Grayson is a comic that, by all rights, should not have worked. It’s a follow up to a Grant Morrison concept done by people who aren’t Grant Morrison. A spin-off of a Geoff Johns comic. The first comic by a co-writer whose sole writing credits prior to this are a short story and a middling novel (who only got the gig because he’s ex-CIA), another co-writer whose superhero work has (largely) been more supportive of other visions than expressing his own, and an artist whose work has mostly been on covers rather than interiors. Worst of all, it has a central premise that is, to be quite blunt, a bit trite and obvious, especially in the context of the New 52. Yet another spy comic released by DC about some nebulous organization out to do dirty deeds while the superheroes look clean. SHADE, Blackhawks, ARGUS, and now Spyral. These are not the elements of a successful comic. And yet, Grayson surprisingly works. It’s a fun, action packed adventure full of intrigue, espionage, and shirtless men.
What it’s not, however, is important. It’s not Tom King’s big break (that was the three books he was working on while Grayson was running), Tim Seeley (that was years earlier with Hack/Slash), or even Mikel Janín (who didn’t have one big break so much as a series of small breaks that made him ubiquitous and a must-have artist). Its impact on the life of Dick Grayson will ultimately be seen as a blip in the grand scheme of things like the time he had amnesia and started calling himself Ric or when he became a cop.
What Grayson is, however, is a lens upon which we can look at the work of these three creators. What do they bring to the table? How does their work influence the whole of the text?
A bit of background first. Towards the end of Grant Morrison’s Batman run, the Scottish enby introduced a spy agency into their story known as Spyral. A rather ambiguous and morally grey organization, Spyral acts behind the scenes going after targets that are too big for the costume cape crowd to handle. Led by former Batwoman Kathy Kane, this international outfit has the resources, skill, and wit to outmaneuver and manipulate Batman in aiding in their cause. They are of a larger world than something as small and petty as Batman. So, as with every single idea Grant Morrison had ever come up with, it was promptly ignored for years in favor of being boring.
However, unlike the other ideas Grant came up with, it wouldn’t take an entire decade for these ideas to come to fruition outside of a Grant Morrison comic. Unfortunately, this reintroduction would come about thanks to the event comic Forever Evil.
Forever Evil was an event comic by Geoff Johns. Spinning off of the events of his Justice League run, Forever Evil saw the Crime Syndicate, an evil version of the Justice League from a parallel universe, come to take over the Earth we all know and love. Said takeover took place in other books you were expected to read, and god help you if you decide not to read any of the five hundred tie-ins to this event. And oh my god is it f*cking boring. It finds a way to make “evil Superman snorts kryptonite” boring. For the purposes of this article, however, what is of note is that, in the climax of the comic, Dick Grayson died, his secret identity was revealed to the world, he was killed by Lex Luthor, and he was brought back to life by Lex Luthor.
Given this opportunity, Batman gives Dick a mission: infiltrate Spyral and find out what they’re doing. Because nobody uses Batman without attracting his attention. What follows then, has the potential to be yet another short-lived book from the New 52. Probably won’t last past issue 8, might get an annual if it’s lucky. That’s what you’d expect from this kind of book. Instead, we got something that, while not the barnburner of other books, was still quite fun.
He’s the spy, the spy who throws his guuuuuunnn…
We should begin with the central thread that ties everything together: Mikel Janín. It is rather odd looking at Janín in the context of the late New 52, the era in which he got his start. In terms of career trajectories, Janín is best compared with James Tynion IV. Like Tynion, people looking at Janín prior to him making it big would say that he was very much a company man. While by no means as prolific as Brett Booth, it could be argued that Janín had a similar reputation: that of a fill-in artist who was put on books that weren’t all that memorable. Most notable of these being Justice League Dark, one of DC Comics’ many attempts at trying to make John Constantine a superhero. As with all other attempts at this, it failed miserably, with Janín leaving the book at issue 27 to do Grayson.
