Review: Nightwing: Old Friends, New Enemies trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 19, 2014

I whole-heartedly approve of DC Comics releasing Nightwing: Old Friends, New Enemies, collecting stories from Action Comics #613-618 and #627-634. Someone may know better, but I believe this is the first time DC has collected a story from Action Comics Weekly, during the time in the late 1980s when Action Comics broke from being one of the Superman titles and became a weekly anthology (before eventually rejoining the Super-family and became a "Triangle Title").

Among not-insignificant events in the series, especially for an anthology, was Green Lantern stories that included the murder of John Stewart's girlfriend Katma Tui; there were also Superman stories written by Roger Stern and illustrated by Curt Swan that are due out in a collection next year.

Nightwing: Old Friends, New Enemies is in a way exactly what I want from a comics collection. The stories collected within (along with an issue of Secret Origins) are neither largely important nor significant. Rather they are "just" stories, published in the years just after Crisis on Infinite Earths; for those of us interested in that time period, this is the only way to read these stories without a large-scale back issue hunt. I love these kinds of "read it how it happened" collections; it's why I was excited about the New Teen Titans Omnibuses, seemingly collecting the New Teen Titans issues in order, until that went bad. It's why I picked up Showcase Presents Booster Gold despite being black-and-white (because, the full twenty-five issue series in one book) and why I'll pick up the Showcase Presents Blue Beetle book, too.

So, this collection gets my thumbs up before even cracking the cover, and if DC saw fit to keep reprinting Action Comics Weekly stories (namely the Green Lantern stuff), I'm all for it.

That said, Old Friends is a somewhat confused and uneven book, especially if you go into it with expectations about the characters or plot. Though Nightwing gets top billing, he is largely a guest star in the two stories; in the first story Nightwing participates but it really has nothing to do with him, and in the second story Nightwing is mostly absent. The book is largely Speedy (later Arsenal) Roy Harper's; probably labeling this a Green Arrow book would equally be a misnomer, but what we really have here is a Teen Titans book, not a Nightwing book. If you're a fan of Nightwing and Speedy and the Titans, so much the better, but someone coming from Chuck Dixon or Kyle Higgins's Nightwing collections and expecting a Nightwing-focused story would be disappointed.

[Review contains spoilers]

Old Friends includes two stories from Action Comics Weekly, "Cheshire Contract" and "Rocks and Hard Places." The former, written by Titans scribe Marv Wolfman, is clearly the star of the show (it gets a mention on the back cover, while the second story does not). I have for a long time found the conflict between Roy and Cheshire interesting (probably spurred first by the "Deathstroke: Nuclear Winter" storyline), and so this early encounter held special interest for me. In this story, Lian Harper, so much a part of later Titans stories, is with Cheshire, and Roy has never met her; this is almost the first meeting of Roy and Lian, and that's notable for Titans buffs especially who mostly encountered Roy as Lian's single dad.

"Almost" is a key word there, because the book references but does not include New Teen Titans (second series) #20-21, which actually introduced Lian and the Roy/Cheshire conflict. Were this book owning up to its true identity as a Speedy collection, then these issues would be a logical fit. Instead we have Secret Origins #13; I wouldn't turn down the 1980s Secret Origins series being collected, either, but this book in total doesn't need a Nightwing origin the same as it needs to tell Roy and Lian's story the whole way instead of halfway.

Still, Wolfman does well with story in which Nightwing and Speedy try to foil Cheshire's assassination plots and rescue Lian (who is surprisingly red-haired in these stories, though her hair would later be depicted as black and her features more Asian like her mother's). The story, and also considerable use of narration blocks, all reflect the time in which they were written and understandably don't come off as "modern"; at the same time, Wolfman choreographs some surprisingly suspenseful fight sequences between Nightwing and Cheshire.

That "Cheshire Contract" is relatively strong, however, makes even more apparent that "Rocks and Hard Places" is not. Wolfman contributes a bit to the story's beginning, but the writer here is mainly Cherie Wilkerson; what little I could find is that Wilkerson has written for numerous animated shows but this is one of her few comics credits. The story posits an Irish heritage for Roy (which I'm not sure was canon or if Wilkerson extrapolated it from Roy's red hair), and it seems promising at least initially in presenting the next stage of new-dad Roy and Lian's lives, vacationing to find their roots.

The story, however, ultimately delves too deeply in the real-life facts of the conflict in Northern Ireland. On one hand, Wilkerson seems to assume in the reader a familiarity with the situation that they may not actually have (possibly this was less the case at the time when the conflict was more in the news than now); on the other hand, however, Wilkerson's story is at times groan-worthily silly, as when Nightwing and Speedy fight the terrorist F.O.E.s and the "foes of the F.O.E.s." The resolution also involved real apparently corrupt European politicians, and references to a variety of political matters; I don't want my comics dumbed-down by any stretch, but this felt too esoteric to me.

Nightwing disappears mid-way through the adventure and it is basically Speedy's story; I didn't mind that myself, but again, someone expecting Nightwing stories would be surprised.

Wilkerson also includes two plucky kids who help save the day a couple of times; this is probably par for the course in comics in the late 1980s, but I felt it came off as too cutesy. It's always nice to see more of artist Tom Mandrake's work, and he contributes moody images of both Nightwing and Speedy, but with the hair and clothing styles of the 1980s I found it difficult to discern the childrens' genders throughout.

One interesting artifact I noticed is that both Nightwing and Speedy's late-1980s costumes included a significant cut down the front, such to expose each character's "cleavage," if you will. They are surprisingly revealing male superhero costumes, at least by today's standards, and they suggest perhaps a comfortableness at the time simply with superheroes of both genders being muscular and attractive, instead of just the female ones. Nowadays we need the Hawkeye Initiative to point out inequities in male and female superhero costumes; the costumes in Old Friends offer a glimpse at a better time when everyone's costumes were silly, but more innocently so.

It's hard to see the exact sales angle intended for Nightwing: Old Friends, New Enemies. It trades, of course, on the popularity of the Nightwing character, but ultimately it's not really a Nightwing book; this is a Speedy collection, though I agree a Speedy-titled collection probably wouldn't sell. One has to believe the Arrow television show had something to do with the inception of this book ("If you like Roy Harper, here's some more stories about him"); a while ago DC published a collection of post-Crisis Superman stories under the Lois and Clark TV banner (stories that inspired the show), and quite possibly that's what this needed to be -- Tales of Arrow or some such (hey, someone publish that). As it is, this collection doesn't really hold up, but I'm glad to see a collection from this era nonetheless.

[Includes some covers]
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1 comment:

  1. I bought Action Comics Weekly off eBay last year; the Nightwing/Speedy stories were not one of its better strands.

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