11 November 2012

The Exaggerations of Dick Grayson’s Love Life

A couple of weeks ago, the weekly Robin discussed how in 1984 Dick Grayson was the first hero DC Comics clearly showed having a sex life—and outside of marriage yet! However, his relationship with fellow Titan Koriand’r was always presented as a long-term commitment.

Indeed, for the rest of the 1980s that relationship was one of the tent poles of the Titans franchise—which meant Marv Wolfman and his artists were constantly shaking it to make readers worry. Kory contracted a political marriage for the sake of her home planet, and Dick couldn’t handle it. Teammate Raven had sexual fantasies about Dick, and Kory could handle it. A freedom fighter from an alternate future disguised herself as Kory to have sex with Dick.

The relationship endured until New Titans, #100, when Dick and Kory tried to get married and everything went horribly, horribly wrong. Dick and Kory broke up, and that Titans team itself went separate ways—which just shows how much of a tent pole it was.

That left Dick Grayson unattached for the first time in years. He kept busy being Batman for a while, but then DC’s writers happily seized the chance to use “Dick has a new girlfriend” as the starting-point for stories.

Meanwhile, the internet enabled fanfiction to spread, and that area of writing has never been bound by what official continuities say about heroes’ love lives. As a result, Dick Grayson became a “fandom bicycle” on which everyone got a ride. TV Tropes lists him as DC’s top “Launcher of a Thousand ’Ships,” saying: “It's a running gag in the DC Universe that virtually every female that comes in contact with Nightwing falls in love with him.” In fanfiction, that group expands to include every male.

Despite Dick being a symbol of sexual appeal, however, his romantic/sexual activity within the comics was exaggerated. Here’s a conversation on the topic between Dick and Tim Drake, his successor as Robin, in Nightwing, #25 (dated October 1998, script by Chuck Dixon, art by Scott McDaniel). The boys are, naturally, standing on the back of a freight train while blindfolded—Dick’s told Tim this is good training. Tim manages to say the only thing that can throw Dick off balance.
Dick asks Tim if perhaps he could choose a girlfriend who’s not an “Afterschool Special,” knowing that won’t happen. Tim responds by showing off how much of a Dick Grayson fan he is.
Tim lists six women whom Dick has had a relationship with since Crisis on Infinite Earths. But in fact that list is exaggerated, even more than Dick’s response in the following panel lets on.

His relationship with Koriand’r was more than “a need…for affection”—it was a multi-year, live-in relationship that came close to marriage. It was precisely the opposite of casual.

As Dick reminds Tim, he and Donna Troy never “really dated.” They never dated at all. Wolfman did propose to “have very slowly had Dick and Donna get together,” “if only for them to see that they were too similar to be together.” But that never happened.

Miggie Webster appeared in the Nightwing miniseries by Dennis O’Neil and Greg Land. Dick was apparently depressed at the time—or maybe just weighed down by his hair. In any event, he became briefly infatuated with Miggie because he thought she represented a normal, happy family life—only to see her kill her abusive father. And as far as I can tell, they never even went on a date.

Emily Washburn married Dick in Nightwing Annual, #1 (cover shown above). That was part of a 1997 DC tribute to pulp fiction, and the story was a James M. Cain-style take on a murderous marriage. Dick married Emily as part of his investigation. After he identified the killer, he offered to remain her husband and help raise her son—again with the monogamous values!—but she declined. It’s unclear whether the marriage was consummated, but given scripter Devin Grayson’s take on Dick as a very physical and open person, it probably was.

Meanwhile, in 1996 DC launched the Nightwing series written by Dixon. Among its subplots was Dick’s friendship—or would it be something more?—with the superintendent of his apartment building in Blüdhaven, Bridget Clancy. Dixon was a master at playing out conflicts over many issues, but this relationship never reached the level of dating.

Instead, at the time of this train-top conversation, Dixon was gradually moving Dick toward a second serious, multi-year relationship: with Barbara Gordon, daughter of the Gotham police commissioner, former Batgirl, and at that time Oracle. Dick had shown interest in her in the 1970s, but fans then pointed out that she was several years older than he. At the time of this issue, Nightwing, #25, it was still unclear whether they would become an item.

Thus, of the six women Tim reeled off, Dick had actually had serious and/or sexual relationships with only two, and in one of those (Emily Washburn) he was working on a case. That exchange thus leaves a misleading impression.
Of course, I have to acknowledge a seventh relationship that Tim, despite his snooping, doesn’t know about until Dick reveals it. Dick is just coming off the 1998 Nightwing/Huntress miniseries, once again scripted by Devin Grayson and drawn by Land. That shows his brief affair with Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress. It’s clearly sexual. (“Tunnel”!)

