Review: Grayson Vol. 1: Agents of Spyral hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Honestly, when I read the first two full issues collected in Grayson Vol. 1: Agent of Spyral, I wondered what all the fuss was about. This was clearly a better-than-average comic book, and writers Tim Seeley and Tom King were doing a fine job with their portrayal of former Nightwing Dick Grayson, but it wasn't a book I was falling over myself for.

But oh, that third issue. And then the Futures End tie-in issue, which I'm going to predict now will be the very best Futures End tie-in issue I read, quite beside the fact that it's a fantastic issue all on its own.

I had concerns about Grayson when I finished reading Nightwing Vol. 5: Setting Son. I do not have concerns about Grayson any more. At just four regular issues plus a Secret Origins story and the Futures End issue, the only flaw in Grayson Vol. 1: Agent of Spyral is that it's over too quick, and now we're left waiting six months before we can get our hands on the next volume.

[Review contains spoilers]

Again, the first two issues of Grayson are good, if not necessarily ground-breaking. In the first, Dick squares off against Midnighter, always a good time, and in the second, Dick and partner "Matron" Helena Bertinelli apprehend a woman who eats people, in a story with a quasi-X-Files tone. Seeley and King certainly capture the weird, wacky, ominous vibe of Spyral from Grant Morrison's Batman Incorporated; I had worried about the writers' portrayal of Batman, but his interactions with Dick are clever and touching; and Mikel Janin's art is spot-on -- not as "out there" as art in other of DC Comics's "Divergence" books like Batgirl, Detective Comics, or Gotham by Midnight, but neither so workmanlike as some of the less-notable New 52 titles. In all, a satisfactory first outing.

But that third issue, "The Gun Goes Off." At the fore, the writers have violence and humor and sex, demonstrating Grayson as a self-aware book with maturity. But then the story continues, tackling guns in many iterations -- violence, gun control, the specific resonances guns have in the Batman mythos. If Grayson were just a high-flying spy book, it might be easily dismissible, but between the emotions the writers imbue Dick with in his stand-off with the Old Gun -- "Please. I don't want this." -- and then the crushing ending, this is an issue that reveals Grayson as a comic with power.

That continues to the Futures End issue, with art by Stephen Mooney. The story unfolds backwards, Memento-style, but the reader's experience with the book will be very fluid -- I found myself understanding a new fact, flipping back, flipping forward again, re-reading parts, comparing them, and so on. But it's not just the storytelling, and it's not just the peek into Dick Grayson's future. The writers use what might be a burdensome tie-in to unpack a significant amount about Dick Grayson, and about Batman and Robin, including some of the best explanations I've read for by Batman doesn't kill and why Robin wore such bright colors. I see new things in this issue every time I read it, including -- just now -- realizing that every single page in this issue is its own "story" taking place in its own time period. Genius.

(Forgive me, but I did have to question Seeley and King positing Cluemaster as a Robin Dick Grayson-era villain. It's not entirely clear to me, but I was under the impression Batman Eternal was Cluemaster's first outing?)

It speaks volumes for the book, for the writers, and especially for artist Janin that the early scene in issue three can be that sexual and sexy without being gratuitous, exploitative, or immature. Indeed, this creative team could teach a master class in "how to do sex right in comics" (an accolade I would also convey on Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino for I, Vampire). It's equally impressive that the team can embrace without vacillation Dick Grayson's own status as a sexual icon; the book's fourth chapter is essentially an homage to "sexy Grayson." The writers even go so far, in the Futures End issue, to suggest Dick has some attraction to Batman (and out of the mouth of Batgirl, no less!). It's presented in such a way that readers can imagine it wherever on the sexual spectrum they want, but I thought it was a good sign that DC Comics had loosed the reigns enough where this kind of thing could get through.

Even as we're still pre-Convergence, when we talk post-Convergence books I thought Detective Comics Vol. 6: Icarus was enjoyable but not necessarily ground-breaking; in Grayson Vol. 1: Agent of Spyral, however, I can see the signs of really positive things in DC Comics's future. Despite my initial hesitations, Tim Seeley and Tom King have won me over. Dare I say "Nightwing who?"

[Includes original and variant covers, house ad, series pitch, pencilled pages, cover designs, and character sketches (whew!)]
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  1. Without spoiling too much of Batman Eternal, Cluemaster has been operating since before "Night of the Owls," though he was regarded as a forgettable B-list villain.

    But yes, that Futures End issue was bloody brilliant.

    1. Literally, I get new stuff every time I read it (or maybe I'm just slow on the uptake). Like, I found the "secret" on the first page but then I'm thinking, "But that doesn't tell us how he's going to get to ... Oh," because then I recognized the panels that echoed the other panels later on. So in some sense the story could be suggesting Dick's end is his beginning, except it's not really the end but even so.

    2. I think I've read that issue forward and backward several times. I love how each page is just as important as the next, whether dropping a clue, establishing a theme, or slowly revealing the steps of the Dick/Helena relationship.

    3. And why Robin wears bright colors! And Dick Grayson, supposedly the sane one of the dynamic duo, keeps "that thing" under his bed! And then Helena says this one thing and then Bruce says this other same thing but different thing, and then Batgirl says ... oh, what an issue!

  2. I think that the biggest knock against this collection is that it's too short. It feels more like an anthology, since it's essentially the first half of an 8-issue arc. The second half plays off the previous issues really well, so it's a shame that DC split it up. But at least the fourth issue makes for a nice transition into the Futures End issue, which would have been a crime to not collect.

    1. And it's not as though there isn't precedent for an eight-issue collection. I don't think it's a bad guess to say a deluxe edition collecting the first two volumes together might be a possibility down the road; that's good for the title but if it's the case then I'd as soon they just started there.

  3. This makes me really excited now. I've been recently collecting a lot of New 52 trades so after I get all of Nightwing I can't wait to see Dick as a spy!