15 May 2011

Looking Back on Dick Grayson’s Life after 49 Years

When Dennis O’Neil and his editorial colleagues at DC Comics decided to bring on a (by my count) fourth Robin in 1989, they were convinced that they needed to please fans of the first, Dick Grayson.

As I wrote back here, I suspect the second Jason Todd started hemorrhaging fans after he was rude to Dick in Batman, #416. If fans took against Jason’s replacement for the same reason, or any reason, then all the effort of introducing that new character would go to waste.

Part of the company’s strategy appears to have been to reestablish the place of Dick Grayson in the DC Universe. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries, fans were no longer sure what stories and details were “in continuity.” That same Batman, #416, had drastically changed how Dick had taken on the role of Nightwing. So what else was solid about Dick Grayson in the post-Crisis universe?

An issue of Secret Origins Annual codified Dick’s history with the Titans, going back to his first team-up with Kid Flash and Aqualad in The Brave and the Bold, #54. Scripted by George Pérez and illustrated by a variety of artists, it bundled two decades’ worth of often goofy storylines into a tighter—though only slightly less goofy—knot.

The second stage of the process was a series of four issues in Batman magazine called “Year Three,” scripted by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Pat Broderick, with stunning covers by Pérez. The first, Batman, #436, was cover-dated August 1989, so it appeared in late spring, around the time of Tim Burton’s Batman movie.

While Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One and Mike W. Barr’s less highly regarded Year Two were set entirely in Bruce Wayne’s early crime-fighting career, “Year Three” wove flashbacks to how Dick Grayson became Robin into a story taking place in the present.

The basic origin myth didn’t change much: thugs working a protection racket killed Dick’s parents during their trapeze act, and Bruce Wayne took him in and trained him as Robin. But while those events took less than a page in 1940, the retelling gave due respect to the bureaucracy of child services. In other words, Dick spent time in an orphanage before coming to Wayne Manor.

In addition, the gangster who ordered the hit on the Flying Graysons, Tony Zucco, changed in significant ways. Originally he was a fat version of Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar lording over a town outside Gotham. In the retelling, Zucco is an orphan who worked his way up in the mob, keeping notes on all his Gotham colleagues’ activities. Year Three begins with Zucco about to be released on parole.

The storyline’s most far-reaching development is Bruce Wayne’s reaction to Jason Todd’s death back in Batman, #429. DC’s writers had been keeping away from that subject, at first because they wrote their scripts before knowing the result of the fan poll and then because the team hadn’t decided how to address it.

Wolfman made Bruce’s psychology a major part of his story. Batman has suffered a second trauma, almost equal to his parents’ death. He’s more angry, tight-lipped, and violent than ever. He’s no longer acting ultra-rational (or as much so as a man in a bat costume can be), but taking reckless risks and coming close to violating his ethical code.

This of course all makes Dick look even more admirable and important. His arrival provided Bruce with emotional balance, the story implies. And in the present-day adventure, Dick as Nightwing solves the mystery and wins the final fight with the bad guys. The story also parallels him with Zucco—both spent time in the same orphanage—further underscoring what a moral paragon Dick Grayson has turned out to be. (See Reason for Robin, #10.)

One more little detail: among the flashbacks to young Dick’s circus career, we see him greeting a four-year-old fan named Timmy.

COMING UP: Dick Grayson’s biggest fan.

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