A superhero is only as good as their rogues gallery. This is not an absolute truth, but it is a recurring tendency in the comics industry. And what is a rogues gallery without an arch nemesis, right? What would be of Superman without Lex Luthor, of Daredevil without the Kingpin, of the Flash without the Rogues? There is almost no remarkable superhero who doesn’t have their one big enemy. Well, that is not the case with Nightwing. Ever since his return from donning the cape and cowl, Nightwing hasn’t had much luck with villains, despite being the sixth best-selling DC solo character¹. The current Rebirth series, written by Tim Seeley, has yet to find its footing. One of the main issues being pointed out is how unappealing the villains have been, and the nostalgic feeling that comes with remembering Chuck Dixon’s run is as strong as ever. Nightwing is one of the lighter toned titles in the Batman editorial group, and as such the world currently being built around him is being made lighter than the others. That is where they go wrong. Being Bruce’s sidekick, Damian’s mentor or having his base in the grittier version of Gotham, Blüdhaven; Dick Grayson shines brighter when there is darkness around him.
The greatest dynamics between a hero and their arch-enemy in comics is them being two sides of the same coin. Comics being a visual medium, this contrast comes not only in character but in their design as well. One of the most obvious contrasts out there is between Hal Jordan and Sinestro. One represents courage and willpower, the other represents fear; one is a Green Lantern, and the other is a Yellow Lantern; both yield rings of power and fight fiercely for what they think is right. The contrast though can go a bit deeper than that. One of the most iconic foes in comics are Professor X and Magneto. They both stand for mutant rights, but they ultimately clash for having different ideas on how to achieve that end. Not only do their moral codes oppose one another, but the way they are represented as well. Professor X is always dressed in a suit and has this respectable gentleman aura around him, while Magneto wears this Merlin of the future type of uniform in red and purple and a helmet.
One of the most intriguing dualities though is Superman and Lex Luthor. The coin which they share is the ideal image of masculinity. While Clark is the strongest man on Earth, appealing to the herculean image of men, Lex is one of the smartest and richest people on Earth, appealing to the capitalist image of a successful man. What makes them clash is once again their morals: while Clark is the pinnacle of altruism, Lex is of the dog eat dog mindset, and that is why both of them succeed in what they do, and that is why Lex sees in Superman a rival. As for their visual contrast, I will just skip the clothes and go straight to the curl versus the baldness.
Considering the depth that can be put into the building of dualities, to develop a memorable villain for Dick Grayson one has to have in mind his character as a whole, seventy-seven years of history and all. He as a person is the definition of flamboyant: very confident in behavior, and liking to be noticed by other people, for example because of the way you dress, talk, etc². He was a circus kid, taking the stage since he could walk. As an adult, he is portrayed as a flirt, sure of himself and an overall pleasant person. Besides, the flashy aesthetics of the circus shows in his costumes.
Having grown up amidst a circus troupe and later the superhero community, Dick is a very social character. He thrives when in team comics or when there is a well established supporting cast. Not only that, but he is also a natural leader, having led the Teen Titans, the Outsiders, the Justice League (if you haven’t read the Obsidian Age, go read it now) and being the natural representative of the Bat-Family in matters against Bruce. He manages to be the leader that Bruce will never be not only because of his social skills, but because Dick Grayson is a naturally sympathetic, even emotional, character.
Not only has he had an unusual upbringing, but he was also thrown into Gotham’s madness since his early life, fighting alongside Batman. Your usual crazy will not scare this guy. Being Robin, he has been trained since his childhood in martial arts and detective work, and Batman’s morals are ingrained in him more than in any other Robin to come after. If you take all that and turn it on its head, you will find that the ideal enemy for Dick Grayson is Bruce Wayne himself – but that will never happen, so let us move on to concrete examples.
One of the best stories involving Dick Grayson ever told is without a doubt Black Mirror, by Scott Snyder, and it features one of the better-built villains for Grayson’s character. James Jr., the villain in question, looks as ordinary as one can look, which plays in contrast to Dick’s flamboyance. He wears no costume; he dons no fictional name. James is a true sociopath, unable to feel empathy or guilt, whereas Dick is a sympathetic character with a tendency to blame himself for everything.In Scott Snyder’s own words, James Jr. plays with his own neurological disorder to get close to people, to earn their sympathy, and once he got close enough he would destroy you. “James is the twisted, mirror reflection of Dick and Jim [Gordon], in that Dick is all about empathy and compassion; James has neither”.³
James Jr. would be a strong contender for Nightwing’s arch enemy were he not a Batman villain. The one foe that has come closer to taking this position was Blockbuster in Chuck Dixon’s run. Roland Desmond is very reminiscent of what Kingpin is to Daredevil: he is a crime lord, operating from the behind the lines to take over Blüdhaven. He will hire people to do his dirty work despite being a steroid pumped, massive guy, whereas Dick is the type of guy who doesn’t bother getting his hands dirty. He was always pictured dressed in suits and ties and his house is inspired in the Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, a masterpiece of American modernist architecture, while Dick was living in a small apartment in a poor neighborhood despite having enough money to live in a mansion himself.
Both James Jr. and Blockbuster are relatively grounded characters who are more cerebral threats than they are physical – which makes sense; Dick Grayson has been trained by Batman since he was a child, after all, it should not be easy to overpower him. Besides, their visual concepts contrast with the image of Dick Grayson. Unfortunately, since the New 52, Nightwing’s foes have been more about brute force than brains, besides being characters that only last for one story arc. I won’t go through the whole mess that the New 52 was, and how crushed the title was being under editorial decisions, and go straight to the currently published Rebirth.
Up until now, Seeley’s work has been more consistent than Kyle Higgin’s in the New 52. Some of that might be due to more editorial freedom since in the New 52 there were all those crossovers involving the Bat titles that ultimately made everything except for Batman a bit convoluted. Seeley is by no means a bad writer, and he has a good hold on Dick Grayson’s personality. The first arc focused on the Parliament of Owls, a worldwide threat, and Raptor, a guy with questionable morals with whom Dick had to work. The second arc had him going to Blüdhaven for the first time in this continuity, and Seeley is showing how he comprehends the social side of the character, besides making his flamboyance reflect in Blüdhaven.
Despite his good grasp on the character, what he has been lacking is a sense of how to contrast Dick Grayson with the world and the characters in it, specially the villains. Seeley seems to be going for anti-heroes and tormented characters, but those are not exactly great material for a Nightwing arch-nemesis, him having a record of befriending those people. While they make for great interaction with the goody-two-shoes side of him, they will never be the other side of his coin.
Seeley and the editors seem to be going for a metaphor of Nightwing on the universe building, with darkness lurking in the brightest of places and light existing in the darkest of places. Despite the promising conflict, what this does is leveling Dick Grayson’s persona with the universe. Changing Blüdhaven from Detroit to Las Vegas also shows how his world is being built as less gritty, but gritty is what makes the lightheartedness of Nightwing stand out.
Dick Grayson is the man who overcame darkness, no matter how many times he got thrown into it; the one who didn’t turn out as Bruce Wayne, the beacon of the Bat family. The darker the environment, the brighter he will shine, and this understanding is what has been lacking for Nightwing to finally have a seminal story arc after his time as Batman.
1 – Data from Comichron. The top 5 are Batman, Flash, Superman, Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn.
2 – Definition from Cambridge Dictionary
3 – Scott Snyder’s notes in the script for Detective Comics #871, taken from Black Mirror’s trade paperback.