For any reader who has never picked up a superhero story before, the genre seems flush with interesting characters, motifs, and tidbits. Even taking into account that superhero stories for adults weren’t widespread until 1986’s Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, 76 years of literature seems endless. New readers have it better than any other. The best of the best waits for them, from beloved classics going as far back as Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1 to more recently embraced additions like Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern run.
But, if you spend several years reading superhero stories in a glut—as I did—the well dries up quickly. Originally meant for children, superhero stories have a naturally simplistic structure. The story centers around a morally superior, usually white, cis-heterosexual male protagonist who represents “good.” The second most prominent character is usually another white, cis-heterosexual male antagonist who represents “evil.” The “good” guy physically attacks and subdues the “bad” guy. Sometimes, with a little luck, the villain in his own right is so conceptually fascinating (such as Brainiac) or highlights elements of the hero with such profundity (such as The Joker or Venom) that creators can say something meaningful between the punches. Often, that’s not the case.
We can blame this on a lot of things, including the overly complex and unnecessary feature of canon or incompetent publishers who are always trying to stir up sensation in the tiny direct market they exhausted 20 years ago. Those are great things to blame that deserve their own full articles slandering them, but I’m going to try to keep this a little more positive. I’m going to suggest instead that there is a way out of this superhero quality drought (outside of making stories about protagonists who are not white, cis-heterosexual males, but that should be a given at this point) and that DC Comics has already found it.
More recently, before the marketing failure that was the DC You initiative, DC launched Grayson by writers Tim Seeley and Tom King and artist Mikel Janin. While the Forever Evil event was mediocre and is now largely irrelevant otherwise, the consequence of “killing” Nightwing/Dick Grayson has turned out one of the best ideas the company has had for one of its characters in a long time. It freed the character from a below average New 52 Nightwing book, and sent him off to become a James Bond-esque spy, working for the Spyral organization introduced a few years prior in Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc.
The creative team didn’t wipe away Dick’s history, however. In fact, they celebrate it from the very first page, following his transformation from circus boy to Robin to Nightwing. In this way, they frame the Spyral gig as yet another exciting phase in Dick Grayson’s life. Dick isn’t a changed man just because he’s switched roles from Flying Grayson to underground sneak. He’s worn masks all his life, he’s just donning a different one for now.
The genre change from superhero to spy thriller is an easier one to make, arguably, both as a change unto itself and as it works for Dick Grayson as an individual character than it might be for other genres. The spy thriller genre shares a lot with the superhero genre, especially the Bat-family niche. Both genres are extremely action-packed, involving high-tension confrontations between two or more parties that, at their most creative, take advantage of unique settings and gadgets at hand. Dick’s fight in the opening of Grayson #1 with another man on a train evokes callbacks to many action movies, including Skyfall, Mission: Impossible, and Wanted. The train itself, the use of a passing marker to reverberate Dick’s gun, and Helena Bertinelli’s subsequent seduction of passengers on board function with not just a familiarity, but an obviousness to ground the story firmly in a genre seen more often on the big screen than in a DC Comics series.
But Grayson isn’t a typical spy thriller, at least in regards to some of the toxicity within its influence. James Bond films have influenced Western culture and media since the release of the first one in 1963. It brought spies to the mainstream audience’s attention and adoration, spawning a genre like no other and permanently changing the face of all action movies. However, the concept of Bond films can easily be framed as “the adventures of a violent, ruthless, competent, sexually attractive sociopath who causes the deaths of hundreds of people, hapless and otherwise, without compunction all the while treating women like instruments as he tries to beat an organization maybe slightly worse than he is.” In short: James Bond is a white, cisheterosexual male’s power fantasy that either condones or actively promotes the mistreatment of others.
Dick Grayson may be white, cisheterosexual, and male, but he and James Bond differ more than they share. Although both characters are competent, Dick isn’t ruthless. Although both characters are sexual icons, Dick has his adoring female fans because of his kindness and upstanding moral character as well as his looks. He doesn’t kill if it’s not necessary, he doesn’t manipulate those he meets to get at a means to an end, and he treats women as people instead of potential sex objects. The Grayson creative team enjoys his unique status and actively takes advantage of it in every issue by twisting Dick’s body in ways that are aesthetically pleasing to the eye of people who are attracted to cissexual men. In an industry filled with sexualized representations of female characters in books where it’s not necessary and even disadvantageous, Grayson stands as a subversion to both the spy thriller genre and the traditional superhero comic book fare.
Which isn’t to say that Grayson abandons its superhero roots. In fact, the Grayson team often uses the book’s presence in the main DC universe to their advantage. Dick retains his strong roots with Batman and the Bat-family by keeping in touch with his mentor, secretly passing Spyral information onto him. The organization that employs him threatens the livelihood of many of the superheroes in the universe, but this doesn’t stop Dick from getting a visit from his longtime friend, Superman. Meanwhile, former Wildstorm artist Seeley brought back Wildstorm character Midnighter as Dick’s first antagonist and, after Midnighter spun off into his own title, Wildstorm character Ladytron in the most recent arc as of this article’s writing. Despite the qualms I, as well as many other critics of the industry, have about canon, Grayson uses it effectively to up the book’s stakes as well as better establish Dick’s character.
That being said, Grayson isn’t a unique phenomenon as much as it is part of a pattern that becomes obvious if you look closely enough. In the same year of the title’s debut, Marvel’s film studio released what is by far their strongest movie yet: Captain America: Winter Soldier. Like Grayson, Winter Soldier is not a superhero story. It’s a thriller. And like Grayson, it’s not pure thriller, it’s subversive to its own genre. Winter Soldier has all the gear and moves, but unlike other Marvel movies, it turns around and squints at the actions of its government-initiated plot and the heavy consequences likely to occur. Both Grayson and Captain America: Winter Soldier are the best productions of their companies because they see opportunity in their characters and want to introduce deeper ideas than superhero fight sequences.
In 1963, over a decade after Marvel Comics financially thrived by publishing romance comics during the “Love Glut,” the company accidentally elevated the superhero genre by fusing it with romantic elements. Grayson is proof of what can be created if comics characters and creators aren’t limited to the same tired, depoliticized formula that plagues the industry. Now is time for the next step: to put superhero characters into non-superhero stories.