7 Reasons We Should All Care More About Dick Grayson, Kyle Rayner, and Wally West
By Brandon Crnkovic (@BCrnk)
When it comes to comics, continuity is the ever-changing and often frustrating lens through which these worlds are viewed. Even the smallest changes can have enormous impacts on the overall universes populated by all the characters we love to follow. The need for and/or merits of the many retcons, reboots, sliding timelines (really, Marvel?), and, most confusingly, creation and destruction of multiverses have now been debated for decades and will continue to be for decades to come. However, from a literary and editorial standpoint, these changes often address issues with the team books or marquis characters of a given publisher while some of the most dynamic and interesting characters suffer for it. There are many examples across multiple companies but the DC imprint is (by a mile) the most reboot-happy. Although recent issues have begun to address it (a soft reboot of a hard reboot, really), the 2011 “New 52” reboot gutted the legacy established by decades of continuity and, while certain personality and origin changes among DC’s flagship properties caused a stir, it was the second generation (or third depending on when you start counting) heroes that lost the most. In fact, upon closer examination, some of these characters lost much of what made them special. Of the three I am going to focus on in this article, one became practically obscure, one was wiped from existence for 5 years (not dead but never alive), and one was reduced from a groundbreaking standout to an also-ran. For the most part, though, I’m going to give you reasons we should all care more about Dick Grayson, Kyle Rayner, and Wally West.
1. They Represented a New Generation
I’m not going to give you a history lesson but, for the totally un-initiated, Dick Grayson was the first Robin. He was THE wish fulfillment character for kids everywhere. He was a kid that got to race across rooftops, ride in the Batmobile, and beat up on the baddies of Gotham City alongside everyone’s favorite hero: Batman. He became the template for the soon-to-be-common young hero sidekick.
Wally West was the “Original” (No, I didn’t forget Mr. Garrick) Flash’s nephew and a huge fan of the Flash even before he became aware of his hero’s alter ego and was empowered by a freak accident exactly like his uncle Barry before him. As Kid Flash he fought beside Barry and also joined Robin and other sidekicks as a founding member of the Teen Titans which will be heavily referenced for the remainder of this article.
Kyle Rayner came much later. His debut in 1994 told a very different kind of origin story as he was selected, seemingly by chance, to become the next, last, and only Green Lantern after Earth’s previous 3 (plus about 3600 more spread across the universe) were killed, crippled, de-powered, or otherwise betrayed by the greatest Lantern of them all turned traitor.
2. They Surpassed Their Predecessors
Wally West learned to utilize the Speed Force in new and exciting ways. The Speed Force was a relatively new and vaguely defined aspect of the Flash mythos in the 90’s and writers like Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns have used it as a canvas to create amazing Flash feats and abilities such as stealing or lending speed, acquiring relativistic mass to go along with near-light speed (super-fast running = super hard punching because science), and weaving molecules via the Speed Force to create/change/mend costumes at will.
As an artist whose creativity was more of a weapon than his willpower, Kyle Rayner was a perfect GL for Morrison’s JLA series (which features Rayner’s debut with the team). Morrison loves grandiose, over-the-top stories and the tried and true green bubbles and boxing gloves of yore were replaced by stylistic constructs and scientific applications. Kyle’s stories often touched on feelings of inadequacy both inside and outside of the JLA books but he would come to earn the respect of current and former heroes and go on to display power levels Hal Jordan never dreamed of.
Although Dick Grayson led the Titans for a time as Robin, his transition to his (young) adult identity of Nightwing ushered in a more serious tone for that book which included teammates’ deaths, romantic entanglements, and more. Over the years, Dick has crossed paths with almost every hero in the DC stables and is loved or at least respected by almost everyone. It has been remarked on many times by writers and characters that Dick is “a touchstone” or ‘the linchpin” of the DC Universe. He has led the Teen Titans, Titans, Outsiders, and the Justice League. Even Batman has been known to comment on the leadership advantage his former sidekick holds over him and has used it to great effect several times over the years.
3. They Had Different Motivations
Although Dick Grayson lost his parents to crime like Batman, his motivations have always been skewed towards moral responsibility a la Spiderman as opposed to the unhealthy suppression of childhood trauma which plagues his mentor. It can be argued that being given the purpose and outlet of crimefighting at a young age combined with the mentorship of Bruce Wayne and the loving support of Alfred Pennyworth is what allowed Dick to remain a saner and more socially functional human being than Batman but that just makes it even more satisfying to watch Robin/Nightwing fight for his ideals, his family, and his friends.
Wally West’s origin story is not mired in tragedy. He had a strained relationship with his parents and his aunt Iris’ boyfriend (later husband) also turned out to be his hero and future uncle: The Flash. However, When Barry Allen died in the 1985 crossover event “Crisis on Infinite Earths” Wally took over the mantle and did his best to honor his uncle’s legacy and live up to his example.
Kyle Rayner had a VERY different type of origin story. He walked out of a bar and into an alleyway, was handed the ring, and told “You shall have to do”. He would come to learn what had befallen the Corps later but his first few adventures were based around cool factor. He and his girlfriend had talks about his image and “brand”. Soon enough, of course, she was brutally murdered (Seriously, it was a huge deal at the time. Look it up.) and Kyle began to shoulder the responsibility which accompanies the most powerful weapon in the universe. As the last Lantern, Kyle carried the weight of the entire universe and, while he was never universally accepted by DC’s intended audience, he did so with his own unique style and personality.
