Monday, September 13, 2010

The Definitives: Dick Grayson

A couple months back, I wrote about the evolution of the Robin character, in the course of doing so hitting largely on the progression of Dick Grayson, the original Boy Wonder as a character.

Whether as Robin, Nightwing or currently Batman, Grayson has always been one of my favorite comic book heroes. This is a bit a departure for me as I’m generally more beholden to the snarky rebel types as my touchstones, but there’s also that well-concealed nice guy side of me who really roots for the true blue Heroes with a capital “H” of comics. With Dick Grayson, he’s a guy who represents both sides of my fandom there, as he’s certainly among the more wholesome good guys even in the virtuous DC Universe—particularly when you consider his mentor—but also has that devil-may-care swashbuckler attitude born of the carnival.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Dick Grayson is that in addition to his longevity, he’s probably been successful in more diverse identities than any other major character in comics as noted above. Sure lots of heroes and villains undergo the occasional name or costume change, but Dick has full-on reinvented everything about himself twice now and not really missed a beat as far as remaining at the forefront of the DCU as one of its most popular leading men.

Given that Dick Grayson has a history stretching back to 1940, I certainly make no claim to have read anywhere near even a majority representation of his appearances—I haven’t really read any Batman comics pre-dating the 80’s, including the crazy Silver Age stuff and really good 70’s stuff—but even so, I’ve got quite a few stories that spring to mind when thinking about why I dig comics’ original sidekick.

Few writers of the modern era have more familiarity with Dick Grayson than Chuck Dixon, who spent over five years writing him on the Nightwing ongoing title. Here, Dixon teams with co-writer Scott Beatty and artist Javier Pulido not to re-tell Robin’s origin story, but to flesh out his earliest days with Batman. Pulido’s art is perfect here, as he nails the brightly-clad figure of the Boy Wonder but drags him into the slightly darker situations Dixon and Beatty have concocted without dimming his luster. This is a great coming-of-age story that sees young Dick Grayson attempting to prove himself worthy of the responsibility given him by Batman—your basic father-son dynamic cranked up to superheroic proportions—by taking on way more than he probably should be on his own and coming up against Two-Face, foreshadowing later feuds between the two characters across various identities. Dixon and Beatty also show Robin’s nascent relationship with Batgirl and emotionally explore his connection with Alfred, the series’ narrator.

“The Murder Machine” (NEW TEEN TITANS ANNUAL #2)
The climax to the simmering storyline that introduced Adrian Chase into his costumed role as Vigilante is also an extremely important chapter in the life of Dick Grayson, as he reaches his final days as Robin. Having grown distant from Batman, the now-Teen Wonder finds himself partnering with Chase for a harder-edged war on crime and searching his soul for what kind of man he wants to be as he draws closer to true adulthood, seeing both positive and negative reflections of himself in his new ally. This extra-sized tale by the superlative Titans team of Marv Wolfman and George Perez sees the crew team with Vigilante against an army of assassins in an action-packed thrill ride, but more importantly it is for all intents and purposes one of the last true Robin stories as far as Dick Grayson is concerned and key reading if you’re looking to understand the character.

“The Judas Contract” (TALES OF THE TEEN TITANS #42-44, ANNUAL #3)
Maybe Wolfman and Perez’s greatest Titans opus—and that’s saying something—this one has it all, from the origin of Deathstroke to Terra’s betrayal to Jericho’s introduction and much more, but for our purposes, no aspect of the story is more important than Dick Grayson’s dynamic debut as Nightwing. Even before putting on his new disco-collared duds, the former Robin proves the only Titans capable of eluding The Terminator, an impressive feat when one considers his teammates, but also a reminder of what makes the character so special. Again, a crucial stage in the larger Dick Grayson tapestry, not to mention of the best comic stories of all-time, so call this a win all around.

“Nightwing: Year One” (NIGHTWING #101-106)
Wrote a whole entry on this one.

