I’ve been reading comics for over twenty years. The heroes contained within the pages have enthralled me since I used to beg my mother to purchase issues at the grocery store during weekly shopping trips. So when David asked me to write about my favorite superhero, I had a hard time choosing just one. I wanted to do something different than focus on the Big 3, Spider-Man, Wolverine, or another of the Usual Suspects of fanboy delight. I considered what makes a hero. Then I measured what qualifications would make one worthy of being called the best. Several went through my mind but one name above all kept coming up. That name was Nightwing.
Nightwing, The Boy Wonder
Despite being the original child sidekick with questionable costumes, I concluded Dick Grayson/Nightwing may be the greatest of all the superheroes.
Dick emerged on the scene as the original Robin in Detective Comics #38 in 1940. He was conceived as mostly a gimmick to attract a younger viewership to the dark Batman comics. The young boy fighting crime in green underoos with bare legs was an overwhelming success. The Batman books doubled in sales after the inclusion of Robin. Unlike his mentor, Robin was decked out in primary colors, happy-go-lucky, and fought crime with a jokey attitude.
The character’s childhood was unorthodox even before meeting Batman. Despite the light-hearted nature of the character, he was forged through dark origins. His parents were a trapeze act who performed as The Flying Graysons. Dick joined as the youngest of the team and the headliner of Haley’s Circus. His background as one of the premiere acrobats on the planet was instrumental in his fighting style later as an urban crime fighter.
The Lightest Dark
Most superheroes are born of tragedy. Dick was no exception. He lost his parents, John and Mary, in the same night when a mobster named Tony Zucco orchestrated an accident to hold up the circus for protection money. The trapeze line was cut and Dick was orphaned just like Bruce Wayne. Bruce was in attendance and took the parentless child under his leathery wing as his ward. The billionaire vigilante was struck by the similarities in their situation.
Unlike Bruce, however, the tragedy did not send young Dick spiraling into a personal abyss. Even after that terrible night on the high-wire the purity of his childlike heart remained intact. While Dick was trained to live in the shadows like Batman, he never succumbed to the pits of despair that fueled the Dark Knight in his quest for justice.
Instead, Dick Grayson saw the fight for righteousness and protecting the innocent as its own purpose. He pursued it with a selfless outlook despite his past. Maintaining this capacity for good and eternal optimism helped him inspire other heroes in a way his mentor never could.
Have You seen my Childhood?
Dick served as the original Boy Wonder from age nine to adulthood. For decades he remained frozen in time like a cute star of a popular television program. He was a hit with the ratings. Then the inevitable happened: he began to age out of his role. Much like the Brady kids when they introduced Cousin Oliver or when Gary Coleman stopped being cute, Dick was just too old to parade around in the green underwear anymore.
DC made a difficult decision. The Boy Wonder would become a man. Dick would leave behind the role of Robin and either find success in the superhero industry on his own merits, or become one of the wash outs destined to appear on “Where Are they Now: Superhero Edition”.
The inspiration for the new costumed identity came when Dick remembered a story Superman once told him. Kal-El once donned the moniker of “Nightwing” to fight while powerless in the city of Kandor. The story must have resonated with the former Robin, because he borrowed the name from the Kryptonian legend in order to forge a heroic identity on his own terms.
A Star is Born
In Tales of the Teen Titans #44, 1984, Dick’s version of Nightwing was born. Much like the first appearance as Robin, the original costume was questionable. It reminded me of the disco era almost a decade after that was cool and with a high collar that would put Dr. Strange to shame.
Nightwing persisted despite continuously making the Superhero “Worst Dressed” list. The reinvention of Dick Grayson wasn’t like other child stars who fail to make it after they can legally vote and he didn’t wind up in infomercials. Instead, he continued to lead a grown-up version of the New Teen Titans. Again, Dick used his skills as a leader to bring together heroes from all walks of life (and planets) to fight against the greater good long after he had already sacrificed his entire childhood to a life of capes and cowls.
Speaking of his abilities, Dick was no metahuman. Much like Batman, he is a peak-level human being with fighting skills obtained from a lifetime of experience and many mentors. He was trained as a detective, an acrobat, escape artist, and his primary form of martial arts was Escrima. This became even more prominent in later Nightwing stories when he employed twin Escrima sticks as his primary weapons.
And, after the untimely death of his parents, he was left as the only human being on earth capable of performing the quadruple somersault.
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