Sunday, June 04, 2006

Broken wings

A rant, in which I respectfully disagree with Kalinara on a topic that is of no personal significance to me whatsoever, but that touches on matters I think about a lot.

Most of the time I talk about comics on this blog...but I know some of you aren't actually comics readers, so first a quick summary to bring everyone up to speed. DC Comics has a character named Nightwing, more about whom shortly. Also, DC Comics recently published a godawful series called Infinite Crisis in which the very foundations of the DC superhero universe were shaken and the continuity of their books rearranged to make them new and exciting again. If that wasn't enough excitement, Infinite Crisis was preceded by a bunch of mini-series all leading into the main event, and its aftermath involves all the DC titles jumping forward in time to "One Year Later" -- in which time dramatic changes have come to various characters, for example: Green Arrow is now the mayor of Star City! But how did this come about? -- and a year long weekly comic series called 52 which discloses the events of the "missing year" during which Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all took a simultaneous twelve month sabbatical. All clear? Okay. You don't need to remember any of that.

Now, at the Wizard World convention in Philadephia, DC Vice President and Executive Editor Dan Didio revealed that one of his hopes for Infinite Crisis had been killing off the character Nightwing...who is none other than Dick Grayson, formerly Batman's sidekick Robin. However, Nightwing got a reprieve from higher up, and is still alive.

Robin/Nightwing has a considerable fan following, and a lot of that fandom feels that his comic totally blows. Kalinara, a very astute reader whose opinions I always enjoy, opines that the character is irredeemably broken due to writer mishandling, and that killing him off would have been the best choice. She makes a strong case based on the significance his death would have had in the continuity, and how other characters would respond. Very sensible stuff...and yet, I disagree.

Virtually every reference I've seen to what's wrong with Nightwing, or killing off Dick Grayson as a good or bad thing, or how much a segment of fans liked him in Teen Titans, has been based on hardcore fan reference points and continuity debates...and totally missing a larger aspect in the real world outside of comics.

I've never read an issue of any Nightwing solo comic. I read maybe the first six or seven issues of the Teen Titans comic by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, and none since then. I don't know a damn thing about the character or his development over the years. But I do know that an astonishingly large percentage of the world's population knows who Batman and Robin are, and that a considerable subgroup of same knows that they're Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. If you said to these people "Robin grew up to work on his own, apart from Batman, and now calls himself Nightwing" that premise is totally accessible and immediately understandable. Any comic publisher that wanted to hook an audience -- instead of servicing the continuity-based minutiae known only to an ever-diminishing of insiders -- would be complete and utter fools to throw away something with that level of audience recognition.

If there were a Nightwing movie or television show, all the reviews and listings would have to say is "the adventures of Batman's former partner Robin, now grown up and on his own," and boom! -- everyone would be on the same page. Do comics fans really not see how valuable that is? To say "Oh, but the character is broken, we have no way to tell a good story about him anymore" is completely missing how the act of writing fiction works.

As I say, I have only the astute comments of folks like Kalinara and Vince Murphy to indicate the ways in which Nightwing has been poorly handled; I assume these are accurate descriptions. But all that's needed to remedy these faults is a proper writer, one who can say: "What's the premise of this character? Oh yeah, the whole grown-up Robin thing. Right, so he was a boy acrobat whose parents were killed, trained by the World's Greatest Detective in crime fighting. But he's different from Batman, because he had a mentor instead of being alone since boyhood. So he's as tough and competent as Batman, but with a warmer human side. And he's known all the other heroes since he was a kid. They don't hold any mystique for him; he's seen it all...and anyway, Batman's the best. So what happens when..."

And suddenly, you're telling stories. See how that works? Writers who are obsessed with continuity points at the expense of telling stories have their heads, and there's no other way of saying this, shoved into their own asses.

Now here's the question that's been driving me nuts. If Nightwing was doing so poorly that the Vice President and Executive Editor of DC Comics wanted to kill him off...why is DC still publishing a Nightwing comic? You don't have to kill off the character, just stop publishing the damn comic and give him a rest. But if the comic is selling well enough to keep going...why the hell was this guy trying to have him killed off?

If you can wrap your head around this...if you can answer those questions...you understand the world of comics better than I do.

