By Louie Hlad
In June 2016, DC Comics kicked off the start of its Rebirth initiative. After a wave of criticism surrounding the way they have treated their characters’ rich histories since 2011’s New 52 relaunch, DC has decided to rebrand. They hope that by restoring their characters’ pasts, they will restore readers’ faith in them as well. Do they succeed? That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu and entertainment editor Kyle Pinion are here to discuss. Book by book. Panel by panel.
THIS WEEK: Louie checks in on Nightwing: The New Order and DC’s big Halloween Special: DC House of Horror.
Note: the reviews below contain **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Nightwing: The New Order #3
Writer: Kyle Higgins
Artist: Trevor McCarthy
Colorist: Dean White
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
For the longest time, I had trouble understanding the popularity and appeal of Dick Grayson. He seemed superfluous, unnecessary. We already had a Batman and Tim Drake made a great Robin. Why did we need this leftover sidekick hanging around, popping his head into the Batcave every now and then like he was a part of the team? I skipped his monthly book out of disinterest, yet he seemed to be a universally beloved character for some reason.
But now I get it.
Perhaps because Nightwing wasn’t part of the regular team or book, his stories over the years carved a unique path. He was no longer bound to a formulaic existence of hanging out in the Batcave and eating sandwiches made by Alfred before a night on patrol. He didn’t even stay in the city of Gotham. He joined spy organizations, toured with a circus, hunted down mob bosses. Dick Grayson became his own man with his own stories, building on the experience of his youth but not bound by it.
Nightwing is a Batman who actually holds down a day job and makes an effort to maintain a love life. He is a Robin who doesn’t have to go to high school or live under someone else’s roof. He occupies the very important space in between; he is what every Robin must turn into lest he become a Batman.
This series is the comic book art form at its finest and a perfect use for Dick Grayson. He’s the only one who could make it work.
Nightwing: The New Order takes place in the future, fifteen years after Dick Grayson has effectively decommissioned nearly all metahumans in an effort to protect the people of the world from the constantly expanding war of super powers. He is considered a hero by many, a traitor by some. And now he is an outcast on the run after the new world order that he helped create has turned on him.
The art in this book is gorgeous and it captures the acrobatic movements of Nightwing in page layouts that remind me of a J.H. Williams Batwoman book. The flashback pages are brilliantly stylized with the narrative text next to the art instead of on top of it. Though the layouts are creative, the reading direction is never confusing and the flow feels natural to the eye.
This story has a political feel to it. Without mentioning them, it’s about gun laws and gay marriage and immigration- about anything that divides us along lines of principle. In this future society, metahuman abilities are regulated by the government and outlawed for all but official use. Those with traits considered abnormal are forced to deny their gifts or face harsh consequences. Dick Grayson took a moral stand and was surprised to find some of his loved ones on the other side of the debate. He realizes too late that his noble attempts to do right may have unintentionally hurt people. The black and white approach of the Batman is insufficient in a world full of grays.
Dick Grayson is the opposite of grim and gritty and dark. He is young and optimistic and hopeful. He believes we can build a brighter future if we apply equal parts of strategy and kindness. He fights hard for what he believes in, but admits that he isn’t always right and may not know everything. When he disagrees with his loved ones, he still keeps them close and loves them completely. Only Dick Grayson could tell this story, through his high wire balancing act between free flowing and rigid. Between youthful idealism and hard earned wisdom. Between who he was and who he will decide to become.
DC House of Horror #1
Plots by: Keith Giffen
Writers: Edward Lee, Brian Keene, Mary SanGiovanni, Ronald Malfi, Bryan Smith, Wrath James White, Nick Cutter, Weston Ochse
Artists: Howard Porter, Bilquis Evely, Scott Kolins, Dale Eaglesham, Kyle Baker, Tom Raney, Rags Morales, Howard Chaykin
Colorist: Hi-Fi, Romulo Fajardo Jr, Mat Lopes, Jordan Boyd, Gina Going-Raney, Lovern, Kindzierski, Wil Quintana
Letterers: Rob Leigh, Josh Reed, Taylor Esposito, Pat Brosseau, Sal Cipriano, Wes Abbott, Ken Bruzenak
And now for something completely twisted.
