Just read: A few Robin / Teen Titans / Nightwing things

"Just read" is a blog where I blog about something I just read. I'm trying to read more this year and I'd like to keep a record of that; blogging will theoretically help that cause. 

Back to the Batman front! The last time I checked in along my Batman reading order was following the Birth of the Demon trilogy, which introduced Ra's al Ghul but kinda left me hanging with nowhere to go. That book was immediately preceded by the combined Batgirl/Robin Year One volume, so I was left without a particular storyline to follow; I had just learned about several new characters, but the ends of these stories were nicely tied up in a bow in terms of not having immediate follow-ups. I wound up taking a short break from Batman, and instead of coming back and diving right into stuff like The Killing Joke and Death In The Family, I decided to get into something with a fair amount of continuity first. 

Turns out, this mini-tangent had a somewhat complicated continuity to it. I decided I wanted to read more about Robin (Dick Grayson) and his arc as Batman's sidekick before joining the Teen Titans and becoming Nightwing. I mistakenly started this with Nightwing: Blüdhaven (the first full graphic novel from the Nightwing run that began in 1995/96), without realizing that I skipped a bunch of stuff in the Robin chronology by doing so. In that book, Dick Grayson -- the Robin I read about in Dark Victory and The Gauntlet -- is already somewhat established in his role as Nightwing, taking up a Batman-esque-but-not-Batman mantle in a neighboring town called Blüdhaven, while Tim Drake is in the role of Robin. That means I managed to miss out on an entire extra Robin -- Jason Todd -- but obviously I wasn't the most concerned about spoilers.

So from there, I worked my way back and read Teen Titans: Year One, Teen Titans: Judas Contract and Nightwing: Year One. These arcs clash against each other at times, with two different "first appearances" of Nightwing.  The proper one comes in "Tales of the Teen Titans #44," which is part of the Judas Contract series; meanwhile, Nightwing: Year One serves as a bit of a reimagining of that character's origin story.

teen_titans_square.jpg

I'll start out this blog with a few notes on Teen Titans: Year One. This was a six-issue mini-series written by Amy Wolfram and published in 2008, presumably to capitalize on the popularity of the Titans in other media. The writing and art is pretty clearly targeted at younger fans, perhaps fans of the Teen Titans TV show, with its cartoonish features and somewhat angsty teenage vibe. This volume sets the stage by introducing us to Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl on a one-by-one basis, which is fine but a bit too straightforward for my taste. They eventually team up to first fight against their elders in the Justice League, then try to save them when they realize the JL is being controlled by a villain called The Antithesis.

This plot is somewhat lazy, fairly predictable and overall pretty underwhelming. Batman's character is also super annoying and grating to read when he's presented as an "overbearing father"-type figure to Robin's "rebellious" spirt. This is super lame to me in general for the most part, but it's at least handled a bit better in Nightwing: Year One. The art is nothing to write home about, either -- but, if you're looking for a very quick introduction to the Teen Titans, it seems fair enough to take this route. I was surprised to enjoy it as much as I did, considering my motivation for checking it out was to specifically focus on what's going on with Dick Grayson. My enjoyment of these characters was enough to encourage me to dig into the Titans a bit more, and the awesomeness of the Judas Contract arc immediately backed that up.

Judas Contract is a four-issue run amongst the Tales of the Teen Titans title, published in 1984. This story revolves around a new member of the Titans named Terra, who partners with a villain named Terminator to infiltrate the Titans and learn their secrets on his behalf. She's at odds with Terminator's mission, though: He's focused on capturing the Titans and taking them to H.I.V.E., a criminal organization who wants to use the Titans to further their own causes; Terra, meanwhile, is something of a sociopath and wants to watch them all die because they refuse to truly unleash their powers, or something. 

This storyline gets frustrating a bit (from a standpoint of rooting for the good guys -- not so much from the readers' standpoint, since it's well-told) because the Titans all refuse to believe they've been betrayed and, as a result, never fully aim to bring down Terra as best they can. This fractured effort results in Terra kicking their butts for a while, using her abilities to morph the ground (Terra - get it?) to crush our heroes under rocks and such. This was my first exposure to Cyborg, Starfire, Raven, Beast Boy and Jericho, and while it takes a while to become a bit familiar with them -- this is, after all, an arc told amongst an ongoing series at the time -- it's not too difficult to catch up with the members' personal relationships. 

This arc portrays the Titans as a very tight-knit group of friends who only open up their secrets to each other; this is why Terra's infiltration into the Titans as a member of their circle is so crucial to the plot of her eventually betraying them. With her help, Terminator is able to attack the Titans while they're living their personal lives, where they least expect it. The third part of this four-part series (issue #44 of the title) includes a lengthy introduction and background for Terminator's character as a former soldier with a twisted past, which I appreciated mightily, though the length of some flashbacks can grow tiring. This is also the segment where Grayson officially retires the Robin costume and calls himself Nightwing in action for the first time; it all culminates in the final piece of the puzzle, a longer annual issue, where the Titans band together to take down Terra.

