Review: Nightwing Vol. 2: Night of the Owls trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I praised Kyle Higgins and Eddy Barrows's first outing on the New 52 Nightwing as worthy of following that gold standard of Nightwing runs, Chuck Dixon's. If anything, I hoped Higgins would branch out and make Nightwing more his own, and the lead-up to the "Night of the Owls" crossover seemed headed in that direction.

Unfortunately, though I enjoyed Nightwing Vol. 2: Night of the Owls's "Owl" tie-in issues, I felt the series mostly took a step backward with this volume. Gone is Higgins's interesting Fugitive-eqsue device of having Dick Grayson travel the country with Haly's Circus, fighting crime from town to town as Nightwing; instead, Nightwing is largely Gotham-bound here, fighting an overblown and not very engaging villain.

Nightwing changes far less in this collection than I'd hoped, and I was left feeling as though I'd read a respectable Nightwing story, but not one that made me stand up and cheer like the first volume.

[Review contains spoilers]

It seemed to me there was a lot of story potential for Nightwing coming out of the "Night of the Owls" crossover. Dick has learned that he was secretly meant to be a Talon, one of the Court of Owl's undead assassins; his connection to the Court has also driven a small wedge between himself and Batman. "Night of the Owls" ought have irrevocably changed Nightwing -- his great-grandfather was a Talon, and now Nightwing can see the potential in himself for both heroism and villainy; how will Nightwing balance this new duality?

The answer is, by ignoring it almost entirely. After "Owls," Nightwing is framed for murder, but Higgins draws no parallels between Nightwing as a suspected murderer and what he's just learned about his history with the Court -- no consideration that the Court might be behind the murders, no suspicious glances from Batman, nada. "Night of Owls" could essentially not have happened and the subsequent three-part story wouldn't be any different.

Nightwing was framed, as it turns out, by the cult leader Paragon, whose group the Republic of Tomorrow wants to kill Gotham's heroes for some ill-defined reason that has to do with the "destruction" the Bat-family brings to Gotham. Paragon's obsessions lack nuance -- there's little discussion of how Paragon reconciles all the good the Bat-family does, or how Paragon would be a "better" hero himself.

The greater problem, however, is that Higgins passes up another opportunity to tie the book together thematically -- Paragon says that for Gotham to live, Nightwing must die, just like the Talon-obsessed Saiko did in Traps and Trapeezes, but here the story never considers Nightwing's dual roles as hero and threat or indeed whether his presence is good for Gotham. In the story, Paragon is simply an evil, crazed villain that the good Nightwing has to fight, without any shades of gray to their conflict.

It does not help that at a key moment in the Paragon story, series artist Eddy Barrows steps back and fill-in artist Andres Guinaldo takes over. It took a while for me to come around to Barrows's art, which seemed out of place on both Superman and Teen Titans but is perfectly suited for Nightwing's mostly-dark, nighttime scenes. Barrows has bold, clearly defined figures, and while Guinaldo echoes his style well, the fill-in chapters are less sure-footed -- Dick Grayson's face in issue #11 when he realizes Paragon's identity, for instance, could be suggesting pain or electrocution just the same as it could revelation. The art falters at the same time the story does, so the difficulties are doubly apparent.

A couple of times Higgins refers to the "Rossini murders," which as near as I can tell is a case Higgins made up for this story. Apparently during the New 52 "five-year gap," a Detective Nie planted evidence in order to turn the police against Batman, which makes Nie a suspect for a time in framing Nightwing. Higgin's inventing of the Rossini murders is mildly confusing but mostly intriguing; the main image the reader gets of the incident is Batman being chased down by a helicopter a la the first pages of Justice League: Origin, and I wondered if there was material here to help explain the New 52 Batman's uncertain relationship with Gotham PD, though Higgins doesn't make any more of it this time around.

The book finishes with the Nightwing "Zero Month" issue, teaming Higgins again with Barrows. The origin Higgins offers for Dick Grayson hews pretty closely to the pre-New 52 and/or to the animated Batman versions; Higgins hits the right emotional touchstones in hinting how Bruce Wayne sees his own tragic childhood in the murder of Dick's parents. Higgins adds some new touches that might be controversial, though I was happy to see Higgins putting his own spin on it -- that Dick works the computers for Batman for a while, like the pre-New 52 Tim Drake; that Dick deduces Batman's identity himself, also like the old Tim Drake; but also that Dick figures this out based on "reading" Batman's body language, like former Batgirl Cassandra Cain. Dick's "reading ability" isn't used anywhere else in the book, but I hope Higgins makes more of it, especially given Nightwing's upcoming run-in with Lady Shiva foreshadowed here.

It's an interesting choice that the origin Higgins gives us is Dick Grayson's as the first Robin, not as Nightwing, leaving the whys and wherefores of Dick Grayson "graduating" to Nightwing still to be told. Possibly that material is in the Red Hood and the Outlaws or Teen Titans "Zero Month" issues. It could also be that revealing Nightwing's origin would ventures too far into the New 52 continuity morass that DC has to this point left uncharted: the time in which we've been told Nightwing, Starfire, Arsenal, and others worked together pre-Outlaws, though not as "Titans." I might as soon have read Nightwing's origin here, and had all the Robin origins revealed in Batman and Robin or such.

In all, Kyle Higgins writes a respectable Nightwing and presents Dick Grayson's voice well; Eddy Barrows's flipping, flying figures are well suited for this series. Yet Nightwing Vol. 2: Night of the Owls doesn't distinguish itself this time past the crossover, and that's a shame. I'll be back to see how Nightwing fares in "Death of the Family," of course, and I understand there's both a change of venue for the hero coming up, plus Nightwing's big role in Forever Evil, so it's unlikely I'll be dropping this title soon; DC keeps devising ways to get me reading this book, but I wouldn't say I'm quite "hooked" yet.

[Includes full covers, sketches by Barrows, designs by Barrows, Brett Booth, and Kenneth Rocafort]

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  1. I, too, especially liked the Owls parts of this collection and it felt like they were the true ending to the first paperback. The other parts were not as strong, but still enjoyable. Barrows' art is very good, but the fill-in artists don't bring the same quality to the title.

    7.5 / 10

  2. This doens't sound too good. If the Rossini story is pretty much self contained as you said, I think I'm going to skip this. I already have the Night of the Owls collection which includes the Nightwing stories. After all, I already got all the interesting parts of the Nightwing story.