Tim Seeley On ‘Grayson’, Nightwing’s All-New Spy Adventure [Interview]
Last week, the news broke that Dick Grayson would no longer be operating as Nightwing, instead being relaunched into a new spy-themed adventure series called Grayson, by Tim Seeley, Tom King and Mikel Janin. Spinning out of the events of Forever Evil that saw his identity revealed to the world, the new series finds the former Robin, former Nightwing and former Batman (dude has a long resumé) joining up with Spyral, a mysterious organization that first appeared in Batman Incorporated.
To find out more about Grayson’s transition from superhero to superspy, I talked to Seeley, who has been working with King, a former CIA counterterrorism officer, to bring the series to life. In the interview, we discuss Dick Grayson’s role as a “free spirit” who isn’t tied to Gotham City in the way that Batman is, the writing process of Batman Eternal, and even the “G” on Dick’s chest.
CA: I’m a fan of Dick Grayson, but I grew up in the ’90s, so my attachment to him is mostly from the Chuck Dixon/Scott McDaniel Nightwing series, rather than being a fan of him as Robin or a member of the Teen Titans. I always thought of him as a solo hero, this guy who was a cop by day, which was an interesting twist. Because of that, I think of him as this adaptable character who’s had all kinds of different roles, from sidekick to team leader to becoming Batman himself and secretly owning a circus. But getting into the espionage game, that’s a new approach. How did it come about?
TS: As far as how they made the decision for the end of Forever Evil and Nightwing, that was before my time. I basically just one day got an e-mail that said “What would you do with Dick Grayson as a secret agent for something? We don’t know what, we just think he might work really well in some kind of spy genre thing, where his name is the title of the book, it’s not about secret identities.” I didn’t really think I had any ideas for it, so I sat on it for a few days, but then I was thinking about Spyral.
I loved Morrison’s Batman Inc. stuff, all the Batman stuff by Morrison was great. I was thinking about how he’d throw out a hundred ideas an issue, and maybe not even follow up on five of them. I knew he was doing a book with Burnham over at Image, and thought “Well, Grant’s not going to use Spyral. He’s done with that.” It occurred to me that if Dick was going to be a spy for something, it would be such a shame to waste Spyral, which was so full of unlimited potential. It already had this tie to the Bat-verse, it had great visuals, it has this “Are they good guys or bad guys?” thing. They were founded by a Nazi scientist, but they seem to be working for the side of good, we know they hire superheroes because they hired the Hood — all these things hit me, like “Why don’t we use these for Grayson?”
So that was my pitch, and I had all these ideas for what they’d be doing now, and somehow I got that pitch okayed. Then they came to me and said “Well, there’s another guy who had some stuff we liked who actually worked for the CIA and wrote this novel. How would you feel about working with him on some arcs?” Nobody knows spy stuff more than a CIA guy. So being that I have my degree in Batmanology with all the Dick Grayson stuff, I’m not necessarily an expert in any way in spy stuff, international relations, or any of that. So why not? I’ve been working so much in collaboration in Batman Eternal that I’m pretty well trained up for working with another writer.
I was into the idea. Let’s try something new. The worst possible thing that could happen is that Chris Sims will hate me and then all the other fans follow suit. That’s the worst possible scenario.
CA: [Laughs] Well, that does bring up the question of how much you need to know about real-world CIA stuff do you need to know for a spy book set in the DC Universe, where there’s a foreign country ruled by a dude who gets struck by magic lightning and turns into a super buff elf with pointy ears?
TS: I would say I don’t need to know anything, you know what I mean? I need to have read Steranko’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and some comics with Dick Grayson in them to understand who he is, and I have to have a working knowledge of the DCU, but I don’t need to know anything else. But, I also understand, I think, that we’d only benefit from having a basis in reality that we add magic to.
Tom really knows and understands what it feels like to be under fire, or to be undercover. He knows that stuff, and I feel like that’s a great way to approach something. I could care less about the politics involved or the real job of being a spy, which I’m sure is incredibly depressing, but I thought it would be a great basis to work with someone who can share those emotional beats and feelings of a guy who’s in this fish-out-of-water situation, and make it that much more. I was really interested in Tom bringing the emotional beats that I wouldn’t know or understand, or wouldn’t think to make up, and he does that. Some of our first run-throughs are him going “Oh, no, it’s totally normal for dudes to beat the crap out of each other and then be friends after that.” That’s something I wouldn’t understand, but he totally does.
I like that. I like a little bit of fact, but I’m with you, man. Trying to make it a Robert Ludlum novel, or trying to make it Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, despite those being things I enjoy, is not what I’m interested in doing in a superhero universe that also features all the things you were talking about. Spy agencies that are named after moves in chess. I’m not particularly interested in that, but I like to bring a little bit of honesty. That’s what i think works so well about Revival, I’m bringing the most honest, real s**t I can to a really out-of-this-world situation. So why not use that while it’s there?
