This guest post comes courtesty of one of my dearest friends in and out of fandom, Yamini, who kindly allowed me to repost her brilliant analysis of Batman and Nightwing’s relationship in Nightwing: Rebirth. (This post is also available on her tumblr, so please reblog it from there if you want to share!
“… And Fate them forged a binding chain / of living love and mortal pain” is one of my favourite lines in JRR Tolkien’s Lay of Leithian; encapsulating the poem’s driving conviction that mingled love, pain, surrender, and redemption can form the foundations of the most important relationships we can have with other human beings.
I found myself thinking about it after reading Nightwing #8 (by Tim Seeley, Javier Fernandez, Chris Sotomayor and Carlos Mangual) because love, pain, and redemption are so much a part of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, and how they relate to each other, and I haven’t read many comics that mediate on that as beautifully as this one (and hell, this whole arc) does.
Like any good serialised story, Nightwing #8 pays dividends from seeds invested in earlier issues, and hell, the entire corpus of comics that feature these two. But if I go all the way back to 1940, we’d be here all day, so let’s just start with second issue of the Nightwing volume that launched this year as part of DC’s Rebirth line.
And I say issue #2 rather than #1 because the former starts with a flashback to Dick’s days as Robin. Batman in this flashback is a manifestation of the stereotypical masculine fantasy: the kind of hard-edged, brutal badass who dangles criminals off roofs.
I am certainly no Batmanologist, but I’ve read my fair share of Batman comics over the years, and I was still shocked when he actually did let that guy fall a few storeys to the ground, despite Robin’s pleas for mercy. That’s not Batman—is it?
“We can’t trust criminals,” Batman tells a horrified Robin. “Their fear is more important than your trust.”
Dick doesn’t agree with it as Robin, and he still doesn’t agree with it as Nightwing. And, interestingly, in trying to gain Dick’s trust later in that issue, Raptor draws parallels between his own methods and Batman’s use of fear.
“You’ve stood here before. Out on the precipice. About to leap, knowing someone would catch you. Not your mother. Not your father. Someone with a foot in the dark just like me. Someone who used fear as a weapon. Batman. You trusted him. You can trust me. I won’t let you fall too far into the dark. I’ll catch you.”
There’s a lot to unpack in these few lines. We learn later that Raptor really hates Batman (Bruce, really), but here, he actually acknowledges his own similarities to Batman, and suggests that that is enough of a reason for Dick to trust him.
But what I find interesting is the fact that he so correctly gauges what Bruce means to Dick, and how Seeley uses that specific, trapeze-artist-relevant imagery. Just one issue before, Dick says this:
“…I try to pay Bruce Wayne back by doing for others what he did for me. By being their net. By catching them before they hit the ground.”
Incidentally, this is a recurring metaphor from Grayson, where Seeley has Dick talk about Bruce as his ‘net’ as early as issue #7 of that series, in a conversation with the Gardener of the God Garden.
I have never been on a trapeze, myself, but based on my singular experience of rappelling, I imagine I’d struggle to make it off that platform without a lot of cajoling. Because I’m a scaredy-cat, first of all, but also because it’s the sort of thing that also requires an immense amount of trust: trust in the equipment, in the process and your own skill, but also trust in the people who are spotting you.
Trust, in turn, is a form of submission: giving up control to willingly put yourself at the mercy of someone else. And what is Batman, if not a man of discipline and control—a man trying to make up for a terrible moment in his life where he had no control or agency whatsoever?
In Nightwing #4, he wonders if Dick can really trust Raptor. It’s another moment crossed wiring, because even though it’s clear to the reader that he asks this out of concern, Dick in turn interprets it as a lack of trust in his judgement:
“You don’t trust anyone, Bruce. Including me… You can’t believe anyone can walk the line between light and dark. Because you know that if you stepped over for even a second… you’d never come back. I’m not you, Bruce. And I have you to thank for that.”
Dick does have a point, because Batman has very well-documented trust issues. And the composition of the above panel is interesting: Dick, in civilian clothes, his body language confrontational, facing up to his mentor who is very much in masked Batman mode.
But to be honest, this scene left me conflicted between being happy just to see my favourite characters interact versus feeling trepidation and disappointment because I feel like we’ve trod this ground a lot before. Dick yells at Bruce, there’s ~tension~, nothing is resolved, things move on, and the cycle repeats itself.
Trust, in particular, has been a particular bug-bear for them in the post-Flashpoint continuity, specifically in the aftermath of the Death of the Family arc (which was not dealt with for many months until Forever Evil, and even then as an afterthought).
The next two issues were part of the Night of the Monster Men crossover event and—in my view—didn’t particularly delve further into the matter of the ~tension~. I didn’t have a problem with this, because it allowed the crossover (all parts of which will be collected in a separate trade) to stand alone.
