It’s comic book column time again! Every two weeks I find myself wondering what to write about. Usually, I pick a specific series or iteration of a character to talk about, and this essentially becomes a recommendations column. Sometimes I try to break up the talk of specific series people may not have read by analyzing broader topics: what makes a good adaptation, what makes a bad fan, etc. This time around, I’m going to devote my focus to a specific character: Richard “Dick” Grayson, the original Robin and occasional Batman who is best known by his usual moniker, Nightwing.
My first encounters with the character were largely TV adaptations that included him as Robin, such as the first Teen Titans cartoon. While I liked him well enough on the show, he was still my least favorite member of a really strong cast and I never thought to seek out stories specifically about him. I think the most notable difference between Dick on that show and the versions of Dick I’ve since come to appreciate the most are the level (or lack thereof) of humor. This isn’t to say that the cartoon did a bad job of depicting him (what’s the point of an adaptation that isn’t unique in its approach?) or that he never made jokes on the show, but most of his major character development centered around Slade, and I think the cartoon left out a lot of the character’s most likable attributes.
Dick Grayson is well-trained (by Batman, of all people) and knows how and when to be serious, but part of what I like about the character is that he isn’t Batman. The two have a lot of parallels, of couse, the most obvious perhaps being that they were both orphaned as children. With that said, I think an accurate description of Dick might be “the man Batman wishes he could be.” He is well-adjusted, funny, kind, and caring, but fully capable of being serious and exacting when needed. He is, after all, one of the longest-running, most experienced characters in comic books. Dick Grayson debuted as Robin before even Wonder Woman and Captain America. While he may not, in the fictional universes of the comics, have as much experience as all the older (age-wise) heroes of the Justice League, etc., he definitely has more experience than a lot of them, and his publishing history is longer than almost any other superhero’s.
Because of this, Dick occupies a unique place in comics. He’s been fighting crime as long or almost as long as Wonder Woman or any of the Flashes or Green Lanterns, but he is seldom thought of as being in the same caliber of adult heroes, even though he has proved himself multiple times to be as skilled. He isn’t considered one of the core adults, but he’s not a novice either. The more years pass and the more new characters are introduced, the farther and farther Dick gets from being one of the younger generation of superheroes. While comic book ages are inconsistent things, Dick is pretty clearly in his twenties while the current Robin (Damian Wayne) is only thirteen.
Dick is the protégé who grew up and became his own man (opting to become Nightwing rather than stay in Batman’s shadow as Robin), but has not yet become the old man. He occupies a space and theme of growing up and coming into one’s own that older (again, age-wise, not in terms of publication history) characters do not. He’s not a newbie and, while he is very experienced, he’s not the most experienced. He’s relatable as someone who’s been through a lot, but is still figuring out his place in the world. While he has served briefly as Batman is Bruce’s absence, Dick is at his best when he is allowed to be Nightwing or otherwise serve under his own unique namesake. He’s good enough to be Batman, and deserved to wear the cape, but he’s not Bruce, and that’s not a bad thing.
Nightwing is uniquely at the crux of a lot of great relationships and teams. There is of course, the great bond between him and Batman. You have the emotionally traumatized fighter/crime-fighter who is partially saved by taking in and taking care of a child who was also orphaned young. You then have the two of them struggling with each other as Dick transitions into adulthood, followed by their relationship healing more over time. Bruce and Dick’s father-son bond is one of the most touching in comics. You of course also have Dick’s relationship with the other Robins, as sort of a mentor and older brother. There are also his close friendships with his fellow Titans, and his assortment of love interests. Historically he’s most often been romantically linked to Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) and Starfire, though currently he is involved with Shawn Tsang. Personally I’ve always thought that pairing a Robin with a Batgirl was way too obvious, and though I liked Dick with Starfire, it’s nice to see him dating someone new.
Speaking of what’s going on with the character right now, he’s starring in his own title, Nightwing, which is published twice a month. To be frank, it’s one of the best titles DC is publishing right now, which is saying a lot. It’s being written by Tim Seeley, and the series’ main artist thus far has been Javier Fernandez. Thus far the series has done a great job of depicting Dick’s relationship to Batman and Gotham without letting him be hampered down by it. Dick is first and foremost his own hero, operating in his own city, Blüdhaven. The series has featured a number of cool villains, such as the demented artist Professor Pyg as well as Raptor, whose storyline brought up questions of when the morally grey becomes morally reprehensible.
The series is also a great showcase of why Nightwing has one of the best aesthetics in comics. His current costume design is more or less the same one he’s been sporting for most of the last two decades, and it’s no wonder why. The simple black bodysuit with a few well-placed patches of electric blue is striking. It’s also, as with many comic book costumes, form-fitting. Nightwing is an example of fan service done right: a character who is allowed to be sexy while still existing in the realm of human possibility (as opposed to Rob Liefeld’s caricatures of women whose spines contort in impossible ways) and retaining agency. A large part of the problem with sexualization in comic books is of course “sexy” characters not being given agency, development, etc. Nightwing’s sex appeal doesn’t reduce him; he is still allowed to have agency, personality, and character development, rather than just existing to be gawked at.
Asides from his costume and general appearance, Nightwing is unique in the way that he fights. Part of his backstory is that he grew up in a traveling circus—specifically as an acrobat. Open up any issue of a Nightwing comic and you’re bound to find multiple sequences of him leaping, spinning, and otherwise moving like a gymnast in the heat of battle. Seeing acrobatics incorporated into more standard hand-to-hand brawls makes for a fresh take on superhero battles, which is always appreciated.
At one point I asked myself who my favorite character in comics was, and settled on Dick Grayson. When I wondered why, I thought about all the things I’ve discussed here. He is neither the most experienced, nor the least experienced. He’s figured a lot about himself out, but still has a ways to go. He’s an adult growing into who he’ll spend the rest of his life being, figuring himself out even though the core important part (a funny, courageous, kind person) is already there. He has great relationships with other central characters (Batman, the Titans) but his plotlines feel less predictable than Batman’s. That isn’t to say that Batman isn’t great or can’t have surprising moments, but for the most part, you know what you’re gonna get with Bruce Wayne. Nightwing exists more at the cusp of things. He has a rich and important past, but one gets the sense that what’s yet to come is even more important. He’s the kind of hero Batman wants to be, and the kind I’d like to be as well.
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.