The Redemption of Nightwing

Welcome to the first entry for Longbox Review dot com in the Super-Blog Team-Up (SBTU)! I want to thank Chris from the Superhero Satellite for inviting me to participate. What is the Super-Blog Team-Up? The Longbox Graveyard provides an excellent overview of the SBTU, along with links to past entries. This latest incarnation of the SBTU is about the theme of Redemption.

When I was first asked to participate, my first thought was, predictably, the redemption of Hal Jordan Green Lantern, but I thought that would be too obvious. I was sure that another participant might choose that as well, so off I went through the dusty synapses of my memory trying to recall favorite stories where redemption was a central focus. Hawk (aka Monarch/Extant) came to mind, as did Atom Smasher and Black Adam. I thought perhaps even examining the Kingdom Come Superman, but that’s when it hit me (or rather, a Google search that landed me on a page that talked about one aspect of this story): the redemption of Nightwing for his complicity in the murder of Blockbuster. Of course! Nightwing is my favorite character in superhero comics, so what better way to explore this theme for the 2019 Super-Blog Team-Up. (Note: all issues mentioned have been linked to Comicbookdb for the creator credits.)

Redemption is something you have to fight for in a very personal … way. — Joss Whedon

Blockbuster was murdered in Nightwing (vol 2) #93 by the new supporting Nightwing character, Tarantula, but the twist in this multi-issue story was that Nightwing let it happen. Given his mentor’s unbreakable rule about killing (and Batman’s own condemnation of Wonder Woman’s killing of Maxwell Lord in Infinite Crisis), one must assume that Batman’s reaction to his first protégé being an accessory to murder would be harsh and final.

Sometimes silence is worse…

Before I get into the particulars of Nightwing’s involvement in this crime and how he reacts to it, I want to start with the evolution of Tarantula and her relationship with Nightwing. Issue #71 is the first appearance of Catalina Flores, ex-FBI agent, who takes a self-defense class led by Blüdhaven police officer Dick Grayson. There’s a bit of flirting by Flores with Grayson, but that’s just par for the course with our hunky hero, right? In the following issue, we learn that Catalina has a brother who is an assistant district attorney in Blüdhaven, and she meets the original Tarantula, John Law, and wants to learn everything she can about his Golden Age adventures.

Issue #75 is Catalina’s next appearance and her first as Tarantula (we do not get any backstory as to her acquiring or making the costume or equipment). In that issue, Nightwing warns her off being a vigilante in his town, but also sees her as a potential ally. Two issues later, Tarantula attempts to shoot a criminal, whereas before she was merely using sleeping darts, and refers to a police officer as “puny”, again with no explanation as to why her methods have escalated into the deadly. She also comes on to Nightwing, at which point Nightwing is more forceful in his declaration that she is not wanted in Blüdhaven. She leaves, but refers to Nightwing as an enemy.

In issue #83, Nightwing determines that Tarantula murdered Blüdhaven Police Chief Redhorn, and in #84 we find out that she is working for Blockbuster (again, no backstory as to how or why these things occurred–this lack of information is one of my major gripes with this story). Nightwing works with Nite-Wing (whom Tarantula tries to kill) to arrest Tarantula for that murder. Tarantula’s fast descent into darkness continues with the attempted murder (by order of Blockbuster) of Barbara Gordon while she and Dick are on a date. When questioned as to why Tarantula did not complete the hit, she tells Blockbuster that she did one better: her actions led to Babs and Dick ending their relationship and how that will impact Dick. This plays directly into Blockbuster’s plan and the crux of this long story arc: Blockbuster doesn’t want to kill Nightwing (because of Nightwing’s actions in a previous issue, Blockbuster’s mother died and he blames Nightwing), he wants to break down our hero, torture him. So Blockbuster, in issue #89, blows up the apartment building that Dick lived in and owned, killing many of the people he came to know and had protected, including John Law. From Tarantula, Nightwing learns that Blockbuster is responsible, and because John Law was killed, Tarantula has turned on her former employer and plans to kill him.

Nightwing tells Tarantula “…I have to find the answer. There has to be a right way to do this. I have to find the right way…”. His answer, at least in this issue, is to get Blockbuster to admit his crimes as Nightwing takes a beating from the villain. Nightwing and Tarantula then take the only copy of this confession to Catalina’s brother, the assistant DA, who then destroys the CD, admitting he works for Blockbuster. (Ugh! This plot convenience is another thing that bugs me so much about this story, but I digress.) Nightwing shakes with rage and frustration as the siblings bicker until, finally, Tarantula leaves, intending to deal with Blockbuster once and for all.