CA: I like that we now have CIA confirmation that the classic comic book team-up formula of “fight, then we’re friends” is 100% real.
TS: [Laughs] Exactly! Thank you, CIA.
CA: You brought up Checkmate, which is one of my favorite DC Universe spy organizations, and you mentioned S.H.I.E.L.D. too. Did you go back and brush up on that stuff to find out what worked when you’re doing a spy book in those superheroic settings?
TS: Oh, you know I did. One of my favorite things about taking on a new book is that I’ll just walk down to the end of my street, where there’s a comic book store, and it’s a reason for me to go thorugh back issues bins, which I’ve lost as I’ve gotten older and I’m not as much of a collector as I used to be. Now, I’ve got a reason to go through those back issues.
So yeah, I read the original Checkmate run, with the best superhero costume ever, that yellow and black one that has the coolest mask ever, that I ripped off for Jack Kraken.
I read the Rucka run on Checkmate, I read Chase, Suicide Squad by Ostrander and Luke McDonnell. Just to get a vibe of what works. What Steranko brought to it wasn’t any sort of credibiity or realism, he brought a really good visual language for how to do an action comic and play it up. For me, that’s what Spyral is, and what Grant was going for, this Steranko, weird ’60s, weird spinning symbols iconography. I was more than willing to borrow the visual aspect of it for Spyral, because it’s already sort of there.
CA: When I first heard about Grayson, the question that I got asked more than anything else was “What about the gun on the cover?!”
CA: I’m actually fine with it, for the simple reason that Dick Grayson’s parents weren’t killed with a gun. Now, if he starts running around strangling dudes with a snapped trapeze rope…
CA: But really, the first thing I thought about was how much I love those ’70s Batman stories that are really influenced by James Bond, where he’s traveling around the world fighting crime on this global scale. You get it from O’Neil and Adams with Ra’s al-Ghul, you get it with Haney and Aparo in Brave and the Bold, but I feel like the Batman that we have today isn’t really geared towards that right now. Even though it resurfaced in the Morrison run, that run is itself very Gotham City-focused. Snyder is obviously doing a very Gotham City story in Zero Year, Batman Eternal at least opens up as a very Gotham-centric story. I thought that we were going to be done with that kind of Batman, but Dick Grayson doing it as the younger, more handsome, more charming Batman who’s still trained for all those skills and driven to fight evil, seems like such a natural fit. I was really surprised it hadn’t happened before.
TS: When DC says “Hey, what do you think of this?” I go through all these things. What would readers think? What can I pick out about it that I’m attached to? You have to run the whole gamut of emotions, from loving the idea to hating the idea and then back to loving it. I think the longer you think about it, the more it makes sense.
Scott always talks about how Batman is sort of Gotham-City-sexual. He loves one thing only, and it’s Gotham. The thing about Dick is, what’s Dick’s favorite thing? He helps people. That’s what he does. I don’t know that Dick necessarily needs it to be Gotham City, like Batman does. A really good thing that they established that I always liked was that Batman will obviously go to try to save the world, but if it’s down to it, if it’s the world or Gotham, he saves Gotham. He’s focused what he does on the city that made him who he is.
I don’t think Dick has a connection to the location that way. He’s always been a free spirit. You can pick up that circus aspect of him, a traveler who’s used to performing in different places all over the world. That’s what I started picking up on. Here’s a guy who’s used to going town to town, being in front of people and having a certain act. I can totally see that as a James Bond, international spy guy. That’s a very overlooked part of his character that we haven’t played with before, but it’s so obvious. That’s why it’s great.
CA: So how do you see the idea of removing his secret identity? The other thing that popped into my head was Wally West, a character who was very closely identified with Dick Grayson for so long, just by his nature as a sidekick. They were Titans, they were best friends, Dick wore a crazy fake moustache to be the best man at Wally’s wedding, and Wally was the first big character to be a full-time superhero without a secret identity. That’s something I miss, as a fan of that ’90s Flash. How does it affect Dick?
TS: To Dick, it doesn’t affect him at all. It affects his friends. If the world knew who Dick Grayson was, and they could tie him to his friends, his family, if they know he’s alive, then that means he endangers them. That’s a really important thing that Dick would figure out. But Dick took on the mantle of Robin, he took on Nightwing, he took on Batman. As long as he’s out there fighting crime and having a good time doing it, I don’t think it matters what mask he wears, or if he wears one. I think he just recognizes that it’s something you do to protect other people. You wear the mask so that Bane can’t follow you home and beat up Alfred, you know?
