I’m a firm believer that every character has a good story to tell. At least, most characters have at least one good story in them. There may be some fringe characters who couldn’t possibly ever work, but by and large even the goofiest of ideas can have some value. Love him or hate him, that’s why I simply adored Grant Morrison’s work on All-Star Superman and his incredibly ambitious run on Batman: he took the silliest concepts from each character’s history and spun some of the best comics of the new century out of them. Going back even further, check out Walt Simonson’s legendary run on The Mighty Thor, and the fate of Skurge the Executioner in particular. He was a tragic joke of a character, the laughingstock for pretty much everyone in Asgard, yet he stood alone at Gjallerbru. And that was enough.
If that last line didn’t make you go all tingly inside, then I suggest checking out every Walt Simonson Thor omnibus that you can find. Seriously, it’s great great stuff. That aforementioned scene is one of the most moving things I’ve ever read in a comic, almost up there with practically every other page in All-Star Superman, and it’s also the run where Thor turns into a frog and Beta Ray Bill is introduced. And Beta Ray Bill rules.
Point being, even the biggest joke of a character can be part of a great story and, with the right writer, have a great arc themselves.
Barring her brief appearance at the end of Nightwing #11, I hadn’t ever actually read an issue that featured Orca, but I was well aware of her reputation. And man, what a reputation it is: there’s scarcely a “Worst Batman Villains” list out there where the character doesn’t get at least a brief mention. To prep for this week’s issue, I decided to track down Batman #579-581, the three-part arc containing the character’s first appearance and run-in with Batman.
Guys, it is so bad.
The concept is silly enough (“giant whale-lady thief”), but there are some decent ideas there: Dr. Grace Balin is a paraplegic marine biologist who experiments in gene therapy. Using killer whale gene strands, Balin experiments on herself to try and regain mobility in her legs. It’s pseudoscience, sure, but not a bad idea by itself. Morphing into a whale-human hybrid is pretty goofy, but really only a shade or two removed from a guy like Man-Bat.
The problem was in the execution of the story itself, and considering the pedigree of the creative team it should have been a slam-dunk. Writer Larry Hama, who created Bucky O’Hare (what WHAT!) and wrote the G.I. Joe comic in the 80s (and if you only read “Silent Interlude,” that’s worth it alone), and penciller Scott McDaniel of Nightwing fame are some pretty serious talent, but almost everything about this story went wrong. The dialogue is abominable, with characters shouting the names of the person they’re talking to and then going on overly-explanatory rants; the “poor taking on the rich” plot is well-meaning but incredibly heavy-handed; and McDaniel’s already stylized artwork just looks off, with weird proportions and lack of coherent perspectives. Frankly, the silliness of Orca herself was among the least of the story’s problems.
All that to say that Tim Seeley has truly found a good purpose for the character. She still won’t go down as anyone’s favorite Batman rogue, but this is proof that giving a little heart to even the most forgettable of foes can completely change your perspective.
Keeping with Seeley’s theme of redemption, Orca was once a member of the Run-Offs who unfortunately fell back into crime. It wasn’t due to greed or malice, though; no, Balin went back to her old ways because of her own self-loathing. She sees herself as a monster, and no matter how kind the other Run-Offs were to her, she couldn’t reconcile that with her personal feelings. She thought she was a monster, and so she acts like a monster. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic approach to a character that would be obscure were she not so infamous, an approach that is much more interesting than making her just hired muscle.
Seeley’s script bears the same hallmarks that have made this series so consistently satisfying: the dialogue feels natural, the plotting and pacing are deliberate and confident, and it’s funny without being twee.
Stating that it’s “more of the same” may sound like a condemnation or criticism, but it really isn’t. I love that we’re adjusting to the return to Blüdhaven along with Dick, working through his boredom and being astounded at his newfound celebrity at the same time. There are points that drag a bit, though nothing that threatens to make the proceedings remotely boring. It’s great seeing Dick using both his likability and detective skills to establish new connections and solve the overlying mystery at the same time. I never thought I’d say this, but Nightwing is the best example of a detective book in the Bat-family stable right now.
To’s gorgeous pencils and Sotomayor’s wonderful colors continue their self-established trend of making this one of the better looking books on the stands, too. The first half of the issue is pretty low-key, short on action while still having verve and personality. Marcus To is a master in his use of body language, giving conversations a life of their own, and Sotomayor’s great use of shading is particularly ingenious. There’s a “dimly lit” conversation near the beginning of the book that manages to pop off the page (or screen, as it were), with subtle changes in coloring and tone keeping even the darkest of hues from bleeding together.
The extended fight scene in the latter half of the book is a delight, too. After a few issues of relative calm it’s nice to see a good set piece, and this one delivers. Setting it at a construction site was a great idea, and Nightwing and each of the Run-Offs each get a moment to shine. Particularly Giz’s squirrel, who is the real hero.
To even manages to make Orca’s design look pretty decent, keeping the basic idea while toning down some of the more… extreme features. Still not a Top Ten Look by any means, but much less unpleasant than before.
It’s amazing what treating a character respectfully can do. Even if Orca is outrageous as a concept, giving her an actual arc and sympathetic motivations has done wonders. What once was a joke character is now a sad woman plagued by self-loathing, someone with an all-too-understandable motivation. I may not love the character, but Seeley at least made me care about her.
And that was enough.
- You love Nightwing.
- You’re willing to give even the goofiest of characters a chance.
Overall: Nightwing continues to impress, though with the talent involved that’s hardly a surprise. With great plotting and gorgeous art, this may be the most consistently excellent Bat-family title on the racks. The themes of rebirth and redemption ring true, and the feat of making even a villain like Orca sympathetic is no small task. I love Nightwing, I really do.