Now, for the big moment. The cover to issue #93 gives you an inkling of what’s to come.

I love what the artist did with the mask (foreground) and eye (background).

Blockbuster confronts Dick with knowing who he really is and Dick’s greatest weakness:

That final STOP is too little, too late, Dick.

Dick staggers away from the scene, literally with blood on his hands, gasping, “…can’t breathe…”. He collapses on the rooftop murmuring to himself, “So sorry, Bruce…. I’m so sorry…. I failed you…”. Note that Nightwing isn’t focusing on what he did (or didn’t do, rather), but how he’s failed Batman. When Tarantula catches up to him, he tells her how he’s failed her as well and not to touch him, but she pushes him down and

There’s been some discussion about this scene, specifically how Devin Grayson first referred to this as non-consensual sex and not rape, which she later recanted (I encourage you to read that article to get a sense of what Ms. Grayson was attempting to do and how editorial interference and her own failings as a writer did not allow her to adequately explore this aspect of the story). Regardless, it is a further disintegration of our hero. He has endured so much at Blockbuster’s hands, and then he allowed himself to betray everything that Batman taught him and that he has, until now, upheld on his own. Nightwing is now lost.

His descent continues in the next issue. In flashback, we are shown the aftermath of the rooftop encounter (again heavily suggesting that he was raped), including him stumbling down the stairs and throwing up, his body rejecting the trauma–of the murder he allowed and his own violation. Fearing reprisal and to figure out what to do next, Nightwing takes off with Tarantula, and they break into a bed and breakfast despite his protestation because she is cold–again he is allowing Tarantula to dictate his actions and he is further abdicating his morality. Nightwing’s selflessness, even if it’s at his own detriment, is usually portrayed as a virtue, but here it is evidence against him. In the present part of the story, with the two now hiding out in a motel room, Nightwing, still in shock, drones on professorially to Catalina about auditory cognition in what I interpret as a low monotone (thanks to Clem Robins’ lettering). When Catalina returns from a food run, she encounters Copperhead. Dick helps to chase Copperhead off, and Dick seems to be returning to his senses because he thinks Tarantula is going to kill the villain: “Is that your plan? Just murder him?!” This marks the first time he consciously engages with his new “partner” and her (in this specific instance, potential) actions. In fact, he now appears to be at the anger stage of grief, having gone through shock and denial.

This act of engagement is short-lived, however, because after an armchair psychiatric assessment, Catalina convinces Dick to get drunk. Later, she’s persuaded Dick to marry her, and though he’s mildly balking, it seems as if he’s going to sign the papers until he gets a call from Batman. Dick is shown smiling as he runs away from his predicament to help his mentor.

The smile fades quickly, for once he has arrived in Gotham and watching Batman easily take down some thugs, he thinks about the pride he feels towards Batman, “pride because I know I live by his code and have never had a reason to fear him.” Despite Nightwing trying to act like his usual self, Batman senses something and asks what is wrong with his protege. To himself, Dick spells it out:

But to Batman, he says, “I’m fine,” and pleads for something to do so that he can help. No, Dick doesn’t come clean to Batman, but with his former partner, outside of Tarantula’s influence, and given some distance from the deed, Dick can at least be honest with himself. There’s hope for our hero yet. However, “like bad weather, or a guilty conscious,” as Nightwing puts it, Tarantula follows him to Gotham. Unfortunately, he’s more concerned about the truth getting out than dealing with it.

He attempts to remove her from the situation, but realizes that she’s trying to help a gang of kids survive the events of War Games, and he subsequently vouches for her to Batman. We see an echo of the guilt he felt for failing Tarantula from issue #93, his words belying his own desperate need to find the right path.

