Dick Grayson represents a significant challenge to DC. He’s one of the oldest and most beloved characters in comics, the “Sensational Character Find of 1940” who became the most iconic teen sidekick in superhero history. He is also one of the only superhero characters to successfully transition from one well-established identity to another—since becoming Nightwing in 1984 there hasn’t been any serious attempt made to restore him as Robin. But his very existence often creates problems for other characters, especially in the context of DC’s constantly shifting timeline. Having the first Robin be a fully grown adult with his own career ages Batman and hamstrings creators by limiting the kinds of changes they can make with other characters—for an example of this, see the absurdity of insisting at the beginning of the New 52 continuity that Batman had only been around for five years.
Partly for this reason, Dick has often found himself on the chopping block during major events, even if he’s always managed to save himself at the last moment. He is unique in comics as one of very few male heroes for whom it is not merely acceptable but expected that his adventures will provide some degree of fan service for female readers. He’s a sexy guy with tight buns, so of course he’s a fan-favorite. His last solo series, Grayson, was generally seen as one of the creative highlights of the New 52 period, so the announcement that the post-Rebirth continuity would see Grayson returning to his Nightwing persona, while completely inevitable, was also greeted with some degree of trepidation.
There was no need to worry. Grayson writer Tim Seeley is still on board, and the new series serves as a direct continuation of the old. Whereas the previous series saw Dick (supposedly) isolated from the Bat-family while the world believed him to be dead, the new Nightwing #1 (DC Comics) picks up with Dick back in the blue-and-black, reunited with his family and friends but also still working solo. This time, instead of the now (supposedly) reformed spy agency Spyral, he’s doing work for the Court Of Owls, who only think they have him over a barrel by threatening Damian Wayne’s life. Everyone involved expects to be double-crossed, so it’s a matter of “when” and not “if.” Batgirl shows up to help bring lapsed readers up to speed on the status quo between DC’s longest star-crossed love affair. Dick is happy that he gets to resume his lives as both Dick Grayson and Nightwing, but (because this is comics, obviously) the happiness promises to be short-lived.
Seeley and artist Javier Fernandez do an excellent job of maintaining some of the tone of Grayson while still firmly planting the book back in the bosom of the Bat-family. Chris Sotomayor’s colors deserve special praise for managing to hew closer to the darker palette of a Bat-book while still maintaining a generally colorful and fun atmosphere. There’s nothing necessarily revolutionary about Nightwing, but like most of Rebirth it doesn’t need to be. What it needed to accomplish was to tell former and lapsed readers that what they used to love about these characters is back, while still acknowledging those parts of the characters’ recent histories that did work. In this instance, at least, mission accomplished. [Tim O’Neil]
It’s easy to get lost in what seems like an unending sea of webcomics. Even for people who have been reading comics online for years, the constant influx of new content can be intimidating. But it’s well worth the effort to find some of the real gems out there. One of the biggest struggles for webcomics writ large is that they continue to be conflated with digital or even printed serialized comics, though many webcomics rightly differ drastically in format and scope from more traditional comics. Not all webcomics take advantage of the technological advantages that webcomics have over traditional print media, but thankfully stories like Saint For Rent (webcomic) do. Written and drawn by Ru Xu, Saint For Rent revolves around the Cloverhouse Inn and the characters that float through it. The titular Saint is a young man who runs the inn, which is set up specifically for time travelers to use and visit. No surprise given the fact that most of the characters can time travel, the story features a lot of nonlinear plots and divergent arcs that intersect in new, interesting ways. It feels like David Lynch without the horror and psychedelics, a sweet and funny story with serious moments.
Though many of the pages are lighthearted and soft, there’s some serious emotional heft that demonstrates Xu’s skill when it comes to relationships between the characters. Saint and his brother Patrick play big roles, but there’s also the multiple charming versions of Armand, a time traveler that shows up at the Cloverhouse so much that only his scars and facial features can distinguish how old he is and what point in his timeline he’s seeing. Each of the characters’ personalities are clearly defined, and Xu’s skill with expressions is featured frequently. As the comic has grown, so has the inn and how it’s depicted, with panels that pull back far from the characters to show interesting details and a surprising scale.
There’s a dynamism to Xu’s style, with long curves and organic shapes that make the comic feel a lot like animation cels, like the characters could pop into motion at any time without warning, and Xu absolutely takes advantage of that. Unlike so many other webcomics, Saint For Rent explores the the space it can fill, featuring animated panels and pages that stretch in length far beyond the usual updates. Xu’s art has grown over the years since Saint For Rent started, and the experimentation with motion and length have only increased. A weaker artist might use them as gimmicks or a way to divert focus, but Xu’s pages have a fluidity and kinetic poise to them that’s only enhanced by the animated segments. Though the color palette is often soft and Xu’s art style is sweet and a little cartoonish, the emotional connection between the characters and drama on the page make the dangers that Saint and his friends face feel weighty and serious. It’s a nice mixture of sugar and substance that leaves Saint For Rent feeling well rounded and perfectly balanced. [Caitlin Rosberg]
The first pamphlet comic from Bryan Lee O’Malley, Snotgirl #1 (Image) features tics and markers that fans of the Scott Pilgrim author will recognize. His characters are identified like JRPG characters—caption boxes appearing to announce their name, nickname, age, and personal style—and there is the familiar interplay of winking pop-culture nods and earnest storytelling. This first issue even shares a name with DJ Khaled’s “No New Friends.” A collaboration with artist Leslie Hung, Snotgirl concerns fashion blogger Lottie Person’s antagonistic relationship with severe allergies. The allergy attacks strike at random, and they leave her a snot-drenched and tear-stained mess. But what begins as a slice-of-life comic ends as something more provocative, and, in a drug-filled fugue, Lottie appears to have killed her new friend. Only future issues will reveal what has actually happened.
