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Even Neal Adams thought the design was outdated and hokey, so he came up with the variation that was adopted in 1989 by Tim Drake, and made famous by Dick Grayson in Batman: The Animated Series: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