comics criticism, dc comics, Perspectives, Uncategorized, writing

Who is Dick Grayson? A Critical Retrospective of Nightwing

I read every issue of Nightwing, every Dick Grayson solo series (including his time as Batman and a super spy) and 100+ issues of Titans and Justice League over the last two months, in search of the answer to one question.

Who is Dick Grayson? 

It is the same question he has been forced to ask himself over and over.

He was Robin, but grew up to be Nightwing. He is not Batman, except for when he was. He grew up in the circus but who is he now?

Nightwing, as a standalone series has been published consistently since 1995, and Dick has been a lead character in team books since the 80s. Despite his long tenure and his storied history (still the most famous Robin and the one most consistently adapted to the screen), Nightwing has never been able to forge his own unique mythology.

Nightwing Annual 2 -art by Joe Bennet, Jack Jadson, Jason Wright

Inevitably Dick is pulled back into Batman’s shadow. As a character and a corporate IP the Bat is inescapable. The truth of Nightwing’s limited adaptability in tent pole films makes his comics prospects dim.

It’s not uncommon to see Dick called the heart of the DCU, the light to Batman’s shadow. In Hush, Jeph Loeb spends a full page on Bruce opining that Dick was born to be in the “center ring.”

Hush – You know who did this art

And yet, Dick has rarely been afforded the chance to be the ringmaster. The dictates of the Batman publishing enterprise determine his trajectory.

Robin No More

It was a promising start when Marv Wolfman introduced Nightwing in the pages of New Teen Titans. The lack of spotlight on Robin in the Batman titles of the time afforded Wolfman and his co-creator George Perez freedom a franchise character like Robin would not have today.

In his essay in the book “Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder,” a collection of scholarly writing about the character, Christopher McKittrick notes that Robin was a blank slate to which the creative team of New Teen Titans had carte-Blanche to define.

As Wolfman would later point out in an interview with Amazing Heroes, “Dick Grayson had no identity other than being the other part of Robin, and Robin was nothing but the bottom half of Batman.” McKittrick observes, “ In order for Grayson to become his own character, Wolfman believed that the character had to be distanced from Batman.”

New Teen Titans – George Perez & Romeo Tanghal

Wolfman had the opportunity to see Dick Grayson through profound personal growth, unencumbered by Batman and Gotham. Among the Titans, Dick Grayson was a leader who fostered relationships and brought out the best among his teammates.

Shadow of the Bat

In the early 90s, Dick became a staple in Batman comics once again; the breaking of Batman’s back saw Dick step into the cowl for the first time and Nightwing would never again operate out of that looming shadow he had worked so hard to escape.

Under the structure of DC at the time, Nightwing fell under the auspices of the Batman editorial team, which prioritized an insularity from the rest of the DC universe. As such, Dick Grayson could not rely on the relationships that he had forged in the Titans.

Chuck Dixon took over as the primary creative force behind Dick Grayson starting in 1996 with the launch of the first ongoing Nightwing series. Dixon’s Nightwing is fairly consistent with what was established under Wolfman but more prone to isolating himself.

Dixon invests little time or effort in grounding Dick Grayson with a supporting cast outside of the costume. There are a few recurring faces, but none are afforded the opportunity to get particularly close to Dick, who becomes obsessed with his obligations as Nightwing. Much of his internal dialogue is fretting about whether he can be as effective as Batman.

For someone as social as Dick Grayson, there is something hollow and isolating about Blüdhaven, his new base of operations, that robs him of a core element of the character. Bludhaven is a dank, miserable, and gray place. Gotham benefits from a gothic design of gaslit alleys and history that informs and propels Batman. Blüdhaven’ s only defining feature is its mundane and violent corruption.