Judas Contract was definitely the best arc I read of these four, though Nightwing: Blüdhaven comes close. Nightwing's Year One was a six-issue arc (written by Chuck Dixon with art from Scott Beaty) that I found most interesting for the introduction of Jason Todd as Robin. After a close-call battle with Clayface, where Robin shows up late, delayed by Teen Titans business, Batman fires Grayson (literally: "You're fired!") from his role as Robin in a huff. Grayson heads to Metropolis to consult Clark Kent / Superman, and gets into a short adventure attempting to stop a bombing before gaining Superman's sage wisdom. He then decided to re-join the circus as a hark to his parents, meeting Deadman in the process and finding the costume that he eventually dons as Nightwing.

The fourth issue of this mini-series is where things start to pick up; the new Nightwing patrols Gotham with Batgirl, making a name for himself by beating up mobsters while Batman finds Jason Todd trying to steal the tires off the Batmobile (lmao) and begins to train him to become the new Robin.  Nightwing eventually runs into the new Robin while Batman is having Todd run The Gauntlet, a test that Grayson is all too familiar with; they wind up working together with Batgirl to save Alfred from the clutches of Killer Croc as Batman's Gauntlet test for Todd goes terribly off the rails. This is a really fun six-part series that helps define a certain origin story for Nightwing; it's definitely a lot more cluttered and Batman-centric than the Teen Titans introduction, so it made for a good juxtaposition in getting to know the character. It's also great to see Grayson and Todd fighting each other at one point; Grayson with his acrobatic tendencies and Todd with his street-fighting style.

This brings us to Nightwing: Blüdhaven, a long trade paperback that combines a 4-issue Nightwing mini run published in 1995 (written by Dennis O'Neil and illustrated by Greg Land) with the first 8 issues of the proper Nightwing run (beginning in 1996 by writer Chuck Dixon and artist Scott McDaniel). The miniseries at the front provided DC with an idea of how Batman fans would react to Nightwing in his own series, and apparently the reaction was solid even though this short run is quite a bit worse than the first 8 issues we get from Dixon.

The mini-run sees Grayson considering ending his career as Nightwing at the top of the story, going as far as to give Batman the Nightwing costume as a gesture. He eventually picks up a new costume from Alfred before going to a foreign country called Kravia in search of information regarding his parents' death. O'Neil is not nearly as good at writing Nightwing as Dixon is; the dialogue in this four-issue run does not age well. The art, other than being from 1995 (with fashion choices to match), is just okay here too. The mediocrity of this run is saved by a semi-interesting plot and a solid dynamic between Nightwing and Batman.

A quick side-note here: I read the three above arcs all digitally via Comixology. I haven't read a lot in this format yet, but it was a very enjoyable experience. The Comixology app is done really well, with its Guided View feature, making it easy to keep an eye on the overall look of a page and dig into the art in a detailed way. After reading The Gauntlet in this fashion, I was unsure whether I'd enjoy it for longer periods of time, but it's won me over now. I won't hesitate to use the app in the future.

Dixon's run on Nightwing begins with a bang. Nightwing takes a short bus ride over to Blüdhaven, a city right next to Gotham that's even more corrupt and terrible than its neighbor. Nightwing has his work cut out for him here, and this is where we see the character really start to flourish. He's saving some people and beating some people up and slowly uncovering (with the "help" of a crooked cop) who sits at the top of the Blüdhaven food chain. The build-up of Nightwing getting his bearings in a new city is the reward of this trade paperback; he doesn't know his surroundings like he did in Gotham, and he has to discover new means of gathering intel before getting anything done. He makes a lot of mistakes and is hampered by being a slightly worse detective than Batman, giving you the feel of watching someone who's really learning on the job. We're talking about a hero here who has gotten mentorship from both Batman and Superman, and who led the Teen Titans for an extended period of time -- and still, Blüdhaven is so dirty and corrupt that it takes him quite a while to really dig in.

The final confrontation with the big bad, Blockbuster, is pretty rewarding as well. Throughout the series, McDaniel draws Nightwing's battle scenes in a really interesting way -- with his background as an acrobat, Nightwing often does complex jumps and moves to get himself into position or beat the crap out of someone. McDaniel illustrates this by overlaying Nightwing in several places within one single frame, showing you how exactly he got from one place to the next. It makes the action scenes really fun to read, and does a great job of illustrating the uniqueness of Nightwing's fighting style.

Blüdhaven is, because of Dixon and McDaniels' first eight issues, a super-worthy pick-up for Batman fans who want to discover more in that universe. It's a good story with solid art, and it's surprising to me that this character's Year One volume (also helmed by Dixon) was just okay. I'm now planning on continuing through more of Dixon's run -- there are as many as seven volumes to it -- down the road. But next up are the long-awaited Killing Joke and Death in the Family as I get back into the storyline of our main hero.

Teen Titans: Year One, Teen Titans: Judas Contract and Nightwing: Year One are all available digitally via Comixology at those respective links. These are difficult or impossible to find in trade paperback format, either because they're out of print or were never printed, so I read them digitally. Nightwing: Blüdhaven is available in trade paperback format via Amazon and digitally via Comixology at that link.