An enemy from Nightwing’s past has returned to Bludhaven, bringing with him memories of failures thought buried. And as the present grows more and more out of control, Dick turns to an old friend to get a handle on the situation in Nightwing #37.
Let’s start with the obvious. The Judge is one of the creepiest new Batman villains in years, especially not to come from Snyder or Tynion. His modus operandi is as eerie as it is horrifying as it is frustrating for a detective like Nightwing. Sam Humphries brilliantly, quietly, picks at the ambiguity surrounding his creations’ powers, or lack thereof. This week provides one of our best looks at the Judge so far and, though it feels like the same character, Dick’s memories paint him as a somewhat less intimidating threat. He’s not nearly as terrifying or interesting here, but the differences are striking, even engrossing. Like Snyder’s Joker there’s a feeling of what the Judge appears, the capable but ultimately human villain peculiarly obsessed with casinos, differing from what lies beneath the surface if you only had the chance to pull back his skin, an unsettling enigma whose motives for violence and hatred don’t quite make sense, raising the question of whether he needs any at all.
To my recollection, the first explicit statement that the Judge perceives himself as a god rather than a jury of one certainly adds something to the character, but it’s the deeper question of what he means that keeps my mind churning. It’s unclear exactly what the Judge’s plans or motives might be at this stage, but it’s becoming increasingly likely that the true threat is not the Judge, the supervillain, but the judge who lives in Nightwing’s head. This issue helps display the degree to which Humphries is not only playing within the reader’s head ,but that this mirrors what is happening to our protagonist. The concepts of who one is, what they are capable of, as well as the self-flagellation that can follow when such ideals are not met, are Nightwing’s real threats.
It’s also clear that Humphries understands Dick Grayson. Fundamentally, Dick is a good person with a healthy support structure and a desire to do right. But years of storytelling have revealed the first Robin’s flaws, his need to please, his inability to accept his own shortcomings, his fear of abandonment. Humphries knows that Nightwing is not Batman, the aloof sin-eater carrying the sky on his back, but he ably blends Dick’s strengths and weaknesses into a clever way to address some of the same issues in a way that feels organic to the character.
Admittedly, looking at some of Dick’s earliest days in the cape, especially with the New 52 interpretation in play, allows some of the shared elements that have usually been explored through Jason Todd to come to the fore. In context these similarities make sense and do a nice job of giving us a real glimpse at who Dick was at that time, but, if you showed some of these pages to someone without explaining, they probably wouldn’t guess that it was Grayson under the domino mask.
Objectively, I’m not sure that this issue is the best of this arc, however, I think that it’s able to hold its own because of how it plays upon the previous few and that’s pretty clever. After two issues of watching Nightwing run himself ragged with little success to show for it, Humphries offers a moment to breathe, catch up, and enjoy a simpler story and the result is a palpable feeling of relief from the famously extroverted superhero. This third issue offers the most consistent storytelling, with much lower highs but very few lows.
The simple, one-and-done plot combines elements from many eras of Batman’s history to present something that can almost feel like Humphries’ desire to retcon the Judge back into some forgotten issue made real. Mentions of other cases and sudden overfamiliar introductions might put off many readers, and not without reason, but it certainly gives the impression that these events did happen in some long ago year.
When I put this book down for the first time, I was ready to write a whole [thing] about how cleverly the art referenced classic Batman stories, how it incorporated and synthesized so effectively. And then I saw that this issue was drawn by Klaus Janson.
So yeah, it’s not so much that this issue is referencing Batman’s history, it’s that this issue is drawn by a classic artist who helped inspire many of those styles I was to mention, and shared the same influences as their creators.
Janson is a smart choice, not only as a classic artist but as one whose style is well-suited to the flashbacks of this issue, gritty yet somehow lighter than the present day frame story. Janson’s Judge is disarmingly normal looking, while his Batman is monolithic, a larger than life figure, appropriate for this story from the new Robin’s point of view.
The layouts are simple but effective, with the emotion of Janson’s blocking being one of the issue’s greatest visual strengths. Despite this, the art is likely to be divisive at best. I think that even the strongest proponents of Janson’s art will admit that almost none of it is ‘on-model’. Anatomy and expressions shift and lean as they see fit, giving the art a distinctive quality that some may like, but most will probably find distracting. The squat faced Robin seen here feels true to character, but not especially engaging to look at, especially with one of the weaker renditions of an already hit and miss costume, and some panels are simply poorly drafted.
The surrounding pages in the present are the work of Jamal Campbell and they’re definitely nicer on the eyes. Certainly the two styles don’t mesh well; Campbell’s art and colors could be called slick or ground down under most circumstances, so contrasting it to the flat, scratchy look of Janson’s pages just highlights the weaknesses of both artists. Still, especially in the last few pages, Campbell clearly demonstrates how lovely his art can be.
Nightwing #37 is a strange issue. The whole thing just feels slightly off. The art is a cool idea that doesn’t quite work, its flashback structure seems almost intentionally weak, the new character it introduces is almost entirely unnecessary as of yet, and it’s tonally foreign to the story that Humphries and Bernard Chang have been telling. And yet, there’s not only something charming about the book’s throwback atmosphere but some effective building on what have been the arc’s greatest strengths. The change in tone hammers home the power of “The Untouchable’s” atmosphere, and the parable of Dick’s first encounter with the Judge is a lovely Robin story that helps, or at least helped me, focus in on what the story is trying to do.
At best Nightwing #37 an affecting bit of misdirection and redirection while, at worst, it’s a misstep for an arc that was strong out of the gate. Regardless of which camp you fall into, “The Untouchable” remains a fascinating story, one that benefits from a monthly reading schedule. This issue’s best elements are mostly the ways that it leverages its predecessors’ strengths and that may mean that the final word will come down to how and if Humphries builds upon this issue in turn. Some fans will likely look at this issue and see a side story, a diversion from the main event, and I don’t know that I can say that they’re wrong, but I really like what Humphries is doing with this arc and this issue furthers those goals in interesting ways.
Nightwing #37 is currently available from DC Comics.