31 January 2010

Freefall into the Future

I think fans of the Batman comics might like to go back and review the collection Nightwing: Freefall, scripted by Peter J. Tomasi and illustrated by Rags Morales, Don Kramer, and Michael Bair.

Not just because it’s a good set of issues, offering acrobatic crimefighting and plenty of fun bat-family interaction (particularly brotherly bantering between Dick Grayson and Tim Drake).

As the months have rolled on, it’s become increasingly clear that Tomasi’s Nightwing arc set up developments in the larger DC universe, and may therefore contain information relevant to the future as well.

Tomasi was one of DC Comics’s top editors, working in the “Batman group,” when he chose to return to scripting with Nightwing. He knew what the company had in mind for its main characters/trademarks. Specifically, he’d been the first person at DC to hear writer Grant Morrison’s plan to have Bruce Wayne seemingly killed. Back in 2008, Morrison gave an interview to Newsarama about the upcoming “Batman RIP” storyline in which he said:

this is the first story I had planned when Peter Tomasi, the editor at the time, asked me to do Batman, which must have been two years ago now… longer. And the very first story title I noted down was “Batman RIP”.
The following year, Morrison was free to say more to Comic Book Resources 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. And again, that’s the fun of it. It’s like writing a whole brand new book. It’s like getting a new assignment because Batman and Robin are two completely different characters.

And I don’t want to give away who they are just yet with [writer-artist] Tony [Daniel] still doing “Battle for the Cowl.” But what we’ve got is a more light-hearted, more spontaneous Batman and a real bad-ass, violent Robin.
Morrison couldn’t completely confirm what everyone already assumed, that Dick Grayson would take over as Batman. But that had been the plan all along, and Tomasi had been in on it. How did that affect his Nightwing stories?

There are four plotlines in Nightwing: Freefall:
  • Dick takes up skydiving as a new hobby. That activity isn’t really intertwined with the other plots, however, and it doesn’t add much to the character since Dick’s been doing incredibly acrobatic things since 1940. The hobby does provide the title for this collection and the next, The Great Leap.
  • Dick becomes head of the Cloisters museum and starts dating a pretty librarian. I like the way this story revives Dick’s appreciation of history, also established in the 1940s, but it appears to have been an exercise in treading water. All those relationships are undone in The Great Leap as Dick returns to Gotham to become Batman.
  • Nightwing works with other heroes on a case involving grave-robbers stealing the bodies of supervillains to revive and clone them. This ends with the Justice League reburying those bodies under their headquarters.
  • Nightwing breaks up a related operation producing superhumans through a woman who gives birth over and over, accelerated growth, cloning, and other stuff. The man in charge of that operation is a new villain, but he’s working closely with Talia al-Ghul, a recurring character in the Batman books.
In addition, along the way we see Dick interacting with Superman, a Green Lantern, his old Titans buddies, and the Justice Society, reflecting how Tomasi shares the notion that Nightwing is “truly the lynchpin [sic] of the DCU.”

The third of the plotlines above turned out to have unexpected significance last fall when DC Comics launched a crossover event called “Blackest Night.” In that sprawling but well-received story, the world’s dead superheroes and villains come back to life and cause all sorts of trouble. Moving the villains’ bodies into the Hall of Justice proved very meaningful in Blackest Night, #3. In sum, Tomasi used his Nightwing issues to quietly set up a future plot.

Now let’s apply that lesson to Talia al-Ghul. What was she doing in Morrison’s Batman series shortly before Tomasi began writing Nightwing? She showed up at Wayne Manor with a bratty kid, the size of a ten-year-old, who she said was her child by Bruce Wayne. (These issues appear in the Batman and Son volume.) We now know that was part of Morrison’s move toward trying a new Dynamic Duo with “a real bad-ass, violent Robin.”

Since then we’ve had hints that the child, Damian Wayne, was raised at least partially in an incubator of sorts, his growth accelerated. (That helps fit him into the timeline of Bruce Wayne’s life.) The latest issue of Batman and Robin shows Damian undergoing some sort of super spinal therapy available only in comics.

There was no precursor for those details in Morrison’s issues, but Tomasi’s Nightwing run filled the holes. Freefall showed us Talia’s access to superbabies, accelerated growth technology, gene grafting, and so on. It not only justifies Damian’s existence, but it opens doors for future revelations. Damian may share Bruce Wayne’s DNA not because of sex under the desert moon ten years ago, but because of cloning. (Or he might not have Wayne DNA at all.)

As Grant Morrison moves ahead with Batman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne, we can be sure that:
  • He’s planned more twists than he’s revealed in interviews.
  • Others at DC, probably including Peter Tomasi, are aware of those plans.
  • They’re planting clues all along, while hiding big surprises.
After all, that’s how modern superhero publishing works.

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