Nightwing (vol.4) #102 (May, 2023)
“Rise of the Underworld, Part 2 of 4”
Writer – Tom Taylor
Art – Travis Moore
Colors – Adriano Lucas
Letters – Wes Abbott
Edits – Berbey, Chen, Abernathy
Cover Price: $4.99
I think it’d be too strong to suggest I have a “love/hate” thing with this cover… probably more apt to say I gotta “like/dislike” thing with it. Granted, it is “current year” where comic book covers have been rendered as all but meaningless… what with variants, incentives, gimmicks, and et-cetera… but, this one is kind of a peculiar case.
On one hand… I can’t argue that it’s quite striking! The sort of cover that, will very likely “jump off the rack” at you and force you to take notice. For that I gotta give it points. However, it doesn’t actually… ya know, say anything. I dunno… I’m most certainly wasting a whole lotta effort focusing on this… buuuuut, I’ve been way outta writing practice for quite some time at this point, so — why not use this very minor gripe as a way to work out the kinks, eh? Well, the most surface-level of kinks… there’ll be plenty more to follow as we work our way through this ish!
So, let’s do it!
*NOTE* This is a recent-ish ish… so, I’m using fewer-than-usual pics. That said, this is still going to be a “spoilery synopsis”.
We pick up at the Blüdhaven Morgue, where Nightwing (the real Nightwing), is escaping from one’a dem freezer drawers where the bodies are kept. Of course, last issue ended with our man getting THDed by a hunk of metal by The Grinning Man who had taken the form of a Vlatavian coroner. Anyhoo, with Dick free, he calls in to Oracle to get a twenty on the whereabouts of Raven and Starfire. Babs sez they were headed back to Beast Boy’s palatial pad, which is troubling… since they certainly wouldn’t have left without him. Nightwing asks to be patched through to Vic, who arrives lickety-split.
We shift over to Gar Logan’s place… which, I’m not sure if this is supposed to be Steve Dayton’s mansion, but it certainly looks like it, doesn’t it? Anyway, our sweet Olivia is sleeping in one of the guest rooms, when she is woken by Nightwing… err, “Nightwing” in quotes, I suppose. He tells the girl that it ain’t safe there, and they gotta beat it with the quickness. On the way out, Olivia sees that Beast Boy’s been kayoed on the front steps… “Dick” tells her not to worry and keeps dragging her along. Once on the lawn, our imposter finds himself confronted by the real deal.
The pair’a Dicks have a pretty fun and contentious back ‘n forth… which includes a bit where the Grinning Dick concludes that the Genuine Dick doesn’t have any powers… a deduction he happens to find hi-larious (well, sadlarious, actually). The fellas fight a bit, neither really getting the better of the other. During a lull in the action standoff, our hero makes it clear to Olivia that he’s the real-deal by invoking the name of his three-legged, potentially one-eyed dog, Bitewing. This leads to our sweet girl socking the hell out of the Grinning Dick from behind.
This is only a minor inconvenience for our baddie, however, as he recovers quickly… and just plain nabs Olivia and goes to fly away with her. Unfortunately for him, he just so happens to fly directly into Starfire, Raven, and Cyborg. So, uh, was Cyborg a founding member of the Justice League or not? I really don’t wanna Google it for some reason… I’m almost certainly projecting but it feels like DC Comics wants me to, and I’m just being stubborn. Anyway, the Grinning Dick happily reveals to his “teammates” that, yeah — he can fly now! Which is pretty funny.
When this doesn’t work, the baddie just heaves Olivia into the horizon hoping to make his escape when the Titans naturally rush off to catch her… unfortunately for him, they don’t! It’s a really well done little bit of business. He’s truly shocked that these heroes aren’t going to try and rescue the girl… it’s like he’s appealing to them to do so. Of course we know Olivia isn’t actually in any danger, as Donna Troy snatches the kiddo outta the sky with ease. The Grinning Dick realizes the jig up… just in time for him to take a Starfire/Cyborg “Care Bear Stare” to the chest.
The Grinning Dick is sent hurtling toward the ground, where he’s met by Wally West… who TOOMs him in the mush.
From here, we get a cute scene of Olivia apologizing to a recovering Beast Boy for his getting hurt on account of her. Gar responds maturely… which, after reading pretty much every Gar Logan appearance from the 1980s up until Flashpoint, is the way I want him to act. Who-or-whatever the hell The New-52! Beast Boy is/was… that just plain sucked.
Once our Beast Boy’s outta bed, it’s time for the Titans to interrogate The Grinning Man. Donna employs the Lasso of
Truth Persuasion to get him to spill the beans. It’s just as we suspected during last issue’s discussion… The Grinning Man signed over his soul to Neron in order to get his fantastical powers. Prior to that, he was a low-level baddie who called himself Disguise Master. We see him attempting to “take the form of” Superman in order to rob a bank vault. As you might imagine, this doesn’t really pan out for this goof.
Oh, for those keeping track… it’s at this point, we get our monthly reminder that Raven is, in fact, THE DAUGHTER OF TRIGON THE TERRIBLE. Gotta hand it to ’em, they saved this until well into the second-half of the issue!