My introduction to horror stories in comics was the delightfully creepy Swamp Thing. The first volume by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson gave me nightmares. The later run by Alan Moore certainly didn’t make them go away. The book had monsters of all kinds; vampires, werewolves, demons, business executives. And at the center of it all was the supposed hero of the story, coming to the realization that he may be more monster than man himself. Truly bone chilling tales.
It was through that series that I discovered comic books- even superhero comic books- didn’t have to be just one thing. Like movies, comic books are a medium for telling any type of story at all. They can be a vehicle for mystery, comedy, romance, drama. This week’s DC House of Horror embraces the horror genre wholeheartedly and repackages several well-known characters’ tales as monster stories. Be warned: they get pretty dark.
If you think about it, a lot of the well known DC superheroes lend themselves to horror stories. You just have to forget about the character’s established history and reconsider the basic premise on its own. An alien crash lands on Earth and gets loose. A man prowls the city streets shooting people with a bow and arrow. A boy allows himself to be possessed by an otherworldly magical entity. These are concepts that Stephen King would have a field day with, and they’ve been hiding in plain sight beneath decades of family friendly fare. This Halloween volume takes them out for a decidedly terrifying spin and the results are pretty enjoyable.
Sometimes all it takes is an interesting question to set up an effective tale of terror. What if Superman landed at the Kent’s farm with all of his powers and a less than peaceful demeanor? What would we do if the Flash was infected by a zombie virus? What if- and I know this is a stretch- but what if Batman didn’t quite have all of his marbles intact during his crusade for justice?
Some of the short tales that make up this issue take even further liberties with the core character concepts. Wonder Woman is re-imagined as the spirit of an ancient warrior who takes possession of a teenage girl during a slumber party ouija board session. Trapped and confused in today’s world, she sets out on a bloody path to make sense of her surroundings. In another, Harley Quinn is presented as either a ghost or an imaginary friend (your call) that takes a liking to an Arkham Asylum construction crew worker. She follows him home and whispers all sorts of disturbing ideas in his head. It’s a very clever and fitting use of Harley as we see the man devolve into madness from exposure to her psychosis.
DC has published Halloween holiday specials before but I don’t remember them ever being this dark, this unsettling, or this satisfying. If you enjoy the twisted and macabre, Black Canary’s scenes alone make this book worth the purchase price. Happy Halloween!
- To my surprise, I’m rather enjoying the younger version of Darkseid that we see in Wonder Woman #33. Watching the evil little baby warlord melt a soldier with his omega beams from the crib was great fun, as is his ongoing tutelage of his daughter Grail. This issue has exactly nothing to do with Wonder Woman, but serves as an important setup for the conflict to come. Darkseid feeds and grows off the power of the Zeus’s children as Grail hunts them down one by one on her path to Diana. After a few easy kills, a twelve year old Darkseid looks ready to join the fun, walking around shirtless in his classic knee-high boots and stretchy blue pants. They grow up so fast.
- Speaking of Diana, this week continues the introductions of the “Dark Multiverse” Batmans (Batmen?) with the Wonder Woman themed Batman: The Merciless. We all know the template by now: an alternate reality Bruce Wayne takes a wrong turn and happens to somehow end up with the superpowers of a fellow Justice League member, then they all follow BatJoker to the “real” DC Universe to take out their frustrations. This issue takes the concept of Batman’s war on crime and turns up the rhetoric a few notches as he leaves behind his old rules and takes up the mantle of a god. Even Amanda Waller ends up kneeling before him in prayer…this is getting serious.
- Teen Titans #13 has got to be the worst use to date of the villain Onomatopoeia, and that’s a pretty low bar. He was sufficiently creepy and interesting in his debut by Kevin Smith years ago, but I’m not convinced other writers understand what made that character work. The original fun of it was seeing him repeat the sound effects that we normally only see in captions- muttering BANG as he shot at Oliver Queen. This comic has him saying things like “tick tick tick” to tell the heroes to hurry up. Not at all the same concept and not at all the meaning of the word onomatopoeia. On the plus side, Damian Wayne has a flying dragon dog??
- Justice League of America #17 continues to focus on The Atom (both of them), as they drag the rest of the league on an adventure through the microverse. This book sets itself apart from the other Justice League series by showing more of the quiet moments between large scale battles and giving screen time to so-called lower tier characters like Killer Frost, The Ray, and Lobo. Not every team book needs to be a constant world shattering crisis- sometimes you just want to see Ray Palmer make out with an alien or Lobo beat down enemy soldiers with his own severed arm.