Unlike Tynion, however, Janín’s moment of becoming a big deal would not come from a one/two punch of two independent horror comics. Rather, it would be a gradual rise in reputation, taking on various gigs of varying degrees of skill required to pull them off. And yet, ever the consummate professional, Janín would bring the highest level of skill possible to each and every one of his projects. This is made abundantly clear when one looks at the first stepping stone in his rise to prominence: “We All Die at Dawn.” In terms of plot mechanics, “We All Die at Dawn” is rather straightforward: Dick Grayson, his partner Helena Bertinelli, and his nemesis Midnighter must traverse a desert with limited food and water and a baby in tow.
What makes the issue shine more than King’s script, however, is Janín’s art. Stylistically, Janín takes after Ryan Sook. Both artists share a plastic cleanliness to their characters that nevertheless feels like real people in a comic book space. But where Janín really shines is in his panel blocking. Throughout “We All Die at Dawn,” Janín shows us the long, perilous journey our three characters take, emphasizing the trek via carefully placed panels that guide the reader along the page.
The most striking of these is when, inevitably, Dick Grayson is the only one left trekking, on the ninth day of walking. In previous pages, Janín would demonstrate the scope of the desert via showing the whole of the desert with close-up panels interspersed throughout the page highlighting our characters up close. Here, however, the spread is solely dedicated to the panels, six in number, representing just a single dune. Each panel is extremely tall, so that Dick Grayson comes off as tiny, engulfed by its scope. With one exception. His words remain close to him, keeping the reader locked low with Dick. And yet, that one panel where the words briefly rise above Dick reminds the reader just how large the panels truly are and, subsequently, how small and insignificant Dick is to the uncaring desert.
And yet, he perseveres. In these six panels and on the subsequent page, Dick is drawn within the borders of the panel. But, when he reaches a point where he can’t go forward, where he’s gone far enough to save the baby from the cruelties of the desert, he escapes the panel borders. Though textually, Dick Grayson has seemingly lost (in that he faints in the desert sun), visually, he has won against the uncaring desert. Him and his shirtless body.
Which is, of course, another aspect of Janín’s style: shirtless men! It’s not necessarily that Janín draws his shirtless men as one would see of another artist’s shirtless woman (there’s certainly a sexual aspect to the shirtless men Janín draws), rather, it’s the degree of distance Janín provides. It’s worth contrasting Janín with one of the other artists involved with the run, Stephen Mooney. By no means a terrible artist, it becomes apparently clear just how much Grayson is built on the work of Janín when he’s not on the book. In Mooney’s issues, the characters have a degree of flatness to be expected in what most people who don’t read comics think comics should look like. His shirtless Dick Grayson lacks the shine and glow that emanates from Janín’s style. He looks like a superhero, not a sex icon. (To say nothing about how he draws Helena Bertinelli.)
Janín, by contrast, makes everyone look sexy. Not in the sense that you are constantly shoved the posterior or breasts of the many female characters. But rather, his characters exude sexiness. They feel like they are a thirst magnet for anyone who wants to talk to an adult about having sex. Fetishized, but not objectified.
But the moment when it solidifies that this was, more than anyone else, Janín’s book was when he left. Before even King or Seeley, Mikel Janín exited the book (save for cover art) in favor of greener pastures. In the case of Janín, that meant being the one to kill Superman. After his departure, the art quickly takes a nosedive in quality. (Though getting Carmine Di Giandomenico for one issue does give the reader hope of someone to match Janín, hope that is immediately squashed with the next issue.) Everything that comes after feels wrong and out of place for this book. When King and Seeley joined him, the decline would go down even further.
Perhaps that, of all things, is what kept Janín from being considered one of the great comics artists working today at the end of Grayson the way that King was considered a great artist. After all, Grayson was the sole major project that Janín was working on. That he could leave this book with relative ease speaks to the kind of creator he was perceived as and, subsequently, of the importance of Grayson within the wider DC landscape. It was so unimportant, its creative team bailed three issues before the end.
…But I’d know that ass anywhere. Grayson.
A lazier version of this article would frame Tim Seeley as a company man being put onto the book to keep Tom King in line. Certainly the construction of that argument would be easy to make. Seeley has a long history of taking over DC titles that were either on the verge of cancelation or in between creative teams, often lasting a few issues. His most substantial work at DC at the time besides Grayson was as one of the architects behind the weekly series Batman Eternal, which was largely Scott Snyder’s project.
