Sam Humphries continues to deliver a mixed bag of intrigue and lack-of-focus in this chapter of Nightwing “The Untouchable.”

In many ways, Humphries has developed some great beats for “The Untouchable.” Unfortunately, those highlights are becoming overshadowed by the story’s opportunities, and that’s never good. A story can have excellent moments – those moments might even define the story – but if your overall narrative is a mess, then you’re still left with a mess no matter how good those individual moments are. That’s how I feel about this arc.

The Judge has been terrorizing Bludhaven, and directly Nightwing, for a while now. Pinpointing corruption, he’s chosen people to enact his will, and in turn, those victims are terrorizing or murdering other people. With a street-level vibe and great characterization, Humphries is crafting interesting and entertaining elements, but the finer details have suffered a bit. This lack of finesse has unfortunately resulted in a story ranging from “mediocre” to “good” rather than “great.”

This chapter is another flashback, and I’m happy to say that it is much better than the initial flashback when Dick was operating as Robin. Like the initial flashback, this story focuses on the second of Dick’s previous encounters with the Judge. The concept and execution succeed in delivering a more gripping set-up, as the incident, as well as Dick as a character, feel more fleshed out and fully realized than before. We also get a large dose of information pertaining to the Judge – a moment that reads incredibly well and is magnificently illustrated by Phil Jimenez. Then there’s the pesky reality that the conclusion of this flashback barely has any differentiation from the first flashback.

Where the script fails though, the art excels! Phil Jimenez brings so much to the table that I’d say the issue is worth your time and money because of his work alone. I’d forgotten how good of an artist Jimenez is, and how well his characters emote. There are so many nuances to his panels that bounds of emotion and context are infused into each scene, and elevate the product as a whole. Jamal Campbell also delivers some great work for the present day scenes that blend beautifully with Chang’s work. I’m not a fan of where the flashbacks occur in the arc (or even the flashbacks themselves to a degree), but I appreciate the thought and care that was put into ensuring this story looks cohesive. It will make for a stronger collection when all is said and done, and at this point, “The Untouchable” is in desperate need of consistency.

Breakdowns for this issue can be found in the spoiler tag.

Spoiler

The Good:

Disco Dick! Humphries scores a touchdown for this moment! I love when writers give a little wink to a character’s history in publication, so the fact that he and Jimenez took the time to acknowledge “Disco Dick” should make long-time fans smile! It’s brief and ultimately unimportant, but a total high-five to the audience.

The Murder. Unlike the original flashback, this chapter starts off strong and the murder that’s featured is executed well. There’s an actual weight to this scene, and the shock of it reminds me of Chang’s panels of the slaughtered priests. Maybe it’s because of the recent school shootings, but seeing the bodies of these students, as well as the reaction of the girl who carried out the Judge’s wishes is unsettling. Not only is the scene well written, but it’s illustrated perfectly by Jimenez. Look at the body language and facial expression of the girl who just murdered her classmates against her will. Now, look at the scene of the crime itself. Within a single page, there are equal parts horror and heartbreak, with an unnerving undertone. This is top-notch storytelling and acting through art.

Who is the Judge? We learn a lot about the Judge in this issue, and I’d consider all of it interesting. Relevant? That’s debatable. The biggest reveal in this issue is that we learn who the Judge really is: Jacob de Witt – a Dutch judge who is tragically murdered after attempting to convict an aristocrat centuries ago. His murder led him to become who his now thanks to something within the sea (more on this in a bit), and touched on moments of his history throughout time. In short, the Judge is essentially a reaper that comes from the sea every couple of years to confront corruption. I really like seeing the roles he’s played throughout time, but I do have many questions for the sake of clarity, and I’ll bring those questions up in “The Bad.” From a surface level examination though, this makes for an entertaining read. The mystical/ metaphysical elements of the Judge add a certain texture to him as a character, but knowing he’s taken on many roles in life also adds a great amount of depth that could be explored endlessly in the future! I also like that Humphries established that the Judge’s purpose is basically to haunt and eliminate those that are corrupt. From a judge, to man of the sea, to a monk, there’s a lot to take in here.  (Also, as a little fun fact, there really is a historical figure named Jacob de Witt that is Dutch and held a similar title. That’s about as far as the correlations go, but there were some similarities also found in Jacob’s sons, Johan and Cornelis, that feel as though they were also imbued into the Judge.)

 

The Bad:

The Untouchable. One of the biggest problems with this story stems from the title. This arc is titled “The Untouchable.” So what’s the problem? The title is supposed to represent why the Judge is a threat – a play on his abilities to make other people enact his will as well as Dick’s inability to put him away – but as we’ve seen on multiple occasions now, Dick is more than capable of stopping him. Dick has gotten to the Judge more than once, so the notion that he’s “untouchable” – something that if it had actually been executed properly would have made the story more suspenseful with higher stakes in the present day – is a complete wash. Not only is the Judge not untouchable, but he’s actually been stopped twice by Dick, only to get away due to luck. He’s very touchable, and the two flashbacks documenting this have sadly weakened the Judge as a character and threat.

