How Nightwing Evolved into DC’s Greatest Hero

Eighty years ago on the night of June 27, two loving parents were murdered in cold blood. This event shattered their orphaned son’s whole life. That boy would grow up to become the DC Universe’s greatest and most capable male hero—an inspiration to an entire generation of costumed crusaders.

Nope, I’m actually not talking about the Batman. I’m talking about Richard “Dick” Grayson, the first Robin. The Boy Wonder who would grow up one day to become Nightwing. And I’m going to break down for you just why Dick represents the very best the DC Comics universe has to offer.

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Now, before I get murdered in the comments, I don’t think Dick Grayson is DC’s most iconic or influential hero. That is obviously one of the trinity of Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman. But within the context of the DC Universe itself, he exemplifies everything all three of those heroes represent, distilled into one character.

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DC Comics

Dick Grayson first appeared in Detective Comics #39, which hit newsstands on March 6, 1940. In giving the Dark Knight a younger partner, this story changed the Batman character forever. This instantly made Bruce Wayne a father figure, no longer a lone vigilante. Robin popularized the concept of “kid sidekick” in the comics, inspiring many imitators, starting with Captain America’s partner Bucky Barnes.

In that first appearance, we get Robin’s full origin story. In this relatively brief tale, readers found out how his circus aerialist parents The Flying Graysons were murdered by mobsters, leaving him an orphan with a desire for revenge. Recognizing that aspect of himself in the boy, Batman took him under his wing and trained him, naming him Robin after Robin Hood. As Bruce Wayne, Batman also adopted Dick as his legal ward.

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From the beginning, Robin was the polar opposite of Batman. His costume was colorful, he was constantly shown smiling, and he often made jokes. Although the comics of the ‘40s didn’t explore their character’s psychological underpinnings in the way that modern comics too, it was probably obvious to the writers even then that Robin wasn’t ever meant to just be “Batman Jr.”

From the get-go, Batman was serious and brooding, and let his past tragedy drive him every one of his actions. Robin, meanwhile, could clearly still punch the bad guys and still have fun. He might have still missed his parents,  but clearly their deaths didn’t consume him. From the very beginning, he seemed to be in a healthier mental place than Batman ever was. And that was the whole point; he was meant to be the character whom the kids reading Batman comics could relate to.

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DC Comics

For the next 44 years of comics publishing history, not to mention on TV, Robin was seen as the happy-go-lucky other half of the phrase “Batman and.” He has some solo adventures in the ‘40s, but was mainly always perceived of as the appendage to his older mentor. The ’60s and ’70s brought on the first attempts at making Dick Grayson more than just a sidekick.

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The first time we saw a capable “adult” Robin was in 1967’s Justice League of America #55, where we meet the Dick Grayson from the parallel reality of Earth-Two. In this universe, Dick had aged in real time from his original appearance in 1940, and was shown as a man in his late 30s. This version of Dick had become Gotham City’s main protector after Bruce Wayne’s retirement; he had also become a successful lawyer. He wore a more adult version of his old Robin costume, but kept the name. Even in this first attempt at creating an adult Robin, the writers at DC showed that Dick didn’t just want to become “Batman II.” He’d incorporate elements of his mentor’s style, to be sure, but found a way to remain his own hero.

Of course, this Dick Grayson wasn’t the “main” Robin, who seemed to be an eternal teenager. But when DC launched the New Teen Titans series in 1980, writer Marv Wolfman decided to mature Dick Grayson to age 19 and to make him head of the team. Now separated from Batman, he was shown as being a capable leader who was almost as good a detective as Batman was, and just as good of a tactician. But unlike Bruce, he allowed himself to be vulnerable, entering in a long-term romantic relationship with the alien warrior Starfire. Batman, meanwhile, went through romances like tissue paper, because he was always portrayed as too damaged to have a real partnership for too long.

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Dick also became greatly influenced by the Man of Steel. For years, Batman and Superman would team up, and Robin went along for the ride. Superman became as much an influence on Dick as Batman had been, which is probably why Dick was always able to adopt a more positive outlook on humanity than his father figure Bruce ever could. Although his relationship with Wonder Woman was maintained from a distance at best, his best friend in the world was fellow Titan Donna Troy, a.k.a. Wonder Girl. There’s no way she didn’t impart some of her sister’s Amazonian wisdom on Dick during their long friendship. In a sense, Dick was the ultimate product of the trinity, a hero who represented the very best of the DC pantheon.

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In 1984, writer Marv Wolfman did what was then unthinkable: he graduated Dick into his own adult superhero persona. In Tales of the Teen Titans #44, Dick debuted his new heroic identity of Nightwing. (His role as Robin would be filled by Jason Todd, and then several others.) Clearly, his blue and black costume was a nod to Batman, but the name Nightwing came from Kyptonian legends passed down to him from Superman, making Nightwing the spiritual child of both heroes. Although it took 45 years for him to grow up and become his own man, doing so at all in a medium where almost no one ever ages is something of an accomplishment in itself.

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After leading the Titans on and off for years, Nightwing graduated to getting his own ongoing comic in the ‘90s, and he’s had his own ongoing series from that point on. He’s also had many ups and downs since then, and just as many civilian occupations. He became a bartender, a cop, and even a secret agent for spy organization SPYRAL. All of these different jobs have helped make him better connected to the average person than most superheroes in the DCU. And just as he was trained by the best, Nightwing has since passed that education on to the next generation. At the core of his character now is the notion that the the wisdom that was imparted to him is something that must be passed down.

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Aside from helping train all the subsequent Robins to some degree, he took over the mantle of the Dark Knight reluctantly when Batman was “dead” for a time in the DCU. During this period, his own Robin was Bruce’s son Damian, and he made sure to impart everything he’d learned from Bruce Wayne and shape Damian from a trained killer into an actual hero. Although Dick’s time in the cowl was relatively short-lived, it proved he could carry the Batman legacy if need be. And readers would eat it up.

Ultimately, Dick Grayson isn’t Batman. He’s Nightwing. He’s his own man and his own hero. He carries all of the best things about all of his mentors without all of their collective baggage. He’s a hero you can both look up to and relate to, who knows how to take things seriously and when to laugh them off. And ultimately, this is why Nightwing is the best of the DC Universe’s main iconic male superheroes. In the end, he’s really the most human.

Featured Image: DC Comics

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