Sep 9, 2010

Why Nightwing Never Worked

With the recent news that, starting in November, we will have two Batmen instead of just one, with both Bruce Wayne (the original) reclaiming the cape and the cowl,  and Dick Grayson (the first Robin, also known as Nightwing) retaining it, as he has been wearing it for over a year now.


I can't deny the profitability of such a move, but I also wonder why it's taking so long to get Dick back in the Nightwing suit - currently, with no one running around in the suit, it's only a matter of time before someone actually does. The odd thing is, if you look back on it, Nightwing never really worked or sold the way he was supposed to. A lot of comics fans - myself included - would name Dick Grayson as one of their all-time favorite characters (to illustrate the point, for me, Bruce Wayne is not on that list). But then if you ask people to name an all-time great Nightwing story, you'd be hard-pressed to get straight answers.

So why has Nightwing as a title never really worked? Well, the Comics Cube! explores the question right now.

Man, that Ryan Sook sure can draw.

First off, some history. Dick Grayson was introduced in Detective Comics #38 in April 1940, a mere 11 months after the introduction of the Darknight Detective himself. The basic concept behind him was to give younger readers a point of entry - a relatable character - into the Batman mythos. The introduction of Robin, the Boy Wonder, drastically lightened the tone of the Batman stories to follow, as he became more a smiling, lighthearted, paternal figure instead of a dark avenger.

Robin was created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson.
More those last two than that first one.





Much fun can be made now as to his actual, you know, existence, especially when you consider the pixie boots and the short shorts, but the truth is that against Batman's then-silly and campy backdrop, the Robin aesthetic didn't look silly in comparison. In fact, it's this aesthetic that Burt Ward made famous, playing opposite Adam West in the 1960s Batman show (and movie).

When Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams got on Batman and brought the character back to his darker roots, driven by Neal Adams' hyperrealistic art style, well, that's when Robin started looking silly. That, and they were aging him so he was no longer a Boy Wonder but a Teen Wonder. To illustrate the point, here's the cover to 1982's Uncanny X-Men/New Teen Titans crossover, drawn by Walt Simonson. As badass as they try to make Robin look, he looks positively silly with those bare legs, especially next to all those other characters (namely Cyclops).


Even Neal Adams thought the design was outdated and hokey, so he came up with the variation that was adopted in 1989 by Tim Drake, and made famous by Dick Grayson in Batman: The Animated Series:


It was time for a change, and so, in February 1984, in New Teen Titans #39, Marv Wolfman and George Perez had Dick Grayson abandon the Robin identity, with the understanding that he would no longer be Batman's partner, no longer be the sidekick of the world's greatest detective:


Do note that at this point, Wolfman and Perez had been having a sterling run on New Teen Titans, where Dick Grayson was portrayed as the ultimate leader. You folks have to understand, DC didn't really have a good team book out to carry a franchise in its history. Justice League of America, although it starred iconic characters, never really was all that critically acclaimed. New Teen Titans, however, was really solid - it was DC's biggest seller, rivalling Marvel's Uncanny X-Men. So it was in these pages that Dick Grayson - Robin - started to earn the reputation of being the best leader in the DC Universe.

Six issues later, Dick debuted his new costumed identity, Nightwing, which is an obviously dated costume now, but as a kid in the 80s, I thought the costume was quite awesome.


Dick was so well-versed in his role as the Titans leader that that's what he basically became at his core. He was apart from Batman and the new Robin, Tim Drake, and he became, for better or worse, a guy who was more defined by his ability to lead and interact with others on such a personal basis than he was by being his own character.

He was the Flash's best friend, and was even best man at Wally West's wedding.

From Flash 159. By Mark Waid and Paul Pelletier

He was the Batman's "son." Superman was kind of like his uncle.

Nightwing 141. Pete Tomasi and Rags Morales.
He was connected to everyone, and everyone trusted him.

Infinite Crisis 4, by Geoff Johns and Phil Jimenez

Dick Grayson was the coolest guy in the DC Universe. He was the best big brother you never had. And he was so with it, so together, that there was nothing wrong with him at all. And that was the problem. Consider this scene from Dan Jurgens' Teen Titans volume 2, #12, when Dick meets Flash, Arsenal, and Tempest in a Titans reunion, and Wally gives him the news that Donna Troy can't come.


You see? He's emotionally mature enough to know he can't hide how he feels, and then professional enough to know when to get to work and how to do it, and then back to emotionally mature enough to know to joke around. This puts him in sharp contrast with his mentor, because Batman was at the time being portrayed as emotionally retarded, being too dark and brooding, and continually pushing away everyone close to him. And if you think about it, from Robin to Nightwing, Dick Grayson had already undergone a growth that Batman and Superman never could, by the sheer fact of their timelessness.

