Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Out from the Shadow of the Batcave: Wolfman’s Nightwing

Nightwing was born in the pages of The New Teen Titans and has always worked best as an ensemble player for me. That’s perhaps why I’ve never been drawn to his solo adventures and, until recently, had never read his book. I tried it for about six months during the One Year Later jump, and was amazed by how truly horrible it was. I dropped it. Then Marv Wolfman took over. Then Jamal Igle hopped on board as penciller, drawing the coolest motorcycles I've ever seen. And now I’m hooked. Why is an interesting story.

I wouldn’t call the two first arcs of Wolfman’s Nightwing unqualified successes. The Raptor is about as generic as supervillains come, and the Natural Born Killers riff Wolfman has just wrapped up in the “Bride and Groom” feels so 1994—and it was already stale when Oliver Stone subjected us to it back then. When Dick Grayson talks to himself in his apartment he says things like “Bada Bing! So tell us, Don Pardo, what has Dick won for his amazing lunch?” and “I am so outta here.” When he roughs up lowlifes, his patter takes on a Spiderman-worthy tweeness: “Hey, boys, you got some ’splainin’ to do.” Really, Dick? ’Splainin’? It’s always challenging for an older writer to capture the authentic voice of twentysomethings, and Wolfman shows his age with clunkers like these.

Yet, the quaintness of these details in no way impedes my enjoyment of this title—in fact, I suspect that they partly account for why I’m enjoying this book so much. Wolfman’s Nightwing is just so wonderfully old-fashioned. As I understand it, Wolfman (Nightwing’s co-creator, with George Perez) was hired to give the character a sharper sense of definition because Dan Didio didn’t “get” him. Mission accomplished, I’d say. Thanks largely to Dick Grayson’s talky internal monologue, I have a much stronger sense of who Dick Grayson is now, of what drives him, of his relationship to Batman, of his idealism and his insecurities. In eight issues, Wolfman has reminded me why I liked Nightwing in the first place and how he can be interesting and iconic as a solo hero out of the shadows of the Batcave or, for that matter, the Titans Tower. He’s done so, however, by writing Nightwing as if it’s still 1985—and for some of us, this is a selling point, not a criticism.

It isn’t just that Wolfman voices the character as if he’s stuck in that earlier era, it’s that the storytelling style itself has a kind of endearing fustiness to it. Wolfman takes time to set up and flesh out his strikingly unhip villains; we get scene after scene of Dick working out, chatting with his neighbours, brooding over his love life, finding a job. It’s all so heartbreakingly earnest, I can’t help but be won over. People just don’t pace comics in precisely this way anymore. And I’ve missed it. Wolfman has made Nightwing into a truly character-driven detective book about an adult hero struggling to be his own person. It’s archetypal, appealing, and I now look forward to it every month with more eagerness than I ever expected to.

Yet I do wonder if the appeal of Wolfman’s Nightwing isn’t strongest for fanboys of a certain age—fanboys who can identify not simply with the slightly retro feel of the comic, but with the character’s curious status within the Bat-canon where he is neither fish nor fowl, neither Batman not Robin, neither master nor apprentice, yet always tenuously balanced between both roles. This kind of ambiguous positioning of Nightwing with regard to his own authority no doubt speaks very strongly to an aging group of readers who might still be getting comfortable with the idea of being responsible adults. Do we ever stop wondering when we’re finally grown up? I doubt I will. And Wolfman’s Dick Grayson is the archetypal male hero for that dilemma. This is perhaps the thinking behind John Fiorella and Gabriel Sabloff’s legendary Grayson film “trailer,” whose adult Robin is simply a Nightwing re-imagined for a mass audience. Were that “trailer” ever to be made into a film, I’d be the first in line on opening night. In the meantime, Wolfman and Igle’s retro gem is a very pleasant diversion.


Kevin T. Johns, writing coach said...

Is there a writer in comics more disliked then Bruce Jones, I wonder?

I'm definatley going to check out Wolfman's Nightwing. I'll let you know what the younger generation thinks of it, Jim.

Jim Roeg said...

Probably not! (Judd Winick? Chuck Austen?) And it's puzzling because Bruce Jones was responsible for the nifty Somerset Holmes comic published by Pacific Comics (that was back when you were just a twinkle in your father's eye, youngster!). The OMAC thing he wrote for DC recently ended up being a snooze-inducing shaggy-dog.

Craig Chilvers said...

I just wanted to leave a comment to say that I enjoy your blog. Looking at the number of comments, I see others feel the same way! Congratulations on a very popular blog.

Boat loan