However, this ignores several aspects of Seeley’s career and, indeed, the nature of Grayson. For starters, as I mentioned at the start of this article, Tom King wasn’t Tom King™ quite yet. This was his first ongoing series, pitched to him like DC would many other creators whom most comics fans don’t remember. (Though he had written and pitched the script for The Sheriff of Bagdad prior to writing Grayson.) As such, getting a veteran like Seeley on the book to show King the ropes makes some amount of sense. Equally, Seeley’s work outside of DC Comics is full of strong and interesting books. While I personally am not a fan of his breakout hit Hack/Slash, Revival is an amazing feat of horror fiction that I highly recommend.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, Seeley is a damn good writer within the superhero spaces. In contrast to King’s approach (which we’ll get to in a bit), Seeley takes the DC Universe as a playing ground for strange and grotesque high concepts. From speedsters who feed on human flesh in order to keep up their metabolism to men with the power of an atomic bomb, the world of Seeley’s DC Comics is strange and horrifying.
But perhaps the best place to look as Seeley’s approach is in the two-part adventure, “The Brains of the Operation”/“Sin by Silence” (though, for the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on the first half). While the majority of Grayson structures itself as a series of one-off adventures that combine together into a larger whole, there were a few instances where events directly lead into one another. In this case, we open with Dick and Helena searching for a brain that will reveal the identity of Martian Manhunter. In their investigation, they are attacked by an Orca Spider from one of the many spy comics DC was releasing at the start of the New 52 that didn’t last past issue 12.
In The Orca Spider’s appearance, Seeley utilizes his skills as a horror comics writer to effectively use the page turn as fuel for a jump scare. Though the Orca Spider is not the main image on the following two-page spread, its sudden appearance prepares us for the true horror to come: the mass grave. The people responsible for this are The Fist of Cain, a cult created by Seeley (in that they appear exclusively in his issues), who are obsessed with a theory of existence that claims that we should all just kill each other. So they go about killing people, racking up points. And they have a brain that can induce ideas into people’s minds like, say, kill everyone.
Of course, The Fist of Cain aren’t the only problem Dick has to deal with. Midnighter, who is basically Batman if he ate sausage instead of pussy and had no qualms against killing, has been following Spyral’s activities since the first issue of the series, and he’s finally caught up with our hero and taken him off the board for aan extremely exciting fight scene with a lot of reversals and speeches about the characters relationships with one another. Seeley utilizes Janín’s knack for choreography and panel layouts to the fullest of his abilities. Note how the panels detail who’s winning based on the style of the panels, with Dick’s victory taking on more traditional thin panels while Midnighter’s victory using thick, colored panel borders. Dick ultimately wins out by using Midnighter’s clever tricks against him in a way that makes the reader smile.
At the same time though, there’s a lightness to the affair. A sense that things aren’t truly that terrible. Yes, Dick is stuck in a situation that’s not the best, but he’s one step ahead of everyone. Even when he loses, he finds a way to win and to make the spy stuff fun. This is in contrast to King’s work where, for the most part, the spy stuff is horrible. The fun comes from Dick Grayson’s performance within the world of spies. Singing Bond themes, making jokes. But the actual spy craft is miserable and terrible and makes the world worse.
That isn’t to say that Seeley is making light of the spy stuff either. As fun as his issues are, they nevertheless feature some truly morally grey stuff, from hiring a cannibalistic serial killer as a mad scientist to mind control chips that force you to obey. But the emphasis is on how exciting and thrilling these strange adventures are. King, by contrast…
<Look. This is only a man.>
A common misconception many critics have with Tom King is that he is a noir writer. That isn’t to say that Tom King is disinterested in noir (King has not only written works within the noir genre, but has also written essays about noir for the magazine Noir City). Rather, it’s that the genre King is most associated with is close enough to noir that the distinction is detrimental to understanding King’s work. Indeed, the genre was one of the progeny of noir.
There are many elements to the noir genre that are fundamental to its existence from down-on-their-luck detectives who go down those mean streets, femme fatales who have countless secrets, cruel and corrupt people lurking inside institutions of power who the detective can’t actually touch, a sense of nihilism, pyrrhic victories. The list goes on. But the fundamental aspect of noir that King ultimately diverges from is the answer to a complex question: What is the source of the fundamental rot within the world?