“Wings Over Gotham” (ROBIN #13)
The conclusion of “Prodigal,” the 1995 storyline that saw Bruce Wayne temporarily hand over the role of Batman to Dick Grayson while recovering from a prior ordeal that saw Jean-Paul Valley sullying the mantel. This issue, written again by Dixon, has Bruce returning, ready to be Batman again, but Dick not quite ready to give up the cowl until they have a conversation years in the making that has been building ever since he abandoned the Robin persona. It’s another big growth moment for Dick as he stands up for himself against his father figure and asserts not only his independence, but calls Bruce out on his lapses in judgment; for his own part, the original Batman stands his ground, but admits he has sold his protégé short more than once. It’s a watershed encounter that re-establishes the Nightwing-Batman relationship more as one between equals and alters their dynamic moving forward (also, Tim Drake fights a bad guy, but that’s pretty secondary).

“A Knight in Bludhaven” (NIGHTWING #1-8)
Dixon and Scott McDaniel’s kickoff to their lengthy run on Dick Grayson’s first ongoing series and they hit the ground running, creating a brand new playground for Nightwing to establish himself in Bludhaven, a sort of mini-Gotham that’s even more gruesome than the original in some ways. For the next several years, Bludhaven would serve a key role in giving Dick Grayson his own identity separate from Batman or the Titans, complete with his own rogues gallery, supporting cast and unique locales, but especially establishing him as the sole guardian of a place that needed him, not just a stand-in or supporting player. The first eight issues have Nightwing setting up shop and declaring war on Blockbuster, the bulky and brilliant mastermind who would become the Kingpin to his Daredevil, so to say. My personal highlight from this initial run is “The Visitor” from issue #6, in which Tim Drake drops by and the two “brothers” spend a night talking over Dick’s latest adventures as they hop across rooftops and moving trains, really giving McDaniel a chance to show off.

“Till Death Do Us Part” (NIGHTWING ANNUAL #2)
You could argue all day whether Dick Grayson’s true destined love is Starfire or Barbara Gordon, but Marc Andreyko and Joe Bennett make a pretty heartfelt case for the latter in this touching, sweet and often heart-wrenching one-shot covering the “missing year” from after Infinite Crisis and what became of Nightwing’s marriage proposal to Oracle. As the star-crossed duo recovers from the latest upheaval and mull over what’s next for them, Andreyko revisits the high and low points of their lengthy courtship in great detail. That Robin-Batgirl kid crush that became something more is something I feel like is almost woven into culture beyond just the DC Universe, and it’s certainly one I feel like I can relate to, so to see it so thoroughly dissected here and ushered into adulthood not only makes for a good story, but feels integral to who Dick Grayson is. The creative team here does an excellent job showing why this may be DC’s best couple, and at the same time why they can probably never be together for too long.

“Batman Reborn” (BATMAN AND ROBIN #1-3)
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s first arc in this brave and bold new era of Batman showed once and for all that Dick Grayson was more than fit to wear the cowl, but also that he’d be a very different kind of Dark Knight—and that’s a good thing. I remember being really impressed with how Morrison acknowledged every stage of Dick’s past, from jubilant sidekick to defiant young hero, and made this very much the logical destination for the character. Quitely’s art is dynamic and the creative duo usher in wonderfully creepy new villains and a nicely refined status quo for the latest Dynamic Duo.


KP said...

Oh man, so much:

* I've always wanted to read a collection of the Carmine Infantino (I think) Dick Grayson Robin solo comics from the '70s where he was solving mysteries at college and shit.

* I always loved the disco outfit. Still prefer it to any other Nightwing costume.

* To your list, I'd add two books. The first is this one:

Probably the only contemporary Jason Todd comic where he wasn't completely unbearable, and a key issue for Dick and Bruce's relationship.

* And then I'd add the combined might of "Batman: Year 3" and "A Death In The Family" which delve more into the Bruce/Dick relationship and were favorites of mine as a kid. Have you read those?

Ben Morse said...

Do you mean "Death in the Family" or "Lonely Place of Dying"? I've actually never read the first (amazingly) and only the NTT chapters of the second. Do want to read them both someday, and Year 3 as well.

I'm interested in the college years Robin stuff too.

KP said...

Yes! Lonely Place of Dying! I was tired last night.

Funny enough, it took me YEARS to track down the NTT issues of that story because all I had was the Batman stuff.

Introduction of Tim Drake!!!!!!!

Ben Morse said...


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