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Sunday, 9 December 2012

Nightwing: Traps and Trapezes is the first collected volume of Nightwing comics since the launch of DC Comics’s “New 52” universe. Written by Kyle Higgins and penciled mainly by Eddy Barrows, these installments of the ongoing series reestablished Dick Grayson’s character by showing his return to the Haly Circus—evidently his first significant visit since his parents’ deaths.

That, of course, wipes out the visits we’ve seen in previous universes. Indeed, returning to the circus where he grew up is a staple of stories since Dick Grayson became a man. It was while on the flying trapeze that he expressed his independence in Detective Comics in the early 1980s. Dick was buying the circus when he befriended Tim Drake in New Teen Titans. In the first season of the Young Justice TV universe, teen-aged Dick returned to the Haly Circus as a masked teenager, fooling no one.

All those stories portray the Haly Circus as a welcoming home. The elephants remembered Dick well, of course, and so did the regular performers. While the traveling tent show was often in dire economic straits and/or threatened by mysterious crime that only an acrobatic young detective could solve, it was a refuge for Dick from troubles at Wayne Manor, Titans Tower, or elsewhere. At the end of those tales he always realizes he can’t stay; he has responsibilities elsewhere. But Dick can feel happy that the circus will always be there.

(The one exception is Dick’s visit in Batman and Robin Adventures, #15, spun off the animated cartoons of the 1990s. There the circus owner is named Haley, perhaps writer Ty Templeton’s tip-off that this is a different reality but more likely just normal inconsistency.)

Traps and Trapezes rewrites Dick Grayson’s origin, and not just by saying he was with the circus until he was about sixteen, or five years before the present. As part of the “Court of Owls” storyline that Scott Snyder was directing from the Batman magazine, it reveals the Haly Circus to be a breeding-ground for young assassins.

We might ask why gangster Tony Zucco would try to shake down an enterprise connected to the Court of Owls. Nonetheless, he did, and he killed two-thirds of the Flying Graysons (as in every iteration of the Batman universe since 1940), causing Dick to leave the show and start living in Wayne Manor. That’s the only thing, it turns out, which preserved Dick from becoming just another assassin. Everything was already set up, including the dental plan.

The two magazines’ combined storyline thus plays on fans’ visceral dismay at any violation of Reason for Robin, #10: “Robin isn’t evil.” In addition to the overarching narrative, the first issue of the new Batman ends with Alfred finding Dick’s DNA under the fingernails of a murder victim. This Traps and Trapezes volume ends with one of our hero’s escrima sticks showing up at another crime scene. But in all cases the dénouements assure us, after the requisite worry in the middle acts, that Nightwing isn’t evil.

The other thing that this volume reassures us hasn’t changed in the new universe is that Dick Grayson is the pretty one. We see that even in the flashbacks that show him with other circus kids. The boy named Zane has a big, unexplained scar down one side of his face. Another boy, Raymond, starts out basically indistinguishable from young Dick, except perhaps not smiling as much, but he returns with terrible scarring around his eyes. (A detail apparently not yet settled when the first issue showed him taking off his sunglasses.)

And Dick? Despite spending five years in a business that involves being kicked in the face, he remains unblemished and oh-so-handsome. Barrows supplies many pinnable pictures of Nightwing swinging through the urban skies, muscles flexed and hair flowing. The new Nightwing uniform, while not as sleek and distinctive as the blue “fingerstripes” package, is skintight and shiny. Barrows also designs a lot of those panels that show a series of Nightwings bouncing across the rooftops.

Will the surviving traits be enough to keep Dick Grayson as a distinctive character with his own following? The new universe has replaced his long history as Robin with a couple of years at most. It’s wiped out his ascendancy with the Titans. There’s no hint of his years in Blüdhaven or his team-ups with many other heroes. But he does look pretty.

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