comics, comics criticism, dc comics, writing

Nightwing Recommended Reading

After reading through every major Dick Grayson story for my recent piece, it seemed a waste to not to do more with my Nightwing knowledge. And lo, came more content: my recommended reading list of Nightwing comics. Here I tried to capture what I think are the best stories from each major run on the character.

If you recently read Tom Taylor and Bruno Redondo’s fun first issue of their new run and looking to dive into more Nightwing, here are my recommended stories highlighting Dick at his best. I wouldn’t call all of these essential (I don’t think any of Dixon really is) but most are enjoyable or indicative of the creators they represent. Further context and comments below for each one. Most of these stories are available in various collected editions, and I’ve noted the names of those collections. All of them are also included in your DC Universe Infinite subscription.

New Teen Titans 38-44 & Annual 3 Who Is Donna Troy? & Judas Contract

It is impossible to create a Nightwing reading list without mentioning The Judas Contract. Although there are some egregious creative decisions that do not hold up in regard to the Terra and Deathstroke relationship, as a whole it is easy to see why the story was so groundbreaking for its time. These elements surrounding Terra are so off-putting to my sensibilities that I genuinely feel irresponsible for not spending more than a sentence commenting on them. They are abhorrent. If you’re able to set aside the grossness of it, the rest of the story is a heartbreaking tale of betrayal and growing up.

As far as Dick Grayson, The Judas Contract sees Dick step away from Robin and take on the Nightwing identity for the first time. It also allows Dick show off his detective skills, combat abilities, as well as his innate talents as a leaders. This story is where Nightwing really steps out of his historical sidekick role into a hero in his own right. It also firmly establishes the ongoing adversarial relationship between Dick and Deathstroke the Terminator, Slade Wilson.

“Who is Donna Troy?” The issue immediately preceding Judas Contract similarly highlights Dick’s abilities as a detective but also the focus on his relationships and the unwavering commitment he has to those he loves. It remains, nearly 4 decades later, one of the best single superhero issues of all time. Marv Wolfman and George Perez essentially invented most of the characteristics of Dick Grayson in the modern age, and much of the defining features start here.

Nightwing vol. 2 41-47 (collected in Nightwing vol. 5: Hunt For Oracle & vol. 6: To Serve and Protect

The highlight of Chuck Dixon’s run for me has to be the character of Tad Ryerstad, the crazed vigilante who accidentally stole Nightwing’s name because he saw a sign for an “all nite” wings shop. Tad is like Casey Jones from Ninja Turtles but with even less grip on reality. These issues (which cross over with one of Dixon’s other books, Birds of Prey) represent what I consider the high point of his time on the series. These stories represent a kind of culmination of many different components: Blockbuster, Dick’s apartment complex community, Tad Ryerstad, and Dick’s entry into the Bludhaven police force. It also sees the first major conflagration of the primary antagonists of the run, Blockbuster and Torque.

While I do not think most of these components work well on their own, this is a decent payoff for the slow work Dixon had done setting up a lot of moving parts. As I said, the highlight for the run as a whole and this string of issues in particular is Nite-Wing. Dick attempts to harness Tad’s good intentions and show him the ropes, which is a nice display of Dick’s tendency to be too trusting and his faith in people. The art here is also solid, with Greg Land doing most of the pencils. This precedes his devolution into relying completely on tracing poses (though there is some of that here) and the layouts are dynamic and exciting. Seriously, Nite-Wing is genuinely entertaining and I would love to see him come back in some fashion.

Nightwing vol 2. 71-75 “Something About Mary” & 79-82 Venn Diagram (collected in Nightwing: Supercop)

The start of Devin Grayson’s stint on Nightwing is a fun romp through Europe with Dick on the trail of the wife of Bludhaven’s crooked chief of police. She has info in a notebook that could bring down a lot of bad cops on the force, so naturally, she’s marked for death. Dick follows her to protect her and in hopes to bring take down the corruption in the force. The adventure takes him out of the dark and boring city of Bludhaven. Nightwing has to fend off a number of colorful assassins in a series of well choreographed action scenes. Devin Grayson in these early issues showcases Dick’s relaxed joy in what he does and show him as effortlessly competent. These issues do a good job establishing her understanding of Dick at his best before steering him into very dark territory.

In issues 79-82, Deathstroke the Terminator comes to town targeting Dick’s former partner on the police force. It is another fun series of issues that showcases Dick’s loyalty as well as his creative approach to dealing with his enemies. The final resolution is very funny. The inclusion of Deathstroke in this series is a rare treat, with Slade having the potential to be a primary adversary for the character that goes largely untapped. (See also Devin Grayson’s final string of issues on the book, 110-117, which was just barely cut from my list. It sees him working with Slade to broker a peace in Bludhaven and utilizing his compassion to win Deathstroke’s daughter to the side of angels). Devin Grayson also spends some time setting up Catalina Flores, the Tarantula, in these issues who goes on to play a major role in later stories.

