This week we’re talking about a couple of spinoff series. Nightwing #149 finds our hero hallucinating a series of bloody, violent encounters with familiar Batman villains, and has been roundly criticized for it. Supergirl #34 has been praised largely for returning Supergirl to some semblance of respectability, if only in the “now I don’t feel bad for reading it” sense.
Therefore, because not every second banana is a Frasier Crane, let’s look at their latest attempts to stand alone.
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When Peter J. Tomasi took over as Nightwing writer back in January, he made sure to exploit Nightwing’s connections to the larger superhero community. The Justice Society helped build his new headquarters, which was designed by architect John Stewart. Wally West stopped by for a chat in Tomasi’s second issue. Robin teamed up with Nightwing for much of Tomasi’s first arc, during which Superman and Batman also appeared. One of that arc’s villains was Talia al Ghul, and the other was stealing body parts from familiar dead super-people. It was all in the service of grounding Nightwing acceptably in a setting that wasn’t exactly Batman’s, but close enough.
These attempts to “branch out” successfully have been the character’s constant struggle. Chuck Dixon created (and Devin Grayson stuck with) the locale of Blüdhaven, a previously-unknown city located conveniently just across the river from Gotham and boasting an even more wretched reputation. However, after Infinite Crisis destroyed Blüdhaven, Nightwing returned to his old New Teen Titans stomping grounds in New York City. Marv Wolfman gave him a job as a gymnastics instructor, and Tomasi made him a museum curator. I take it this was in keeping with the “Dick Grayson is too proud to live off of Bruce Wayne’s money” dictum; but really, none of Dick’s current jobs get mentioned much anywhere else, even in something like Titans. (I do remember two exceptions: Dick’s brief return to the circus played a part in the Wolfman/Pérez Titans, and the curator job has been incorporated nicely into Trinity.)
Dick’s gainful employment matters, I presume, because it’s the most concrete example of his independence. If it’s supposed to make him some version of Spider-Man or Daredevil, let’s be clear: it won’t. Nightwing’s appeal is his history with Batman (and, to a lesser degree these days, with the Titans), and not his status as a scrappy, misunderstood urban crimefighter. Thus, in principle I appreciate Tomasi’s emphasis on Dick’s superhero connections, although I think it has contributed to the current flap over Nightwing #149′s violence.
And that’s what we really want to talk about, right? The first ten pages of issue #149 portray a basic Women In Refrigerators scenario, namely the male hero being motivated by his failure to protect a female character (prosecuting attorney Carol Bermingham). Over these several pages, Nightwing hallucinates familiar Batman villains “killing” Ms. Bermingham in grisly, thematically appropriate ways. In turn, Nightwing works out his frustrations by “killing” each of them. It’s all part of a larger plot wherein Harvey Dent hired Nightwing to protect his old friend Carol from Two-Face.
That last bit sounds like the germ of a pretty decent story, but obviously it’s been interrupted by the gratuitous revenge fantasy … and the fantasy appears to have its own agenda. The sequence establishes that Nightwing is Not Like Batman in a few different ways: a) I don’t know that anyone would imagine Batman going all-out against his worst enemies, even in a drug-induced haze; because b) Batman has more control than that, even under the influence; and c) one would have to think that Batman is practically immune to Scarecrow toxin by now (so why wouldn’t his No. 1 protege be…?).
Nevertheless, I get the feeling that the sequence is also meant to reconnect Nightwing to the Bat-franchise in the same way that the earlier Talia story did. Why else would Tomasi, penciller Don Kramer, inker Jan Leisten, and the Hi-Fi colorist stage this elaborate sequence, if not to show that Dick has the chops, at least in his own mind, to take on his mentor’s toughest rogues? (Maybe it was a veiled callback to Dick fighting a Trigon-fantasy of his evil self back in New Teen Titans. Maybe there’s supposed to be some parallel with the W-i-R overtones of Detective’s current “Heart of Hush” storyline.) Again, it doesn’t really feel necessary in terms of the overall story, unless it’s yet another Batman comparison. The sequence speaks to the sort of “just the same, except different” high-wire act (ha!) that DC has had Nightwing performing.
The other factor here, naturally, is the possibility that Dick’s role will change significantly in the aftermath of “Batman R.I.P.” Whatever happens, though, I’m not going to pretend that the regular status quo won’t return at some point. When it does, DC may well have the same problems with Nightwing, and would therefore still need to justify his solo existence. My solution — and keep in mind I am not a professional — has been for the character to embrace fully his ties to the Wayne family and to Batman. Nightwing requires a lot less explanation next to Batman (or even next to Robin) than he does out on his own, so if he’s there all the time, it might cut down on all the existence-justifying contortions.
If that means cancelling his solo title in favor of making him a regular supporting character in Batman and Detective (and Titans, of course), so be it. Dick Grayson grew up in the circus, is (potentially) one of the richest men in the world, has been a super-hero since he was eight years old, and has all of the Batman skills but little of the angst. Why deny any of that? I should enjoy reading about Nightwing, not wonder perpetually about how he can be “fixed.”
