Review: Nightwing Vol. 1: Better than Batman (Rebirth) trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Grayson fans will be pleased with a Rebirth Nightwing series that, if not quite as powerful, remains faithful to what came before. That cuts both ways, however, because in many respects Nightwing Vol. 1: Better than Batman is about once-reluctant super-spy Dick Grayson finding himself now hesitant to give up the "shoot first and ask questions later" and "consequences be damned" aesthetic of his days with Spyral.

That's a good way to bridge what was and what is, and I hope former Grayson writer Tim Seeley hasn't said all he's going to say on the matter even as Dick seems to put those ghosts to bed by this book's end. In some respects -- like the first Rebirth Batman volume and the first Rebirth Flash volume -- Seeley's story is too easy, and the speed with which Dick is corrupted and then looses that corruption comes too fast, though Seeley handles the "dubious partner" trope better than those others. Again, in a twice-monthly shipping world, maybe this is a matter of adjusting my own expectations for a story; better, I guess, that a story seems too swift than one that drags on.

If the story resolves too easily, then Seeley still writes an enjoyable, interesting Dick Grayson, and that's more than enough while the Rebirth Nightwing title finds its footing.

[Review contains spoilers]

There's a scene in the latter part of Better than Batman that took me right back to the start of the New 52 and Scott Snyder's Batman Vol. 1: Court of Owls, which contained a similar sequence of Nightwing Dick Grayson melodramatically griping at Batman Bruce Wayne for emotional faults both real and imagined. There as in now, and especially given the repetition, the scene comes off trite to me.

This long-time Bat-fan saw Nightwing and Batman's battle royale before in Batman: Murderer/Fugitive, and every one since has seemed reductive. Even given changing continuities and creative teams, at some point Batman and Nightwing are both adult, established heroes, and going back to the well of this "you trust me/you don't trust me" kind of thing seems beneath them (letting alone also that we just saw it in Batman and Robin Eternal). I admit some skepticism about a plot involving a dark new mentor trying to make Nightwing "better than Batman" in the first place, and while this book does turn out to be considerably more nuanced than that premise, ultimately the fact that Nightwing comes around in the end to the idea that Batman is pretty great after all hardly carries with it a lot of surprise.

What keeps Better than Batman going is that, first of all, Seeley has Nightwing's voice down just fine, tonally in line with Chuck Dixon and others past, mostly light and airy with occasional bouts of broodingness. Equally the book's anti-hero du jour Raptor has fun patter, not in the least because he's meant to sound like Nightwing writ large, and their interactions are stronger here than the scenes with Nightwing and Batman or Batgirl. Raptor, his specific moral code, that his power set derives from leprosy to a certain extent -- all of this makes him interesting and fully-realized, and I'm glad to see his forthcoming appearances aren't just limited to the Nightwing title. Only, it did seem to me from Javier Fernandez's art that Nightwing and Raptor were about the same age, so I was thrown at the end by the revelation that Raptor and Dick's mother were contemporaries.

I don't think the Dick Grayson/Barbara Gordon relationship plays well here, no better than it did in Batgirl Vol. 2: Family Business, in which Dick has these periods of being inexplicably obsessed with Barbara even as he has plenty other romantic entanglements when she's not on the page. Equally Barbara pines for Dick here in a way that doesn't totally line up with her pre-Rebirth series, at least, as if the writers have simply flipped a switch and decided the characters want to date now; it does not feel earned. This brings with it too a bunch of too-emotional angst about how Barbara thinks Dick is making bad choices with Raptor, so on and so forth; each book of course holds its own continuity, but it feels like a suspect moment in light of Barbara trusting similarly shady suspects in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey.

Batgirl does serve an important role here in pointing out that Nightwing's mission with Raptor, infiltrating the Parliament of Owls, mimics the work he just did in Grayson with Spyral. I'm not sure if Seeley spends all the time on this that he could; Nightwing acknowledges this but doesn't necessarily pause on it, nor is it too strongly tied to Nightwing's decision to forgive Batman his imagined hurts in the end. For those reasons, I hope Seeley intends for Nightwing's potential addiction to the shadows to be a running theme in the book and not just an introductory one. Further, the book raises some excellent points about the role of money in the Batman mythos, how Bruce Wayne brought Dick Grayson into a world of money and how privilege affects Bruce's role as Batman, that I equally hope are meant to be ongoing and not just one-off themes.

From online spoilers I know that even what seems at base to be a bettering of the Batman/Nightwing relationship -- Batman encouraging Nightwing to make his own decisions and so on -- actually has another level to it, revealed problematically in a different title. This makes it even more difficult to assess the book's character relationships; it's two steps forward, one step back, and whether the brunt of that will even be realized in this book or not remains to be seen. Kind of like in Green Arrow, the character work bugs me at times, but the plot of Nightwing Vol. 1: Better than Batman is good, and Tim Seeley's Nightwing is never dull. Perhaps things will come together more tightly when Seeley takes on Bludhaven next time around.

[Includes original and variant covers, character sketches]
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6 comments:

  1. After reading Rebirth Batman and Nightwing, I was fascinated to find that I could go back to Grayson and guess precisely which issues were written by King and which by Seeley. They have such distinct storytelling approaches.

    Not a fan of some of the character work as you said, and I find Seeley's use of "punching while lecturing" scenes kind of grating, but I think Raptor is thus far the best thing to come out of this run. I've enjoyed his non-Nightwing appearances greatly.

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  2. The Batman/Nightwing drama post Rebirth seems a step backward. With Nightwing being an established hero at the start of the new 52, I thought all this was behind them.

    I don't really agree with you on the Barbara/Dick relationship. There have been some hints about this before Rebirth, just nothing concrete. I haven't collected the Batgirl book (It's just not on my list to buy first), so I can't comment on what happens over there.

    I like that Tim Seeley ties up loose ends from before while at the same time building a new story. He does build a bit to much on base characteristics of the people he writes about, like Nightwing being a bit naive in who to trust.

    The scenes between Damian and Dick and their bond are some of my favorite from the book. But most of everything else feels rushed.

    Even counting that the Night of the Monster Men crossover happens before the last 2 issues, they again rushed the plotline like they did in the first Flash book. It's as if DC has lost the ability to build up a bigger story arc besides those that tie into Rebirth itself.

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    1. I've never been able to get behind how the Grayson team writes Damian -- too loving, too affectionate for how I imagine Damian. I might be in the minority there, I know, but I'm not too excited to see him guest-starring in Nightwing coming up.

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  3. Seeley's approach here has been something of an "All-Star" take on Nightwing. He mixes and matches elements from different eras of the character, and then contextualizes them to fit a story that is familiar on the surface, but new enough to not feel like a retread.

    The scenes between Dick and Barbara I found to be rather well-done. Unlike in Green Arrow, where Ollie and Dinah just fall in bed together and immediately long for each other, Dick and Barbara actually come off as old friends with believable chemistry.

    In terms of character-driven narratives, I think this is probably one of the top books of Rebirth in that regard. It's not quite Grayson, but there's an interesting character journey to follow.

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    1. You make a valid (and timely) point that at least it's not the magic immediate relationship of Black Canary and Green Arrow. If you put that on one end of the spectrum and Dick and Barbara on the other, this begins to seem more palatable.

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  4. I got flashbacks of Night wing's first N52 volume with this one. Dick going to a new city in each issue, a connection to the Owls, a villain that has a connection to Dick's past; it seemed to step in time with traps and trapezes.

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