For noir, the answer lies with the individual. In Kiss Me Deadly, the stakes are apocalyptic in nature, but the rot lies, ultimately, in the fact that its lead detective, Mike Hammer, can’t help but see the rest of the world as nails. In Chinatown, there’s a conspiracy involving the water in Los Angeles, but the core rot comes from the fact that Katherine Cross is Evelyn’s sister and her daughter. And Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a story about an attempt to build a highway through the small town that houses a minority population, but the rot seeps from the fact that when Judge Doom killed Eddie Valiant’s brother, he talked just! Like! THIS!!!!
King, by contrast, responds to the question of where the rot poisoning the world lies with “the systems of the world.” It is worth considering the three comics King was working on whilst co-writing Grayson: The Sheriff of Babylon, The Omega Men, and The Vision. In these three comics, King presents us with protagonists trapped in systems that seek to destroy everything they hold dear. Be it The Sheriff of Babylon’s exploration of the Iraq War, The Omega Men’s look at colonialism in a science fiction setting, or The Vision’s abject horror at the notion of normality. It’s not that these systems are broken. Quite the opposite, actually.
The province of rot stemming from a functional system belies the genre King is actually associated with: The Paranoid Thriller. In the paranoid thriller, people (often normal people, but sometimes reporters or police, maybe not always the best, but fundamentally good nevertheless) find themselves (intentionally or not) within the jaws of a conspiracy. Be it the assassination of political figures, the homogenization of American culture, or the birth of the literal antichrist, the conspiracy has them. Unlike the typical conspiracy thriller, there is no thrill in being trapped within a conspiracy. You aren’t special just because you’re being targeted. Anyone and everyone could be trapped in the jaws of the system.
But perhaps most crucially of all: the system wins. No matter what the protagonists do, no matter how much they uncover, the system ends up on top. This is what ultimately separates it from the conspiracy thriller. (That, and the systems typically already exist within society rather than, say, lizard people.) Where a conspiracy thriller has hope that a loner who knows just enough can beat back the system, the paranoid thriller knows they cannot win, no matter what they do. Even in noir, even the bleakest of noirs, there’s often a chance at least a pyrrhic victory. The detective is destroyed, but the baddies don’t get what they want. There’s no room for pyrrhic victories in the paranoid thriller. At best, the hero survives to see all their idealism turned to ash. They might get one cog in the machine taken out, but the machine pushes onwards. Often towards the deaths of innocents.
The most famous example of the paranoid thriller is Alan J Pakula’s The Parallax View. In this film, Warren Beatty plays a reporter, Joe Frady, who is investigating a series of murders connected with an assassination of a politician (in a time when men like Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were murdered). In his investigation, Frady comes across a corporation called Parallax that appears to be looking for men who fit the mold for assassins. After conning his way into joining the organization as one of their assassins (so that he might expose them later), Frady discovers, to his horror, that the organization isn’t looking for assassins, but patsies to take the fall, lone wolfs out to prove their value to their high -minded beliefs. He is murdered before he can say anything. The official story proclaims him to be a lone wolf, acting out of paranoia and misguided patriotism.
Equally, there’s Brian DePalma’s Blow Out in which John Travolta plays a sound engineer by the name of Jack Terry who accidentally records the assassination of a politician. Along with an escort named Sally Bedina (played by Nancy Allen), they try to uncover the conspiracy at play. Whilst this is happening, the assassin Burke (played by John Lithgow), who works for a rival politician, is trying to kill Sally, whom he sees as the sole witness of the assassination, by creating a serial killer to cover up her death. Eventually, the pair gather enough evidence to prove the assassination, but Burke is able to intercept their plans to play the evidence on television. Burke destroys the evidence, murders Sally, and the cover up is successful. All that Jack has is Sally’s final screams, which he uses in a horror movie he was struggling with at the beginning of the film.
