Nightwing 21

Full disclosure, Nightwing is a character close to my heart. It’s possible that I was the only one, but growing up I didn’t care to be Batman, I wanted to be the kid who gets to save Batman in between rides on his motorcycle and actually living a life. Then again, in my universe, Robin always wore pants. Either way, like many kids with many superheroes, I grew up with Dick Grayson, but Nightwing is special to his fans because he grew up with us too.

So yeah, if my username didn’t tip you off, I like Nightwing. That means that I was thrilled when Dick came back to the domino mask, that buying Nightwing #1 was a given for me, but it also means that I’ve been highly critical of any mishandlings. So how does Dick’s latest adventure in the windy city sit with a lifelong fan? Read on, true believers, and find out.

With issue #21, Nightwing’s new Midwestern status quo finally feels real and established. This issue manages to deepen the intrigue surrounding Tony Zucco and the Prankster, give us a sense of the city and its secrets, and hint at big things looming for Dick’s supporting cast. All this and this is kind of a quiet issue.

That, right there, is the biggest fault of this issue, that it feels like big things are coming but only a small percentage of them come to bear this month. But, of course, there have to be quiet moments for the loud ones to mean anything. True, it’s kind of a shame that Kyle Higgins’ story required this issue’s threats to be of a slightly unthreatening level, but, if you can reconcile yourself to that, this issue really opens up.

Comics, especially Big Two superhero comics, are often exercises in playing with expectations. Subversions, done right, are what keep the genre fresh, but if you lose the essential core of a character (or even deviate too far for too many fans), you can expect serious backlash. We comic readers can be the most forward thinking innovative people you’ll meet or regular geezers insisting how much better it was when you could buy a stack for a nickel.

For me, the essential formula for Nightwing is Batman-style action with a greater focus on personal relationships and joy. There’s probably more to it than that, but the truth is that Dick Grayson’s key appeal is that he’s the hero you wish you were. He can live in Gotham but he rebels against his father’s insistence that it’s a dark and hopeless place.

That’s part of why I think this move to Chicago is just what the book needed. While I liked the idea that Dick is at a point in his life where he doesn’t need to be constantly rebelling, Nightwing has always been his identity, and he was falling back into Batman’s shadow. No offense to Kyle Higgins or Scott Snyder, but the first six months of his title were written partially as their own book and partially in support of the Batman title, if that’s not in Batman’s shadow, I don’t know what is. But now, freed of some of that Gotham baggage, Dick is thriving.

Higgins’ take on the Prankster continues to intrigue. He’s a big personality that allows Nightwing to have a villain that actually feels like his own and he has some interesting and formidable skills. Though he he’s not much a physical match for Nightwing, the Prankster is definitely a serious threat, and one with bigger fish to fry than a lone vigilante, it seems.

The Prankster is tied into a whole web of Chicago’s own criminal politics and that helps set this book apart. Despite its size and reputation for lawlessness, Chicago hasn’t been a major focus in the DCU to my memory (especially not in this version of it), and that allows Higgins to create his own playground there. References to Aether and Ghostwalker seem to hint that Chicago has a long history of mystery men that lead to its current masklessness. That kind of history has been sorely missed since Flashpoint, and having Nightwing discover it is a great way to bring out his detective skills.

Best of all, Nightwing is written wonderfully. One thing I’ve mentioned a lot in my reviews here is the value of solid writing. As I said, this issue probably isn’t the one that you’ll think back on and remember how it blew your mind, but, while Higgins was doing an admirable job with Nightwing up until this point, I never put down the book and so distinctly thought ‘he gets it’ the way I did after this issue.

Higgins’ Dick Grayson is clever, sharp-tongued, and likable, but not without doubts. Unlike his mentor, Nightwing does this by choice and, as such, he has the curse and the luxury of stepping back and considering whether he’s doing the right thing. His doubt, his anxiety, feels entirely natural and makes him seem like a guy you’d want to be friends with. Some people argue that Batman’s superpower is that he’s a one man army, ready for anything. Likewise, some argue that Nightwing’s superpower is that people trust him, that he could have an army ready to back him up at the drop of a hat. I believe that about this Nightwing, and Higgins doesn’t have to devote a moment of his script to it, I just know.

Brett Booth is still the artist on this issue. While his work on Teen Titans was hit-and-miss with me, he’s also found his groove on Nightwing over the past two issues. Booth brings care, dynamism, and a taste of Nightwing’s lady-killer looks to the issue. Sometimes it seems that all characters in an artist’s style look the same, but faces in this issue are not only well drawn, but distinct. One character in particular has a unique look to their features, which really brings something to their design. Booth even gets to indulge his love for paleo-art, giving us some adorable play-time with a Cryolophosaurus and/or a nice feathery raptor (it’s kind of unclear if it’s one toy or two but, either way, where can I get one?). There are places where the detail weakens slightly or character appear stiffer, both notably occur in a scene featuring Tony Zucco, but it’s a handsome book throughout.

Higgins has clearly striven to bring Dick Grayson’s aerialist background into the visuals of his scripts over the course of his run, and Booth proves more than able to supply. The issue’s major fight scene lacks a certain continuity, but in return we get a great sense of Nightwing’s movement. It actually gave me a really interesting look at Nightwing’s methods. The difficulty of linking one panel to the next breeds a sense of confusion that reminds me of Batman taking out guards as he slips in and out of the shadows. It’s clear that Batman trained this man, but for Dick, it’s not subtly but flash, his sheer speed overwhelming his opponents.

I also want to take a moment, since I haven’t had the time to mention it on this blog, to discuss Nightwing’s new costume. I admit that I was not thrilled with the change to red, but whether in blue or (perhaps even better in this case) in red, the new design elements are great. Particularly with Booth’s line work, the suit looks abnormally real and, if I may say so, quite stylish. Together with Dick’s relaxed and expressive body language, Booth gives us an excellent Nightwing.

Dick Grayson’s personality is all over the issue and, combined with a healthy dose of world-building, that makes for a strong iteration of Nightwing’s title. Kyle Higgins and Bret Booth both have minor hiccups, but their strengths outweigh any faults you might find. Admittedly, this issue is pretty mellow and my feelings about the current state of the title have seeped in a little, but forgive me my lateness to the party and trust me that this is a fine comic to own. Those looking for a comic event might be better off picking up Scott Snyder’s latest comics today, but I look forward to meeting someone down the line who cites this run on Nightwing as the one that opened their eyes to the joys of monthly comics. If this is who Nightwing’s going to be, I’m happy to stop by and hang out with him once a month.