411 Comics Showcase: Nightwing
Welcome back to your regularly scheduled 411 Comics Showcase. After a month dedicated to listing the greatest Marvel Comics heroes, I think we can all use a break from that brand of comics. I will probably return to Marvel next week to discuss my thoughts on Logan, one of my most anticipated releases of the year. But for this week, let’s talk about one of my favorite DC Characters: Dick Grayson.
Robin: The Boy Wonder
It’s a near universal fact that anything you can do is improved by good company. While Bob Kane created Batman at the tail end of the Great Depression and envisioned him as a brooding loner vigilante, it was not very long before the Dark Knight would have a squire. Young, colorful and a polar opposite to everything Batman was at the time, Robin was in many ways a way for DC to advertise that Batman was a comic book aimed at kids and would he going forward. And for the better part of four decades, Batman and Robin were inseparable. This, in turn, made the Boy Wonder one of the most recognizable heroes in comics. He followed Batman from the pages of Detective Comics to mainstream television, where Adam West and Burt Ward brought “The Dynamic Duo” to life for old and new fans. Chances were, if you asked a random non-comic reader to name three superheroes back then, they would name Superman, Batman and Robin first.
Robin is a major point of contention among Batman fans. There is a sizable group of readers and viewers that enjoy the angry loner Batman and say that Robin makes Batman less “cool”. While I agree this is an aspect of the Dark Knight that makes him interesting and is worth exploring, I am firmly in the pro-Robin camp. Much like I don’t want to be a brooding loner that stays shut in and never makes contact with the outside world, I don’t want Batman to be alone and losing his humanity because he has unhealthy relationships.
Clearly, I’m not alone, as everything from Marv Wolfman’s A Lonely Place of Dying to The Lego Batman Movie makes the same argument. People need other people to make them more rounded, healthy, interesting people. And in that way, Batman needs a Robin. The brooding loner shtick eventually gets old.
Teen Titans and Growing Up
Robin was a huge success for DC, and many, many sidekicks were created in his mold. Captain America had Bucky Barnes. Green Arrow had Speedy, and Aqualad, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl all showed up as seconds for their more popular heroes. But the landscape changed; Stan Lee’s teenage superheroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men changed the game for adolescent crimefighters. So it’s unsurprising that DC tried to replicate this success by making the Teen Titans, a group of sidekicks that were now calling the shots. As the most popular hero in that group, Robin was the de facto leader, a role which suited him surprisingly well.
Recognizing the important desire for personal independence to the American teenager, DC made one of its smartest decisions by allowing Dick Grayson to grow up. The Boy Wonder became the Teen Wonder, a college student who didn’t always go along with Bruce Wayne’s plans and challenged his authority. This could have made him come across as a whiny brat, but Robin was established as the capable leader of his own team. A team which, under the creative genius of writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez, usurped the Justice League as DC’s most popular group in the 1980s. Robin’s brotherly bond with Cyborg and Changeling was just as important as his father-son relationship with Batman, and his romance with Starfire was more passionate than any flirtation he had with Batgirl.
Thanks to the Teen Titans, Robin was more than just a sidekick. He wasn’t just a kid doing what he was told, or a son going into his father’s business. Dick Grayson did things his own way, forged his own identity and became his own man. For a generation of readers, they not only grew up with Dick, but grew alongside him.
Out Of The Shadows And Into The Spotlight
As Dick Grayson grew up, the role of Robin just didn’t seem to fit anymore. And not just because Jason Todd, Carrie Kelley, and Tim Drake also took on the mantle (among others). Robin was “The Boy Wonder”, and so it was important for Dick to forge his own identity. The identity of Nightwing gave Dick a shiny new coat of paint. Well. Sort of. The original costume is about as ridiculous as the Robin costume (I have no idea what was up with the disco collar). But it was a turning point, and the name stuck.
After a short time under the Batman cowl in the excellent story Prodigal, Dick Grayson got a new costume, inspired by Batman and Robin’s looks yet wholly unique. This debuted on the cover of Nightwing #1 in 1995, and for my money, it’s one of the best designs in comic book history. It certainly felt like Dick Grayson had come into his own, and cemented the persona as status quo for the character. The series also established Blüdhaven as home base for Nightwing, and rekindled and strengthened the bond between him and Barbara Gordon.
Batman and Beyond
I always assumed that Grayson’s growth from Robin as a child to Nightwing as a young adult would culminate in him taking Batman’s mantle in some hypothetical future. Apparently, DC and writer Grant Morrison thought the same, as during a period where Bruce Wayne was “dead”, Dick Grayson become the Dark Knight, with Bruce’s biological son Damien as his Robin. It was an interesting time, with Batman now the more hopeful, emotionally mature one and Robin as the brooding, emotionally stunted counterpart. But it also proved, at least for me, that Batman wasn’t a good fit for Dick. The persona that Bruce built just doesn’t gel with who Dick is as a person.
So I was thrilled when he went back to being Nightwing in the New 52. More than ever, it felt like Dick Grayson was Nightwing, and that he didn’t need to become Batman to be seen as Bruce’s equal. And while his time as Robin made him a pop culture icon for decades, it’s his growth into Nightwing that makes Dick one of the most interesting and memorable characters in all of DC Comics.
DC has announced plans to make a Nightwing movie, which is something I have mixed thoughts on. Warner Bros. has been in a rush to catch up with Marvel Studios, but they aren’t even in X-Men territory when it comes to a cohesive universe. I don’t know if a cinematic Nightwing can be as impacting as the comic version without all of the character growth, but I’d love to see them try.
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What is your favorite era or interpretation of Dick Grayson?