Monday, August 17, 2009

Underrated/Overlooked: Nightwing: Year One

I've got something of a love/hate relationship with the comic book works of Grant Morrison. However, complex as my tastes may be when it comes to the mad Scotsman, there's no question as to which side of my line his current opus, Batman & Robin, falls on: I falt out love it. From the Frank Quitely-drawn fight scenes that actually hold my attention (something not a lot of comic fracas can do) to the creepy-as-heck new villains, I've found plenty to crow about when it comes to B&R, but Kiel actually made me realize one big factor that contributes to my fondness for the book: Morrison acknowledges Dick Grayson's time as Nightwing. That may seem like a dumb little detail, but there is always a bubbling movement among the top guns of comics to reference only the really iconic mainstream-friendly stuff in their larger works, which for Dick Grayson means it would be easy for Morrison to act as if he shot straight from Robin to Batman and treat the middle years with vagueness, but flat out in the first issue he makes direct reference to Dick's time as a cop in Bludhaven, and that was just tremendous to me.

Y'see, I wasn't reading comics from about 1996 to 2000 or so, and when I got all the way back in, the Nightwing ongoing series had seen better days; but through the magic of the Wizard library and a solid job on the collection front by DC, I was able to learn that during a lot of that time I had been away, Nightwing was a damn fine action-adventure comic of the highest consistency under the stewardship of writer Chuck Dixon, who wrote Dick's adventures in the Gotham suburb of Bludhaven for over six years. Dixon had a few notable artistic collaborators, but none who took to the character and setting with the vigor of Scott McDaniel. And while I'd argue that Dixon and McDaniel's entire run on Nightwing could be classified as underrated and/or overlooked, what I want to talk about today is the woefully underheralded "get the band back together" tour of duty the duo had in 2005 on the six issue "Nightwing: Year One" story arc.

While my boy Wally West made history by being the first sidekick to graduate into the role of full hero, years earlier Dick Grayson was the first junior partner in comic book history to really escape his mentor's shadow (which makes sense given that he was the first junior partner period). Nightwing's is a neat niche since most comic fans grow up relating to Robin and wanting to someday be Batman (or so DC hopes), but there's a whole period between 10 and 30 where you'd like a happy medium as your window to that four color kingdom. Besides that, if you've got access to a decent library of trades and back issues, you can follow Dick's journey from adolescense to manhood like he were a family friend who dressed up in tights and lost his family in a freak circus accident.

The other thing I love most about Dick Grayson is that he's like the most popular guy in the DC Universe. Wally West is the nice guy who plays soccer and everybody likes, but Dick Grayson is the quarterback who also happens to be super-down-to-earth and nice to the nerdy kids; he's Emilio Estevez from The Breakfast Club (that analogy was dedicated equal parts to John Hughes and Sean T. Collins). Given Wally's mentor, it's not a shocker he'd be so congenial, but given Dick's, his nice guy routine is more of a surprise. Robin started out as the polar opposite of Batman to give contrast in a real world sense and to provide the Dark Knight with a colorful distraction to his foes in an in-world sense, but as he evolved he became the most capable team leader in the DC Universe (whereas the Justice League has never had a set leader, Dick Grayson is the Captain America or Cyclops of the Titans) and the hero everybody will rally around in a time of crisis (a plot point Geoff Johns made during Infinite Crisis that I really loved).

Nightwing: Year One takes the snapshot of time between Dick Grayson ending his tenure as Robin and beginning his career as Nightwing and brings that journey as well as what makes him a totally unique hero from not only Batman but everybody else in the DCU primarily through a series of team-ups with his peers, mentors and would-be replacements. Dixon gets right up in Dick's headspace perfectly and illustrates perfectly all the stuff I just wrote above about why Nightwing is such a wonderful character.