When Nightwing got his own series in 1996, he got moved to a town called Bludhaven, the city beside Gotham. It was darker, dingier, and more corrupt.

Nightwing #3. Chuck Dixon and Scott McDaniel.

It seemed to me that the pieces were in place for Nightwing to be a critical and popular bestseller. I thought he could be the critical equivalent of Daredevil, which has, since 1982, been critically acclaimed, almost consistently. Daredevil has the advantage of being a name big enough to guarantee profitability, but not big enough to guarantee a strict status quo. I thought Nightwing wielded many of the same advantages. He was a big enough name to guarantee sales, but not big enough to guarantee that he can't really be put through the wringer. Plus, he wasn't Batman or Robin, and that provided us with the freedom to see a darker corner of the DC Universe. But that was also the problem.

Despite Chuck Dixon writing an excellent Nightwing run, something always seemed lacking. Scott McDaniel's art was stylized and an acquired taste, but I always admired his ability to set the mood, as well as his emphasis on Nightwing's acrobatic abilities to set him apart from the rest of the Bat-family. At the end of the day, I've come to realize that the problem with Nightwing in a solo series is that he was much too well-balanced.

At the end of the day, whether they meant to or not, writers characterized Dick Grayson in relation to the roles of Batman and Robin - his future and his past. In fact, before the Nightwing series started, Dick was the protagonist of Batman: Prodigal, where he took over as Batman for a while, and the moral of the story was "As good as you are, you're not Bruce Wayne." I would have thought that such a story would severely devalue Dick, but then the story had instead gone unnoticed and not referred to all that often.


Without the cape and the cowl, Nightwing was relaxed as he could get. Remember the flippant attitude he had as Robin, as characterized in the Batman shows and cartoons of the 60s? Dick was a lot like that, except a whole lot more competent. He was the stage in between Batman and Robin. He was Robin without all the teenage anxiety, and he was Batman with emotional maturity, but not quite as good.

In other words, Dick Grayson was too well-balanced to really have a serious hook with which to grab his readers. The uncertainty that came with being Robin and the utter detachment and awesomeness (in the purest sense of the word) that came with being Batman wasn't his. He could look Superman straight in the eye and tell him the real score. And because of the way the DC Universe worked, he couldn't be put through the wringer like Daredevil has continually been. If you hurt Dick, Batman will come. If you take away his home, his money can buy him a new one. You can't kill his supporting cast - they haven't been around long enough for you to form an attachment to them. You can't introduce things from his deep and dark past, because we've already seen his past. He was Robin. We've read and seen his adventures. So you can't mine that.

What's left when you've got an ultraconfident guy with no hang-ups with extraordinary abilities fighting crime? You've got, and I hate to say this, a generic superhero. That's the description you'd give to pre-1961 superheroes, and it's not even like he's Superman and you could take him into space and draw a bunch of really cool stuff; Nightwing is mystery-solving and crime-busting, and that's what you're going to get. Granted, with the right writer and artist, it will be awesome mystery-solving and crime-busting, but without that emotional hook, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a story whose story quality goes beyond "good."

But whenever Nightwing had to interact with other superheroes, his main ability - to lead - shone through.

Return of Donna Troy #3. Phil Jimenez, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and George Perez. (What a team!)

Note the following sequence from Teen Titans vol. 3 #6. At this point, Nightwing isn't a member of the Titans or the Justice League, and these two teams are fighting due to a misunderstanding.


Dick Grayson is the one guy capable of getting all these guys - including Batman himself - to stand down.  How cool is that?

If Dick Grayson is really going to shine, it would have to take into account his greatest personality strength, which is his ability to lead and command respect from the entire DC Universe. He's a more natural leader than either Superman or Batman, and provides a great role model for kids everywhere. So it was that towards the end of the Nightwing series, I was thinking that the only way Dick could really work in a series that he headlined would be to make him the anchor for a new team-up book a la The Brave and the Bold, because he really shines when it's in relation to other superheroes. Everyone knows him, at least in relation to someone else, so there's a lot of potential for "I'm with the friend of a friend" stories. Imagine Dick Grayson teaming up with Wonder Woman, and they talk about Bruce Wayne (what else do friends of friends talk about other than the mutual friend?), Or Dick and any of the Flashes, or even, say, Dick and the Phantom Stranger?

However, what ended up happening was Bruce Wayne "dying" and someone having to take his place. And that someone was logically Dick Grayson. So it was bye bye Nightwing, hello Batman!

Dick's run as Batman started off as such a gigantic breath of fresh air. Again, he's much more well-balanced than Bruce and much less uptight, so you get a return to some really fun imagery you wouldn't get from Bruce these days. They're more reminiscent of the Bruce of the Bronze Age. Here, for your amusement, are Batman and Robin punching out a criminal:

Batman and Robin 1. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.