In this scenario, where he’s freed of the identity — and I won’t spoil how we do that — it’s no different for him, or maybe it’s sort of freeing to not have it. Basically, he has no identity instead of a secret identity.
CA: We know Dick Grayson is joining Spyral — and by the way, how great is it that there’s a spy organization called “Spyral?” How did that not happen before?
TS: I love it. Grant’s stuff, he plucks those ideas that are like low-hanging fruit, and it’s like you’re the idiot because you just never thought of it, you know? Besides being a great dialogue writer and story writer, that’s one of his greatest skills, doing these simple things. Spyral’s one of those, and it’s just like, we can’t let it go to waste.
CA: Are you at liberty to share any details about who he might be going up against, or other characters we know that might be appearing?
TS: I probably can’t. I’m trying to think… See, the thing is, Nightwing #30, which comes out May 28, gives you a lot of setup. You’ll see what characters we’re going to use and what kind of universe we’re playing in.
The overall arc of the story is new characters, bad guys that we made up, but there’s one new-to-the-New-52 character, one old-to-the-New-52 character, and then an assortment of “new” characters sprinkled in the first five issues. How’s that? I can’t give anything else away, because it really will ruin some stuff. I thought one of the fun beats in it was that we don’t tell you who it is, we just let you figure it out.
The original pitch I had incorporated a bunch of stuff that was already being used and had some other place to be, and I threw in a bunch that were like “Well, they’ll never let me use these,” and they were like “Yup. Those are the ones you can use.” So we use a lot of stuff that I didn’t think we’d get away with, and the same goes for Tom. I think he was surprised that people weren’t using them, or that there wasn’t something on the table for them in the future.
CA: So does he straight up wear a G on his chest?
TS: [Laughs] What it’s supposed to be, and it’s hard to tell on the cover, is that he has a carabiner where he keeps his gear that looks vaguely like a G. That’s the idea, that it’s a visual reference to the R. But some people are like “Yeah, like a spy would wear a G, dumbasses.” Like, we did that on purpose. It’s supposed to be a visual cue, but it’s meant to be a clasp.
You have people saying “That’s stupid!” Fanboys get so angry, like we didn’t notice it was silly. It’s supposed to be! It’s a visual callback, and if we had to make it practical so people don’t get mad at us, we just say “Oh, that’s a carabiner shaped like a G.” I don’t know why that’s hard, but that’s what we were thinking.
The thing is, when you start to take things apart, you know you’ve missed the point, right? If your problem with anything in a superhero universe comes down to, like “He wears a letter on his chest,” then you’ve forgotten that these things are on paper and they have to be identifiable by how they look. A kid picking this up has to go “Oh, that guy has an R on his chest, that must be Robin!” You’ve missed the entire point: This is not supposed to be real. It has to work on paper every month in four colors for eternity. We developed a great language here, do not try to think you’re outsmarting the medium. You’re not. That’s my rant.
CA: As I understand it, Batman Eternal, after this opening arc by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV and Jason Fabok, is going to spin off to the rest of the writers listed on the title page: You, John Layman, Ray Fawkes, James Tynion IV, writing stories that focus on different characters.
TS: Basically, the framework is that Scott and James provide the skeleton for the entire 52 issues. There are four of us, besides Scott, and after the first three issues, he’s basically the showrunner. Each 16-issue arc, we each do a one-shot and a three-issue arc, basically. It’s James first, then Ray, then John, then me — I’m #7, I know that much — and then we start our arcs. The one-shots continue the story that started in #1, and they also set up our arcs, and then we pick up each other’s arcs. So instead of how sometimes weeklies are done, where a team of four writers will each write five pages per issue, our book is done where we each wirte full issues with the assistance of the others at all times.
It demands that we all talk a lot, it demands that we all get along and can take critcism from each other, and it demands that we’re all on the same page. It’s an interesting process, and I’m amazed at how well it all works. None of us have ever done this before, and I’m shocked at how rather easily it goes.
CA: It sounds intense.
TS: It’s a lot of reading. You have to read everyone else’s scripts, you have to read everyone’s rewrites when they come in, and then once every two months or so, we fly to New York to sit in a DC conference room for two days, going over our next arcs very intensely, saying “Here’s the outline, what can we add, what do we need, what do you want to do?” It’s pretty work intensive, definitely.
It’s also weirdly easy in a lot of ways. To me, writing Revival is harder than this, in a lot of ways. This is in a framework that I completely understand. I’m always bouncing ideas off of people I trust. With Revival, it’s all me and Mike. There’s nothing else, there’s no framework, just us. That’s a little scarier than doing something like Batman: Eternal.