9 comments:

  1. Because the title's a mid-level performer; it does okay but could be easily replaced by something else. But not too many original characters created for the DCU have stuck lately, most of them get cancelled within two years or so, so why take the risk? Thus, Nightwing lives to underperform another day.

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  2. Technically I don't think he's irredeemably broken. But I do think he'd be better off left alone for a long time. Death is a good way to do it. No A-lister ever stays dead forever. :-)

    Maybe after some time away the character can be divorced from the angst and go back to being Batman's grown up partner. But I think it's hard to find anyone who read comics now who sees him that way instead of the weakest of the Bat Clan. (I might point out that while he's not well known outside of JSA, a decade or two break from using the character at all changed the mostly obsolete Sandy the Golden Boy to a heavy hitting backbone of the JSA...imagine what a break could do with grownup Robin!)

    I do think it sucks that other more salvageable characters have to die because they're not A-Listers. When death would be temporary for Dick and give him a much needed break to let the creators rethink their approach with the character. :-)

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  3. Being present at the DC panels, I can tell you that there are great plans for the future of Nightwing. It's all in the strength of the writing and art where it will go. Fans are unhappy about where he's been recently, but there is a lot of sentiment for him to pull through. More than I suspected, gauging from the many Nightwing shirts and questions around the con.

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  4. I think we all definitely agree that with a better writer, Nightwing would be a much better comic. It's just that DC doesn't seem interested in getting a good writer for the title. :)

    Hey, and Redlib, I'm sure that they said the same things about Ted Kord/Blue Beetle at various panels, too.... Let's hope it isn't the same kind of treatment.

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  5. I think Mr. Estoreal has called it exactly. I say this as a fellow nonreader of Nightwing who knows only that he used to be the original Robin, etc.

    It sounds like the Kalinara and Estoreal practical prescriptions are almost the same, namely that the character might be given some time off. But Kalinara feels this could be done by killing him. Given that fans are fed up with character deaths and that DC is saying it doesn't want any more revolving door pseudo-deaths, "killing" Nightwing sounds like a bad idea.

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  6. As another non-reader since the early days of Wolfman/Perez, it's one year later, right? Why couldn't Nightwing just be happier and less angsty now? Why couldn't he wake up in the morning at the start of any given issue and say to himself, "I'm so sick of the grim soap-operatics and whining, I used to be the most happy-go-lucky kid in the world winging my slingshot at gangsters, jumping on their shoulders and boxing their ears and shit. I'm gonna be that guy again starting now!" No need to deep-six the character for two years then bring him back with some marketing stunt. Just make the change in tone and don't look back (he said, knowing comics never work that way.)

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  7. Yes, the problem could be solved simply by writing the character better. There's too much emphasis on "concept" and "character direction" these days, at the expense of putting the responsibility where it really belongs: good writers write good stories, bad writers write bad stories. A good writer can take a weak premise and, through the use of something called imagination, make a good story out of it. But DC especially these days approaches comics in what you might call Hollywood terms: What's the concept? What's the logline? The ad campaign is more important than the script, so how do we sell this?

    That said, purely for reasons of commerce and marketing, kalinara's right: there needs to be some delineation point to let readers who'd be interested in "Nightwing done right" know that something different is happening. Critical buzz about a well written comic isn't enough today; glowing reviews didn't help The Thing or Hard Time. It seems like this "One Year Later" gimmick has been squandered in a lot of cases: this would have been a perfect opportunity to get someone to write the book well and leave the "concept" thinking to a simple "Dick took a year to get his head straight and now he's himself again."

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  8. I'd love to see a successful Nightwing comic, but it seems to me that the problem affecting Nightwing plagues all the Bat-titles: none of the writers working on them know what either crime or violence is. The Bat-books should be about crime, real, everyday villainy, and instead they're out fighting supervillains. It's boring and dull, overblown and ridiculous all at once. It's no wonder they're selling to closed markets and trapped in a cycle of catering to sychophancy.

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  9. Beta Ray Steve6/22/2006 6:01 PM

    The concept for Nightwing should be simple "A Batman who has fun". How could this not be irresistble?
    They need to leave the character in limbo for a while until somebody gets it. Publishing a Nightwing comic because they don't have anything to replace it with is a guarantee of worse stuff to come.

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