DC’s New 52 Reviews: Nightwing

Posted: September 22, 2011 in comic books, Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

Man, I was hoping my only problem with Nightwing was that it just wasn’t as on the mark as Chuck Dixon and Scott McDaniel’s first issue of the former Robin’s solo adventures from back in 1996. But after a second read, I only WISH that was the problem.

There’s a lot of discussion about what makes a successful superhero first issue. I think there’s a lot of ways you can do it, but however you set about it, ultimately you need three elements: an action sequence (it is a superhero comic, after all) that ideally initiates or ties into a larger plot (preferred over 007 pre-credits action sequences), a concise mission statement (“This is who the hero is, this is what he wants to accomplish”), and an introduction to the forces aligned against him. (A nice fourth element is “A sequence clarifying what his secret identity and/or new setting is like,” but that’s really a secondary requirement that can get set up in issue 2.)

Kyle Higgins’ Nightwing script knows the words, but it’s getting the tune all wrong (or is that the other way around?). 

It opens with an action sequence that’s visually interesting (if, in its overly complicated double-page  layouts, a bit of a chore for digital readers to follow along with), but doesn’t really have much to do with anything. Nightwing beats up a masked guy on a train, while bragging in his internal narration about how tight his skills are now that he was Batman for a while.

But that’s not a mission statement – “Here’s what the book is going to be about.” At least not yet. Right now it’s just a throat-clearing line in a voiceover.

Then there’s a fragment of a continuing drama, but it doesn’t offer the audience anything intriguing that they might want to follow later – Dick runs into his old buddies at Haley’s Circus, setting up shop in Gotham for the first time since his parents died there. But it contributes nothing to the story the first issue is telling. It’s just filler to (hopefully) be made interesting in future chapters.

(And I know continuity-issues aren’t a thing we should really be bothering with during this half-reboot, but last I knew, Dick actually OWNED Haley’s Circus – did that get tossed away at some point?)

Then comes the big problem with the book: the point where an assassin targets Dick Grayson and attacks him on the street (with Wolverine claws, because remember, DC’s aesthetic goal is the 90’s, when every third character had Wolverine claws). Once the cops show up, guns drawn, Dick decides they can provide him cover-fire while he goes to change into his Nightwing outfit.

Well, that’s all the time the assassin needs to gut the two cops.

Nightwing’s response, in his (already long-winded yet pretty pointless) narration: “Dammit, this is on me.”

Hang on.

Rather than make sure the cops wouldn’t get harmed, Dick suited up, and they got killed. In the 90’s, this was enough of a plot twist that at the end of the book, Nightwing would be shattered by his failure to save innocents, and Batman would be standing on a rooftop telling him he was fired. Now it’s a dismissive, “Aw, nuts. No time – fight scene!”

Which brings us to the Domino Mask Dilemma.

See, there are some basic suspensions of disbelief required when reading superhero comics. One of them is, “I am willing to accept that a tiny sliver of a mask can successfully conceal a hero’s identity.”

And you can justify it, most times. I’m okay thinking that most people aren’t going to connect Nightwing to Dick Grayson because nobody ever gets a real close look at Nightwing, and very few people could pick Grayson out of a lineup anyway.

(This is trickier when you try to explain how nobody spots Green Arrow’s goatee and realizes it’s industrialist and one-time mayor of Star City Oliver Queen – which is the ONLY reason I am okay with him not having that goatee. But I digress.)

But when an assassin specifically targets Dick Grayson, sees the guy backflip into a dark alley to dodge a knife attack, and then a few seconds later Nightwing shows up to acrobatically fight him, the assassin should probably not look at Nightwing and say (as he does here), “So the orphan prince has a ‘hero’ looking out for him.”

Dude, it’s the same guy who flipped away from you a second ago. Same face, same height, same HAIRCUT. The assassin doesn’t recognize they’re the same guy because The Comics Rules Say He Can’t. Or he’s astonishingly stupid.

Then they fight, and there’s a weird declaration/twist that doesn’t mean anything unless you’ve also read Batman #1, also out this week, in which case…well, it still doesn’t mean anything, but it is a little more tantalizing.

For fun, let’s compare this to the 1996 Nightwing #1. It starts with Nightwing in particularly quirky mortal peril (he’s underwater, handcuffed to a fridge and almost out of breath), which allows him to flash back to why he’s where he is and why (Batman sent him to investigate dead gangsters washing on Gotham shores from neighboring Bludhaven).

His internal narration in this book has a purpose: it either gives the reader the new lay of the land (info on Bludhaven’s history and present corruption), or tells us what he’s thinking – which is never “I’m at the top of my game,” but rather, “Magnesium flare. Not enough heat to burn through the cuffs. Handle should be cake,” and other observations that let us know why he’s about to do what we’re going to see in the action scenes.

In all, there are 14 pages that are the inaugural action scene (which will have consequences in future issues), 1 explaining his reasoning for coming to Bludhaven, 4 illustrating his first few minutes in town, and finally the last 2, which set up both his secondary antagonists (two heavies in the Bludhaven PD) and a cliffhanger (they put handcuffs on him and send him to be killed).

THAT is economy of storytelling.

So, I don’t recommend you buy Nightwing #1 by Higgins and Burrows. I DO recommend you buy Nightwing #1 (1996) by Dixon and McDaniel (also available on Comixology), and get set for three years (without a single fill-in artist!) of fast-paced, action-packed, character-centric superhero comics.

UPCOMING REVIEWS: Batman, Wonder Woman

  1. Jesse says:

    Done! Chuck Dixon Nightwing downloaded. Plus, I saved a buck — good looking out.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Oh yeah, for a buck cheaper, too!

    I recently re-read this run, so I can confidently recommend it (it’s held up pretty well). It meanders a bit after its second year, but that’s still two good years of comics for you to delve into.

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