Today, Mark and Spencer are discussing Nightwing 11, originally released December 21st, 2016. As always, this article containers SPOILERS.
Mark: Being written by a member of the team that created a New 52 MVP contender in Grayson, the expectation was that Nightwing would continue that series’ characterization of Dick Grayson as, essentially, the most awesome person alive. Tom King, Tim Seeley, and Mikel Janin’s Grayson leaned heavily on Dick’s “Best Ass in Comics” reputation. Their Grayson was sexy, funny, smart, and could kick ass—basically, he was perfect. And while it should have been impossible to write an ongoing series about a seemingly flawless character, King and Seeley made it work month after month. But now almost one full year into Tim Seeley’s solo run, it’s clear that Nightwing is its own beast. The question, then, is who is this Dick Grayson?
Nightwing 11 continues Grayson’s search for purpose. He’s returned to Bludhaven to try to learn to trust himself, and find out who he truly is. And while this search for self-truth is admirable, it’s also rendered Dick Grayson — Dick Grayson! — a Ken doll: devoid of personality, fairly joyless, and completely sexless.
The issue begins with a flashback to Grayson’s Robin days. He and Batman have just busted a minor (but brilliant) villain named The Pigeon and her sidekick The Defacer. Their crime? Gathering Gotham’s statues and art to destroy them. The Pigeon defaces statues. See, the old Grayson has not entirely forsaken us. And while The Pigeon is an adult, Defacer is a young girl who Grayson takes pity on. He had Batman to guide him, and thus was set on the right path. Defacer, he reasons, just had the wrong mentor. Flash forward to now, and Grayson finds himself face-to-face with Defacer once again: Shawn Tsang. And Tsang is not the only former villain who moved to Bludhaven to try and start fresh.
So while Grayson remains a rather blank slate this issue, luckily he’s surrounded by much more interesting characters in The Run-Offs. A support group headed by Tsang for C-list villains who Batman and Grayson-as-Robin sent packing from Gotham and who are all trying to reform their lives in Bludhaven. Stallion, Jimmy Nice, Thrill Devil, Mouse, and Giz are the most interesting aspects of the issue, even visually. Their characterizations are thin, but they are distinct, and their presence injects some much needed personality into the proceedings.
Stallion doesn’t have much to say, but in his few lines his unique speaking pattern is established. It’s a pleasant surprise, but a little jolting, because it makes you realize he’s the only character with a unique voice. I hadn’t noticed before, but every other character in the issue sounds basically the same.
I’ve had Star Wars on the brain recently with the release of Rogue One, and have been thinking a lot about what makes A New Hope work so well. Much of that film’s success comes from having compelling characters with unique personalities that bounce well off of each other. Even the way each character speaks is unique. C-3PO doesn’t sound like Luke, who doesn’t sound like Han, who doesn’t sound like Leia, who doesn’t sound like Obi-Wan. Of course the actors portraying the characters helped differentiate their voices, but it’s there in the dialogue too. In contrast, most everyone in Nightwing 11 shares a voice, I imagine Seeley’s, and that lack of variety makes the scenes in the issue without The Run-Offs flavorless.
In the end, Nightwing tells Tsang that he thinks helping The Run-Offs will help him too. Still, the question remains of what Grayson will find when he re-discovers himself. The milquetoast nature of his current personality makes his almost-kiss with Tsang fizzle in the closing pages. Tsang at least has some spark of personality, and my immediate thought was, “You can do so much better, girl!” I can’t imagine I’d feel the same back in the Grayson days.
What’d you think, Spencer?
Spencer: My thoughts are complicated, Mark, but in many ways echo yours. Let’s start with that kiss — or, more specifically, the first moment we get a hint that Dick might be interested in Tsang.
Is it just me, or does this feel a little lazy? If Dick’s attraction to Tsang was as obvious as he implies, we wouldn’t need such explicit confirmation of it. We’ve seen Dick run into Tsang a few times now, both in the present and in the past, but I just don’t feel that spark. He claims that his attraction to Tsang isn’t subtle, but throughout their first encounter in this issue, Dick’s primary emotion seems to be dull surprise. So the sudden mention of his being attracted to her comes out of left field, and feels a bit ham-fisted as a result. This goes even moreso for Tsang herself, who goes from berating Nightwing to kissing him within a page. I kinda feel like Seeley suddenly remembered Nightwing is supposed to be a sexy character and thus tossed in a last-minute love interest for him, chemistry or structure be damned.