But in that miniseries Dick is looking for something long-lasting. (He’s evidently drawn to strong women who need rescuing.) The story ends with Helena seeing the chemistry between him and Barbara and chuckling that they don’t notice it themselves. In other words, even this example of Dick having a sexual fling points to him as a man seeking a committed love.

From the No Man’s Land crossover (1999) through Infinite Crisis (2006), Dick and Barbara were usually a couple. Since then, each new regular Nightwing scripter came up with a new love interest: a fashion designer, a criminal who lured a teen-aged Dick away from Wayne Manor, a librarian. Judd Winick has put him back in bed with Kory a couple of times. But only the unfortunate Nightwing Annual, #2, portrayed him as anything other than a one-woman man.


Thoughts said...

Great post! I'm not entirely convinced Dick had relations with Emily, though, simply because he slept on the couch and she suggested counseling. But hey - he tried to be a stand-up guy in a bad situation (fake marriage).

ToB said...

I hated what was done to the Dick-Kory relationship. It was depicted all along as one of love and commitment, later retconned with Kory being the 'needy' one. Really stupid and unfortunate, and it nearly ruined Kory's characterization. It also messed up Dick's characterization as a dog around town, but I suppose that was to build him up with the fanboys. With Kory he was a one woman man and totally devoted.

You forgot Bette by the way; he always rebuffed her after the original Titans run, but wasn't she initially introduced as his primary love interest when she was Batgirl?

J. L. Bell said...

I decided to discuss only the relationships that Tim mentions, which are all post-Crisis. That leaves out the skater Dick had his first crush on, his gradual warm-up to Betty Kane before the “New Look,” his college girlfriend Lori, whatever was going on with Duela Dent in the 1970s, and the vampire Dala.

I too dislike DC's latter-day treatment of Dick's long love affair with Koriand'r. I think it should be possible to portray his long-term relationship with Barbara Gordon as healthy without suggesting there was anything shallow or one-sided about his earlier relationship. Parts of Nightwing Annual, #2, simply have no place in my personal canon.

As to current Dick Graysons, I can't tell what's going on in the comics, but I'm struck by how the Young Justice magazine suggests Dick:
(a) has a significant number of ex-girlfriends in the superhero community by the age of nineteen or so.
(b) is on good terms with all of them, suggesting that he treats them well while they're together and after they break up.

Icon_UK said...

Fun post and agreed that Dick's sex life isn't nearly as huge as it's assumed it is.

Though it might be worth mentioning Liu, Dick's "first sexual partner" that Wolfman retconned into Dick's past during his brief Nightwing stint in the 2007/8. Of course, it turns out she'd a villain who is using Dick Grayson to try and get into Wayne Enterprises HQ for some nefarious reason. It was all sort of pre-cliché'd.

J. L. Bell said...

I tried to allude to Liu as the "criminal who lured a teen-aged Dick away from Wayne Manor." Tim never seems to have spotted her in all his young snooping.

In very broad strokes, we might say that 1980 to 1993 or so was all about Dick and Koriand'r, and 1993 to 2005 about Dick and Barbara (with occasional side journeys destined to go nowhere). Since “One Year Later,” in contrast, writers have come up with new love interests for whatever overarching plots they have in mind.

Raymond Nolan Scott said...

Dick and Kory were originally intended to become happily married in New Titans #100.

Originally, writer/artist Art Thibert was going to do a Nightwing mini-series that would run in 1992, concurrently with New Titans #93-99.

The series, co-written with Pamela Winesette, was about an alien invasion of Earth that led to Starfire being captured and Nightwing has to save her. The main point of the series was to establish Nightwing as an extremely competent hero, and to do so on the largest of scales - in front of the entire superhero community.

At the end of the series, Dick would have a newfound confidence and would ask Kory to marry him, she’d accept, and this would all lead into New Titans #100, which would be the marriage of Dick and Kory, which would be handled much like Donna Troy and Terry Long’s marriage in Tales of the New Teen Titans #50.

The editor Jonathan Peterson, left DC for Image Comics in 1992. Thibert ended up dropping both series to ALSO go to Image Comics.
The new editors instead had New Titans writer Marv Wolfman have a wedding ceremony go awry in New Titans #100 (the minister was murdered by a newly-evil Raven) and the character of Nightwing had a bit of a delay on his road to prominence.

The detailed information is here.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the summary of a path DC didn't take. In this long essay, I discussed only the stories the company actually published in the post-Crisis period.

Flash, #81, appears to be an odd relic of the original plans for a happy marriage between Nightwing and Starfire. They appeared in that issue, helping their old Titans friend Wally West, with no hint that the wedding had gone so terribly.