Capeless Crusader

The CIA Spook Turned Comic Book Scribe: Robin Grabs a Gun in ‘Grayson’

Batman’s original protégé, Robin, strikes out on his own in the shadowy world of international espionage as ‘Grayson,’ co-written by an ex-CIA counterterrorism officer.

DC Comics

Dick Grayson—known to comic book fans everywhere as Robin, the Boy Wonder, and Nightwing—is ditching his Wayne Corp.-issued red tights for a job at the fictional intelligence agency Spyral.

Longtime artists and writers Tim Seeley and Tom King lead the team behind the comic series Grayson. “Dick Grayson was trained by the most immovably moral person, and he's placed into a situation where he’s going to have to deal with shades of grey,” Seeley tells me.

“We put a simple moral metaphor at the center of this project,” King says of Batman’s trusty sidekick’s series. “The spy organization is going after the privacy of superheroes. Trying to find out their super-identities. While they’re doing this, at the same time, the spy organization is doing good for the world, they’re fighting terrorism.”

While King says superheroes should be able to hide who they are to protect their families, he understands why an organization would want to uncover their alter egos. “A person like Superman basically carries around a personal atomic bomb and he hides among us,” he says. “They definitely would want to know who’s hiding an atomic bomb and living in New York City.”

And King should know, he left the comic world for a job at a CIA counterterrorism unit in the days after September 11. However, King returned to comics following the birth of his children.

Originally introduced to humanize his adopted father and sidekick, Batman, Dick Grayson has drifted in and out of Gotham City’s gravitational pull over the decades. Dismissed from Batman’s service like an aging member of Menudo at the age of 18, in 1984 the character branched out as the vigilante Nightwing. The name is an ode both to a 1960s comic series in which a depowered Superman and Jimmy Olsen are forced to assume secret identities while trapped in a shrunken Kryptonian city and, after Superman forgets the adventure due to the events of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, an ancient intergalactic myth from the dead planet transmitted to Dick Grayson by the Man of Steel. Grayson also shed his Nightwing persona to become Batman for a time, returning to Gotham in 2009’s Battle for the Cowl, after Bruce Wayne faked Batman’s death.

“Since the 1940s, Dick Grayson has always been the entry point for kids coming into comics,” says King. “A lot of people see themselves as Dick Grayson. He’s the everyman of the DC Universe. He also has the same origin as Batman, his parents were killed in front of him. But he dealt with it differently. He didn’t become obsessed with it.”

With DC Comics’ 2011 reboot of all its monthly superhero comics, known as The New 52, Dick Grayson returns to the role of Nightwing only to be kidnapped, unmasked on television, and temporarily killed by Lex Luthor. After Luthor revives the incapacitated Dick Grayson, Batman, seeing an opportunity to infiltrate the intelligence agency Spyral, asks his protégé to remain “dead,” at least to the outside world. The pair of heroes fight it out, with Dick Grayson eventually agreeing to Bruce Wayne’s request, but only after a punishing 12-page fight.

“Comics work on a metaphorical level,” King says. “People don’t go around punching each other in the face. We do that to sort of talk about how people fight with each other, and how they deal with each other. We go to extremes to flesh out the emotional metaphors. If you think about the recent X-Men movie, Magneto is clearly the stand-in for some sort of Malcolm X figure when Lee created him in the ’60s. But he’s not Malcolm X. Malcolm X is a much more complicated, three-dimensional, interesting person. Magneto represents an extreme point of those views so you can sort of isolate them. We do the same thing with our terrorist organization here, we have a bad guy who’s just a bad guy so you can see how you deal with bad guys on an extreme level.”

The Nightwing series ends with Dick travelling the world, murdering the acolytes of an assassin cult known as The Fist of Cain, an organization Seeley describes as “an alliance of all kinds of serial killers, and murderers, and nutjobs from around the world.” The plan is to use the attacks to draw the attention of the spy organization Spyral—and it works. In the last page of Nightwing #30, Helena Bertinelli, formerly known as Huntress, rescues Dick Grayson from an exploding car and welcomes the formerly caped crusader into the organization.

Grayson picks up with Dick working for Spyral and newly armed with a gun. One of the strongest defining characteristics of the Batman comics has been the vigilante’s disdain for firearms but King, a former counterterrorism operations officer of the CIA, says, “There’s also something personal. A lot of people who go off to fight for their country are middling about weapons and killing, but when they go into these organizations they’re given a gun and they’re told to do this. For this mission, Dick has to carry a gun. So we’re going to deal with that on an emotional level. That idea, that mental leap you have to take when you’re saying, ‘I’m going into a job where if something goes wrong I might have to kill a man.’ What that does to you, we put that in the book.”

Bertinelli, Grayson’s guide through this world, is a character with a backstory as dramatic as either of the caped crusaders. In most versions of her story, she is the daughter of powerful organized criminals who, like Batman and Dick Grayson, sees her parents murdered before deciding on a life of heroic vigilantism. However, Bertinelli and Batman have frequently clashed over Batman’s “no killing” policy. With Bruce Wayne out of the picture, Dick Grayson is free to cultivate that hitherto underdeveloped aspect of his abilities. Batman will still influence the series, of course.

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The costumes have also been updated for the new series. King says, “We tried to make the homage to the character’s long history, but also stay within the real.” “Not too real,” Seeley added. “We didn’t just want him to have a shirt and pants.” Grayson appears mostly in black, carrying a pistol, and with a caribiner on his chest that looks like a G. His partner Helena’s costume was similarly revealed in Nightwing #30 when she appears to save the day. Early scenes show her in an all-white suit, ambushing an assassin. The final versions were created by Spanish artist Mikel Janín.

While the real world intelligence community continues to find itself in the news, the new series Grayson will only touch upon those issues. “It’s not torn from the headlines,” Seeley says. “But certainly, a really good superhero comic can take the world as it is and make it relatable, but also make it escapist. You can’t help but incorporate the fears and anxieties of any era into a comic book.”

“We want this to be like the great ’70s movies. Like Three Days of the Condor,” King says. “We’re in a moment of flux, not certainty.”

“There’s two different kinds of spy stories,” says Seeley. “There’s the stale beer and then there’s the shaken martini, and we wanted to come in somewhere in between.”

Because espionage occupies such a tenuous space between good and evil, it was important for Seeley and King that readers not always know what the characters were thinking, so Grayson will dispense with the common use of thought balloons. “The motivation tends to be mysterious,” Seeley says. “If you never see inside their heads, then you can only judge based on their actions. We have to tell the story more with art and action.” King says comics exist largely to eliminate the adverb, and that for Grayson, action is character.

“The super spy was created around the same time as the superhero.” Seeley says. “There’s a lot of the same elements there. It falls on that spectrum between James Bond and Jason Bourne.”

“Jason Bourne and James Bond are just as much superheroes as Superman in terms of how they accomplish the impossible,” King adds. “Grayson is still a superhero. He’s a superhero spy.”