Dick Grayson. Nightwing. Former Robin. In his 2014 solo series, Grayson finds himself infiltrating a not-so-kosher organisation called Spyral, who have designated him the very-unsexy codename Agent 37. Using sabotage, subterfuge, and oodles of charm, Grayson attempts to take down Spyral from the inside while keeping the body count low and hiding his true motives from everyone, including his more-than-friend, Helena ‘Matron’ Bertinelli.
Mikel Janin (Artist), Tom King (Writer), Tim Seeley (Writer)
March 31, 2020
Is it any surprise that during the most isolating Easter in recent history, I found myself curling up on the bed with the Tom King-Tim Seeley Grayson series? It’s the apocalypse outside, so I might as well distract myself with the beautiful face of Dick Grayson, one of my earliest male crushes in the form of Burt Ward. Grayson’s one of the rare male characters to be drawn in the female gaze (and we love him for it!). His face—and his derriere—have been reimagined by countless artists across comics, commissions, and as tattoos. I’ve loved Grayson in pretty much every form, though I was late to the comics party because they weren’t available where I lived. That’s not a problem for me anymore but I’ve still got a lot of catching up to do.
I’d been saving Grayson for years as a treat for a bad day. I’d heard a lot about the series (praise, mostly) and how it heralded Tom King’s award-winning run on the Vision solo series in 2015. I loved Vision when I read it but I hated King’s work on Batman: Rebirth, except the BatCat storyline which I am weirdly invested in. Let’s not even start on the disaster that was Heroes in Crisis—give me back my Roy and Wally! But Grayson wasn’t Heroes in Crisis-King; it was Vision-King. It must be good, right? Wrong! So wrong!
Okay, let’s start with the positives—aka Grayson himself. I did love his characterisation in this series. He’s funny; he’s sweet; he’s charming; he’s effortlessly sexy. All the ladies are falling over themselves trying to get near him. Midnighter recognises him just by looking at his ass. We get a massive panel dedicated to Grayson and his equally hot partner, Agent 1, walking towards us in nothing but teeny-tiny speedos. Pardon me for being horny on main, but Grayson is designed to evoke such a reaction from the reader. Far be it for me to be contrary.
You’re probably thinking: that all sounds great. Hear me out—as great as Grayson is, everything around him in this series kinda sucks. My biggest problems with this series were the female characters, or lack thereof. The primary women around Grayson are Helena Bertinelli, Agent 8, Elizabeth Netz, and Luka Netz. The Netzes don’t get much page-time until the end, and even then, they are conveniently disposed of. Agent 8 comes and goes and is little more than a plot device for man-pain and betrayal.
Helena is the only female character who gets to spend any time at all on the page but she’s repeatedly duped by Grayson, who constantly (and I mean, constantly!) goes off-book and off-mission because he’s on his own trip. He never affords Helena the respect that her position of power should command; it’s frustrating because women (and all marginalised communities) know how hard it is to fight to get a position of power and how often people just don’t listen even when you do have the authority. She constantly needs rescue even though she is the best agent in Spyral. Does Grayson have to own the spotlight to by bringing down a formidable female character? That just shows a failure to understand what makes Dick Grayson so appealing to readers.
This whole series has a weird way of looking at marginalised characters. Besides the privileged depiction of Dick, it treats other characters as set decoration, not fully realised human beings in and of themselves. Agent 1, Tiger, isn’t given much backstory. His annoyance with Grayson is supposed to be hilarious, but there’s only so many times you can smirk at him calling Grayson an idiot. The writers came across as those uncles at Christmas who made the same joke ten times expecting you to laugh just as uproariously each time.
I had read that Midnighter was going to turn up in the series and I was looking forward to seeing him interact with the sexiest man in DC Comics. Midnighter may be one of the rare gay superheroes in mainstream comics but in Grayson, he’s a very tame one. Apart from the one comment about Grayson’s behind, and a blink and you’ll miss it interaction with Apollo—where their romantic history is so tangentially eluded to that they come across as friends, not lovers—you’d think Midnighter was just a straight guy who made weird comments about people’s derrieres.
There was other queer-baiting stuff that made me uncomfortable because it felt like the dialogue was poking fun at the queer readership. Like when Grayson is grumbling about his tie and asks his partner’s opinion with the line “Am I straight?”. Hahaha. So funny. It’s because he is straight but people don’t think he should be, right? Think Dick Grayson is too hot to be straight? Well, the story laughs in your face about it. This series was written in 2014, but its tone felt older and crueler.
Simply put, the story is badly written. Every issue starts by leaving chunks of the plot to the imagination. You don’t know why you’re in the middle of a scenario when conflicts from the previous issue have yet to be resolved. Turns out most of it has been taken care of off-page and we’re just expected to keep moving along with the story. That’s not how good storytelling works! You can’t keep us hanging and then tell us that everything’s been taken care off in between issues. Where’s the payoff from the reading experience?
The only saving grace of Grayson is Mikel Janin’s art. His Grayson is stunning but not a porcelain doll—he has expressions, and some pretty humanly weird ones at that. Janin’s style is so immersive and comic book-realistic that when different artists were brought in for the Annuals and the final volume it was jarring and uncomfortable. Janin’s Grayson is up there with Travis G. Moore’s and it’s the only thing that kept me engaged in this story.
I really wanted to enjoy Grayson because I have loved Dick Grayson for so long. All I want is a fun story about my favourite Boy Wonder flying through the air, charming people of all genders, being a little queer himself, and fighting crime his way. Instead, the book delivered forced and problematic heteronormativity, bad plots, poorly-executed characterisation, and a sense that a character I love isn’t getting his dues.