The rare highlight for Dixon’s run is poor Nite-Wing, the unhinged Tad Ryerstad who accidentally steals Nightwing’s name after being inspired by the sight of an “All Nite Wings” joint. Tad is the only time Dixon allows himself to go broad, and the result is a cautionary tale of vigilantism gone wrong. The only other notable original recurring villain introduced is Torque, the man with the backwards head who somehow ends up visually uninteresting because he walks around in a trench coat instead of leaning into the bit. It is an exemplar of how Dixon fundamentally fails to create a world that informs his main character. Torque could have embodied a circus sideshow trope or at the least hammed it up in a gaudy costume. Instead he is just a guy in a trench coat you can only tell has a backward head when the artist occasionally draws his feet. He has no emotional connection to Dick, and Dixon’s successor has him killed off panel.

Dixon’s primary artistic collaborator is Scott McDaniel whose inventive layouts instill the mostly boring stories with life and motion befitting Dick’s acrobatics. His angular and cartoonish style of thick lines and expressive faces is often at odds with Dixon’s otherwise gritty take. The tonal disconnect helps keep Dick familiar as the graceful and physical hero, but also emphasizes the book’s inability to provide a definitive take on Nightwing.

By the time Devin Grayson takes over as series writer at issue 70, Dick is cynical and exhausted. With no flashy criminals and a string of one-note assassins with no personal connections, Dick’s adventures became repetitive and lacking spirit.

Nightwing (volume 2) 74 – art by Rick Leonardi , Jesse Delperdang and Jason Wright

Devin Grayson wasted little time jettisoning much of what didnt work in Dixon’s status quo, immediately taking Nightwing on a globe-trotting adventure chased by colorful bounty hunters. It’s a free-wheeling adventure that feels fresh and logical for a man who grew up in a travelling circus. A highlight of Devin Grayson’s run comes early on with a snappy fight on a bridge in Paris in issue 74.

Devin Grayson benefits in these early issues from the assured pencils of Rick Leonardi who illustrates Dick’s movements as balletic and lighter-than-air. He is always in motion.

Dick’s circus roots are foundational to Devin Grayson’s Nightwing. She establishes Dick as Romani and fundamentally shaped both physically and mentally by growing up on the trapeze.

Grayon’s tenure is notable for intense tonal whiplash. What starts as a swashbuckling adventure book quickly becomes a dark exploration that strips Dick of most everything that defines his personality.

Nightwing vol 2, 83 cover – JH Williams III & Jose Villarubia

The critical turning point is Devin Grayson’s homage to Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again. Blockbuster, the hulking leader of Bludhaven’s underworld blames Nightwing for the death of his mother and systematically destroys Dick’s life. The tone of the book becomes increasingly psychological and violent and the title treatment goes from a graphic and iconic Nightwing symbol to large blocky letters riddled with bullet holes.

At the same time, Dick attempts to take a new vigilante named Tarantula under his wing. Tarantula lacks the moral footing of the Bat family, which sets Tarantula up as one of Nightwing’s most genuinely interesting foils. These two threads collide in issue 93 when Tarantula murders Blockbuster and Nightwing lets her do it. Overwhelmed and reeling, he is then raped by Tarantula who misreads the situation as a victorious high.

After breaking Nightwing down Devin Grayson never gets the chance to rebuild him, her run cut short by the needs of a changing corporate structure and the whims of company crossovers. Some of the building blocks she sets up for Dick’s path to healing had promise and I am genuinely disappointed they were derailed.

While there are some strong stories throughout these first 100 issues, they are limited in their ambition and it is hard to point to any of them as a definitive or transformative take on the character. Dick is primarily alone except for the regular Batman crossovers, which puts Nightwing back in a subservient position. What the Grayson and Dixon runs represent, primarily, is a relegation of Nightwing to a Batman supporting character.

Nightwing becoming a Batman satellite diminishes him. It is hard to reconcile the generally accepted assessment of the character as expressed by people like DC artist Phil Jimenez as “the soul, the linchpin of the DCU,” with what is really in the text, at least Dick’s individual series. Some of this could be editorial tensions, with former executive editor and co-publisher Dan Didio not shy about his desire to see the character sidelined or killed.

