Great thanks to Tim O’Shea for last week’s wonderful Archie Goodwin essay. I know that many of you will be let down by my return, because I can’t help but talk about something comparatively more trivial. Still, I’m writing this in a maze of giant cardboard boxes, I haven’t gotten the Vast Comics Library reorganized, and most of my collected editions are still packed away.
We’ll just have to make do with what’s at hand … which, let’s see, looks like the last two issues of Nightwing.
For a while now, I’ve been saying that Nightwing works best when he’s most engaged with superhero society. Dwelling on his need to be independent seemed to me to produce repetitive variations on “finding his own way.” I thought his emancipation was handled pretty well when it originally happened, back in the ‘80s. Besides, Dick can be independent from Batman and still team up with anyone from Adam Strange to Zatanna.
Accordingly, the first two parts of “Freefall” (by the new creative team of writer Peter Tomasi, penciller Rags Morales, and inker Michael Bair) have been both rewarding and disappointing. Although Tomasi’s approach satisfies a lot of my own preferences, actually putting them into practice illustrates that Nightwing isn’t really that accessible of a title.
Yes, it sounds like more Lost-Third-Generation shenanigans: ex-sidekicks stuck in the limbo of unrecognition between their mentors and their successors. However, Dick Grayson is different, and perhaps unique. He’s one of the oldest continuously-published DC characters — older than Wonder Woman, in fact — but you never hear about a “Big Four” or “Quartet.” A big part of that, I presume, is the sidekick’s stigma. Being identified primarily thereby, “Robin” limited the stories which could be told about Dick Grayson, so Dick got divorced from Robin.
Even almost 25 years later, that still seems to me to be a big deal. A Dick-less Robin (yes, I know) requires a new emotional context to the role; and a Robin-less Dick must do likewise. I suppose DC might have thought leaning too heavily on Dick’s Bat-connections would be taking the easy way out; but apparently not anymore.
I say this because Tomasi works those connections pretty hard. January’s issue #140 starts high above Wayne Manor, moves quickly to the Batcave, and a few pages later has Dick meet up with Talia al Ghul. Before the end of the issue, both Selina “Catwoman” Kyle and Kirk “Man-Bat” Langstrom’s names are dropped. Again, none of this is out of line, but it does start to feel like Tomasi’s increasing the difficulty of the Bat-trivia by the page. Selina Kyle, sure; Kirk Langstrom, maybe; but when Dick’s narration alludes obliquely to the murder of Tim Drake’s dad, I thought a footnote was definitely in order. Tomasi doesn’t want casual readers to endure “a massive amount of exposition and encyclopedic knowledge of the last 10 years of Batman stories,” but a little wouldn’t have hurt.
In terms of references and connections, last week’s issue #141 has more, but they’re also more self-explanatory. Gravestones in a Metropolis cemetery name-check various characters. A few pages later, the Justice Society and Green Lantern John Stewart spend a page tricking out Dick’s new headquarters. There is a pretty clever “Brother Eye” joke on page 12, but then Wally West shows up for (perhaps ironically) the book’s longest sustained sequence, a five-page conversation which assumes that the reader remembers the death of Bart Allen. The issue closes with a three-page scene showing off Dick’s new glider.
I list these things not because they necessarily slow down the story, but because they only seem to enrich it for those in the know. Again, editorial footnotes — even just one per issue — would have gone a long way. As it is, though, Tomasi appears intent on not only setting the proper jaunty mood, but also laying a firm foundation for years’ worth of fabulous adventure. Consequently, every other word balloon seems filled to the brink with information. While 13 of #140′s 22 story pages concern the grave robberies, that’s true for only 5 pages of #141. The rest of #141 — including a cute scene with Superman and a policeman, and introductions to Dick’s new job and (apparent) new girlfriend — aren’t bad by any stretch, but they take the focus away from the main story. At times they threaten to paint Dick as Mr. Perfect.
Indeed, I’m being overly critical of these two issues because I like the character of Dick Grayson a lot. I especially like the college-age, pre-Nightwing portrayal of Dick/Robin as someone who doesn’t particularly need his old mentor, but doesn’t shun him either. So I like Tomasi’s general direction very much, because I can picture this person being the same one who (for example) helped rescue Bruce from Hugo Strange back in the Englehart/Rogers/Austin days. It’s eminently appropriate for a character who goes back virtually to the start of DC’s superhero line. It also makes sense in terms of the current story’s super-corpse elements.
I’m warming up to this story, too. Not only is death (i.e., the corpses) a part of the underlying mystery, it’s also referenced by Dick and his colleagues throughout. Dick recalls his parents’ murders (in an odd, blood-red panel meant to represent an unfurling parachute), Tim mentions his late father, and Dick and Wally toast Bart. I may be reading too much into those latter examples, but I’m going to be generous and take them as subtle additions to whatever larger message Tomasi is trying to get across. (There’s also the immortal Talia, who I see will return to the story later.) Issues #140-41 dump a lot on the reader, but if it all works together, I won’t complain.
By the way, the fact that I’ve been talking mostly about the writing shouldn’t indicate that I haven’t liked the art. Morales and Bair are fine storytellers who strike a good balance between “realism” and fantasy. Their Nightwing recalls the scrappy, lean, and agile Robin of Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin, which is always a plus in my book; and their Batman, I likewise note approvingly, has the widow’s peak and hawk’s nose of Jeremy Brett. They make Nightwing a very nice-looking comic book.
Still, for all the effort at tying Nightwing-the-guy into the larger DC landscape, I don’t get the feeling that Nightwing-the-title is succeeding as a “gateway” book. While there are a lot of dots being connected, right now they seem rather random, and almost part of two different pictures. “Freefall’s” main mystery is intriguing enough — Nightwing investigating weird grave robberies and running into various old friends and foes — but it has to compete with the examination of Dick’s new social structures. Thing is, though, without having Dick grounded in the DCU generally and the Batman corner specifically, Nightwing risks being seen as directionless and/or in a constant state of reinvention.
Therefore, while I like the current Nightwing pretty well (Tomasi’s tendency towards verbose characters notwithstanding),* I think that if it’s going to go on like this for much longer, it’ll have to be abandoned explicitly to the stereotypical direct-market reader. The character is based essentially an extended What-If scenario — “What If Dick Grayson Quit?”** — and that kind of continuity-grounded premise appeals primarily to the initiated. The uninitiated have “Robin,” as in “Batman And”; and almost 25 years later, probably still don’t include “Nightwing” in their Bat-rosters. Clearly Nightwing has, for almost twelve years, enjoyed the goodwill of a solid fanbase, many of them I’m sure fully aware of who killed Jack Drake.
For that reason it may finally have become counterproductive to make Nightwing accessible to a hypothetical new reader. If the character makes the most sense when he’s as plugged-in as possible, and an acceptable number of readers can handle the continuity and trivia concerns that entails, then everybody’s happy … right?
* [Yes, it's hypocritical for me to dislike verbosity.]
** [Or "Was Fired," "Grew Up," etc.]