Sunday, October 29, 2006

Actually Essential Storylines: Nightwing

This week’s issue of 52 featured the origin of Nightwing, the superhero persona Dick Grayson took on after he had outgrown that of Robin and decided to strike out on his own, rather than serving as Batman’s sidekick any longer.

His origin and history is among the more complicated in all of the DCU, seeing as he’s one of the company’s oldest characters, and one who’s been in continuous publication since he was first introduced as Robin.

I don’t envy writer Mark Waid the task of boiling down decades of comics into a seven-panel origin story, eve if his collaborator is George Perez, an artist who can make each panel feel like a page. Waid went an odd route, essentially just retelling Grayson’s Robin origin, before spending one panel on the fact that Robin eventually flew the nest and became Nightwing. The last panel is devoted to Nightwing’s presents rather than his past; a rather odd choice that keeps the story from feeling timeless. If DC collects all of these back-ups into a Secret Origins or Who’s Who trade in a year or so, this one will be already dated.

I was a little surprised to see that Waid chose not to mention the Teen Titans at all, seeing as how they were such a huge part of Dick Grayson’s development, particularly as he grew from a sidekick into a hero, and became one of the world’s best team leaders. Also ignored was the Kryptonian origin of the name Nightwing, and the entire time Grayson spent in Bludhaven (i.e. the first 100 and change issues of his solo series). Reading the origin, it’s almost as if Grayson went right from being Robin to being Nightwing in Nightwing #125.

Of course, I suppose that’s why there’s the “Essential Storylines” listed at the bottom of the origin. DC does a stronger job than usual here, but we can always dissect it and add to it.

Here’s what DC suggested:

Detective Comics #38: This is the first appearance of Robin, and the issue features an oft homaged and parodied cover, featuring Robin bursting through a paper hoop held aloft by Batman. I suppose this is an “essential” story, but good luck hunting down the single issue (one’s currently going for over $2,000 on eBay). You’re better off seeking it out in an archive collection, or in the much more affordable Batman in the Forties trade. Of course, the same story has been told and re-told by DC, including in their very next suggested storyline.

Robin: Year One: This trade collection is currently out of print, so may be a tad hard to find. But it’s well worth the hunt. Written by Chuck Dixon (who’s written some of the best Nightwing stories ever) and Scott Beatty (a talented Bat-scribe who doesn’t get enough work) and penciled by Javier Pulido, it tweaks Robin’s post-Crisis origin story, and is presented in the clean, elegant art style that looks consistent with Batman: Year One.

Nightwing: Year One: If you want to get a handle on Nightwing as quickly as possible, this is the one story you need to read. Dixon and Beatty again handle the writing, while longtime Nightwing penciller Scott McDaniel handles art chores (with Andy Owens). The story picks up as the Batman/Robin alliance is crumbling, then follows Dick as he quits, visits Superman for guidance, hangs out with Batgirl and Jason and fights Two-Face (sort of). Dixon and Beatty answer every question you’ve ever had about Nightwing in this story, including why his first suit looked so much like Deadman’s, what’s up with the yellow in it and why he picked that particular name.

Teen Titans: The Judas Contract: These days, it’s hard to believe that Teen Titans was once X-Men popular, but it’s the truth. Or at least, that’s what all the older fans say. And this is one of the most powerful stories of that era, one that Brad Meltzer wrote an essay about in Give Our Regards To The Atom-Smashers! and Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans ‘toon re-imagined. It’s also the first historical appearance of Grayson as Nightwing.

Now, here’s what they missed:

Batman: Year Three: I was a little surprised that DC even bothered with the above-mentioned Robin: Year One, seeing how the exact same story was already told in the Batman monthly previously, way back in 1989. Marv Wolfman wrote the story, which featured Grayson returning to Gotham to face an obsessed Dark Knight, while his origin is retold. The art is courtesy of Pat Broderick and John Beatty, with George Perez handling the covers (Covers which Perez looked to for guidance in his Nightwing origin in 52, by the way). The four-part story was never collected as far as I can tell, but ran from Batman #436-#439. The story of how Grayson became Robin, and why Batman even wanted a Robin, is also told in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s epic mystery Batman: Dark Victory, a sequel to their Batman: The Long Halloween. As is often the case, Loeb is very, very loose with continuity (the story barely resembles that told in either of the other Robin origins we’ve mentioned so far), but there are some incredibly fun moments, particularly near the end. I actually laughed aloud when Batman first notices Dick’s superhero costume.

Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying: Wolfman followed his “Year Three” story with “A Lonely Place of Dying,” which crossed over with The New Titans and featured art by George Perez and others. As far as Bat-history goes, this one is a must-read. Batman has been acting more and more unhinged ever since Jason Todd died, and Alfred and Commissioner Gordon are beginning to think he’s not only lost it, but is going to kill himself if he keeps going like he is. A young boy by the name of Time Drake thinks he knows how to save Batman: He needs Robin back, as his lightness provided a counterpoint to Batman’s darkness. So Drake approaches Grayson and tries to convince him to take up the Robin mantle again. How does he know who that Grayson used to be Robin? He figured it out, just like he figured out Batman was really Bruce Wayne.

It’s one of the most emotional Batman stories of the era, and a pivotal moment, as it signals the end of his estrangement with Nightwing and sets Tim Drake on the path to becoming the next Robin. DC has allowed the trade to go out of print for some crazy ass reason; but you can hunt it down in Batman #440-#442 and The New Titans #60 and #61. Art and covers by Perez, who’s joined by Jim Aparo and Tom Grummet on the interiors.

Batman: Prodigal: After Batman was crippled during the Knightfall crossover and his then-girlfriend kidnapped by her mad brother, he and Alfred take off to rescue her, leaving Gotham in the capable hands of Robin and Jean-Paul Valley, a.k.a. Azrael, who had a little experience filling in for Batman, and was in the process of being trained by Robin. Unfortunately, Azrael proves to be a sucky Batman, and, by the time Batman regains the use of his legs and returns to Gotham, AzBats has gone completely around the bend. Nightwing joins forces with Robin, Catwoman, Shiva an Wayne to take Valley down, but Batman doesn’t reclaim the mantle of the Bat right away. Instead, he claims to need some “me” time, and he takes a mysterious vacation of some sort (it’s never been revealed where Batman went off too). So who was to take care of Gotham while Batman was gone? The new Batman, Dick Grayson. This cross-over ran through all three of the Bat-books at the time, and was eventually collected into trade. It wasn’t a terribly good story, but it was somewhat interesting to see Grayson trying to fill in his mentor’s boots for a while.

The dark Nightwing returns: Post-Prodigal, Nightwing would become something of the third-wheel for the Dynamic Duo, helping Batman and Robin out whenever they needed him. While Batman team-up stories became common place after the mid-‘90s, perhaps the most important was Batman: Gotham Knights #20 and #21, during which Bruce Wayne finally, officially adopted Grayson, so that he was no longer his “ward” but his actual, honest-to-goodness son.

Apparently to keep him out from underfoot, Batman sent Nightwing to an even rougher, tougher city right next door to Gotham City which for some reason no one ever mentioned before—Bludhaven. At this point, ‘Wing earned his own title by Dixon and McDaniel, who proceeded to give him his own rogues gallery (much of their run, and Dixon and Greg Land’s run, has been collected into six trades).

Grayson was also on-hand for most of the Bat-crossovers, most notably the back half of the excellent “No Man’s Land,” “Officer Down,” “The Hunt For Oracle” (a Nightwing/Birds of Prey crossover), “Bruce Wayne: Murderer” and “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive,” in which Nightwing and Batman come to blows. ‘Wing played a major role in DC’s last line-wide crossover before Infinite Crisis, the hit-or-miss “Joker’s Last Laugh,” and, I suppose, he was also prominently featured in Batman: War Games, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend reading that.

The Teen/New/Adjective-less Titans: Between the time he quit being Robin and the time he earned his own title, the various Titans books were the best place for Nightwing stories, and they are understandably legion. Other than the aforementioned Judas Contract, the only other collection DC offered post-Nightwing was New Teen Titans: The Terror of Trigon (also out of print).

Nighwing left the Titans in Arsenal’s hands around the time of “Zero Hour,” but he was often coming and going. During Dan Jurgens’ relaunched Teen Titans, Nightwing, Arsenal, Tempest and the Flash confronted Jurgens’ original Titans (Prism, Joto, Argent and Risk) in “Then and Now.” Nightwing would join and lead the next incarnation of the team, in the post-JLA dream team incarnation of the team, now simply called The Titans. It featured a Titan from each era of the team, and was lead by the five original Titans. It got off to a great start, thanks to writer Devin Grayson, but after she left it went through a string of worse and worse writers and new directions, until it was eventually, mercifully cancelled leading into Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day, a terrible miniseries which lead into the even more terrible Outsiders title, focusing on a team of interchangeable heroes led by Nightwing. I’d recommend an issue or storyline from it, but I can’t honestly think of a single Outsiders story that I don’t wish I could un-read myself.