Of course, the paranoid thriller genre is not limited to the political or cinematic arena. Consider Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. The book focuses on the life of a photographer by the name of Joanna Eberhart, who has just moved from New York City to the suburb of Stepford, CT. The town is full of submissive women who docilely obey their husbands. To Joanna’s horror, her friends slowly turn from free spirited young women into these docile women. The men in the suburb, including Joanna’s husband, mock her fears. As the book goes on, Joanna discovers a plot to replace the feminist women of the town with robotic duplicates who abide to a more misogynistic vision of femininity. The book ends with Joanna being murdered, replaced by one of a long line of Stepford wives. As she walks down the aisle of the supermarket, she passes by a new resident of Stepford, and the cycle continues onwards.
You can see the connections between these three texts. The cyclical nature of systems. How they will actively work to ensure their own survival and the failure, if not absolute destruction of the protagonists. The list goes on and on.
And we can see these aspects of the genre illuminated within King’s work. Take, for example, King’s first issue on the main Grayson title: “The Gun Goes Off.” In this story, Dick and Helena are teamed up with Agents 1 and 8 to track down an assassin who has surgically altered his blind eyes to be able to see through his guns. The assassin, going by the name “The Old Gun” has stolen a pair of eyes that will help uncover the identity of Aquaman, and Spyral wants them. Throughout the issue, Dick questions the violent and merciless approach his fellow Spyral agents are perfectly fine with. By all accounts, The Old Gun sounds like he’s going through a lot. The last thing he ever saw was his kids being murdered. How is killing him helping? There has to be a better way than just killing him. In the end, through a bit of detective work, Dick is able to find out that The Old Gun has another kid. The reason he had the eyes was so he could look at his son without pointing a gun at him. But he gives the eyes to Dick without a fight. They wouldn’t work on The Old Gun anyway. The better way works.
And then, one of Dick’s fellow agents shoots The Old Gun in the face, his twitching, dying body falling right in front of his son.
This is the paranoid thriller filtered through the lens of the spy genre. A game of intrigue, hard men doing hard things for a hard world, where morality is grey. What a convenient system: one that justifies cruelty. Throughout King’s work, the moral greyness is revealed to be nothing more than a means to perpetuate a system of cruelty and evil. The better way is presented, but denied by those who would benefit from things remaining the same. The protagonists are forced to reckon with the cruelty of others, their complicity in their cruelties, and, indeed, the cruelty they enact. In the end, we all die at dawn.
So yeah, Tom King was ex-CIA.
There are many implications to that sentence, many of them unflattering to King. There is a degree of ambiguity to what King did, primarily because a lot of what he did is in the archives of an organization known for a liberal use of a paper shredder. At best, King was complicit in a system of cruelty that exists solely to spread the power of the United States on an international scale. At worst, he was an active participant in something too monstrous to contemplate. A lot of critics would like to write King off because of his work at the CIA, and there are a lot of good arguments against King because of it. (One of the better ones, made by a person from the Middle East, was that they were perturbed by him writing stories about feeling guilty for America’s imperialist approach to the Middle East in The Sheriff of Babylon. The former colonizer dictating the narrative of the colonized.)
Ultimately, King is a presence within the comic book industry and one worth exploring the implications of. If one is to be sympathetic to King, then one could argue his connection to the paranoid thriller genre is tied to a degree of guilt with regards to his time with the CIA, a system that will work hard to ensure its own existence, regardless of how much truth the people have. It survived being an active participant in treason for crying out loud! Individual actors aren’t going to be enough to tear down this beast.
So King doesn’t try. Instead, he writes comics about the horrors of systems working perfectly and the degrees of difficulty in escaping them. There are many ways one can deal with the system in King’s work. In The Sheriff of Babylon, Chris Henry, Saffiya al Aqani, and Nassir al Maghreb settle for killing one man who was barely tangentially related to the cruelty they were unable to bring justice for. A trio ultimately consumed by the circular evil of the US Invasion of Iraq where everything is built on lies. In The Omega Men, Kyle Rayner, when faced with Earth (read: America) entering into the cosmic kerfuffle he just got out of, responds with a rejection of the cruel logic the colonialist system is predicated upon (note the visual similarities between the American general and the series main antagonist). But the war carries on with or without him, the colonialist system just engulfing another one. And while in The Visions, Virginia is able to escape the system of normality (read: acceptability in the eyes of white neurotypical people), her father, the titular Vision, still yearns for that acceptance, rebuilding his son in the basement.
