Even The Best Of Us Are Capable Of Anything In Nightwing: The New Order #1

by Noah Sharma

Dick Grayson is many things to many people. Hero, civilian, Boy Wonder, Teen Titan, man on his own, heart of the superhero world, shadow of the Bat, heir to the cape and cowl, angry young man, daring young man on the flying trapeze, the list goes on. There is only one thing that seems to hold true for almost every Dick Grayson: right or wrong, whether his jokes are biting or cheerful, Dick Grayson is someone we trust, someone we aspire to be. And so–as is the nature of the times, or perhaps as the times demand, depending on your view–Nightwing: The New Order asks the question, ‘How could the man we trust be a fascist?’

This series was hated right from the start. ‘Nightwing could never be a fascist!’ ‘It’s a marketing ploy!’ And certainly its announcement deep in the middle of Marvel’s “Secret Empire” did nothing to address accusations of tone-deafness. But, now that it’s here, we can judge New Order on its own merits and failures and, for any imperfections, Nightwing: The New Order #1 has succeeded at one thing that “Secret Empire” couldn’t fully do in its entire runtime: it has established clearly that this is an anti-fascist story.

Nightwing: The New Order #1 is a tragedy and it begins when Dick is forced to choose between two of his guiding principles, standing by his friends, his family, and protecting the weak. From there it spirals into a twisted tale of Dick Grayson’s perfect life. The trick for this issue is that it doesn’t make it too twisted.

Yes, Dick Grayson is running a repressive para-military group with broad authority to strip away his citizens’ rights, but it’s the kind of dystopia where its citizens don’t even realize they’re living in one. The story is narrated by Dick’s son, Jack, who has realized, as we do, that something is not right. The dramatic irony of our knowledge as readers drives the story right until the final pages, when Jack admits that he’s in on cruel joke.

So the question is not whether this can be heroic, but how even a hero as upright as Nightwing could do something so horrible. The focus of the story is on how little has to change for Dick and how much he’s willing to ignore. Over the years, Dick has aspired to be Batman, a criminal lawyer, and a police officer. As head of the crusaders he’s effectively a bit of each, an untouchable idol who both legislates the law and enforces it without remorse, but he’s also a sincerely charming, transparent, and kindly public servant.

And that is actually interesting. We’ve seen ‘what if heroes turned evil’ stories before and an increasing number of ‘what if a hero took protection to its fascist extreme’ stories over the years, but Dick Grayson isn’t a dictator or even a mad vigilante, he’s something much scarier. He’s a cop. He’s a cop with a justification to track down and punish those who are different. That is actually timely. That actually has the potential to say something meaningful in the current climate, rather than merely poking it for attention, as critics of this series and “Secret Empire” have alleged.

Nevertheless, at this point, I would not go so far as to call Nightwing: The New Order a necessary story. There is nothing here that simply needed to be told and it remains an odd little miniseries that doesn’t quite jibe with DC’s other output. So why did this series make it to print? What was the purpose?

Well as far as I can tell it was a chance to bring back Kyle Higgins and Trevor McCarthy.

Kyle Higgins’ run on Nightwing was not universally acclaimed, but it proved that Higgins had not only a powerful understanding of the character and his motivations but a sincere love of Dick Grayson. So to have him writing Nightwing again, especially in a format where we get to spend more time focused on his human qualities than his heroism, is certainly a treat.

Higgins’ near mastery of Dick Grayson’s voice is pretty astounding. Even if you disagreed with a line or a reaction forcefully enough to have strong feelings against it, you’d have to admit that it still reads like Dick Grayson as he’s been written over the last twenty years. Especially wearing a suit and sporting a short, shaggy hairstyle, it seems likely that Higgins and McCarthy are consciously calling upon the ‘Officer Grayson’ Era of Nightwing’s original ongoing.

That flavor is potent and it helps you feel at home, and, at times, uncomfortable. But one would not be wrong to wonder why this had to be a Nightwing story. Especially in the current market and atmosphere, if this story really came from Higgins, it easily could have been sold as an Image book or some other generified property. But what the Nightwing history brings to the book is trust.

Higgins cleverly leverages the charisma of two of DC’s most beloved characters, in this case Nightwing and Alfred, to give his story stakes and help make the story’s central dilemma relatable without devoting time to defending oppression or apologizing for the premise.

He also wisely chooses Dr. Light, a mid-level villain with name recognition best known for comedic appearances on Teen Titans and decidedly not comedic appearances in mid 2000s comics, as the first threat that the Crusaders run up against. Even with his powers at full force, Light has rarely been a significant threat on his own and watching Nightwing and a paramilitary strike force hunt him through the streets of Gotham is bound to send a shiver down your spine, even as Higgins and McCarthy’s jolly dialogue and dynamic sense of movement make it rather fun to read.

But of course, Dr. Light being off his meds is itself unsettling thanks to DC’s questionable decision to establish him as a serial rapist, hammering home the sense of fear and not knowing that makes solutions like the Crusaders possible. And it even goes a step further as Higgins’ dialogue draws pretty strong parallels between what Nightwing is doing to supercriminals, just a tiny segment of the population now, and the treatment of queer people and the ‘sexual deviants’ that they were grouped with for most of the twentieth century. That’s a delicate subject, but, while I’m by no means an authority, I think Higgins successfully threads that needle, alluding to the atrocities of the past without cashing in on them.

Trevor McCarthy worked with Higgins on his first two DC projects, a story in Detective Comics Annual 12 and Batman: Gates of Gotham, and it’s nice to see them teamed up again. While Gates was one of Higgins’ big breaks, McCarthy has been working in comics for a long time and actually drew several issues of the original Nightwing series. Fans of either will find him no less capable now.

McCarthy possesses a bold style that makes significant use of his talents as an inker. His characters are possessed of strong brows and expressive eyes while his Gotham is an inky weight, broken by the fine light of windows and the sharp silhouettes of suspension cables. His linework is a bit lighter overall than in Gates of Gotham and his style is a bit freer, in fact, as mentioned, he seems to be taking cues from Nightwing vol.1.

But while McCarthy’s style is eye-catching, his biggest contribution to this issue is pacing. The opening action scene is a visual treat with some great expressions and a real sense of motion, but once it’s over there isn’t nearly so much spectacle. It doesn’t really feel like it though, as McCarthy keeps an issue full of quiet family moments, workplace banter, and philosophical discussions engrossing.

A huge part of this comes down to the layouts, as McCarthy packs pages with seven or more panels, page after page, and it never feels cramped. There’s no tricks or gimmicks, McCarthy is confident in the appeal of his aesthetic and just allows it the space and the granularity to breathe and emote. From there its just a matter of utilizing simple blocking techniques and adding just a dash of mundane reality to highlight the drama.

Those confused by why DC decided to publish Nightwing: The New Order won’t necessarily be able to put that question to rest just yet, but fans can rest easy knowing that there’s more to this book than a simple rehash of Injustice or Kingdom Come. Kyle Higgins’ sincere affinity for this character helps New Order feel real and substantial without having to insist upon its own weight and Trevor McCarthy proves a perfect choice for this blend of the fantastic, the stripped down, and the ever mundane, keeping you on the edge of your seat all the way through.

Nightwing: The New Order #1 is currently available in shops from DC Comics.