23 August 2009

Nightwing’s Great Leap to the End

Nightwing; The Great Leap and Robin: Search for a Hero, both published this month, are unusual among collections of superhero comics because they’re both the last of a series.

Normally an ongoing comic book, or any other type of serial fiction, is structured not merely to tell its story, but also to bring readers back for the next issue. The character’s fundamental situation is threatened, but always restored so as to maintain his appeal. The ongoing stories offer an “illusion of change,” a phrase apocryphally attributed to Stan Lee. A profitable magazine’s overall story can’t end even if a “story arc” does.

These collections couldn’t work that way. They take place during and after the events of Batman: RIP, which ends with Bruce Wayne dying, and Final Crisis, which ends with Bruce Wayne dying (don’t ask). That is a fundamental change, albeit a temporary one. DC Comics decided to end the Nightwing and Robin magazines and move their central characters into new identities: Dick Grayson as Batman, Tim Drake as Red Robin. In addition, this month made clear that the company planned to make Stephanie Brown, an important supporting character in Robin, into a new Batgirl.

Thus, scripters Fabian Nicieza (Robin) and Peter J. Tomasi (Nightwing) had to break the usual patterns of their vocation. They had to put their characters through true changes, prepare readers for those characters’ new roles, and provide satisfying wrap-ups to storylines that had rolled along month after month since the 1990s.

On top of all those challenges, it’s evident that DC’s plans were a bit squishy when it came to scheduling the series’ final issues. The scripters didn’t know at the start which issues would be the last. Nicieza talked about this in an interview at Big Shiny Robot:

The truth is the final issue was coming, but which issue would be was not yet set in stone. There were discussions that varied from ending it with #182 and the conclusion of [the arc] “Search for a Hero” or as high as #185 or #186.
I’ll address the results of his effort in Robin: Search for a Hero next week.

In the last Nightwing collection I felt Tomasi struggling to an end. The first four chapters/issues comprise an arc called “The Great Leap.” Dick Grayson confronts Two-Face, established as his particular bête noir among Batman villains back in Robin, #0 (1994), and the Robin: Year One miniseries. Plus, we get to see Nightwing fight half a dozen other iconic Batman villains, though they’re only hallucinations. And on the personal side, Barbara Gordon, Dick’s off-and-on crush since the late 1960s, shows up to boost his computer security and reestablish their friendship. So the story feels like a culmination of his Nightwing career.

That arc came to an end in issue #150 (which also came with a collectible variant cover!). On the last page our hero, having single-handedly saved New York from an attack by a line of acid-spraying blimps, looks up gratefully at the Statue of Liberty. And wouldn’t 150 be a fine number for the last of a series?

But DC needed another issue. So in Nightwing, #151, Tomasi provided an “Epilogue” to “The Great Leap,” with a happier ending for the story’s female lead and another extended conversation with Two-Face (adding little to what the characters already said while kicking each other in the face). Tomasi wraps up some loose ends from his previous arc, collected in Nightwing: Freefall: Dick and his new girlfriend break up, Nightwing confers with Superman and a Green Lantern, Dick goes for a skydiving record.

That issue #151 ends with a lovely three pages showing an evening at Wayne Manor. Working fluidly and wordlessly, Dick, Tim, and Alfred make strawberry shakes and watch The Magnificent Seven. The last page shows Bruce’s empty chair. The movie dialogue provides an ironic comment on crime-fighting. Dick clicks the remote, and the final panel is black. This chapter of his life is over; his life as Batman can begin.
But DC needed another issue. So Nightwing, #152, shows Dick in the batcave, recalling how he became Robin. Suddenly scores of ninjas attack him, demonstrating the Conservation of Ninjutsu. Nightwing must confront another fundamental Batman villain, Ra’s al Ghul. Symbolically, this short tale shows Dick sinking into his legacy as Batman’s heir, ready to step into his new life as Batman.

But DC needed another issue. So Nightwing, #153, shows Nightwing moving out of New York with the help of the Justice Society (it took them one page to move him in, two to move out). In Gotham, Robin and Alfred restore the giant penny to the batcave. Dick and Alfred talk inconclusively about Bruce’s death. A six-page coda shows Dick taking Barbara for a skydive, closely echoing a sequence that appears in Nightwing: Love and War. It’s all perfectly acceptable, but slow and anticlimactic.

And finally the Nightwing series comes to an end. As I said, there are lovely moments along the way, and Tomasi shows how well he understands the character’s roots, strengths, and appeal. But the second half of the Great Leap collection feels like the end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, when the orchestra keeps working up to a dramatic conclusion, only to go back to pumping out chords.


Richard said...

Excellent post, but one quibble: neither Batman: RIP nor Final Crisis ends with Bruce Wayne dying. In fact, barring the apocryphal-by-design Neil Gaiman two-parter, Bruce Wayne has not died in the current continuity at all. Strange but true!

J. L. Bell said...

Well, I understand he’s [***SPOILER***] way back in time, and most people living in that period are dead. Of course, he’s Batman. So if Tim or someone finds a way to rescue Bruce from the past, then indeed he won’t ever be dead—he just won’t exist at this moment, and almost everyone thinks he’s dead.

I decided to describe the situation the way Dick comes to understand it within Nightwing: The Great Leap: Bruce dead. Otherwise, it starts to sound even crazier than normal.

J. L. Bell said...

On second thought, I realized I was wrong to say “almost everyone thinks” Bruce Wayne is dead. Based on what's going on in the Batman magazine now, most Gothamites think Bruce Wayne is alive. Only his odd little family and their closest friends know that a lookalike villain has taken his place.

Anonymous said...

I think the thing that annoyed me most was Tomasi having to dismantle the new status quo he'd taken the time to built up for Dick; his new HQ, career, girlfriend, (who wasn't in on his secret ID, which made for a nice change) and his position in the New York hero set, especially his consulting links to the JSA.

Must have been pretty bloody annoying for Tomasi too.

From icon_uk, who can't get his livejournal link to work for some reason.

J. L. Bell said...

Always good to hear from you, icon_uk, however you have to sign in.

Back in 2008, Grant Morrison said of the “Batman RIP” storyline, “this is the first story I had planned when Peter Tomasi, the editor at the time, asked me to do Batman.”

And then this spring Morrison added about what followed: “We always knew that after ‘Batman R.I.P.,’ we were going to do this run of stories where we didn’t have Bruce under the cowl.”

So I think Tomasi knew when he took over the Nightwing magazine that within a couple of years the lead character would become Batman.

I liked what Tomasi established for Dick Grayson in Manhattan, too, but we hardly saw the museum staff after Talia showed up there. Only the librarian girlfriend kept making significant appearances, and I don’t even recall her name now.

The strongest and most sustained aspect of Tomasi’s characterization, which he emphasized in interviews when he took the job, was reestablishing Dick’s ties to other heroes in the DC Universe. I suspect that’s where Tomasi’s heart lay. And that, of course, won’t go away.

collectededitions said...

Very nice review. I hadn't heard about the "uncertain ending issues" before; more than Nightwing: Great Leap, it goes a long way toward explaining the "squishy" ending of Robin: Search for a Hero, especially the "let's have a Robin-signal/No, wait, let's have a Bat-signal again" confusion.

I've added a link from my Great Leap review to yours. Thanks!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link! I found the Collected Editions blog to be one of the most helpful resources when I was trying to catch up on recent developments in the lives of Dick Grayson and Tim Drake after reentering the world of superhero comics. With comics stories spread out over several issues these days, looking at collections provides a much better perspective than responding to the stimuli of individual issues. And your reviews offer a refreshing supply of judgment without extremes.