(I’m not necessarily opposed to a Dick/Tsang pairing, as I think they have a really interesting dynamic just as fellow former-sidekicks, but the romantic aspect has just been executed poorly so far.)
As for Dick Grayson’s quest to “find himself,” well, it’s starting to make me wonder if this run of Nightwing was Kickstarted by Zach Braff. “Rebirth” was supposed to mean a return to what makes these classic DC characters so iconic, so it’s strange that both Wonder Woman and Nightwing’s books have, essentially, been about finding themselves, almost implying that their search for meaning is what makes them iconic. It’s not a theory without warrant — Diana and Grayson are both A-List characters whose titles seem to drastically shift directions every year or two in search of a status quo that will catch on — but it’s frustrating nonetheless. Greg Rucka’s take on this succeeds regardless because the search for the truth about Diana reestablishes and emphasizes all her most important characteristics. Seeley’s…not so much.
Which is a shame, because as a Nightwing story, this issue actually shakes out rather well. Dick deals with his heroic legacy in a nuanced, interesting way, and I like seeing Dick actually use his detective skills both in and out of costume. The problem is that, even if Dick’s doing Nightwing activities, he’s doing them in a very un-Nightwing manner. There’s no confidence, no jokes, no banter — Dick essentially sulks and complains his way through twenty pages. This is clearly a purposeful decision on Seeley’s part, I just think it’s a rather dull one. Dick’s identity crisis isn’t revealing anything new or interesting about the character, it’s just robbing him of the qualities most people pick up a Nightwing book to see in the first place.
Whew. Okay. Despite that rant, I actually found myself enjoying this issue quite a bit — it’s just that, as Mark alluded to, all that enjoyment comes from the Run-Offs, not Nightwing himself.
The idea of a supervillain support group isn’t a new one — The Superior Foes of Spider-Man had a lot of fun with the concept a few years ago — but I like how seriously Seeley takes the concept, and how seriously the Run-Offs seem to be taking their attempts at rehabilitation. Each of these characters has a distinct gimmick, and most a distinct personality (and issue) to go along with it. Seeley even creates some real camaraderie between them (I love Stallion and Thrill Devil walking out of the meeting with their arms around each others’ shoulders, especially after seeing Stallion’s issues with male intimacy).
The most insightful aspect of the Run-Offs, though, is the distinction between the characters the support group works for and the ones it doesn’t. The Run-Offs are a rather diverse group, and all of them struggle with their past crimes, but those who have an easier time staying clean are those who are human. Gorilla Grimm is still working valiantly to stay on the straight-and-narrow, but also has to live in a cargo crate and pay off women to help work-off his aggression (it’s nowhere near as dirty as I made it sound) because he’s a frigging gorilla, and Grace — The Orca, a literal whale-human hybrid — has already given in and rejoined a gang. It’s much harder for “monsters” to find real work than it is their human friends.
I can see the parallels between the Run-Offs and real life ex-cons. Being an ex-con is never easy, but like most things, it’s easier if you’re a white male; society is less forgiving and creates less opportunities for women and people of color, and that goes double if they’re ex-cons. I’m perhaps a bit uncomfortable with the idea of using animals or beast-men to represent minorities in this metaphor (especially when one is a literal gorilla), but it does illustrate the point well.
Speaking of illustrating, Marcus To’s art has been a boon to this storyline as well. To’s Grayson is more “pretty” than “sexy,” but that’s what To’s most famous for, and it’s still a look that works for him. Moreover, To brings that same touch to the rest of the issue, bringing to life an expansive, diverse, good-looking cast of characters. Colorist Chris Sotomayor smartly and subtly shifts his work to better suit To’s as well, filling the issue with softer, more hazy colors that still pop nonetheless. The issue just looks great.
Seeley’s take on Bludhaven is shaping up to be quite interesting too. I like the specificity of its politics and corruption, and not just for how they relate to Nightwing. The excuse for bringing Grayson there might be weak, but it’s shaping up to be a smart decision nonetheless. If only Nightwing himself could perk up we’d have a pretty fantastic book going here, but for the moment, he’s less a soaring bird and more of an albatross around the title’s neck.
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