The cycles go on and on, a looping system built to function like a well-oiled machine, a nine-panel grid. There is no escape. The best to be hoped for is to survive with your soul intact. Most don’t even get that.
Ignore your mentor. Do what you do best.
And yet, the ending of Grayson feels… off. Not simply because Janín, Seeley, and King jump ship with three issues to spare. Even the remaining issues (sans the Robin War tie-in) don’t feel like the book the rest of the series was building towards. Certainly, the book could have naturally approached the point where the “Dick goes rogue” arc feels natural, but it would need to be at a point further along within the series. At least three major arcs worth of build-up, maybe four or five one offs in-between.
Instead, what we got smells of editorial mandate. It was always apparent, even in the build-up to Grayson, that these events weren’t going to be the permanent status quo. There was no way Dick would be allowed to go on to be a superspy forever. He had to return to being Chuck Dixon’s idea of what a superhero ought to be at some point or another. Equally, there was simply no way that DC would let Dick Grayson go through some of the bleaker implications of King’s work or even the grimier, sci-fi weirdness of Seeley’s work.
So the ending, even before the fill-in creators come in, feels flat and by the numbers. That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of delight. King does give Janín the “James Bond comes out of the ocean” shot everyone wants from him and writes a delightful Bond theme that could, with one or two revisions by an actual song writer, be a good song. And Seeley’s final work on the series has Cthulhu Monkeys as well as the extremely underrated Carmine Di Giandomenico to make up for Janín leaving the previous issue to kill Superman.
But the series nevertheless ends on a thud. A depressingly obvious series of events that strips away all the interesting aspects in favor of what you’d expect from a spy story set in the DC Universe. Its legacy was, ultimately, not much. It is, however, worth looking at where our central players went after all was said and done.
Dick Grayson, as to be expected, had his secret identity and proper costume restored and a new ongoing series set in Blüdhaven, the stomping grounds Chuck Dixon set up for him, to be written by Tim Seeley. It’s easy to claim that Seeley got placed on Nightwing primarily because of his work on Grayson. And while it probably helped, his placement is perhaps comparable to James Tynion IV’s failed attempt at making Tim Drake work over at Detective Comics, an acknowledgement of years of working on various books designed to fill a spreadsheet rather than because the creators had something they really wanted to do like Talon, New Suicide Squad, or Grayson.
Unlike Tynion’s Detective Comics run, Seeley’s Nightwing is a ton of fun. Stemming at a reasonable 35 issues, Seeley’s Nightwing deals with the fallout of the event comic Robin War, which ended with Dick Grayson being inducted into the Court of Owls, before returning Dick to his familiar home at Blüdhaven. And yet, Seeley takes what could easily have become a retread of a frankly banal period in the life of Dick Grayson and adds his unique spark to the material. Nowhere is this best expressed than in the “Nightwing Must Die” arc, wherein Seeley has Dick face off against two antagonists from the Morrison era: Professor Pyg and Dr. Hurt.
In these encounters, Dick is forced to face the multiversial implications of his character— how he’s someone who has infinite potential to be anything from swinging daredevil to cosmic crusader to Batman. At the same time, Dick must deal with the real possibility of being a father (he isn’t, but that’s neither here nor there), something few superheroes have to deal with. Equally, it highlights some of the weaknesses in Seeley’s work, mainly the move to have the majority of the arc predicated on the outdated trope of the girlfriend being kidnapped by the villain, which, toppled with the “she’s pregnant” aspect, makes for some truly unfortunate implications.
But to see where Seeley truly shines, one need look not within his DC work, but rather outside it. In the time since Grayson, Tim Seeley has worked on Dark Red, a vampire story about someone from the 1700’s deep south contending with modern racists, and Money Shot. Alongside writer Sarah Beattie and artist Rebekah Isaacs, Money Shot is a sex comedy about a group of scientists who, in the need of funds, decide to make porn out of f*cking every single alien in the cosmos. With this premise, Seeley is able to highlight his interest in the strange and bizarre with alien designs and concepts typically unseen outside of comics. Not to mention, it’s quite possibly one of the best works of erotic comics currently ongoing (which is saying something considering its competition includes the work of Stjepan Sejic).