Guilt can be a funny thing. It can be a cacophonous lament one minute and a clear note the next, ebbing and flowing through one’s conscience. At one point, Nightwing, indulging in self-doubt during a conversation with Robin, sees a vision of the dead Blockbuster in a fire (issue #97). In issue #98, having a slight respite from the chaos that is the War Games story, Nightwing considers for the first time his own redemption:

Also, Nightwing is allowed to work through some of his anger and frustration by taking down Firefly, who had torched Haly’s circus by order of Blockbuster in issue #88. In fact, Nightwing’s actions convince Firefly that Nightwing is going to kill him. Here, Nightwing is finally starting to exert some control (even if the blame is misplaced), but that revelation is cut short because he is shot by a Gotham police officer in the leg and passes out. Fortunately, Batman takes him to Alfred, who patches Dick up. At one point, Alfred tells Dick that he no longer sees the “luminosity of spirit” in Dick and how that absence jeopardizes Dick’s ability to survive the life he leads. Later, while confronting Batman about the aftermath of War Games, Dick finally admits that he’s lost to Bruce without getting into specifics. Characteristically, Bruce only focuses on the mission, driving Dick away, but perhaps this was a good thing. As evidenced by the events of issue #100, Dick seems to have realized that the only person who can save him is himself.

This cover does not age well.

We’re not shown the exact moment or thought process that led Dick Grayson to his decision to turn Tarantula in for the murder of Blockbuster and himself for his role in it (yet another point of contention for me), but we do see that he confronts and subdues Tarantula, finally and firmly rejecting her and her role in his life to this point. He is clearly in control now and resolute. However, fate takes a turn and his former police partner (now Captain) Amy Rohrbach denies Dick this path at redemption. Once again, Dick is at the mercy of others and unable to achieve the redemption he seeks, so his journey is not yet over.

At the end of issue #100 and for the next several issues (#107#116), Dick rejects his life as Nightwing, becoming, ostensibly, a dark mirror version of himself as he works for some Black Mask connected mobsters (befriending Sophia, the daughter of one of the mobsters) and, later, Deathstroke in a deal to train his daughter, Rose.  He even takes on a “bad guy” costumed persona, but all of this is just putting off taking responsibility, even though his deal with Deathstroke will keep Blüdhaven safe (if only for a short time).

In issue #116, as he deals with the attack on Blüdhaven by Chemo, Dick tells us “I lost sight of the bottom line. Let grief and rage eat away at the very precepts of my life. …somehow I lost hope.” During the issue, he goes around checking on and saving the people in his life (Sophia, Captain Rohrbach). As he does this, he says, “I can breathe again for the first time in months,” echoing his words in #93–he’s come full circle personally, but he still has to confront the matter with the one person who means everything to him. He must tell Batman the truth.

That’s it?! Really, Batman?

And with the final hurdle cleared, Dick is able to move on and take an active role in his recovery. He tells Sophia that he’s changed, and not looking for a quick fix anymore (such as his deal with Deathstroke). He’ll work hard, every day, to do better, to be better—isn’t that what a hero does? He then confronts Deathstroke for his role in the destruction of Bludhaven and shows Rose what her father is really like, causing her to reject him. In some small way, Nightwing succeeds with Rose where he failed with Tarantula.

There was a brief mention of the Blockbuster affair in Nightwing Annual #2 (a few months after issue #117 in publication time) showing that Dick was still dealing with it in some capacity, but I would have liked to have seen more of Dick atoning for his sins.

I would have loved to see what came next for these two. sigh

Alas, the One Year Later event took place after issue #117, and DC Comics moved on with Nightwing’s adventures. Tarantula would appear in flashback in the same annual and in issue #127, so we are left wondering what the next stage in that relationship would have been, because I can’t see Dick just turning his back on Catalina Flores, especially because of how he dealt with everyone else involved.

While I have issues with this story (the inconsistency of Catalina as a character early on, the lack of key scenes showing character motivation and actions, the way the rape scene was not adequately dealt with, and the absence of real consequence with Dick’s crime beyond him coming to terms with it and the way Batman brushed it off), I always appreciated in how, over dozens of issues, we were shown a unique situation for a major member of the Bat family and an important DC Comics character, that is, how such a stalwart superhero (who in my mind is second only to Superman in his innate positiveness) could falter, but have the courage (eventually) to own up to his mistakes and make amends. It makes Dick Grayson/Nightwing a better person and a better hero in the end.

Be sure to read or listen to the other great entries for this theme:

7 thoughts on “The Redemption of Nightwing

  1. Charlton Hero January 24, 2019 / 7:30 am

    Very good article! The Grayson Robin character has always been a favorite of mine since New Teen Titans number 1! The transformation of Robin to Nightwing always fascinated me!
    When he crosses the line without consequence I always wanted a better conclusion to this. It is something that needs to be revisited at some point.

    Great article!! Very much enjoy the history lesson

    Like

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