So… with The Grinning Man mystery and threat pretty much solved, all that remains is to figure out how to get Neron to back off and leave Olivia alone. I’m not sure if I mentioned it last time, but Blockbuster, prior to his death, signed (his daughter) Olivia’s soul over to Neron… which is why our Underworld pal is so hellbent (ha!) on collecting. It’s explained here (by Raven) that, Neron doesn’t really have much actual use for the soul of a nine-year-old girl… but, in order to appear strong to the other Lords of Hell, he’s gotta follow through. It’s all about posturing ya see.
Nightwing mentions that he’d really like to see this contract between Neron and Blockbuster… which causes Gar to joke about breaking into Hell and just swiping the thing from the Demon’s filing cabinet. This… well, you ever been in a meeting or “problem-solving” conversation, where you make a really stupid joke in order to ease the mood? You ever make a silly suggestion… only to find that those you’re chatting with think it might be “just crazy enough to work”? Yeah, that’s what happening here. Much to his astonishment (and regret), Raven and the rest of the Titans think Gar’s got the right idea… and so, it looks like our team is about to engage in something of a Hell Heist!
Welp… there’s two in a row!
Two extremely fun Titans stories… from the dreaded, and oft-maligned (by me) “current year”! I’m not going to lie… I’m actually a bit taken aback by this. Very surprised. Not to go too deep into my own “comics baggage”, but I honestly assumed that this little “project” of mine was destined to be a one-and-done. One of my preconceptions before starting this was the knowledge that many contemporary writers attempt (and fail) at being funny. Now, perhaps that isn’t completely fair… humor, like anything else creative, is subjective. Maybe it’s more apt so say that I simply don’t find many contemporary writers to be funny. Cringy? Yeah. Try-hard? At times. But, funny? VERY seldom.
So, I was (unfairly) expecting this to kind of fall in line with the rest of the “not for me” sort of comedy. Imagine my surprise when I started to actually feel my lip curl several times during this reading. There was (in my opinion) a lot of quality humor in this issue! Not the sort of “meta” or “too clever for comics” stuff we often see nowadays, but actual funny bits. Funny bits with heart, even! This actually (and yeah, I’m totally overusing the word “actually” today, but please bear with me… I’m not a good writer) felt like an issue of Titans.
Like I said last time out, I know very little about this Tom Taylor cat (other than the mustard-and-bigotry topped hot dog)… but, damned if he doesn’t have a good handle on these characters! Sure, we are only two-issues in on this Dawn of DC (which is a really dumb name for a “new era” that picks up immediately following the last) direction, but nowadays I feel like we know if a comic’s for us or not within two pages, much less a couple of issues.
What I’m trying to say here… while taking my patented overly-wordy “scenic route”… is, I enjoyed this… and I’m pleasantly surprised that I did.
Let’s get into some specifics, eh?
My main takeaway, and at this point in the article, I’ve probably brushed up against it… or flat-out stated it, several times already… is that this feels like a Titans story. I’m still not 100% (or, hell, even 50%) clear on what’s canon as it pertains to (Teen) Titans history. DC Comics seems to be keeping things nebulous… plus, I’m a bit of an idiot, who isn’t always the quickest on the draw when it comes to following a story. It feels as though there’s this a la carte approach at play right now… continuity feels liquid… very much “made to order”. I couldn’t tell you if the original Teen Titans are the ones from Brave and the Bold #54 (1964) or Titans Hunt #1 (2015). I mean, up until literally yesterday (as of this writing) I wouldn’t be able to tell you whether or not Terry Long, the Red-Menace Himself, was still in continuity (Flash #799 revealed that Granny Goodness raised Robert “Lord Chaos” Long)!
Even with that said, this issue (and the one before it) felt more like a “true” Titans story than anything I’d read since the pre-Flashpoint days. We don’t get a whole lot of soapiness, but what we do get feels genuine. The Titans feel like a family again (or at the very least, friends), and aren’t just a bunch of surly, snarky, young heroes seemingly being forced to live and fight crime together between Instagram posts.
When I first saw the Olivia character, I was a bit worried she was going to be relegated to… what I’d usually call the “rapping grandma” sort of character. For those of you who are unfamiliar with my stupid and oblique Chris-isms, that simply means “a lazy one-note/cheap-pop character”, sort of like the “rapping grandma” who we’d seemingly get a different take on like every single week on America’s Funniest Home Videos back in the long ago. I figured she’d get a quippy catchphrase and be the “funny, ha-ha” of the book… and, hell… that probably says more about me and my comics cynicism than the actual book. I was quite pleased to discover that this wasn’t the case at all. Olivia Desmond is a most welcome presence, and is (to this point) a fun character to have as a part of the cast. Not sure I want her sticking around forever (we’ve seen how things go south when the Titans are forced into the “daycare” role – D.E.O. Kids, anyone?), but for now… and for this story, I have zero issues.
We do get a bit of backstory on The Grinning Man… which was exactly what I expected it to be. That doesn’t make it bad, nor contrived… it was just a piece of business that even someone as dense as me could figure out with relative ease. I gotta say, when we first met him, I wasn’t too impressed… but, seeing his “true form”… just a horrid smile plastered on a featureless black head… makes for quite the striking visual! Great work here with the design!
To sum things up… and repeat myself so I can add a few more words to my word-count… this issue (and arc up to this point) was a very pleasant surprise. I’m very happy I took a chance on picking this up… and what’s more, that I forced myself to actually read it (rather than just filing it away like the savage/stupid completionist I am). Next time out, we’ll chat up the penultimate chapter of this pre-Titans (volume whatever we’re up to) Titans story.