbara. Babs gives her blessing, assuring Raya that Dick is a great guy, and even wishing her luck, but Raya ultimately decides not to knock after pausing outside of Dick’s door. Dick’s future isn’t dictated by any one aspect of his past, but by how those aspects interact.
Adding to the episodic feel of this issue is a temporary personnel change: Trevor McCarthy handles both pencils and inks this issue. He tends toward a thicker line, which gives this issue a cartoony quality that fits the Dick and Babs banter, as well as the ridiculousness of the villain. He also handles faces well, giving them a range of expression that broadcasts emotion before you even see the text. His sense of anatomy, though, is weird. Dick is shirtless twice in this issue, and both times he is covered in all kinds of extraneous lines. It’s almost like McCarthy was told that muscles are “bulgy” without being given any more specifics. This problem goes away, though, when our heroes don their costumes, leading to some awesome panels.
That is pure joy on those faces. In his narration, Dick mentions the “synergy” he and Babs share, leading me to believe that the excitement they’re clearly feeling here is at least somewhat sexual. When they last met, Babs repeatedly remarked about how the two are physically peerless, and started a fight that was as playful as it was violent. Here, their costumed adventure is clearly tied into their own relationship (not to mention escape and secrecy), and even offers the opportunity for some emotional connections.
After issue #3, you mentioned that you were seeing Batgirl and Nightwing as companion pieces, and I think that that assessment is truer than ever now. Even if we don’t see as much of these characters in each other’s titles, the theme of how our young protagonists learn to face their pasts ties them together. Come to think of it, this may be a meta-theme for all of the New 52, as DC itself works out how to deal with its own past. At any rate, this sets up a deeper understanding between Dick and Babs that will make their inevitable reunion more satisfying than a simple move to appease the fanboys. Oh, who am I kidding? I just want to see those two crazy kids get together.
Patrick: The change-up in art-style this month was sorta neat. You mentioned that it seems little more cartoony, and I’d even go so far as to suggest an anime influence, if not in Trevor McCarthy’s drawings, then certainly in Guy Major’s coloring. And it does help tremendously to sell the villain, which by my count is the very first super-natural or meta-human character we’ve seen in any of these Batman series since the relaunch. The one-time shake-up in the penciler also sits well with me because it sorta suggests that there’s a separate series within the pages of Batgirl and Nightwing – a series that works out the kinks in Babs’ and Dick’s baggage laden relationship. Also, as much as I was grooving on Eddy Barrows’ work in issues 1-3, I didn’t have the art and the story inextricably linked in my head – like I do with Flash, for example. Man, during the Road to Flashpoint series in The Flash, there was like an issue and a half (Flash #11 and the first part of Flash #12) where the fun cartoony Francis Manapul style was replaced with Scott Kolins’ much more realistic drawings. That sucked me right out of what was already kind of a non-stellar story. The point is, I felt good about this art change-up, and appreciate it even as a temporary thing.
I think it’s interesting that Nightwing appears to be a mobile title. We started off in Gotham City, but Dick’s traversed to all kinds of places to learn more about Saiko. He met with Mr. Haley in Atlantic City, questions Zane in Chicago, and then has this little adventure in Miami. Plus, it looks like we’re going to Naw’leans for the next issue. The other Bat-family titles seem to be sticking to Gotham pretty strictly, with the Batman story in particular being tied up very specifically with the character and history of the city. I like the idea that Dick’s base of operations (at least for a while) can be this circus train, which promises a new locale for crime fighting every night. Hell, how is that something that something that’s been missing from this character for so long? NOTE: Maybe that’s always been part of Nightwing, I’ve never read one of these series before.
The cover promises “Double Trouble” and includes the image of Spinebender, disguised as Nightwing, strangling Dick. Now, maybe inserting a character that literally takes the form of a second Dick Grayson is nailing the theme of Dick’s splintered past a little hard, but it worked for me. Actually, there are a lot of little things that emphasize how similar-yet-separate the lives of The Flying Grayson and Nightwing are. There’s a cool parallel between Dick and Raya sleeping together and Nightwing and Barbara fighting crime together. Both conclude with the participants getting dressed again – which bring about those shirtless-Dick scenes you mentioned. Most super heroes lead a double life, but Dick grew up with a double childhood – it’s cool to see it come back and haunt him two different ways simultaneously. It’s a sophisticated concept, and I appreciate all the attention Higgins is paying it.
I think it’s very hard to talk about the New 52 (and probably comics in general) without being hyperbolic. Comics cast such a specific spell that – quite frankly – you know when it works and you know when it doesn’t. And when the magic of a super hero comic works? Forget about anything else. When you can truly get lost in the escapism of a hero’s adventures and explore interesting emotional or psychological components of the character, there are few more gratifying narrative experiences. And I think you and I picked out a bunch of really nice titles, all of which successfully weave this magic. Those that are not pulling off the trick (Aquaman, looking at you), have become the glaring exception to the rule that “comics are fun.” Our foray into monthly titles has confirmed for me that this is a lifestyle that I enjoy – I’m probably a comic book guy for life now.
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:
Aquaman, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, Swamp Thing