But I was very surprised when, reading Nightwing #7, we got a scene with Bruce—as Bruce, no Bat-Cave or Bat-Suit in sight, for the first time in his Nightwing appearances—worried about Dick and brooding over the tension between them.
We’ve all been there, surely: when you have an argument with a friend/family member/loved one, and you feel badly about it but you also don’t know how to fix things. For someone like Batman, who isn’t often allowed to show emotions (because manly men don’t do emotions, I suppose), it’s a touchingly vulnerable moment when he admits,
“I wanted to give him the freedom to make his own choices. To do things his own way, even if that meant making mistakes. And then… well, then I blamed him for how difficult it was for me to let him go.”
This is unmistakably a very parental dilemma to have, poignantly so. (Which is why, I guess, Alfred calls it “devastatingly familiar”—he is a surrogate father to them all).
What really surprised me, though, was that when Raptor says “you have to suffer more, Dick. You need someone to take everything from you,” he really means that he’s going to publicly execute Bruce Wayne. Not Batman, but Bruce Wayne.
We often see Robins and Batgirls and innocent people being used to bait Batman, to cause him anguish and man-pain, but Bruce being placed into the damsel-in-distress role is definitely less common. It’s a refreshing subversion of how Batman is usually portrayed as a badass (and frankly, boring and two-dimensional) I-can-do-anything Bat-God.
All that said, this move by Raptor is as much about practicality, I assume: he correctly realises that it’s ‘easier’ to publicly kidnap Bruce Wayne, because Bruce will never out himself as a superhero (“you always stay on-brand”).
But as I’ve pointed out before, his quarrel is really with Bruce, rather than Batman. And when Raptor talks about suffering, he speaks from a place of intimate knowledge:
“As if it wasn’t a big enough kick to the nethers for my body to turn against me, so did my own people.”
Except, just like Dick was saved by Bruce, Raptor was also saved, by Mary Grayson:
“She picked my miserable ass off the floor of my trailer. Touched me without stigma or superstition.”
Dick himself inadvertently parallels his relationship with Bruce at the end of Nightwing #7, telling Damian,
“… this about more than me and your dad. It’s also about him and my mom.”
In #8, when talking about how his self-appointed role as Mary’s protector, Raptor repeats imagery he had previously used to describe Batman,
“I was always there, one foot in the darkness. Watching.”
Mary died anyway, of course, and in Raptor’s eyes, Bruce Wayne then stole “a son that wasn’t his to raise”. Here, then, is the conflicting duality of Raptor’s motivations, made tangible in his somewhat ironic choice to have Bruce killed by an actual sharpened silver spoon: he blames Bruce for turning Dick soft and being the anti-thesis of everything Mary stood for, and yet believes that losing Bruce would be the equivalent tragedy for Dick.
And certainly, Dick reacts accordingly, being “tempted to call every super-friend” he has.
In my first reading of this issue, I was nervous. Dick saving Bruce seems inevitable, but would it be at the expense of their relationship? Would they end up worse for wear, just like after Death of the Family?
I was pleasantly surprised to find my concerns completely unfounded, and in fact, that Tim Seeley has been a lot more thoughtful in constructing this story than people have given him credit for.
The name of the Nightwing #7/#8 two-parter is “Rise of Raptor”, but issues #1 to #4 were “Better Than Batman”. The comparison to Batman has been around from the beginning, but it’s only in Nightwing #8 that we realise Raptor actually is Batman, in spirit.
A Batman still “stuck in one moment”—and it’s no coincidence that when Dick follows this up with “you’re just like Bruce, Raptor,” we see Raptor really lose it.
Javi Fernandez pulls no punches in drawing the sheer, ugly spitting fury in Raptor’s face, and colourist Chris Sotomayor renders him in an equally emotional blend of blood-red-orange.
But if Raptor is Batman—and losing Mary Grayson was to him what that night in Crime Alley was to Bruce Wayne—he is a Batman who never had a Robin to redeem him and mitigate his pain:
“Except Bruce had someone else. He gave everything he could so I wouldn’t become him. He saved me, and it saved him. It kept from living in the shadows. From walking the line.”
This is where the narrative gives us the emotional pay off (in an atmospheric back-drop of rain, at that!). Despite whatever tension is between them, Dick and Bruce share an immense amount of respect, love, trust, and mutual redemption. Just as Bruce was his net, many years before, the climax of Nightwing #8 sees Dick, quite literally, catching Bruce before he can fall to his death.
I often complain about how Bat-comics writers of recent years have spent too much time in pointless build up, and too little on actually resolving tension and addressing the inevitable aftermath. Honestly, they all need to take the last page of Nightwing #8, pin it up, and learn some lessons from it.
You don’t need to spend an immense amount of page space to craft an emotionally satisfying resolution, and this is a page where Seeley proves to be an elegant story-teller with a deep and subtle understanding of these two characters and their unique, complicated relationship—and where slapdash art, colouring and lettering could have ruined it all, but fortunately didn’t.