And the thing that makes me laugh, Dick Grayson complaining about his cape.

Batman 688. Judd Winnick and Mark Bagley.

What's more is that Dick Grayson now has insecurities again. He doesn't want to be Batman; he doesn't think he'll be anywhere near as good as Bruce is when it comes to being Batman.


But the truth is, he's great at the job, which is why the fans have taken a shine to it and which is why Dick is staying on as Batman even when Bruce comes back.

I've noticed that Dick as Batman has been more entertaining when he's teamed up with Robin than when he's flying solo. When he's flying solo, he tends to just be Batman - as if it didn't matter if it was he or Bruce under the cape and cowl (this is a sweeping generalization and is not altogether accurate). Once again, it highlights Dick's ability to lead and interact.

Dick Grayson is that rare anomaly in comics where the clothes actually do make the man. When he's Robin, he's witty and fun-loving and punning, but with an anxious side; when he's Batman, he feels the pressure on his shoulders; but when he's Nightwing, there's nothing wrong with him. Whatsoever. And that's the problem. So the solution is not to highlight whatever Dick's insecurities and problems may be by putting him in different roles, but to highlight his strengths.

I can only hope that when Dick Grayson makes the eventual return to Nightwing that we get to see that ability to lead and interact showcased more often. Because it really is his best quality, and because it really is the thing that sets Dick Grayson apart from the rest of the DC Universe, and the thing that makes him the coolest guy in it.

14 comments:

Kilawinguwak said...

you know, this could be the lead-up to batman beyond...

Duy said...

Explain!

Inigo said...

From a visual POV, a lot has to do with his costume...it looks silly for characters that were pushed during that time. The late 90s was a time when the Jim Lee school of comic art was taking dominance. Almost all new or revised frontrunner character costumes had accessories, or at least stark breaks in them. Nightwing didn't even have a utility belt. His visual looked like someone Stan Lee would have invented... back in the 70s.

Duy said...

I think that depends on which costume you're talking about.

The original disco-like costume is DEFINITELY dated and ridiculous to look at right now (although as a kid I thought it was awesome).

The second costume with the ponytail and the yellow thing around his shoulders and chest looks more than a little ridiculous and I'd really rather never see it again, ever.

But the sleek black costume with the gauntlets (those were his utility belts), I always thought was a great costume, especially BECAUSE it stood out against the overly detailed Jim Lee/Rob Liefeld/Todd McFarlane costumes at the time (Cable, anyone?). But I agree that it may not be very eye-catching - the best comparison is Daredevil's costume, which is great in its simplicity but is so simple that it actually works against him when it comes to an overall "cool" factor.

I do agree that visually, it's been weak though. I don't actually remember the Nightwing series ever having an artist that goes beyond merely "solid." Scott McDaniel knew how to create mood and really emphasized Dick's acrobatic style, but his basic style of drawing is such an acquired taste that it's not all that "nice" to look at. Rags Morales and Don Kramer draw solidly, but there's nothing in their art that really made Nightwing stand out (as opposed to, say, Todd McFarlane, who may not be able to draw PEOPLE all that well, but draws Spider-Man perfectly).

I think another thing missing from Dick's costume is a symbol.

waps said...

2 Batmans?! Solid fertile ground for great writing! I can't wait! I'm already brimming with plots involving Two Face.

Dick is so underrated. His curse is that he lives under such an immense shadow.

Time to save some bucks and buy back into DC!

Duy said...

I think it's kind of telling of the comics industry that Damian Wayne in a Robin costume will be better known than Dick Grayson in a Nightwing costume.

Kilawinguwak said...

sorry, just saw your reply. i was thinking that, plot-wise, bruce returning as an older, grimmer batman could lead up to his role as the reluctant mentor in batman beyond.

he'll be mentoring dick on how to be batman, that's one thing you can expect. and damian is going to go nuts, trying to figure out which bats to follow: his biological dad, or the big bro who everybody looks up to (although given what you said about bruce giving deference to dick, it may add some weight leading to damian following instructions from dick).

also, costumes. this is just reading too much into what's already been written, but dick is generally complaining about the bats costume, so who's to say that he won't alter his batman costume to differentiate himself from bruce? if the wings are giving him trouble, then wouldn't he logically try to streamline his costume to look more like his nightwing suit?

this is just me brainstorming yo.

Duy said...

Good thoughts - BUT Bruce isn't returning as an older Batman; he's returning as pretty much the same age (the wonders of time travel) he was when he left.

