Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
(Note: Post title is taken brazenly from a Mystery Science Theater 3000 riff on the serial The Phantom Creeps.)
When DC announced Grayson in April, I wrote about the dangers of separating Dickie G. first from his mentor, and then from his friends in the Titans. Because Grayson is predicated on removing Dick from the superhero realm entirely, I’ve been ambivalent (at best) about this book. Even after reading the first issue — which was a good introduction to the series, and which stood on its own nicely — I still have some concerns. Most of these come from a desire (perhaps unwarranted) to judge a series in a larger context. Therefore, today we’ll talk both about the debut issue of Grayson (written by Tim Seeley and Tom King, drawn by Mikel Janín, and colored by Jeromy Cox), and whether that sort of big-picture evaluation is fair to it.
* * *
First let’s get some of the obligatory historical perspective out of the way. Dick Grayson has been around for almost 75 years, longer than just about all of DC’s A-listers, including The Flash, Hawkman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. Moreover, Dick/Robin has been adapted for various non-comics venues for almost as long, starting with radio and movie serials in the 1940s and continuing right through to today’s Teen Titans Go! Many of these more recent adaptations either alluded to, or showed directly, Dick’s transition to the Nightwing identity; and collectively they speak to the general public’s awareness of the character and his particular dramatic functions.
As I’ve argued previously, those functions revolve mostly around his interpersonal relationships, whether with Batman, Batgirl or the Titans. Making him “Nightwing” merely solidified his existing role as the Titans’ leader, and freed him to appear almost exclusively in that book without having to worry about assisting Batman. It also showed DC that a character could be divorced from a codename, and therefore helped usher in the “legacy structure” that typified the superhero line for some 25 years.
Accordingly, Dick’s new role as an agent of Spyral isn’t particularly groundbreaking. It’s his third heroic identity (albeit without a codename), but that just means he joins the likes of Hal Jordan (Green Lantern/Parallax/The Spectre), Stephanie Brown (Spoiler/Robin/Batgirl), Hector Hall (Silver Scarab/Sandman/Doctor Fate), Bart Allen (Impulse/Kid Flash/Flash) and old Titans teammates Donna Troy (Wonder Girl/Troia/Darkstar) and Roy Harper (Speedy/Arsenal/Red Arrow).
Of course, all of those examples come from the pre-New-52 legacy structure. In current continuity, where Dick has only been a superhero for five-ish years, a third heroic identity seems a little inappropriate, like DC doesn’t know what to do with the character. Again, this may be closer to the truth, in light of the Robins carried over from the previous administration. It makes Dick seem even more like ‘90s-era Hal Jordan, whose homicidal actions on his way out the door at Green Lantern were supposed to salt the earth not just for his return, but for that of the GL Corps. There was no way Hal would ever return to ring-slinging, because how could he? Still, Hal hung around for a couple of years as cosmic baddie Parallax before sacrificing himself for the greater good in 1996’s Final Night miniseries. Three years after that, Hal’s spirit became the Spectre’s new host in 1999’s Day of Judgment miniseries (not to be confused with 2005’s Day of Vengeance miniseries, also Spectre-centric); and there he stayed until 2004’s Green Lantern: Rebirth.
With regard to the Robins, I think DC has a similar “no going back” attitude. Because the publisher apparently didn’t want to ignore or otherwise remove any of the main Robins (obviously Stephanie wasn’t in this group), it crammed all of their career highlights into that five-year period. This logjam may have made it easier to expose Nightwing as Dick, because it removes Dick from the immediate Bat-orbit. Instead, though, DC apparently needs a place for Dick Grayson to go now that his Nightwing identity has been revealed. (It’d be great if he could start wearing “I’m Not Daredevil” T-shirts …)
* * *
Now, all of that makes reviewing Grayson a bit odd. Every comic deserves to stand on its own merits, but by virtue of its main character’s role in the larger DC superhero universe, Grayson practically invites criticism of that universe as well. After all, if DC had wanted to do a straight-up espionage-flavored superhero series (or superhero-flavored espionage series), why not bring back one of DC’s existing spy characters like Tom “Nemesis” Tresser or Checkmate’s Sasha Bordeaux? Why not create an entirely new character?
We’ll get to the spoilerish answer in a minute. Before that, though, I will say that Grayson #1 tells an entertaining story about a new agent assigned to get a person of interest off a moving train. It doesn’t require the reader to know anything about Dick Grayson except (arguably) for the events of Forever Evil and the final issue of Nightwing. I didn’t read the latter (outside of House To Astonish’s audio version) and I could follow Grayson #1 just fine. Although plot and characterization are occasionally boilerplate, the issue uses its superhero setting well, and overall it has a decent amount of potential. I was pleasantly surprised, and again I am coming from a position of ambivalence.
There’s more, naturally; but SPOILERS FOLLOW.
Probably the weakest part of the issue is the train job itself, which spans about eight to nine pages from the time Dick (aka “Agent 37″) boards the train until he and his target are on solid ground. Dick somersaults onto the roof of one car and takes out the enemy agent who meets him there. Inside, he distracts a second enemy agent by spilling drug-laced wine on her chest. After that, it’s a simple matter of nerve-pinching the guy unconscious (off-screen), hauling his ample frame out a window, and leaping acrobatically off a trestle while dodging gunfire. All of this is accompanied by pretty standard back-and-forth between Dick and his handler, Helena Bertinelli (new for the New 52). She’s not impressed by him; he thinks she doesn’t give him enough credit; and later in the issue there’s (feigned?) sexual tension. It’s really nothing new, and other logistical quibbles — like how high that trestle was — just complicate things.