New York New Horizons

The best stories to come out of Dick’s solo book come from co-creator Marv Wolfman and Pete Tomasi who re-establish Dick’s life in New York City. Wolfman, unsurprisingly, has a firm grasp on Dick’s personality and motivations that truly shine through. Though largely still on his own, Wolfman’s Nightwing forges new relationships and actively seeks out a life beyond Batman’s grasp. Recognizing a need to expand his horizons, Wolfman positions Dick as seeking a fresh start and considering what it means to be Dick Grayson outside of the costume. Not all of Wolfman’s stories hang together, but they are consistent in their characterization of Dick and more in keeping with the optimism he has often represented. He spends much less time worried about how he relates to Bruce or lives up to the Bat-legacy, and, at his heart, simply wants to help people.

Nightwing vol 2 125 cover by JG Jones

Tomasi’s gives us Nightwing at his most assured and poised for greatness. Tomasi leans into the relationships that Dick has cultivated which creators often talk about but go unseen. He socializes with Superman, the Justice Society and his childhood friend Wally West, also a former kid sidekick. Over the course of Tomasi’s run he positioned Dick as a hero in his own right in a way that neither Dixon nor Grayson managed. Tomasi injects the title with fresh villains and lean into Dick’s listlessness. He lives in New York but is just as happy to go off on a world-spanning adventure tracking down a mad scientist digging up bodies of dead super villains.

Tomasi’s Grayson is not Batman-lite, he flies through the air on a glider, free falls from the stratosphere, smack-talks Talia and the league of assassins, and laughs in the face of danger.

In retrospect, it seems these final Tomasi issues were all about positioning him to take over as Batman following Bruce’s apparent death in Final Crisis. For him to step into that role, he needed to feel truly accomplished as Nightwing.

Batman and Robin

The cruelest irony of Dick Grayson is that he has never felt more distinct from Batman than when he stepped into the cowl himself.

In Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin Dick becomes Gotham’s protector and the mentor to a much grimmer Robin. Dick spends very little time in Morrison’s run brooding. Instead after a brief interlude with Alfred, who encourages him to put on a show, Dick bursts into the spotlight with gusto. There is no time for questioning or doubting his abilities. He has spent his whole life as a superhero, and now, as Batman, he is on the grandest stage of his life.

Batman and Robin 2- art by Frank Quitely & Alex Sinclair

Dick’s relaxed assuredness is central to Morrison’s Dick Grayson. He spends more time encouraging Damian Wayne, Bruce’s estranged and assassin-trained son, to enjoy himself on the job than he does questioning any of his own actions. Every puzzle is an opportunity, every secret passage a new mystery to uncover. It is as if stepping into the shadow that has cast over him for so long finally sets Dick free.

Morrison introduced new villains that are uniquely tailored to Dick Grayson. Nightwing failed to garner a rogues gallery that reflected him in any meaningful way but as Batman, Dick faces Professor Pyg and the Circus of Strange, a troupe of evil carnies led by a psychopathic butcher in a pig mask who lives for inflicting harm. The derangement is larger-than-life, focused on germ warfare and city-levelling plots that evoke Silver Age melodrama at its most intense and places a flashier Batman against a group for whom crime is a show. 

Morrison explained his approach to Batman and Robin as an attempt to take bizarre or tonally discordant elements of Batman’s history that do not fit Bruce Wayne’s character and play with them. Focusing on Dick Grayson allowed this strange psychedelic part of Batman’s history, as represented by the 60s Adam West/Burt Ward tv series and the silver age comics-code stories find new life. They might not work for the serious Batman, but for the circus-born trapeze artist these silver age cast-offs are a recipe for success that made Dick Grayson stand out and fun to read (imagine!).

The New 52

Dick Grayon’s time as Batman came to an end when DC relaunched their entire publishing line, jettisoning the characters’ histories and positioning everyone as having been active for only 5 years. Few characters suffered more than Nightwing, whose history with the Titans, his journey to self discovery, and his friendships were largely erased.

Despite this, writer Kyle Higgins along with artists Eddy Barrows and Will Conrad did admirable work establishing this new Nightwing that somehow built on a past that no longer existed and cut to the emotional core of the character. In narrowing his relationships to Bruce Wayne and his fellow Robins, Dick had to come to grips with his own history of tragedy in the context of those relationships.