There'll be a new series called Batman Inc, which means the Batman operation goes global (which I think is an awesome idea). Bruce is the lead for that one and the new "Batman: The Dark Knight" comic. Dick remains the lead for the flagship titles of Batman, Batman and Robin, and detective Comics.

Also, they've pretty much said that Dick retains his suit and Bruce will get a new one, complete with the yellow oval.

Having said that, there's a Batman Beyond miniseries out right now!

Will said...

An interesting take, but not one I can wholly agree with.

The first paragraph discussing the delay in Grayson returing to the role of Nightwing fails to acknowledge Didio's own comments. At SDCC Didio stated that the plan was to return Grayson to Nightwing as soon as Bruce came back. But Grayson is selling so well, they figured, why not keep him there for a while?

Second, during Wolfman and Perez's NTT, Nightwing was someone with a lot of hangups. And part of that defined his character as well. Also, Jason Todd was the Robin during that time, not Tim Drake.

Third, Chuck Dixon was handed the Nightwing series with very little lead time. He was not the first writer picked for the book. ANd there result was a very generic Daredevil knock-off (Blockbuster is clearly Kingpin).

Finally, I do agree that Dick works very well with other characters. But he can work well on his own too. Tomasi demonstrated that in the final stories of Nightwing's solo series. However, I certainly wouldn't mind seeing a Nightwing/Flamebird book, with Damian as Flamebird!

http://www.nightwingfanclub.com

Duy said...

Greetings, sir. Fair points all.

(1)Just because I didn't explicitly acknowledge it doesn't mean I don't know it - hence my point about profitability. I see the profitability of the move, but I am wondering what's taking so long for someone to run around in the Nightwing suit. It's the nature of the business to keep iconic names and costumes running around, after all. (We're talking about a business that once said "Superman should be the only Kryptonian, so we need to kill off Supergirl," only to introduce a vastly different Supergirl just a few years later, with the same costume.)

(2) Being the owner and proud reader of many a Wolfman/Perez NEW TEEN TITANS comic, yes, I know that Dick had lots of hangups. Most of them involved Kory (who's no longer around) or his frustration at not being as good as Bruce (which currently manifests in his run as Batman, but is something he's completely cool with NOW as Nightwing). These hangups are hangups he got over - at least as Nightwing.

Also, I never once said Tim Drake was the Robin during the NTT run. If you read the piece, I explicitly say that Tim debuted in 1989 and Nightwing in 1984.

(3) Acknowledged, but I fail to see what that has to do with much of anything.

(4) I really think - I REALLY REALLY DO - that Tomasi's run was really starting to get off the ground when NIGHTWING was cancelled. It was good. It was getting better. He seemed to be on his way to finding that hook, that emotional grip, hampered only by the Ra's Al Ghul arc. And then it got taken away from him. Don't get me wrong - I like Dick's run as Batman. But Tomasi's run is one of comics' eternal "What Ifs" to me.

J. L. Bell said...

Tomasi's run on Nightwing was always going to be short-lived. He was the editor who first heard Grant Morrison's pitch for Batman, including Damian, Bruce Wayne being removed, and Dick Grayson taking over. So Tomasi took the scripting job knowing where and approximately when it would end.

I think you have a good point about Nightwing being most effective, both as a crime-fighter and as a character, when he's interacting with other heroes. It's notable not only that Dick has connections with most of DC's heroes, but doesn't have long-lasting connections with many civilians. Chuck Dixon built up a Blüdhaven crowd that didn't really blossom before they were wiped out, occasionally writers bring up Dick's circus roots, and there are a few "for purposes of this story" girlfriends. But the only real continuity in his life is heroing.

Duy said...

Was Grant's run always going to incorporate DickBat? Regardless of the circumstances though, I think Tomasi's run was shamefully short.

I agree also that the supporting cast was a problem. How are you supposed to make new character stick if you, you know, don't make them stick?

J. L. Bell said...

According to interviews I quoted here, the “death” of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson taking over the role of Batman were part of Morrison’s early pitch. More recently, DC has been saying that the “Batman, Inc.” concept was also part of Morrison's storyline, but the company had obvious reasons for not playing it up before.

I suspect DC and Morrison were waiting to see the market response before deciding whether Dick would continue as Batman. For now, he's selling better in that costume than as Nightwing, but there's a possibility of a surfeit of Batman magazines in the near future.

I quoted and commented on your posting here in one of my own, saying more or less the same thing: If one of Dick Grayson’s great strengths as a character is interacting with others, his great stories won't be solo adventures.

Duy said...

Thanks for that! There's another point I only dwelled on - Dick was always conceived to be part of the team, right from the very beginning. Unlike Wally West, who lacked his own personality until William Messner-Loebs got a hold of him, Dick's personality was already so defined, even by the time he became Nightwing.

I've backlinked you on my blog roll!

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