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Meanwhile, Supergirl vol. 4 #34 just wants to be loved. Here I am, writing a blog post on whether Supergirl deserves her own comic, and the first page of issue #34 glares back at me with “WHY THE WORLD DOESN’T NEED SUPERGIRL.” Oh sure, DC. The only thing missing from that splash page was a little orphan kid with a quivering lip pleading “Pwease don’t hurt my fwiend Kawa…!”
Well, relax, kid; I think your fwiend is going to be OK. Judging by a random selection of blog posts (culled from an AskCerebra search), Supergirl #34 (the first issue from writer Sterling Gates, penciller Jamal Igle, and inker Keith Champagne) has been received pretty well. As with Nightwing, the Supergirl crew is attempting to ground the Teen of Steel in her mentor’s familiar surroundings (the Daily Planet! Lana Lang!) while distinguishing her thematically from him. Said distinction, as the first page indicates, comes from embittered reporter “Cat” Grant in the J. Jonah Jameson role, attacking Supergirl as the Britney Spears to Superman’s Beyonce.
(Hmmm … those metaphors could have been mixed better.)
Cat’s editorial stands in for the criticisms that this Supergirl, both title and character, has endured since her revival in 2004: she’s an underage, over-sexualized superheroine with no clear direction in life and a penchant for screwing up regardless of her efforts. Therefore, besides grounding her in Metropolis, issue #34 also gives her a new secret identity. (She had adopted one back in issue #10, but it didn’t last.) The fact that it took DC some three years to do these things speaks to her use thus far. Until now, apparently, she didn’t need to be anything more than Superman’s teenaged cousin — nigh-omnipotence in a crop-top and short skirt.
Now, however, her prodigal wanderings are ended. I’ve known a fair amount of people who have moved back in with sympathetic relatives when times have gotten tough, and I’ve seen how much those relatives can lord it over their new charges. This isn’t quite the same situation — after all, Supergirl is fictional — but I can’t help thinking that DC has finally put her title in some sort of for-her-own-good receivership. Maybe DC has simply decided that Supergirl has gone as far as she could on her own, and needs the comforts of home in order to thrive. Unlike her predecessor, I don’t see this Supergirl leaving the nest anytime soon.
It is therefore somewhat disquieting to think that Supergirl can only thrive in close proximity to Superman. The Peter David “Linda Danvers” version spun out of the contemporaneous Superman books (and had the convoluted backstory to show for it), but it lasted over six years with little connection to goings-on in Metropolis. The same was largely true for the Superboy and Steel spinoffs, although they didn’t have to compete with the original the way that PAD’s Supergirl did.
And speaking of competition, Kara gets the substance of her new alter ego from the original Superman rejectee, Lana Lang. After rising as high as First Lady of the United States (now divorced), Lana had taken over LexCorp after Luthor’s final fall from grace; but a clause in her contract required her to be let go if she ever used company resources to help Superman. Thus, issue #34 finds her back in Smallville, smarting over her own exile from polite society. Of course, we readers know that her ultimate rejection happened long ago at the hands of Clark Kent. Every now and then a Superman writer will tease the possibility of Clark ditching Lois for her; so when she muses that “[y]ou can’t hide or stop being you just because someone decides they don’t like you,” we might reasonably think she’s not just talking about LexCorp. I’m not quibbling with Lana’s function in this book, but I am mindful that some writers (Chuck Austen in particular) liked making her the wedge between Lois and Clark. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that Supergirl’s new nemesis Cat Grant was conceived originally as yet another potential romantic interest for Clark.
Accordingly, Supergirl’s three main characters have all been defined largely by their relationships to Clark/Superman. Supergirl looks up to him, Lana thought she’d spend the rest of her life with him, and Cat was once (and maybe still is?) attracted to him. Now the book itself has been integrated into the regular Super-rotation. While I don’t expect Supergirl to dwell extensively on the Man of Steel, it’s hard not to see a certain loss of independence, even as the characters seek to establish themselves on their own terms. Ideally, Supergirl should be second only to Wonder Woman in DC’s lineup of female-headliner titles (and both should be pretty high up overall). I’d hate to think it needs such extensive help from the other Superman books in getting there.
See, unlike Nightwing, Supergirl is a pretty self-explanatory concept. This is largely because “Superman” is pretty self-explanatory — flies, super-strong, secret identity, always does the right thing. “Supergirl” is just like that, except with a different gender. Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, and James Robinson have each used her effectively in the context of a larger cast as a sort of Super-surrogate, equal in power but with a slightly different temperament. The Kelley Puckett/Drew Johnson/Ron Randall storyline which preceded this one, where Supergirl promised a little boy she’d cure his cancer, was also an intriguing way to explore how she used her powers differently. Supergirl’s similar powers and origin make her more portable, since readers don’t have to be brought up to speed on the subtle distinctions.
Having said all of that, I am probably in the minority here. Lots of people seem to love the new setup, especially the fact that Supergirl now ties explicitly into Action and Superman. Perhaps the new integration will work well all around. I did just spend the first part of this post arguing for Nightwing to take a more subordinate role in the Batman titles; and I don’t dislike what Gates, Igle, Johns, et al., are doing. Again, though, Supergirl has the potential to be more than just a teenaged reflection or (later on) a grown-up ex-sidekick.