Year One begins with the expanded (and perhaps previously untold, I'm not sure) of Robin screwing up on a routine case and Batman firing him as a result. I think the idea is to convey Bats as being less pissed at Dick for botching his job and more hurt by the fact that he's spending more time with the Titans than his mentor, but Dixon's Batman isn't actually nuanced enough to get that point across. Nonetheless, what Dixon does do a superlative job of is in portraying Dick Grayson as somebody who has reached a personal crossroads as far as living under the rules of his surrogate father and who possesses that natural mix of rebellion and ambition. As if he had never left the character he helped to give such depth, Dixon gets right back in the swing of mixing the pathos of Dick Grayson in with the somersaults of Robin and provides a timeless yarn about growing up with a super-heroic edge. Dixon also introduces the narrative device of Dick writing all this as a letter to Batman, a nice little touch that helps pry further into his psyche.

The second chapter is probably my favorite as it's a (almost)Nightwing/Superman team-up and I love Nightwing/Superman team-ups. I really enjoy the fact that Superman is this cool uncle figure to Dick Grayson and that Supes has immense respect for Batman's kid partner and likely did far before his dour counterpart. Dixon does his own spin on the whole "Nightwing got his new codename from Kryptonian" lore deal that got ditched for a little while post-Crisis and that I'm happy came back; to me, one of the reasons that Nightwing is probably the best hero in the DC Universe (in a meta sense) is that he's essentially the product of Batman raising a kid with Superman stopping by to take him out for his birthday and shit (and what a sitcom that would make). Anyways, I love the way Superman treats Dick Grayson as an equal even here, love the way Dick kinda hits on Lois Lane, and love about a zillion other things about those two characters teaming; just a great dynamic.

Chapter three feels a little forced as it's a random Deadman guest shot that takes place when Dick takes a brief side trip to rejoin the circus and we learn that the Flying Graysons knew Boston Brand, but I'll excuse the tacked on nature as Scott McDaniel draws both an awesome Deadman and fantastic aerial scenes.

Things get back on track in a big way from there as Dick takes on the Nightwing codename, develops a proto new costume and reunites with his old flame Batgirl as he decides to reintroduce himself to the naughtier elements of Gotham. Nightwing having to convince Commissioner Gordon he's the former Robin and the way he does it is cute while his trip to Arkham to pay a visit to the Joker is a trip that does nicely to distinguish him both from his former persona but also from Batman. The heart of the issue though is the eternal Dick Grayson/Barbara Gordon on-again/off-again romance which is off here because Dick is with Starfire, but which Dixon has always written to perfection. Most of us had that one girl (or guy) we fell in love with as a kid and then (mostly) got over, but the Dick/Babs story and the half-cutesy/half-near-Shakespearean flourish with which Dixon writes their flirtations and interactions makes you wonder about the road not taken. I read New Teen Titans before I read anything with Batgirl, so I always thought Starfire was Nightwing's unquestionable happily ever after, but Dixon's work on Nightwing and here (as well as some other great stories I've caught up on) make me wonder about his road not taken as well.

Throughout the first two thirds of the story, Dixon has also been threading (at an accelerated pace) Batman's discovery of Jason Todd and appointment of the kid as the new Robin. In the final two chapters of Year One, that sub-plot moves to the main stage as a trial run gone awry for Jason becomes the first team-up between two generations of Boy Wonders as they must rescue Alfred from the clutches of Killer Croc. Jason comes off as every bit the twerp he was when folks voted with their telephones back in the 80's, but the pairing gives Dick a chance to be both outraged ousted party and cool big brother; by the end, we're as in awe of the newly minted Nightwing as Jason is.

On the subject of Scott McDaniel's art, I'll say that he's a very nuanced stylist who can be extremely hit or miss, particularly when he ventures outside his comfort zone, but giving him six issues of Nightwing to draw is like tossing a slugger a hanging fastball right over the plate. Much as I loved McDaniel on the late, lamented Richard Dragon (also a Chuck Dixon joint), he was born to draw Dick Grayson, with his quadruple cartwheels and winning smile. McDaniel is a master of fight choreography between really athletic dudes with no powers, something he showed off ample times in his original Nightwing run and does again here; he always does fun stuff with the way characters move and how to use the panel borders and just seems to be having fun. He also really knows how to bring out the charming swashbuckler visually in Dick Grayson.