While the first half of Higgins’ 30-ish issues were commandeered by grim crossovers in Gotham City, he eventually takes Dick to Chicago in search of Tony Zucco, the man who killed his parents. It is a cathartic story about confronting pain and coming to terms with it.

It is interesting to hear Higgins talk about his experience, as he had to reevaluate what is at the core of Grayson without the interpersonal dynamics that were so integral to what Wolfman established.

“I’ve heard a lot of people describe him as the heart and soul of the DCU, and I think that’s true. He knew, and was respected by, everyone….But all of that is dependent on the relationships he had. In the DCNU, he doesn’t really have those relationships…which was something I struggled with on the book.” (Interview published in Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder edited by Kristen Geaman)

Ultimately, in his quest to bring Zucco to justice Dick realizes that tragedy has never been the motivating factor for him the way it was for Bruce. Batman is rooted in the death of his parents but Nightwing is about celebrating the life and legacy of his parents. Higgins was able to translate the sprawling history of Dick Grayson to something far more personal–”Dick Grayson is about people.”

It is a mission statement for the character that was missing in part because he was so often torn between various editorial demands.

Higgins was not able to escape the orbit of the Bat or larger company plan but through his run in the New 52 he was able to take these constraints and reveal a core of the character that makes him so endearing.

Nightwing vol. 3 29 – art by Russel Dauterman and Pete Pantazis

Spyral, Rebirth, and the Bullet

Editorial demanded Dick Grayson become a spy. We may never understand why. Working undercover as a member of the espionage group Spyral, Dick traveled the world trying to protect the secrets of the superhero community. The Grayson ongoing series might as well be Nightwing without the costume and showcases the most consistent characteristic of Dick Grayson: his relaxed hyper-competence. It also took advantage of his eternal “itchy feet,” the circus boy has trouble staying rooted to any one place. It is a fun, if slight, series that allows Dick to display his charms and smarts. Grayson ran for 20 issues before DC revamped once again with DC Rebirth.

Rebirth as a publishing initiative was about embracing the roots of the characters’ individual histories and leaning in to their iconic aspects. For Nightwing it was up to Tim Seeley to figure out what that meant. After wrapping up some threads from Grayson and  dabbling with concepts about the villainous Court of Owls introduced in the New 52, Seeley took Nightwing to a reimagined Bludhaven.

In Rebirth Bludhaven is alive and dynamic and for the first time Dick inhabits a city that reflects his personality. This new Bludhaven is dominated by casinos and the economy relies on the neon boardwalk and the corruption comes from outcasts and freaks. It is a place where Gotham’s super villain rejects wash up for a second chance. It is a circus town, populated by whale women and, during Sam Humphries brief run, pathetic shark men who want to make their supervillain dad proud. Seeley’s Nightwing is a man of second chances, investing in the rehabilitation of former criminals and rejecting those who try to define him by past tragedies.

Still, much of the problems that have plagued Dick throughout his solo career continue. With his history gone, Nightwing was a book with no foundation. Perhaps more than anyone else in the DCU, the personal biography and relationships are critical.

Rebirth has offered some good ideas like the reinvented Bludhaven and the villainous Raptor (a hidden figure from his mother’s past) but took the erasure of Dick’s history to its most extreme with a bullet to the brain, a misguided and bewilderingly prolonged storyline which saw the series’ sales plummet from the best a non-Batman Dick Grayson title has ever performed, to a book that could not even sell 20,000 copies.

It remains to be seen what the next chapter with writer Tom Taylor and artist Bruno Redondo will reveal about Dick Grayson. Much of Taylor’s comments have been said before by past creators. The question is whether editorial mandates will allow Dick to truly become his own man for the first time since the 80s.