Both of these story arcs, my favorite of the Devin Grayson era, are brought to life primarily with the help of Rick Leonardi’s pencils who imbues NIghtwing with a grace and motion in every panel. Mike Lilly also joins in for an issue and while his art is much grittier it is appropriate for the face-off with Deathstroke.

Nightwing vol. 2 147-153: The Great Leap

Pete Tomasi’s short run on the Nightwing solo is a high point for the character as a standalone hero, in my opinion. Tomasi sets Dick up in New York and really highlights his relationship with other members of the superhero community. The Great Leap is nominally a tie-in to Batman RIP, but has almost nothing to do with that story until the final 2 issues of the Nightwing series. The primary focus of the Great Leap is on Two-Face, who hires Dick Grayson to protect someone Harvey Dent once loved. It is an excellent Two Face Story and Tomasi sets him up as a strong foil to Nightwing and builds on their publishing history. (Two Face having shot Dick on one of his first outings as Robin.) Tomasi managed to build off existing history and create new connections between the two characters that, if the DC Universe wasn’t rebooted, could have resulted in some interesting growth for both Nightwing and Two Face. Depending on how much history does or does not exist in current DCU after 3 ensuing reboots, I would definitely like to see this relationship revisited.

This final string of issues includes Dick facing the reality of Batman’s death during the events of Final Crisis. There is some creative and powerful imagery with Dick mourning the loss of his father and the dual tragedies that brought them together that is genuinely moving.

Tomasi’s run overall is rare in that it effectively displays Nightwing as a hero in his own right, with connections to many different aspects of the DC Universe. It effectively leads him to a point of personal fulfillment where he is ready to take on the mantle of the bat.

Don Kramer does the pencil work on most of these stories. Kramer is an underrated talent in comics, a workhorse who can churn out good looking books on tight deadlines without sacrificing quality. His talent for action and clear storytelling is truly excellent.

Batman and Robin 1-3: Batman Reborn

Really I would recommend the entirety of Morrison’s Batman and Robin series but to boil it down to the essentials I will begin at the beginning. With incredible page design and storytelling from Frank Quitely, the new dynamic duo bursts onto the screen with more life and energy than just about any Nightwing story that has ever been published. The first page is more uniquely a Dick Grayson story than anything that’s come before.

Morrison sets Dick up against a variety of truly weird villains in a neon-colored surreality that evokes the cast-off remnants of the Silver Age and the 60s TV show that works perfectly for the circus boy at the center of the series. Can you believe that this is the first time in Dick’s career that he is matched against an evil circus troupe? It seems so obvious but was never done!

The book works especially well because of the dynamic of the light hearted Batman and the grim and defiant Damian Wayne as Robin. Their growth throughout the series together is both delightful and moving. And seriously, some of the best work Frank Quitely ever did is on display in these issues.

Batman and Robin 10-12: Batman vs Robin

Again, while I would recommend reading the full run I have highlighted two particular arcs that I think best display Morrison’s take on Dick Grayson in particular. In Batman vs. Robin, Dick and Damian are on the lookout for clues throughout Wayne Manor for proof that Bruce Wayne is not really dead. These issues exemplify the bond that has formed between the two characters and the genuine love they have for one another.

As for Dick specifically, well, he just genuinely enjoys superheroing and spends the issues trying to get Robin excited about each new clue and secret passage. Displaying his smarts and easy competence, it is a source of genuine humor juxtaposed against Damian’s disinterest in the detective work.

We also have some Deathstroke here and while they don’t come face-to-face, it takes advantage of the characters’ long histories with one another and Slade’s team-up with Talia, Damian’s mother, is a twisted parent/child dynamic. With strong art from Andy Clarke it is an exciting story that builds from the characters at the heart of the series.

Nightwing vol. 3 22-24, 28-29 (collected in volume 4 Second City & volume 5 Setting Son)

This might be cheating lumping these stories together but they are of a piece. Kyle Higgins does admirable work building a Nightwing book from the publishing realities of the New 52 tearing everything away from Dick Grayson and disturbing all of his pacing with crossovers. But Higgins really gets into the groove of things when he is able to take Dick out of Gotham in pursuit of his own mission.

This first batch of stories focus primarily on Dick’s pursuit of the man who killed his parents, Tony Zucco, who has relocated to Chicago. it is a cathartic story that forces Dick to answer tough questions about himself and his own motivations. It is a tale of personal healing and growth. There is some goofy stuff with a villain Higgins created called the Prankster that provides some requisite superheroing but the main draw is Nightwing’s confrontations with Zucco. This story is primarily drawn by Will Conrad who does solid if unremarkable work.