Still, the creative team mixes in some fun details. Dick knocks out the first agent by throwing his gun like a Batarang and caroming it off a post into the guy’s face. His acrobatics and some of his internal narration allude to his circus origins. Everything comes together on Page 7, when agent #2 succumbs to the “paralytic” wine on her chest. Janín’s panels start to expand and contract, mirroring her disorientation. As she encounters Helena, a spiral background fills the page’s two main panels, and Cox’s colors turn unnatural. It’s a good way to show the book’s blend of super-spy “realism” and superhero-comics sensibilities. (A similar, cuddlier set of panels appears on Page 10.) It’s also a nod — maybe unintentional, but I can’t imagine why — to Steranko’s classic Nick Fury comics.
Today, though, Grayson invites comparisons to TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., even featuring its own special guest superhero in the form of Stormwatch’s Midnighter. Thus, Dick gets to fight WildStorm’s answer to Batman for a couple of pages, and probably in a future issue as well. This gives Seeley and King another way to contrast Dick with Batman (sort of), as just showing him to be confident and well-adjusted seems more like a baseline than a character. Once again, he’s part of a duo (with Helena) and team (with the rest of Spyral), but so far neither is as monolithic as Batman or as diverse as the Titans.
Moreover, what with the energy-blasting nature of Dick’s target, Dick’s clandestine report to “Mr. [Matches] Malone,” and Spyral’s real superhero-hunting mission, Grayson seems pretty firmly rooted in the superhero line. That could well make it the kind of book the New 52 needs; namely, one that tries to pull together the line’s disparate threads and weave a consistent worldview from them.
However, it also points to Grayson’s possible endgame. As Spyral is cataloging superheroes (including most of the Justice League and Bat-family) with an eye toward exposing their true identities, it would make a certain amount of thematic sense for Dick’s secrets to be restored when he inevitably takes his bosses down. While that’s a sizable leap in logic, it gives the creative team an “out” if DC ever wants to bring back Nightwing. (It’s also more of a loophole than the Green Lantern folks got.)
Ironically, Grayson is just the sort of book I would have expected out of the pre-New-52 DC. That setting had enough history to keep a globetrotting series going, from outlaw nations like Zandia and international teams like the Global Guardians to countries ruled by super-people (Black Adam’s Kahndaq, Geo-Force’s Markovia, Sonar’s Modoran). If DC had turned Nightwing into that kind of wide-ranging, guest star-heavy series, it might have gone a long way toward clarifying Dick’s role in the larger Bat-family.
Ultimately, while it’s not entirely fair to judge Grayson against general fan expectations about Dick, I don’t think the series can avoid them. I do believe this first issue explains sufficiently why a Nightwing-free Dick — as opposed to Tom Tresser, Sasha Bordeaux, or someone new — needs to infiltrate Spyral; and it may or may not end with Dick returning to the Nightwing role. Probably the best compliment I can pay to Grayson #1 is that it almost makes me forget about Dick’s old gig. I’m tempted to say Grayson is to Nightwing as Smallville ended up being to Superman: almost everything but the costume. On its own merits, Grayson #1 is a good first issue of a series that could get a lot better. Right now, the only element missing is the one that enabled its creation.
And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 10.
NOTES: Well, as if we didn’t know already, the Masked Superman sure doesn’t seem to be Kal-El. Dan Jurgens told CBR earlier this week that September’s Superman-related Futures End tie-ins would lead directly from FE into that week’s issue of Superman; and that those stories specifically would answer a lot of questions about the Superman (men?) of five years from now. That (plus the style of dialogue) makes me think Jurgens wrote this introductory sequence. If this were the old days, I’d say the Masked Superman’s costume reminded me of the Eradicator’s black-striped super-suit; but of course that never existed as such in the New 52.
After all the sneaking around of earlier issues, it was almost comical to watch Terry McGinnis reveal himself to Coil, Plastique and the Key. (Also, either I have forgotten or it hasn’t been explained why the Key needs help breaking into anyplace.) On top of that, to see “Cal” reach out to Terry so openly was an even bigger surprise. I’m still glad there’s movement on that plot, even if it has to wait until September; and I did enjoy Plastique’s “is my skull metal?” moment.
The bit about Hawkman’s Nth Metal inside Frankenstein was a chilling, if unsubtle, reminder of Frank’s eventual fate. I know we only got two pages of that subplot this issue, but it risks getting bogged down as well.
When I started getting bogged down in sentence structure on page 15, that’s when I knew I had to count all the words on the page. One of 52’s quirks was that the Reneé Montoya subplot (written by Greg Rucka) was the only one that used narrative captions regularly. That may be the case with Grifter here (as written apparently by Keith Giffen), but wow, did it stand out in this issue, which was largely dialogue-driven. The takeaway is that while Cadmus “recruited” Grifter because he can see Earth-2 super-people, he can’t see a cloaked OMAC, which presumably gives the Cadmusites the upper hand in capturing them.
And speaking of which, it was good to see Big Barda again. We know from previous issues of Earth 2 that she was on Earth-2 with Mister Miracle; and now we see she’s managed to elude the Cadmusites who’ve captured her sweetie. That probably explains her desire to stay hidden, and it may explain his captivity (if he thinks she’s dead, maybe he’s lost the will to escape?). If the cover solicited for August is any guide, she’ll be fighting Deathstroke in the next few weeks.
NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Who’s unconscious? Quiet time with Mister Terrific! A bowl-shaped world! The Justice League! And … (in a possible CW crossover) Arsenal vs. Ronnie Raymond?