Nightwing: Year One isn't a perfect comic story (Batman isn't written particularly well, the terms "Boy Wonder" and "Man Wonder" are used often enough that they'd make a drinking game fatal, etc.) but it's a highly enjoyable one from two guys doing what they know ow to do extremely well. If you're looking for greater insight into the roots of Dick Grayson, the dude who just became Batman, I highly recommend it, but if you're also just looking for a fun story where a very likeable protagonist jumps off buildings, hangs with Superman, teams with elephants and hits on Batgirl, you could do a lot worse.


JimmyGlenn711 said...

Great post.

I couldn't agree more in terms of being relieved and pleasantly surprised at how well Grant Morrison writes Dick Grayson, and how he references what's come before. Being that I am a HUGE Nightwing fan (I own every incarnation of him as an action figure),and for the most part have never liked Morrison's work, I was dreading Morrison's take on him.

I still am. In the past Morrison has tricked me before. I thought I liked him on X-Men and then, suddenly I didn't.

Nightwing: Year One is an amazing trade. I love that they brought back Dixon and Mcdaniel to expand upon a story they touched upon earlier. I just reread this recently, and I forgot how much they added to his origin i.e. his father costume, his conversation with Superman, and tying up various loose ends. Also, Deadman's in it. Who doesn't like Deadman?

JimmyGlenn711 said...

Sorry I am geeking out about this post because you wrote shit that I have been preaching to my friends for years, but another person who really nailed the Superman/Nightwing relationship was Tomasi. As much as I wasn't thrilled about aspects of his take on "Richard" Grayson, the brief scene he wrote with them was spot on in terms of that cool uncle, godfather role.

In my mind, Dick never became Bruce because of the relationship he had with Superman (and other heroes like the Titans, and of course Alfred)

Ben Morse said...

Glad I touched a nerve with you, Jimmy.

I believe Dixon and (possibly) McDaniel did a fill-in issue on one of the Superman titles around the time Jeph Loeb was on the books that was a great done-in-one Supes/Nightwing team-up.

I'm actually interested to see how a Dick Grayson/Hal Jordan meeting would go down. Fun fact: it has been established that if Dick were closer geographically than Hal, he would have gotten the Green Lantern ring.

eMP said...

I hear you on a lot of your points on this one, Ben. This is a trade that I usually pair up with Born to Run whenever I'm trying to bring a new reader into these characters. A Nightwing/Hal Jordan team up would be awesome. Maybe we'll see that sooner than we think since Dick is Batman now.

Mike Wilson said...

The entire original Dixon/McDaniel run on Nightwing, collected, was one of the things that opened my eyes to the possibilities of comics when I started exploring the four-color world. The individual issues of Nightwing: Year One were a welcome treat, like rifling through a box of mementos in the attic. Thank you for this post.

JimmyGlenn711 said...

yeah your post did, I am a ravenous Nightwing fan. When I heard his series was ending I seriously thought I was devastated.

I never knew the Green Lantern fact, further proof that Dick Grayson is basically the shit.

Thanks for the post. Sorry for my earlier comments egregious spelling and grammar errors.

Ben Morse said...

Yeah, there was an old issue of I believe Action Comics Weekly where it established that Dick Grayson had the goods to be a Green Lantern and was (I think) next in line after Hal, Guy Gardner and John Stewart.

KP said...

I've still never read this arc. I think it came out when I was super broke? Anyway, maybe I'll pick it up this year if I stumble upon it.

Anonymous said...

Who's the douche who pointed out the typo in "I falt [sic] out love it"?

Oh yeah, it was me.

-- MrJM

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