Nightwing’s World

There are a few key pieces missing from most of Nightwing’s solo series and his world that have held the books and the character back. The first is defining a physical space for Nightwing to operate. While based in Blüdhaven for much of Chuck Dixon and Devin Grayson’s run, the city never represented anything about Dick. With the opportunity to build off of what Seeley and Humphries defined for this new Blüdhaven, there is for the first time a setting that leans into Dick’s performer roots. Although Dick being an eternal wanderer makes sense the lack of a home has been a disadvantage preventing Dick from establishing consistent relationships with others or creating ate a life for himself out of the costume. Dick has had 13 different day jobs since 1996, and each new creative team has felt the need to change what came before. He may not need a real job, but the reader needs a personal life to invest in.

Ultimately, a hero is only as good as his villains, and Nightwing has not cultivated any of note. In part because of the title’s constant retooling and erasure Dick lacks a rogues’ gallery. What would Batman be without his villains? For someone as flashy and charismatic as Dick Grayson, his few villains are anything but. The best Dick Grayson villains came during his tenure as Batman, and Seeley utilizing Professor Pyg was inspired. Dick needs villains that test him on personal and emotional levels, who say something about him uniquely or reflect an aspect of his own personality. The removal of his history with the Titans has been a particular loss for Dick because it robs him of his history with Deathstroke, a broken reflection of his father figure rife with untapped potential.

More than anything Dick suffers from constant editorially mandated reinvention that affords him little chance to define his own history. While Dixon, Grayson, and Seeley all had some significant time with the character, all were forced to keep him available to be called back to Gotham at any time.

Alternatively, it is all-too easy to lean into his past as Robin at the expense of his solo years. Constantly fretting over his relationship with Batman paints Dick as a child in need of validation. Dick deserves the chance to develop a sustainable world without editorial mandates that sideline him in favor of Batman’s growth. With the DC Universe in a constant state of flux it’s hard to tell what did or did not actually happen to Nightwing, although a recent issue had Dick see flashes of characters who previously were wiped from existence. Without a firm past to build from, future developments can only go so far.

Nightwing volume 4 68 – art by Travis Moore and Nick Filardi

So…Who is Dick Grayson?

Dick Grayson is one of the foundational characters of DC’s publishing history, and so the idea that he should be foundational to the DCU within the textual world of the comic books is a logical next step. But the company has not allowed for that leap. Over time his unique nterpersonal relationships and growth have been stripped away. It is shocking how much of Nightwing’s publishing history is grim and overly serious when his reputation is as a light hearted character, partly as a result of the restrictions about what his books can do.

Though the quality of much of Nightwing’s solo adventures have been middling, there are a number of consistent elements that continue to make Dick stand out even as the stories surrounding him do not.

As Kyle Higgins said, Dick Grayson is about people—which makes him both too trusting and fiercely loyal to his friends and mission. He suffers when not given a supporting cast. He leaps before he looks. To borrow a phrase from Devin Grayson, he isn’t reckless, but he is impulsive, more inclined to figure it out while he goes, but confident in his past experiences leading him to the right conclusion. This makes him fearless and hyper-competent, which allows him to spend less time thinking about his next course of action and instead find joy in the moment.

Dick doesn’t give up and is incapable of letting go of his moral code or his sense of duty —even when his memories were erased. At his core, he wants to help others any way he can, and will put his body on the line even for his enemies.

Dick is itinerant and lives in the moment, not out of shame or pain but because he has spent his life on the move. It makes it hard for him to settle down. Though he loves deeply and is a serial monogamist, his sense of duty leaves little time for romance. He is both desperate for a place to hang his hat but itches for freedom.

Dick Grayson is us—the comic book reader who has witnessed it all. He is the eternal promise of the next generation and the optimism of youth. Dick Grayson remains a beacon for what heroism could be—Selfless, unbroken, smiling. Dick is ordinary in ways Batman was never ordinary, he reminds us that our past pain is not the end for us, only a beginning of our potential for greatness. He is the redemptive power of relationships to transform.

He is the son of Batman who is everything Batman wishes he could be.

Hopefully Dick will not be forced to spend another 20 years asking himself the same question and finally show us what he is capable of when Nightwing is finally ready to leap into the light.

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