Emphasis. Another opportunity with the story overall is an improper emphasis at inappropriate times. I feel this falls on the editors, Chris Conroy, Rob Levin, and Brian Cunningham, as much as it falls on Humphries. Someone should have stepped in at some point to reassess the overall narrative to make it flow better. Some examples of this are the flashbacks, Guppy, and Baby Ruthless.

First off, the flashback issues occur at the most inopportune times within the narrative, and completely hinder the book’s momentum. I’d also argue that we don’t need two issues documenting these flashbacks, but rather one issue that covers both. Having two issues requires more pages to be filled with plots that ultimately do nothing to enhance the story. That’s not all I would change concerning the flashbacks though. I wouldn’t have brought Dick face-to-face with the Judge in a flashback. I would have had the initial incident (while Dick was Robin) end with no answers, just a weird scenario with a gold casino coin, and a person that murdered people but claimed that someone made them do it – something neither he or Batman would believe in the moment. Then I’d have the second flashback occur within the same issue where the students at Dick’s college are murdered, another murderer claiming they were forced to do it, and another gold coin… but this time, Dick gets a name: the Judge. Had this followed the first issue, the stakes would’ve felt higher, Dick’s determination would make more sense, and the idea that he’ll actually catch the Judge would feel like more of a stretch, while also allowing the momentum of the issues to rise and climax as it should.

As for characters and their emphasis at different points of the story, we’ll look to Guppy and Baby Ruthless. Guppy was introduced in the first issue, made a huge splash (pun intended), and looked to be set-up as a major player for the overall story, but his presence and relevance has since fizzled out. That’s not a knock on him as a character, simply that he was brought in too hot and heavy too early. Then there’s Baby Ruthless, a character that didn’t appear in the first two issues, felt shoe-horned into the first flashback issue, was practically absent in the fourth issue, and is now set-up to be the catalyst for all of Dick’s woes with the Judge in the present day. Everything feels unbalanced, creating a jarring read overall as the narrative jerks from one focus to the next without covering much ground. All of these beats could remain in the story and work, they just need to be implemented better.

Repetition. I’m not going to lie, I started this issue off thinking, “This is how you do a flashback!” And then Disco Dick had to come face-to-face with the Judge, act irrationally, and let the Judge escape. It’s the exact same scenario as the first flashback! It even takes place on a boat, just like the first issue. This feels a bit lazy. I know the boat connection is meant to tie to the Judge’s ties to the sea, but more could have been done to differentiate these scenarios.

Secrets of the Sea. I have a love-hate relationship with this entire sea scenario. On one hand, I think it’s quite interesting… but then I start to actually analyze it, and everything falls apart. Something in the sea changed Jacob de Witt and made him immortal. What that is, remains unexplained. Fine… except for the fact that the bay off of Bludhaven is notoriously known for having bodies dumped, so why did this only happen to de Witt? Also, what happens to the Judge when he’s not in Bludhaven, and how long can he stay before he has to return to the seas? At this point, you need an explanation to prevent the concept from being convenient or lazy, and we get nothing. But to top it off, we have the folklore of the Sea Butcher. This did more harm than good by distorting the focus of the narrative. Why create that side-story when it serves no purpose in the end?

The Judge’s Abilities. Much like the Judge’s origin, we still don’t have a strong grasp on what his actual abilities are, and considering we’re five issues in at this point, we probably should’ve received a more definitive explanation.

Motivation. Humphries establishes in this issue that the Judge’s purpose is to come from the sea and confront corruption. Every few years, the Judge shows up, encounters morally corrupt individuals, and uses them to kill other morally corrupt people… So if that’s the case, why is he so hellbent on going after Dick. We learn that the entire present-day plot has been a motion to confront and kill Nightwing… who is arguably one of the least morally corrupt individuals in the DC universe. As humans, we all have a certain level of corruption to us, but the Judge’s motivations fell apart for me in this issue.

Recommended if:

  • You’ve been reading “The Untouchable”
  • You want to learn more about the Judge.
  • Phil Jimenez, folks!

Overall: Is Nightwing #39 worth your time and money? Sure. There’s plenty to take away and enjoy form this chapter, but the story isn’t without its problems. The highlights here are easily Phil Jimenez’s art and the revelations that come to light about the Judge and who he really is. This story has (had?) a lot of potential, but the uneven execution is hindering its success more than anything. With barely any plot progression, and a slew of new questions coming into play, I do have concerns that Humphries will be able to successfully wrap everything concerning Dick, the Judge, the Limousine Assassins, Elise Svoboda, Guppy, and Baby Ruthless…

SCORE: 6/10