[3 February 2011]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
Dick Grayson is Batman. Still an odd statement, though it’s been true since 2009. After 19 months, and across several titles, there still seems to be a disconnect between the cowl and the former acrobat. Could it have been the creative talent forging this new era? Writers Grant Morrison, Tony Daniel, Paul Dini, et al certainly tried, but none seemed to capture the true possibilities of the former sidekick embracing his mentor’s mantle. Recently, “American Vampire” writer Scott Snyder took the reins of writing Dick Grayson in “Detective Comics.” And suddenly something clicked.
Dick Grayson is not Batman; in so far as his character lacks the darkness inherit in Bruce Wayne. Though coming from a similar origin – parents murdered by thugs – Dick never embraced the darkness of his history. He was always lighter. Whether it be the colors of his Robin uniform or the wisecracks and puns he uttered in the midst of fights, Dick was other side of the dark vigilante coin. Of course much of his origin from a publishing standpoint is related to the cultural evolution of comics in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and the idea of a character as a narrative device. Nonetheless, over his 70 year history, Dick Grayson has remained a talker amongst scowling enigmas.
For much of that time he seemed to be forever the dutiful son. Even though he dropped the boy wonder bit, adopting a more fitting persona with his age, and had his disagreements with his adoptive father (guardian), he was always right there to take orders. The relationship analogy for Bruce and Dick has varied over the years. Brothers works, but the father-son dynamic is more fitting. It creates the tension that is relatable to so many readers. And given the circumstances following “Battle for the Cowl,” it gives a real world analogy of a son trying to live up to the legacy of his father. That’s the punch Dick as Batman has needed. There have been attempts to relay this, but they have been mottled by ineffectiveness.
With the exception of the Denny O’Neil penned “Detective Comics” #866, none of the Batman family writers have captured the true potential of Dick Grayson as Batman. Most of the stories in the last 19 months could have easily been Bruce Wayne/Batman tales. With “Detective Comics” #871, Snyder takes over one of the titles that features Grayson as Batman (because there are now many Batmen…why have one when there are so many publication weeks). Known mainly for his moody horror series “American Vampire,” Snyder quickly changes the tone, infecting his first story arc with darkness and danger.
“The Black Mirror” arc is a perfect starting point to change direction. It’s a plot that’s rooted in the past, in the history of Gotham City and its masked vigilante club. We are all haunted by our pasts. It forms our perspectives and informs our futures. This is true of comics as well, especially when dealing with superhero comics.
A series of brutal murders shines a sharp light on an underground auction house that specializes on items from Gotham’s notorious past. Using bits of Batman history to anchor his story, Snyder does a very good balancing act of paying tribute to the past while pushing the title forward to the future. “The Black Mirror” is a basic plot, but its execution is what makes “Detective Comics” 871-873 so compelling.
What Snyder does so much more than previous Batman writers is get into the head of Dick Grayson. His perspective is strong; his motivations in focus. There is a vast difference between Dick as Batman and Bruce as Batman and Snyder handles the variation with the stroke of a writer who has clearly delineated that disparity. Little touches, from the references to his trapeze past to his relationship with supporting characters to his movement across panels, set a different tone and add a special wrinkle to this caped crusader.
Certainly aiding and abetting this change is the artwork of Jock. Stark and moody with sharp angles and harsh lines, his work reflects the darker tone. It also reflects the cowl change. This Batman is lighter on his feet, takes to the air with more grace than the other, and panel to panel Jock created the movement befitting a former acrobat turned masked avenger.
There was a missed opportunity many, many, many issues of Batman comics ago. Judd Winick attempted to capitalize on it way back in “Batman” 687. There, Winick scratched the surface of the potential of Dick Grayson as Batman as he created an epilogue to “Batman: Battle for the Cowl” that was drenched in the father-son dynamic befitting the relationship of Bruce and Dick. This narrative element was never handled correctly again, and by not exploring it fittingly, it’s fair to say the writers and editors created a treading water scenario until the timely return of the deceased Bruce Wayne.
New (and old) Batman writers are left to strike out with only a half-realized narrative. Snyder in “Detective Comics” is certainly making the most of it and, to extend the metaphor, righting the ship so that the deluge of Batman stories does not drown readers. Dick Grayson is Batman, and “Detective Comics” is finally getting to the point of what that means.