Even though the first panel is a silhouette, it sets an intimate tone for the rest of the page, and for Dick and Bruce’s conversation. The second panel is devastatingly simple, and beautifully executed by Fernandez, Sotomayor and Mangual: Dick’s face is rendered profile against deep, black shadow. What we see of his face matches the raw regret in his words:
“Bruce. This… this is all my fault. Raptor did all this because of me. He almost killed you, Bruce. You fell and…”
Ellipses are often cited as a no-no for dialogue in creative fiction writing, but they can be immensely impactful when used sparingly, and in the right context.
This is one of those moments. Dick feels profoundly guilty for misreading Raptor, for the fact that if Bruce had died, it would have been with their relationship in a tense, horrible place. He feels that he would have lost one of the most (if not the most) important people to him and it would have been “all (his) fault”.
And, you know, Bruce Wayne can be a manipulative asshole a lot of the time, but here, Bruce puts a hand on Dick’s shoulder (perhaps an unintentional call back to this scene Batman #11, but a nice one nonetheless) and stems the tide of Dick’s guilt:
“Dick. I didn’t fall. I jumped. I jumped because I knew you would catch me.”
Right in the feels. It’s a poignant moment to end the issue and arc on (the only thing that would have made it better would have been a hug, tbh, but I guess manly men don’t do hugs :P).
But if you go back two pages, to Bruce trying to escape Raptor’s device before it’s triggered, we see just how effectively Fernandez uses perspective and body language to progress the emotional impact of the sequence with no dialogue whatsoever.
You see Bruce closing his eyes, and his hand letting go (made clear by the “shangk” in the lettering).
It’s moving here because this is Bruce (Batman!) closing his eyes and making the conscious decision to take that leap purely based on the faith, trust, respect, and love he has in/for Dick.
It’s a moment of surrender. Submitting to vulnerability; trusting implicitly that the person you’re surrendering to they will catch you when you fall.
If we return to the poem I mentioned in the beginning, Tolkien’s Lay of Leithian line, Tolkien translated Leithian (it’s in Sindarin, one of his invented languages; spoken by the Elves of Lord of the Rings, although the Lay of Leithiantakes place thousands of years before LotR) as “release from bondage”, a term which can refer to many things—heads out of the gutter, people—as there are various forms of non-kinky bondage featured in the story (to fate, mortality, oaths, etc).
But one instance where word bondage is used in the poem itself is this: “thy love me drew from bondage drear”.
In context, the hero (a war veteran, like Tolkien himself) is referring to how the heroine helped him through PTSD-induced isolation, wariness, and despair. Sound familiar?
To me, it is release from the human condition through the wilful act of loving—the sacrificial kind of love that leads Bruce to give Dick everything he can, and to thus be saved in turn. Saved from the darkness of his own trauma, and walking a dark road alone, by the light that Robin brings to his life; a legacy that continues with the other Robins but which will ultimately always belong to Dick, not just because he was the first, but because of his inherent approach to life.
That’s why it’s devastating when Dick says to Raptor, “We could have been friends. We could have been family,” because that’s what Batman and Robin, Bruce and Dick, did for each other.
Dick found someone to teach him, guide him, and show him a way to channel his pain to serve others. Batman went from a guy who threw criminals off buildings to a man who found something and someone to keep him from the edge. Not just the edge of morality, but the abyss of despair, which is ultimately what Raptor succumbed to.
(Incidentally, even though John Grayson says that Raptor makes him uncomfortable, and Mary agrees that he can be intense—we, the readers, know that he can also be really charming and funny and personable. Bad first impressions aside, he is a likeable guy, and obviously very intelligent and resourceful. Maybe things could have been very different if he had been the one with a child to nurture, protect, and set an example for… and that’s what makes his story even more tragic. All he had to do was put his hand out—to let someone catch him, once again.)
Bruce/Batman, had Dick/Robin, to redeem him, and to show him that it doesn’t always have to be about that one horrible moment—that pain is not the only way, because there is also love and joy and moving forward towards the hope of a better tomorrow. Because just living sucks a lot of the time, even if you’re not Batman, but it’s in the bonds we forge (a sort of positive subversion of the concept of bondage, if you will) with other people that we gain redemption, release and everything that makes all the bad stuff worth it.
And who better to illustrate that than the original Dynamic Duo? They are brothers, comrades, and best friends who will be there for each other till the very end—and who will always be there to catch the other when he falls.
The Lay of Leithian is a poem (incomplete) that JRR Tolkien worked on as part of the Middle-earth Legendarium that was his life work. Fun fact: Aragorn’s many times great-grandparents are the main characters of the poem. Galadriel’s brother shows up, too, and has an actual singing duel with Sauron (the baddie of LotR who here is still a minion to the Ultimate Big Boss). As it happens, the story of the Lay of Leithian will be released as a book next year, featuring illustrations by the inimitable Alan Lee.