The ‘Nightwing 2022 Annual’ #1 is all about hearts as the issue takes us on a roller coaster from the rise of a villain that is a dark mirror to our hero before gliding into two lighter fares that tug at the heartstrings in more positive ways. All of it melds well together with such strong artistic visions, keeping to the elements that have made this such a popular era for the hero of Blüdhaven.
Heroes and villains tend to travel in similar directions in many cases, with some of the best villains being mirrors of sorts to the heroes that they battle against. For most of the last two years, readers were given glimpses of a new Blüdhaven villain known as Heartless. At last, the origin of this villain is being told, and while his journey might have started with some similarities to Dick Grayson, that’s definitely not how things remained.
Right from the start of this run Tom Taylor focused on how big of a part Alfred Pennyworth played in Grayson’s life, a second father that filled in emotionally in ways that Bruce could not, so it’s intriguing to see here how another butler played a similar yet different role in the life of Heartless, or Shelton Lyle as we now know is his real name. While Shelton is a mirror to Dick in some regard, he’s also somewhat of a warped version of Bruce Wayne, but actually is closer to what happened with Tommy Elliot/Hush.
Taylor really dives in here with some stuff that is very opposite of how light and heartfelt the series has been, to present us with a young burgeoning serial killer stuck with parents that are at a loss and a killer disguised as a butler who is able to foster the young man’s violent personality. While we were informed from the first page that Chamberlin and Heartless had a connection to Grayson from being there the day his parents died, Taylor caught me off guard with a deeper connection that was in plain sight all along.
All the way back in the first issue of this run, that would be issue #78, there was a flashback to a young Dick and Barbara standing up to bullies. Turns out, the bully Dick fought back against was none other than Shelton Lyle/Heartless. That moment followed by Shelton’s accidental injury from Chamberlin killing Lyle’s parents actually pushed Heartless into his body modification obsession.
Without ever realizing it, Dick Grayson created himself a future villain. Introducing villains this way, instant deep connections can often backfire but I think Taylor makes it work easily here because of the fact that it was so slow-burned, planned out, and executed in such a precise manner. We saw Heartless enough to get a glimpse of what a threat he could be, and the mystery was not strung out for too long, as there were other things to keep us focused on while he wasn’t around.
Alongside the main story, we also get two intriguing backup stories, one with our favorite pup Haley/Bitewing and the other seeing Nightwing & Superman/Jon together once more.
Written by Jay Kristoff, the story focused on Bitewing is just adorable all around and provides a great lighter palate cleanser following the dark heavy feelings from the main story. Kristoff gets the characters’ voices right away, and then adds just the right amount of silly embellishment that one would expect from dream versions of a character. Plenty of over-the-top villain moments and hilarity that give the awesome pup of Nightwing the spotlight she rightfully deserves.
Tackling the art for the main and the secondary stories are Eduardo Pansica and Julio Ferreira, who are able to find a very interesting middle ground between the smooth stylings of Bruno Redondo and the rougher aspects of Geraldo Broges who have handled much of the art in the series so far. There is a smooth nature to their artwork with a bit of a rough edge, that lends itself to such a dark story, but also easily works for the lighter one as well. Pansica does some really solid facial work but also knows when to pull back to a distance and not worry so much about the face as the overall body language and scene will do the talking.
A good amount of depth and weight comes in with the inks, making the world feel even firmer in various aspects. White space is used so interestingly here, as it not only frames the panels but some of the actions burst out into that white space and it’s so stark compared to the shadowy story that it sort of keeps our eyes focused and doesn’t let them drift from the hard thing we’re taking in. As noted above we get a few scenes from the first issues of this run, and they do such a solid job of capturing not just the content of those moments but they look pretty similar to the art from those pages, which is pretty cool.
This annual’s third story with Nightwing/Superman is written by C.S. Pacat and it’s just another solid fun entry here as we get more of Nightwing the mentor. Dick Grayson is the heart of the DC Universe so having him mentoring is a natural progression, especially since it’s Superman’s son and Superman played such a big role in Dick’s progression (helping him come up with the name Nightwing and more). Pacat crafts a compelling tale as Jon realizes he hurt someone and he needs help to learn to fight without risking harming someone, and we get some emotional moments between the two characters as well as some good back-and-forth jokes involving superspeed.
Inaki Miranda slides in to draw this story, bringing a similar but different energy that slides between smooth slick, and rougher art qualities. Elements of the characters are less trying to be closer to a photo with some rougher edges to the bodies and stature of the characters, but their faces are so clear and expressive telling a thousand words apiece. Miranda’s paneling is on point, shifting things around in size or shape to match the story need and even pulling off some solid repeat panel (with slight changes) jokes. Not to mention some really kinetic action scenes that flow naturally across the page and are so easy to follow.
Regular colorist Adriano Lucas handles the colors for all three stories, bringing a vivid and dark palette that slips and slides been brighter and dimmer moments so easily. Within the Heartless story there are moments where the colors are vivid (from the circus to daytime moments) but there is an overwhelming darkness present. It creeps around the scenes, hugging the edges in some cases, making sure that it’s a presence that we constantly feel. Those shadows somewhat retreat for some brightness more so in the moments where Heartless is feeling gleeful about doing horrific things which makes it strike harder.
Within the other stories, we see similar bright and darker colors in play, allowing for some more vivid nature at times because they are overall much lighter stories in tone. More akin to the types of lighter fare we have gotten in the series so far (barring a few heavier moments such as Blockbuster fights).
Regular series letterer Wes Abbott brings the usual energy across three stories, while letting each of them somewhat dictate just what the letters look like. Across them, all the letters, whether in dialogue or captions or elsewhere, are full of personality and power with visual cues used to allow us to hear the volume/tone of any given exchange. While it’s all pretty similar across the pages there are some slight changes in the fonts or bubbles between the first two stories and the third almost matching the slight changes in the artwork. It is so very subtle that maybe I’m seeing something that isn’t there but it would not surprise me with just how amazing the work is that Abbott brings to the book month after month.
Nightwing 2022 Annual #1 is now available from DC Comics.