Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Trouble With Nightwing

I've been a fan of Dick Grayson since about 1983, when I realized the useless tool that was Robin had grown up to become a formidable detective, strategist, and team leader amongst the New Teen Titans. Grayson was the first kid sidekick, and was among the first to graduate to full hero status, in a new adult identity. Sadly, what was a wonderful development for the character and an opportunity to legitimize the protege for modern audiences instead marked the point where Grayson essentially ceased to progress. This isn't so unusual, as Wally West was the only contemporary of Dick's to become an A-lister, though through the acceptance of the mantle of his mentor at his passing. However, unlike Tenpest, Troia, and the rest of the virtual also-rans, Dick Grayson remains one of the most recognizable alter egos in comic book history and through mass media. Like Ginger Rogers, the original Robin had to keep up with his more acclaimed partner while prepubescent and wearing booties. That should count for a lot, given the company. As a longtime fan, I'd like to offer DC Comics my opinions on how to finally take the Nightwing concept to the next level, before Dan Didio manages to force his death in a future inter-company crossover.

  • Unlike every other Robin you'll ever introduce, Dick Grayson has the seminal sidekick origin, and it's strong enough to work without Batman. "Son of circus acrobats witnesses his parents plunge to their deaths due to sabotage from extortionists. Boy wonder dons a variations on his parents' performing uniform and employs his inborn agility and keen mind to solve their murder. The youth continues both his studies and his crime busting into adulthood, until he sheds the gaudy garb of Robin to embrace his new role as one of the greatest super-heroes in the world: Nightwing." Think outside of "Batman and..." to see the story potential based on that simple, effective origin.
  • That said, what exactly does a "Nightwing" do? The "acrobat detective" is a shorthand description of most every street-level vigilante since the Golden Age, and it just isn't enough on its own. Without Batman, Nightwing is just Daredevil with better vision, two sticks, and a fraction of the depth. That means you need to either invent a whole new gimmick, or embrace the Batman.
  • Why would the ward of a multi-millionaire patrol a city with nothing but escrima sticks? Again, while Robin was the lesser partner, he can still claim 50% of the Batman mythos from 1940-1980. Batarangs, Batcopters, Bat-Shark Repellant: so much of the paraphernalia associated with Batman has been discarded or downplayed in recent decades. Nightwing can claim all of it as his heritage, and that deep resource and legacy should be exploited.
  • You have the excuse that Dick wants to prove he's his own man? He's been trying since the early 70's, and been essentially stunted since the mid-80's. I think it's safe to call that angle a failure. Dick Grayson works best as a bridge builder and team player. There's no reason he can't work closely with Batman and the DCU as a whole without pretending like he can rebuild his heroic persona from scratch. Besides which, one of the most important steps in adulthood is acknowledging your debt to the people who raised you and their influence, from which no one can ever escape, Nightwing most of all.
  • Nightwing can replace Batman, to assume his true role in the DC Universe. You see, since Denny O'Neil decided to take the Dark Knight back to his roots as a grim, isolated avenger, he's been unable to fully serve his iconic role within comics continuity. He's an "urban myth," antagonistic, and loathes leaving Gotham City. Batman has difficulty functioning outside a narrow range of story types and emotions, which is a handicap Nightwing is free from. He can stand before reporters as the brilliant leader of the Justice League of America-- amongst virtual gods to prove the value of human determination. He can fly a starship through a space opera, romance a vampire, battle super-intelligent apes, bounce off the keys to giant typewriters: anything Batman could do at one time, but now can't.
  • Again, virtually every comic book Batman appeared in for over thirty years co-starred Dick Grayson, so those are all his stories, too. There's no reason Nightwing can't operate out of Gotham City and confront any villain from their mutual rogues gallery. Attempts to create a new cadre of villains expressly for Nightwing have met with slight success, so why not make use of established evil-doers?
  • Despite that lengthy shared history, Nightwing has some of his own that has gone mostly untouched. As with Batman, Nightwing has a shared interest in thirty years worth of Teen Titans adventures. Those experiences should be referenced and explored.
  • Nightwing's current costume, with minor alterations, was designed by Brian Stelfreeze in the mid-90's. It is simple and reasonably effective, but it's hardly Alex Toth's Space Ghost or anything. The fact is, Nightwing has never had a good costume, including his current gear, which so lacks in imagination as to not pass muster for a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Yes, his old suits were often embarrassingly hideous, but the paradigm shift to lifeless "safety" leaves anyone not already enchanted with Nightwing with the impression that he's simply bland and obligatory, not a viable hero who can bring in new fans.
  • Just as with the "rebellious youth" nonsense, Nightwing should be too old to be seen with "Teen" Titans, and his reputation in general isn't helped by constantly forming super-teams with the likes of Tempest, Troia, Arsenal, and such. Go big or go home. As much as I tell you to look back on where Nightwing has been, the purpose is to help guide the character to a new future, not wallow with the same underachievers forever.
  • Dick Grayson's adventures predate nearly every major Marvel character's by nearly a quarter century. He was a contemporary of the Justice Society of America, and active long before Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, and the rest. He deserves respect and a definitive place in the DCU that will never come without a concerted publishing effort. People the world over knew him as Robin. One wonders how it would react if there was more of an attempt to point out "Hey! Look! Robin's grown up into a new character!" That may be old news to fanboys, but the concept hasn't penetrated the general consciousness. Build a catalog of noteworthy Nightwing stories, and then resell him to the public.
  • A major part of that effort should be giving Nightwing a purpose to exist beyond "Dick got tired of wearing shortpants." Nightwing doesn't need a new origin, but he does need a stronger motivation for why he continues to operate and to what end. Without that, it's no wonder he's just brawling with one empty villain after another.
  • Dick Grayson was a distant cousin of the 40's Robotman. Bet you didn't know that.
  • Nightwing as a police officer never worked, because he has the wrong temperament. It also speaks poorly of him as a role model to have dropped out of college nearly thirty years ago and never return. Part of the character's growing up should be putting aside fantasies of cops and robbers, figure out what he wants to be when he grows up, and get back to school to pursue that end. In fact, I suspect his lack of direction has soured his reputation with Tim Drake, to whom he once was himself a mentor. If the latest Robin can't respect and follow in the footsteps of the original, what value will readers find in Nightwing?
  • Nightwing needs to solve his own cases, and win his own battles, consistently. Otherwise, he'll never be A-list, and this kid was friggin' Robin! Do you want the greatest child star gone mediocre on your hands, or can you bring up your game already?


Anonymous said...

You are a genius but have you seen the later issues of nightwing? It has a lot of your points expressed in it .you see I love Dick Grayson too and I have been doing research on nightwing and I am with you.

Diabolu Frank said...

Which later issues? Tomasi? New 52?


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