In some ways, O’Malley overwrites the comic. His pages are often overstuffed with narrative captions, and they slow and disjoint scenes. They throw off the rhythm of the page. In other ways, however, Snotgirl debuts as one of the most compellingly written comics of O’Malley’s career. The cutesy and cloying invocations of ’90s ephemera mark it as a part with O’Malley’s other works, but their appearance here is particularly egregious because that pop-culture collage is not the ethos of Snotgirl the way it was for Scott Pilgrim. It’s ending, however, marks it as distinct from the more acute narratives of Lost At Sea or Seconds, and O’Malley’s earnest storytelling style has matured well. The book’s scenes ululate, ebbing and flowing in and out of bizarre melodramatic peaks. They are operatic in the way a shonen manga might be—bold-faced and naked emotions shouted from the tops of mountains. Co-author Leslie Hung is equally responsible for the lush pace, and her gorgeously rendered and expressive compositions elevate the scenes. She approximates shojo and josei manga tropes, and her figures and faces are expressive, broad, and bare. There is no mistaking how her characters feel, and it works to sell a rapid sequence of lurid and dramatic highs. Without which, it’s unclear how well the ending would play.
This ending is surprising, to be sure, and it appears to diverge wildly from the tone that preceded it. But it actually functions as a summation of Snotgirl’s themes. A fashion blogger who is always performing herself, Lottie is alienated from herself; she is constantly negotiating her image of herself and the image(s) she projects to the world. Here Hung proves herself as a cartoonist and a writer, confidently illustrating both sides of Lottie. She renders the public Lottie with convincing sheen and beauty; Hung effectively makes her pretty. Similarly, Hung is able to render Lottie’s allergy-stricken self with the goopy and gross texture necessary to maker her appear convincingly in distress. This climactic finale, this pivot, shift, and questioning of reality—does it even exist? How do you define it?—functions as a microcosmic encapsulation of these themes and an engaging “to be continued…” It compels and propels, and it will be interesting to see how O’Malley and Hung continue to process and think through the performativity of public figures. [Shea Hennum]
Image Comics publishes a lot of monthly series, and it can be difficult to keep track of all the current and upcoming releases, especially for casual readers. Given that creator-owned series often live or die based on the pre-orders for their first issues, it makes sense that Image would work to raise awareness of new titles, which is why it’s launched the Image+ previews magazine. Edited by David Brothers with a sleek design by Sasha Head, Image+ is an outstanding promotional item, offering previews of upcoming books and interviews with their creative teams along with essays, comic shop spotlights, original short comics from Island’s Brandon Graham, and a serialized Negan-centric The Walking Dead story from Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard. That last bit is a particularly smart decision; Image knows that the wildly popular The Walking Dead is going to bring people in, and hopefully those fans will be attracted to some of the other titles showcased in the magazine.
Image+ #4 (Image) features creative team interviews and lettered previews for October releases Moonshine, Cannibal, Romulus, Green Valley, and The Double Life Of Miranda Turner, as well as colored art and concept designs for Reborn, the new series teaming writer Mark Millar with the Batman art team of Greg Capullo and FCO Plascencia. It’s a wide variety of titles with distinct genre influences in the stories and artwork, and the previews are meaty enough that they give a strong idea of the tone and style of each series. Reborn is the most mysterious of these books, and while the preview doesn’t offer many concrete details about the narrative, it’s the most powerful excerpt of them all thanks to a stunning, vertically oriented two-page spread highlighting Capullo’s bold design sensibility and Plascencia’s vibrant, expressive coloring.
Image+ makes a distinction between Q&A interviews and “close looks,” which have quotes from the creators within broader profile pieces. Moonshine and Reborn get “close looks” in issue #4, and these pieces show Brothers’ skill for providing valuable context on the background of these creative teams while hyping their new work with enthusiasm. This magazine is Brothers’ brainchild, and the marketing savvy on display in these pages is impressive. His introductory essays bring a personal perspective to what is essentially a catalog, and this issue’s essay about the joys of enjoying the summer by taking books outdoors is a great piece of reading advocacy. Brothers wants people to get excited about the act of reading, and once that excitement takes hold, he presents a number of options to satisfy readers’ different tastes. [Oliver Sava]