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Runner Up

By (April 7, 2013) No Comment

1So, what constitutes a great “run” of comics? Is it when superstar artists and writers commit to one whole year of monthly stories? Is it when a single iconic writer scripts for four or five artists across several years? How about six issues of white-hot comics mastery by unknown talent?

Of course, it could be any of these. But for me, about forty issues is cozy. It’s enough of the creators’ work to viscerally subsume the reader; for characters and events to burrow deep and become unforgettable. Best yet, forty issues might even let you glimpse an artist or writer’s growth in the medium.

Some legendary runs of note, that I’ll write posts for eventually, are: Marv Wolfman and George Perez on Teen Titans, John Byrne on Fantastic Four, Geoff Johns on The Flash, Roy Thomas and John Buscema on The Avengers, and Walt Simonson on Thor.

But I’m in no rush, since articles aplenty have been written on these landmark works. I prefer petting the underdogs that many readers might not know about. One of the best is the 1996 ongoing Nightwing title, written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Scott McDaniel.

2Fans of Batman: The Animated Series should remember Nightwing as Dick Grayson, the Caped Crusader’s original partner. However, the Robin persona never sticks long past high school, for any of Bruce Wayne’s sidekicks. Thus the darker, more mature identity, that’s now a DC Universe mainstay (thanks also to that Teen Titans run in the early 80s).

A Knight in Bludhaven, the first of four trades collecting Dixon and McDaniel’s opus, offers a compelling reason for Grayson to leave Gotham (and the cushy Wayne Manor): twenty-one corpses have floated up through an estuary from the south. The fact that they’re all gangsters, members of Angel Marin’s crew (with their heads twisted backward 180 degrees), is even more reason to investigate. This place they’ve come from, Bludhaven, is a “mobbed-up, drug-ravaged and morally bankrupt Hellhole.” You know, where brain-donors Snookie and JWoww crawled from.

Every self-contained Nightwing adventure, in which he hunts for Bludhaven’s brutal (but shy) new kingpin, is an adrenal blast. The opening page sees him handcuffed to a fridge, at the bottom of a river. Another scene shows him dodging bullets atop a flatbed truck loaded with cars (that, naturally, break loose). Later, my favorite sequence has Grayson enter a “check-cashing” trailer at the foot of towering housing projects. While he’s questioning the goons within, a giant magnet slams onto the trailer’s roof. A helicopter then lifts the thing so that a worse set of goons can rob it.

3And it would all be dead boring if not for McDaniel’s slip-streaming panels. He’s one of those rare artists whose influences are tough to pin down. His entire world, chunky and corralled in thick black lines, looks made of toys. He’s one step beyond manga, with motion lines that are actually  made of smoke, water and debris. McDaniel also loves circular panels, one that brings focus on a crowded page, and another that–mindblowingly–applies a fish lens.

The extraordinary Karl Story inks it all, helping McDaniel seem to sculpt from shadow rather than just draw. The coloring here is by Roberta Tewes, and I must say that it’s an acquired taste. Lots of brittle yellow and orange chemically stains Bludhaven, if only to highlight Nightwing in his blue and black costume. This tendency softens later in the run, making way for more natural colors, and is the definitive minor quibble.

5Dixon hangs back, never swamping McDaniel’s pages in heavy wordplay. His noir terseness frequently crackles, like when crooked detective Dudley Soames tells Nightwing, at gunpoint, that he’s good. “Not as good as the guy who’ll come looking for me,” our hero replies. True, but what a way to come in second.