As for King, with the success of the three comics he was working on at the same time as Grayson (not to mention the Eisner award winning short story “Black Death in America” done with the late, great John Paul Leon), DC tried to make lighting strike twice and offered King the main Batman title. As King was on the high of an imperial phase, he accepted the job with a planned 100 issue story that would change the character of Batman forever.
King left the book at issue 85.
There are a number of analysis one could make about King’s work on the main Batman title, most of them not kind to King himself. Not in the sense that it’s an overall bad run, but rather its messiness reveals King’s failure state. (Though, to truly see King’s failure state, one need only look at Heroes in Crisis, a comic I won’t talk about here because the last time I did, I got stalked for a couple months.) For starters, it’s extremely unwieldy. At a planned 100 issues, the story has to work with plot points that get paid off in 20 issues, character behavior that turns a reader off to such a degree as to cause them to question King’s mental stability (in a way that many neurotypical people are wont to do to the neurodivergent), and many of the plot points are lost due to the truncated nature of the run.
Equally, it’s a far spikier run than most people were expecting, flat out saying the subtext of “Batman is suicidal” that had long since been the core of Batman for many decades and attempting to make the character healthier. While this aspect of King can lead to some truly remarkable works, it also has a tendency to go a bit too far into edgelord territory. At the same time, King often grounds the narrative via rejecting the thrills one can get from writers like Garth Ennis or Mark Millar, highlighting the rather f*ckedness of the situation.
Rather than litigating any of the bad calls King made in his run (which is to say, don’t get me started about Master Bruce or the penguin), let’s instead look at a moment that could have easily turned into banal edgelord nonsense: the climactic moment of The War of Jokes and Riddles. In this arc, Batman reflects on an early event in his career as Batman where the Joker and the Riddler went to war against one another over the fact that the Joker wasn’t laughing. In the climax of the war, Batman, upon discovering the frankly petty and cruel motivation for the amount of death and carnage, opts to kill the Riddler. Only for the Joker to stop him.
Where many edgelord stories would have this moment framed this moment as something of a move towards pure badass, King opts to instead frame the moment as a bit of sheer wrongness. The worst thing Batman has ever done, something he must confess and atone for. Equally helping things is artist Mikel Janín (who, curiously, never did any art for Seeley’s Nightwing), where the moment does not highlight the excitement of the gore, the thrill of Batman killing. The moment is big, single page spread big.
But it’s also understated. The buildup to the moment isn’t the ostentatious two-page spreads Janín excelled at in Grayson or even King’s patented nine panel grid. It’s a series of typical panels ordered in no particular style. Each one slowly emphasizing what’s happening with a sense of dreadful inevitability. A distance is kept between the reader and the Dark Knight, while we move ever closer to the Riddler’s smug face. Each of Batman’s movements towards the knife feels slow. And when the knife strikes, it’s the fastest thing in the world.
Janín would continue to work with King throughout the main title of Batman, arguably as the main artist on the title. That he wasn’t (or, indeed, the main artist for Heroes in Crisis) speaks to how his star, in contrast to King’s, was a slow burn, building to the moment where he would work with Grant Morrison on their final comic for DC, the currently upcoming Superman and The Authority.
Janín would team up with Seeley and King again for one final Grayson adventure as part of the Robin 80th anniversary one shot. As with many of these kinds of stories, “The Lesson Plan” acts as a means to pitch the reader to the era. In this case, the short story highlights the contrast between Dick Grayson and Batman, the strange world of spies, Gorilla Women, walrus riding Atlanteans, and, of course, shirtless men. While not as comedic as some of Dick Grayson’s banter could get in the later issues of the series, the story nevertheless highlights his wit, charm, and confidence.
The story of Grayson, as with the New 52 itself, was ultimately a small one in a larger tapestry. There were moments of greatness within the series, and it’s not without merit. There were also some true stinkers that made reading all 26 issues a slog. But, well, it was nice while it lasted.