4. Changes of Scenery
All three of these heroes made their mark on different cities than those traditionally protected by their mentors. For Dick Grayson, Blüdhaven became a new home where corruption and just-about-lost causes kept him busy and out of a looming bat-shaped shadow when the Titans weren’t protecting New York City. Keystone City (twin cities with Central City) became Wally’s stomping grounds. Kyle grew up in LA near Hal Jordan’s fictional hometown of Coast City but, after the death of his girlfriend, he moved to the Big Apple and living as a struggling artist in the city became a huge part of his storylines.
5. Modern Edge and Style
While the Flash uniform didn’t change much when Wally took over the name, Dick Grayson’s Nightwing costumes were each even more sleek and streamlined then the one before. He ditched the cape and added glider wings which were MUCH more successful than the web-pits Spiderman sported around that time. Kyle Rayner was far from the first Green Lantern to deviate from the standard uniform but if his second and best-known uniform isn’t the most 90’s costume in all comicdom, it is darned close.
Many of Dick Grayson’s arcs involve deep undercover work both in and out of the costume. He fought police corruption from within by joining the Blüdhaven Police Department, infiltrated spy organization Spyral, and then became a Talon for the Parliament of Owls to save a friend and take them down from the inside. His comics also frequently show him engaged in community service. He prefers to live downtown and in the middle of his patrol areas as opposed to a mansion outside of the city limits.
Kyle Rayner’s civilian life as an artist in NYC included a colorful cast of neighbors and other locals including a controversial story involving the coming-out of his assistant Terry. Kyle’s approach to wielding the ring was creative and new as villain after villain fell to vividly detailed mutants, monsters, exotic warriors, and giant anime-style mecha. There is even an issue in which he shares a portion of his power to restore mobility (via glowing green legs) to a double amputee caught up in a battle between GL and the baddie of the week. More recent arcs have seen him gain god-like powers as Ion (twice) and master all of the emotional wavelengths to become a White Lantern. If you are not familiar with the circumstances surrounding these developments, you have missed out on some great storytelling and should rectify that particular deficit ASAP.
Wally West was a little soft on his villains at times. He did his best to rehabilitate his rogues and was often lighthearted even in the midst of life-and-death situations. His friendships with both Kyle and Dick informed his appearances in the Titans and JLA books and his story arcs cover his growth from teen sidekick to iconic hero, husband, and, finally, father. This amount of personal growth is rare in the medium and, while the stories with his kids weren’t everyone’s favorite, it was special to have that many stages of life shown over the years.
6. Awesome Villains!
Great heroes need worthy villains and these three do not disappoint. Although Deathstroke has been featured heavily on Arrow and in the Arkham games, avid readers associate him most with the Titans and, in particular, Nightwing. Kyle Rayner introduced (and unwittingly created) Oblivion: A physical manifestation of his fears and doubts born of his subconscious and powered by his ring. Zoom (Hunter Zolomon) was actually Wally’s antagonist even though he was featured as the Season 2 villain on CW’s The Flash featuring the Barry Allen iteration.
7. Learning Curves
Dynamic characters need to fail sometimes and, while the readership can’t stomach Batman or Superman taking the L too often, writers are a bit freer in writing for characters of lesser fame. This freedom combined with being legacy characters allowed for dynamic story arcs not possible with others. Kyle was an artist with a sensitive soul and a sarcastic streak that learned how to be a man and a hero at the same time. He failed a lot at life, love, and heroism. It was not as natural to overcome fear for him as it was for Hal Jordan the test pilot and John Stewart the ex-Marine and architect who came before him. Dick Grayson worked through a major falling out with Batman, the dissolution of the Titans, and the deaths of many friends and loved ones. He wins most of his fights eventually but he takes a lot of hits and generally finds out-of-the-box ways to win as opposed to outsmarting or outfighting his foes like Batman. Wally West faced limitations and lesser powers than his mentor for years until he acknowledged the anxiety and fear of supplanting and surpassing the memory of his uncle. He went on to accomplish many feats and is considered by many writers and readers to be the fastest of the Flashes.
The recent reboots have removed many of these gems from the continuity and remade or ignored others. Kyle’s history is barely addressed and it is hard to tell which stories are still cannon. Wally was removed from continuity in the 2011 New 52 relaunch and then reintroduced as a different version of the character. The original recently re-entered the universe (and coexists alongside the new version who is now HIS COUSIN) after 5 long years to restore the memory (kind of) of the time before Flashpoint and the New 52 but much of the legacy continuity is still missing. For instance, the original Titans history has been remembered for the most part by the original team but the Wolfman and Perez arcs of the New Teen Titans are still unacknowledged other than a few hints in the early issues of the New 52. Unfortunately, that means the Nightwing/Starfire relationship didn’t happen (I realize it has been mentioned in passing but you know what I mean) and neither did THE JUDAS CONTRACT! However, there is hope. Wally is back and leading the charge to restore reality as well as being the only one besides Superman (wow, that’s a tangled mess) that remembers the universe before Flashpoint clearly. DC has said Kyle will be back in a real way and in the near future (he has been off-panel for a bit) and Dick is still fun, cool, and buddies with everyone. The writers should care even more about these guys, though. We all should.