In an ill conceived attempt at distracting myself from my mourning at the air date for season three of Young Justice being pushed back to 2019 – seriously, haven’t we waited long enough? – I started rewatching some of my favourite episodes. In doing so, I started thinking about the show’s interpretation of Nightwing and how that compares to the comics version of the character as well as the fan interpretations.
Dick Grayson is my absolute favourite comics character ever. He’s absolutely essential to comics, to Batman. There would be no Robin without him. By extension, there would be no Batfamily. And, like a friend and I once concluded, without the Batfamily, Bruce would be like the guy from the Dark Knight trilogy. And no one likes that guy!
I saw a Tweet a while back from someone justifying the need for a Cyborg movie, and one of his points was something along the lines of “Nightwing is getting one, and more of the general audience knows who Cyborg is than Nightwing”. That statement could well be true. And I fully support Cyborg getting a movie. But I think it’s also an oversimplification, because while Cyborg may be better known than Nightwing, I’d be willing to bet Robin is better known than Cyborg. Dick Grayson is better known than Victor Stone. Dick is very important and very well known. But precisely who he is and what he stands for varies dramatically depending on who you ask.
The fan interpretation frustrates me a bit because of how much it flattens the character. I mean, the same can kind of be said about all fan interpretations, especially the recursive ones, where that fan interpretation starts to bleed back into comics and movies and cartoons. Fan interpretations will nearly always flatten a character, with the rare exception of characters like Jason Todd, whose fan interpretation is probably more developed than he is canonically. But Dick being misinterpreted bothers me more than the misinterpretation of most other characters. It’s for a lot of reasons – one of which, of course, being that he’s my favourite comics character – but I think primarily, it’s because he’s flattened in order to make him look better next to the other members of his family, usually Bruce. This post summarizes it all quite well: it’s a combination of a feedback loop, a cultural idea of Robin (more attached to him than any of the others), and it being easy to perceive him differently based on out of context traits.
Dick is one of the codifiers for the Sidekick Graduations Stick trope, and that’s true in that he’s never returned to Robin, but a lot of writers are wary of actually making that the case. Dick is better at what he does than Bruce. It’s a combination of who he has and the fact that Bruce raised him. Bruce himself has called Dick a better man than he is and acknowledged that Dick has far surpassed him in a lot of areas. But most writers are afraid of leaning into that because Bruce is just so iconic. So they make him less competent in order to make different members of the Batfamily look better, flatten his character to make his relationships with his family more saccharine, and regress him for the sake of keeping him Bruce’s sidekick rather than a full partner. It’s quite similar to how Barbara was reverted to being Batgirl – Oracle is an equal, with her own skillset, that mentors others. Batgirl, not so much.
It’s not at all that I think there’s only one way to write Dick. But I do believe that there are certain aspects of his character that should be constant if the circumstances of his life haven’t changed. Consistency may be all but impossible with comics, due to all the different writers with different interpretations, but the core of the character should remain the same.
Dick Grayson is absolutely a good person. Hell, he’s a Multiverse constant – he’s a force for good, so much so that Golden Age Superman had to acknowledge that he’s still a good man in a world filled with morally bankrupt heroes. But he’s also much more complex than the cool, encouraging, happy-go-lucky child of a big brother that loves to hug his siblings and crack puns. Sure, there are elements of that in him. He is an older brother that cares about his family, but he doesn’t always get along with them. He does encourage his siblings, but he had to learn that, and each of his siblings required something different from him. Damian in particular needed him to be able to control the temper that he does have. He has a sense of showmanship – he was a circus acrobat that was born to be in the centre ring. He’s naturally a better athlete than Bruce, to the point where canonically, he and Cass are the only ones that can beat Bruce in a fair fight. Dick has a temper that he learned to control. He’s driven and obsessive, even if he’s much more capable of moving on than Bruce is. He cares about the people around him and they care about him, too, even if he struggles to actually let them help him when he needs it. And I think that’s why I adore the Young Justice interpretation of the character so much.
I was having a discussion with someone a while ago, and they said they thought that that incarnation was too Superman-esque and not Batman enough, and while I respect their opinion, I disagree. Dick’s strength is that he balances optimism and a desire to see the best in people with paranoia and an urge to check people’s stories rather than believing them blindly. As such, I think the first two seasons of YJ did an amazing job with him.
He’s quick and witty and charming, he makes jokes and has lots of friends, he loves Bruce but doesn’t want to become him. He’s just as prepared and paranoid. He’s fully capable of running unstable and risky gambits that could get people killed. He’s absolutely dedicated to fighting crime…but he’s afraid of losing himself, of becoming a person that will manipulate and pull strings and do anything to achieve his goals. The show managed to convey both how this is someone that was raised by Batman and that he influenced Bruce himself through depicting him as a good leader that makes tough decisions – often better ones than Bruce himself – and whose team trusts him enough to forgive him, even when they’re mad at him for making those decisions. For me, that captures the essence of who Dick is as a character.
Bruce had a very minor role in the show, but it was enough to demonstrate how his and Dick’s dynamic works. They’re a team and family both. When Dick is jealous of Kaldur, Bruce responds by inviting him to play basketball as a way of assuring him that he’s irreplaceable. When Wonder Woman criticizes how he introduced a nine year old Dick to crime fighting, Bruce said that he did it so Dick wouldn’t turn out like him. The show did shift a bit from the usually accepted canon in regards to Dick transitioning from Robin to Nightwing in that it was an amicable decision where Bruce and Dick both agreed he’d grown up and needed to do his own thing, rather than a result of a major falling out. That does change the context of the Batfamily, but in a way that I like.
I’m wary about Titans. The pictures we’ve seen and information we’ve gotten has made me go back and forth over whether or not I’m excited for months now. I’m going to watch it, of course, because Dick has always been my favourite and I’ve been looking forward to seeing a good depiction of him in live action for years – fingers crossed that this one will be good – and I’m delighted that we’re going to get other awesome characters, some of whom have never gotten an adaptation before, like Donna and Kiran. I’m nervous about how Dick will be treated…but if I want him to be catapulted into the cultural conscience as himself, more than just “Robin is Batman’s partner and adds colour and joy to Gotham” (which I will always acknowledge is important), I’m going to have to be ready for adaptations and interpretations that I won’t always agree with. That’s the case in animation – I’m talking about you, Son of Batman – as well as comics themselves – Grayson – and will be the case in live action. So I’m cautiously optimistic. Here’s to hoping that pays off!