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Review: Nightwing #44: Working out on Chest and (throw) Back Day

*Mild spoiler whited out at the end*

I came to read this really interesting comic — Nightwing #44 “The Bleeding Edge” part one because everyone’s favorite comics PR guy Clark Bull tweeted:

Now, I tend to choose which superhero comics to read based on the writer and artist working on them rather than because of the particular characters in it. A great creative team can make anything work, yes even Deathstroke. I was previously unfamiliar with Christopher Mooneyham (pencils) and Benjamin Percy (writer), Nick Filardi (colors) and Carlos M. Mangual (letters). But as a critic who analyzes art through a feminist and queer lens I’ve developed an academic interest in Dick Grayson.

Grayson is one of the only male characters that straight male creative teams have frequently offered up to the androphilic gaze. In layperson’s terms– Nightwing is a rare character that even straight men deliberately depict with the intent to make readers find him sexy and that many readers who are attracted to men see as sexy, even before the creators came around to the idea. Meanwhile, almost every female character is drawn to appeal to the male gaze, even lesbian characters. I, as a queer person, might find some of those female characters hot too– but that is a side effect, they were not depicted with my gaze in mind.

Nightwing exists in a critically interesting space for these reasons. And if Clark tells me to watch for Discowing worthy visual tributes in Nightwing #44, sure I’ll check it out.

What I found was a comic full of early 80s visual cues– everything from John Romita Jr-esque squared-off lips and Klaus Jansen/Frank Miller gritty but pretty action filled pencils to subways with 1980’s level graphitti. Even Dick’s haircut is early 80’s compliant, and flattering (see 50% of Duran Duran).

And what is this utterly Bronze Age Nightwing doing? He’s complaining about our modern relationship with the portable internet. Which is seems in-character. He’s also using his newly modified escrima sticks exactly like Daredevil uses his batton, ricocheting it around the subway car. It even has a break in the center for grappling hook use, like Murdock’s primary mode of transportation.

Was there a rift in the multiverse through which a dimension-hopping Dick got to replicate Matt Murdock’s batton? Were Grayson’s escrima sticks always like that and I just never noticed before because the art wasn’t so similar to what I associate with my favorite old Daredevil comics? I’d never connected Daredevil and Nightwing till now despite their shared acrobatic skills and handsome figures. But maybe the brooding and emotionally damaged Matt Murdock– the Worst Boyfriend in Comics™– isn’t so different after all from the joyful and emotionally intelligent Dick Grayson — the Best Ex-Boyfriend in Comics.

Halfway into the issue we are greeted with a shirtless and unshorn Dick Grayson stretched out on the coach. I appreciate the unshorn which is especially realistic if we’re doing an 80s throwback aesthetic. His body language is open as we look down on him from above.

You know what? We deserve artist Chris Mooneyham’s Dick Grayson lying shirtless on a couch. The recognition that men can be the subject of our sexual desires and that people might want to look at them being sexy is still a pretty radical proposition in superhero comics. It was part of the recent Grayson series’ success and it is actually part of the story here.

Unlike many of the random semi nude women in comics it makes sense for Dick to be shirtless. He’s at home relaxing in a bright window while flirting with his on again off again. Grayson’s anatomy while rare, is within the range of things a body can be.  And that’s good. Physically impossible figures are honestly not sexy to me. He doesn’t have the dead-eyed objectivized look we often see on shirtless women when drawn by men. He’s clearly in thought here. Look, I like semi clothed women as much as the next person who’s sexualy attracted to women. But it shouldn’t always be women. That’s not a balanced diet and its hurting storytelling.

This art is a helpful reminder that sexy art is best served by being character driven, by having a torso that accommodates lungs and a gastrointestinal system, non-fictional muscles, and even has body hair (women have body hair too, I know this may be shocking to some men who’ve never been naked with a woman IRL). I’m not suggesting that a character needs to look like Dick does here in order to be sexy. I want to see all sorts of bodies and genders represented on the page, especially the acknowledgement that bodies that deviate from Hollywood norms are desirable too. Why are no characters drawn like Katie King or Ximena Santos from Raven the Pirate Princess in the DCU or Marvel?

Anyway….

Dick’s legendary chemistry with Barbara Gordon is in full display here — the juxtaposed panels of their phone conversation establish a visual flirtation between the two characters. They may be in different apartments talking on the phone but their eye lines across the gutters keep them flirting even more than their dialog does.

One thing I could do without is the heavy deli owner being drawn as a slob. It’s an anti-fat stereotype and below this comic’s intelligence.

Mild spoiler (highlight the text)

In the end, as with many great things of the 1980s, this story ends in body horror. I won’t say how. As a huge fan of the works of David Cronenberg I say hooray!

In conclusion Nightwing #44’s virtues include:

  • Early 1980s Daredevil aesthetics
  • Shirtless Dick Grayson drawn just for you and me
  • A villain who uses technology in creative ways
  • Light social commentary
  • An easy jumping on point for new readers of the series, like me

That’s good promise from just a single issue of a new character arc in an existing series. Sure, I’ll keep checking out Nightwing– literally and figuratively. You should too! We deserve it.PS: For an extremely thoughtful and historically centered look at the way Dick Grayson has been depicted in comics read the essential Meg Downey’s essay In Defense of Dick Grayson: Objectification, Sexuality, and Subtext.