Review: Batman Adventures: Nightwing Rising trade paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

[A series on Batman: The Animated Series comics collections by guest reviewer Zach King. Zach writes about movies at The Cinema King and about comics on Instagram at Dr. King’s Comics.]

The year was 1997. After a two year interim, The New Batman Adventures debuted on Kids' WB (remember them?) in September 1997. Quite why the show returned with a Christmas episode, “Holiday Knights,” in September is anyone’s guess, nor should we speculate why they waited until October 1998 to explain why Dick Grayson was no longer serving as Robin.

The show gave us a new Robin from the get-go, introducing him as Tim Drake (by way of Jason Todd) in “Sins of the Father,” but it wasn’t until “Old Wounds” that some of us finally learned how Dick Grayson became Nightwing. I say “some,” though, because the comics readers had the drop on us — and not just because they’d read the Wolfman/Pérez Titans run from 1984. No, beginning in November 1997 (cover date January 1998), the animated Batman comics iteration cycled over from The Batman & Robin Adventures (which ended with #25, cover date December 1997) into a five-issue miniseries subtitled The Lost Years.

The Lost Years was initially collected in 1999, but I’m reviewing the more recent edition, Batman Adventures: Nightwing Rising, for a few reasons. First, Nightwing Rising is more readily available, but it also makes the intriguing decision to include the first issue of Gotham Adventures. From a monthly reading perspective, there was no gap between The Batman Adventures, Batman & Robin Adventures, The Lost Years, and Gotham Adventures. By including issue #1, Nightwing Rising effectively preserves that monthly pattern and ends up providing a fascinating sneak peek at the new status quo in an animated Gotham.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Unlike the anthology trades I’ve been reviewing, Nightwing Rising is largely a unified tale by Hilary J. Bader and Bo Hampton. The plot begins with Dick Grayson falling out with Bruce Wayne over Batman’s increasingly grim methods. It’s a portrayal that doesn’t quite square with the Batman we’d seen previously in the animated adventures, though it does tee up the slightly darker Batman from The New Batman Adventures. The story sees Dick give Gotham the slip, retreating to Brazil and later Tibet, where he learns the skills to become Nightwing, while Tim Drake begins his journey into the role of Robin. 

Bader’s story is brisk and a little broad, but when I was ten, the plot made perfect sense and seemed like a vast world just beyond my ken. Things happen quickly in this book — Tim is introduced, reformed, and re-christened within the span of twenty-some pages, while Dick’s relationship with Bruce dissolves in about the same time. In a chicken-and-egg situation, I’ve never been able to determine whether the comic was based on the as-yet-unaired episodes, or vice versa, but the comic includes a few key embellishments, as when Bruce is able to deduce Batgirl’s true identity by observing Barbara Gordon’s tennis game. 

Credit too to Hampton, who transitions from Batman’s gold Bat-emblem in the first chapter to the all-black costume in the fourth, making this volume an almost essential waypoint in the animated Bat-biography. Indeed, when the setting shifts away from Gotham for the third chapter, Hampton takes the opportunity to segue from the familiar Animated Series designs into the sleeker New Batman Adventures look. Batgirl’s new costume is on display (as it would be in the concurrently-published Batgirl Adventures), and Two-Face gets a metaphorical facelift. So too does the book’s surprise cameo from Ra’s al Ghul, who never appeared in New Batman proper but had an episode on Superman: The Animated Series; even Alfred takes on a slimmer figure with thinning hair. The effect is that Hampton shows us the passage of time in a way that only comics can, by changing the art style in a way that isn’t immediately obvious on a first read.

The title of the series was initially The Lost Years, and the book explicitly calls out that Dick Grayson spends 850 days (roughly two years and four months) on his sabbatical. To that end, the book feels like a satisfying evolution for the character and for Gotham, yet I remain unconvinced — as I did the first time I saw “Old Wounds” — that Dick and Bruce’s dynamic could have deteriorated so quickly. It’s a necessary conceit for the storytelling, and it’s certainly of a piece with the “make Batman unsympathetic” ethos that pervaded the late 1990s/early 2000s, but it seems needlessly cruel, especially when the comics of the 1980s were a more compassionate. Put another way, why couldn’t they all just get along?

After Nightwing’s return, Nightwing Rises gives way to an oversized coda. The first issue of Gotham Adventures is an absolute banger from Ty Templeton and Rick Burchett. Pharmaceutical president G. Douglas Reid, whose son was murdered by the Joker, offers a $50 million bounty to anyone who kills the Clown Prince of Crime; while Batman has to protect his worst enemy, the rest of Gotham’s rogues turn out in a bid for the reward. This story takes two of my favorite Bat-tropes — an all-villain mash, coupled with Batman guarding his enemy — and it ends up being a fairly poignant story on the corrosive nature of vengeance.

It is such a good story, so artfully drawn and entertainingly scripted, that it makes one fairly long for a more extensive collection of Gotham Adventures. But we’ll get into that at greater length next time with a review of Batgirl Adventures. Careful readers may know, however, that Batgirl Adventures was only a one-shot … and the inelegant solution posed by the collected editions department at DC Comics will give us a perfect opportunity to think about how and why these animated collections have fizzled out.

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1 comment:

  1. I never liked the more grim and cruel batman in the late 90s and early 2000s. I mean, in the Canon of the animated universe, Bruce's attitude change makes sense, but that doesn't make him likeable. I miss the more compassionate Bruce.
    As for the breakdown of the Bruce/Dick relationship, it was heavily implied that the tension was building over the last few years, and finally exploded after Barb almost died fighting Joker.

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