The major Leagues: Nighwing was called in to help out some former Justice Leaguers in the first three issues of the Justice League Task Force; he helped Gypsy, Flash, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter on a mission to infiltrate a foreign country and shut down a doomsday device, though he grated on the Justice Leaguers’ nerves. In JLA/Titans, Devin Grayson and Phil Jimenez give us an epic, constantly escalating battle that eventually involved every former Titan and potential Titan vs. every Leaguer and League reservist and ally. When the two teams square off, with mentor battling student, Batman and Nightwing do battle—only with words instead of fists. In addition to being one of the most fun Titans or JLA stories, this story provides an eloquent distillation of the differences between Nightwing and Batman.

When Batman and the rest of the JLA disappear into the past and are presumed dead in JLA arc “The Obsidian Age,” Batman’s contingency plan for what happens when the entire League is killed at once kicks in, and a new League is recruited. The ragtag lineup consists of The Atom, Firestorm, Faith, Hawkgirl, Green Arrow, Major Disaster and Jason Blood, lead by none other than Nightwing. He does a fine job of it too, until Batman and the League return to the present, where Dick greets him with a hug. Confidential to DC: This line-up would make for a great story arc in JLA: Classified.

Other universes: While Dick Grayson-as-Robin appears rather commonly in DC’s Elseworlds and other alternate universe stories, Dick Grayson-as-Nighwing is far rarer. In the Ross-iverse’s Kingdom Come, Grayson’s Nightwing-hood is acknowledged, though he takes on a new name—Red Robin. He has a daughter with fellow New Titan Starfire though, and she names herself after both parents—Nightstar.

In the Adventures-iverse, Nightwing fights alongside Batman, Batgirl and Robin, in the Gotham Adventures monthly, which was set after Dick Grayson left Gotham and relinquished the Robin mantle on the Bruce Timm-produced animated series. There was even a Nighwing-centric miniseries, Batman Adventures: The Lost Years, which shows how Grayson went about training to become long-haired hero Nightwing.

Other media: Dick Grayson is one of the most popular DC heroes to adapt into other media—only Superman and Batman have been adapted more often into non-comic book media—but as Robin, rather than Nightwing. ‘Wing does appear in later episodes of Timm-produced Batman cartoons, 1997’s The New Batman Adventures (the series in which all of the characters got re-designs).

Nightwing also pops up in the Teen Titans ‘toon, in an episode where Starfire gets zapped into the future and meets the grown-up Robin, who now goes by the name Nightwing.


PaulTiberius said...

Nice looking blog, man. Want to trade reciprocal links?

Anyway, I really appreciate your item here, providing more thorough "essential reading" than DC is giving in the 52 origin backups. They aren't making the most of that opportunity, definitely.

Nightwing has never been a favorite of mine, but he has so much potential. Outsiders is a better Nightwing book than Nightwing, lately.

Keep up the fine work!

Anonymous said...

Depressingly it was been shown where Bruce was in "Prodigal". He was running around Gotham in uber-paranoid mode, setting up a network of spare mini-Batcaves which just happened to prove oh-so handy after the earthquake and No Man's Land

And fans of Animated Nightwing, or indeed any Nightwing, should check out Batman Adventures #12, "The Dup Dynamic" which suggests what happens in the Animated DCU when Dick went to Bludhaven. In this version he's NOT Batman-lite, he takes on his own heroic persona and starts doing things Batman would never do, like give interviews and appeal for witnesses on TV, and work alongside the police as a respected comrade. Batman is initally appalled, but has to admit that Dick's personality allows it to work in a way Bruce could never manage (Batman would never ever TRY to talk a newscopter into giving him a lift, but Nightwing can and they're happy to help him. They end each respecting the other and saying so(Which was a breath of fresh air considering the atmosphere in the main DCU at the time)

It also includes a backup story featuring the REAL origin of the Trophy Room in the Batcave, which is a hoot!