The final 2 issues are something of a mission statement for Higgins and his last word about who Dick Grayson is as a character. It is an excellent encapsulation of Nightwing and his motivations and what sets him apart from other heroes. With vibrant and lively art from Russell Dauterman, they may be two of the best Nightwing issues ever published.

Grayson 1-4: Agents of Spyral; Bonus: issue 5 We All Die at Dawn

Grayson is a strange thing to exist at all but it is a very fun series. I do not consider it an essential component to understanding Dick as a character but to get a sense for his full history, it is worth reading. There is a lot of fun stuff in Grayson that taps into much of the light hearted energy that is inherent in the character but went ignored by previous creators (primarily Dixon and, for a chunk of her run, Devin Grayson). These first 4 issues set up this new world and the trouble Dick has in adjusting to the shades of gray he must now live-in.

Mikel Janin is the primary artist and his work showcases Dick acrobatics and the joy he takes in what he does. Although not collected in the first volume of Grayson (if you are reading in trades) issue 5, We All Die at Dawn is probably my favorite single issue of the series that highlights Dick’s innate heroism and refusal to give up.

Nightwing volume 4: 1-4 & 7-8: Better than Batman

The first installment of Nightwing’s’ return in DC Rebirth introduces a new villain for Dick Grayson. Raptor is an interesting and complex figure who builds off Dick’s history specifically. Nightwing has not been able to build up a rogues gallery of his own so Tim Seeley does an admirable job introducing a new one here and connecting him to Dick’s roots in a way that doesn’t feel forced like similar Batman villains from Bruce’s past have (Hush, I’m talking about Hush.) It feels like a genuine hidden figure from Dick’s history.

While the story and the way other characters react to Raptor feel a bit contrived, the dynamics of how Nightwing and Raptor play off one another is solid. There is some annoying stuff here with the Court of Owls that was originally introduced in the New 52 that I kind of hate, but it primarily just serves as a plot to get Raptor into the picture.

Raptor presents a kind of twisted image of Batman and Nightwing himself without the morality that guides those two. When faced with these options Dick highlights his innate heroism by rejecting it. Javier Fernandez is the main artist for Tim Seeley’s work on the Nightwing solo book and he imbues the series with a dynamic energy that leaps across the page.

Nightwing volume 4: 30-34: Raptor’s Revenge (Rebirth vol 5)

Raptor comes back towards the end of Seeley’s run after Nightwing has established himself in a reimagined Bludhaven. To deal with him, Nightwing makes a deal with the devil and turns to the new version of Blockbuster to help keep Raptor away from the people he cares about. This Blockbuster is a far seedier and grimier character than the original take, and their uneasy alliance allows for a playful banter.

Raptor’s motivations here are far more overtly villainous and he is out to prove to Nightwing that he is on the wrong path. It forces Dick to question his own past with his parents as well as what he learned from Batman.

Another highlight here is how this story utilizes a group of characters introduced earlier in the series—a group of former Gotham villains who went to Bludhaven to start over and support one another in going straight. Dick’s relationship with them is both extremely generous, in wanting to help give them a second chance, and destructive, by keeping them in the orbit of the dangerous world of superheroes and supervillains. Dick wants to do right by them but also encourages them to put their lives on the line.

In addition to solid action, there is a confrontation between Dick and Raptor that takes place solely at a blackjack table—a tense conversation between the two that reveals their opposing visions of one another and themselves. Dick proves himself as his own man, not the easily manipulatable Batman Jr. Raptor takes him for. With pencils by Javier Fernandez and Miguel Mendonca.

Nightwing volume 4: 35-41: The Untouchable (rebirth vol 6)

Sam Humphries jumps on board Nightwing with a story that spans from Dick’s childhood, through his college years, to today. What Humphries does most effectively is build out the city of Bludhaven and its history and politics all in ways that help to inform and shape Nightwing’s world. He also introduces Guppy, a wash-out son of a super villain shark crime boss who might be the single best supporting character ever introduced in a Nightwing book. It helps present Bludhaven as a circus town where you might run into a teenage burn-out man-shark loser with a scruffy mustache at the casino.

With a mix of artists for the various time periods, (Klaus Janson for Robin, Phil Jimenez for college Dick, and Bernard Chang the bulk of the story) Humphries weaves a tale that shows Dick’s endless drive and the lengths he will push himself to save others, no matter the personal cost. It is both dark and funny with the main villain, The Judge of All Creation, a garish hipster with a full beard and white suit.

Do you have any favorite Nighwtwing stories not on this list? Feel free to drop a comment here or on twitter!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s