I didn’t get a chance to review either Grayson #7 or Grayson #8 thanks to Life Stuff™. Sadness. I’d really wanted to cover Grayson #8, since it’s the last issue we’ll be getting for two months (until DC Comics’ Convergence event gets out of the way). But I ended up having to make a super last minute overseas trip, on emergency family business, alas, and computer time has been low on the ground here. Once I get home later this week, I hope to do a Grayson retrospective summing up all eight issues so far, but suffice to say that issue #8 was a fantastic “season 1 finale” to this fledgling series and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
For now, I’m all over this amazing commentary that my friend Zina has agreed to share here. One of my favourite things about Grayson is how it goes “against the grain” to typical comic books, and the spy genre especially, and Zina has de-constructed the exact nuances of that with way more skill than I could ever manage. So enough talk from me, onward to the post!
Okay so I mentioned earlier in the week that I had a lot to talk about with regard to the subversion of tropes in the Grayson comic series but couldn’t talk about it because of time constraints and a presentation. Well, I’ve got time!
I’m going to talk about a few ways that Grayson (as it is right now) is a game changer for the comics industry and how it subverts tropes that are prevalent in superhero comics and the series’ genre parent of spy novels/films.
Up front I will tell anyone that’s nearby how much I love spy stories. It’s my genre. Like noir, I can’t write it worth a damn but I grew up with James Bond (books and films) and as a teenager I grabbed any YA novel I could that had themes of international espionage and super secret government agencies. So the comic was always going to be my thing.
However, one of the things that’s so wrong with James Bond and many of the spy series out there, is that they glorify a white (and often Eurocentric) patriarchal system where people of color are across the board villains and women only exist to drape themselves sensually over things. The spy is never a sex object (and rarely actually dehumanized within the narrative) unless the spy is a woman or a person of color. (And when they are both – well it’s not pretty.)
While Grayson isn’t perfect, the series has done a great job with some of the tropes prevalent in the spy genre and I’m going to talk about a couple of them.
1 – The spy all alone in the field.
For the most part, when you watch something like James Bond, James Bond is essentially alone in the field. Sure, he might have a driver or some helpfully placed cannon fodder while M or M’s secretary rattles off outdated information in his ear, but the focus of the work is on him. He is the only capable person in the field and the only person that can get the job done.
Grayson doesn’t do that.
In the series, Dick Grayson is the new guy on the job. Sure, he has experience working as a superhero (not necessarily as a detective or a covert ops guy), but even that was on a team despite how far away he was from it. Dick doesn’t come to the spy game with this sense that he’s better than everyone in Spyral or that teamwork is for chumps. And King and Seeley don’t give us the character written to be adrift or aloof from the organization even though he’s trying to undermine it. He’s part of Spyral now and all that entails and even with him spying on the spies, he’s still part of this team and he’s faced with making a serious effort with them.
2 – Sexy, sexy sexualization.
(This is also known as the topic I’m super passionate about when it comes to Grayson because it’s a comic book where I am actually and consistently comfortable with reading it.)
Off the bat, in the first issue of Grayson we have Dick and Helena going back and forth. Their banter, even the lowkey sexually charged stuff at the end of the issue, isn’t the norm. It isn’t about Helena proving herself to Dick, the ultra macho lead spy, but really Dick getting ribbed by someone with leagues more experience than he has. He’s not the head cheese in this outfit, not the guy in charge, and there’s no effort made to have him succeed or surpass Helena.
He’s working with her and that’s super important because normally, in our big selling spy series, the character that Dick would be analogous to (the James Bonds or Alex Riders of the spy genre) basically only interacts with women to bone them, save them, or prove that he’s better than them.
The spy genre is inundated with sexy.
From bikini-clad models rising up from ocean sprays to villainesses with claw-like fingernails wrapping themselves around our hero in an attempt to kill him, the genre isn’t exactly overflowing with female characters that are known for anything beyond their sexuality. And this sexuality that they show is almost always their downfall. They are either killed for their connection to the villain or they are killed after trying to use their sexuality to distract the villain.
In ten issues we have so far, we don’t really have that.
The closest thing that we have (and something that admittedly did make a fair bit of people legitimately uncomfortable) was Agent 8/Alia. She shows all of the signs of the typical soon-to-be-fridged Bond girl. She’s flirtatious, can be read as aggressive, and then WHAM – she’s dead.
But she isn’t fridged.
Let’s look at this by comparing Agent 8’s death to one of the most recent fridging in James Bond’s history: Bérénice Marlohe’s Severine. Like Agent 8, Severine is flirtatious and interested in our babely agent. Like Agent 8, Severine also winds up having sex with a babely agent in charge.
However, that’s where things start to change.
Agent 8 has a bit of a back story even though she’s a one-issue character. She was raised in or around Smallville, Kansas among farmers and hunters and she learned to shoot practically before she could walk. She sees guns as necessary tools that have good in them and are necessary in their line of work because of this back story we get peeks at. She has a personality (a bit abrasive and aggressive) and her character is written as very confident and in charge. If she has a problem, she deals with it.
Agent 8 dies in the line of fire. She dies after and directly as a result of fatally wounding a target. She doesn’t die to throw off Dick’s game or spur him on to further awesomeness as a super spy. Sure he feels bad about it and it effects him, but it isn’t this call to arms the way it’d be anywhere else.
Severine, on the other hand: well, her death happens for at least one of those reasons. Her death throws off Bond’s game and is set up to shock the audience. It is pointless in that there was no reason for it except for a 2.5 second look of shock on Bond’s face before he leaps into action and decimates the bad guys.
Now that’s fridging. So far, we’re not dealing with that or the hyper-sexualized portrayals of women characters that are prevalent in both the spy and superhero genres.
(Also: In preparation for this piece, I went and reread all of the Grayson issues except for the Future’s End one. Out of those issues, issue #3 is the only one where a woman is shown naked or having sex. There are a lot of characters who are portrayed as sexual but not sexualized (see the St. Hadrian girls or Helena’s flirting with Dick). I think that’s very important to note because they could’ve gone that way. Mikel Janin is an incredible artist who draws everyone in the core cast as ridiculously attractive babes. He could have had all of the ladies in this series dressed (or under-dressed) in skimpy spy uniforms or twisted up in sexy pretzel poses if he felt like it. But that’s not what this series is about.)
2.5 – Sexy, sexy spies.
Dick Grayson is a babe. Full stop. That’s part of why a lot of readers gravitate towards him. He catches the eye and there always seems to be a bit of extra effort put into making him look gorgeous. Grayson is no exception.
One of the things that this comic does really well, is avoid the male gaze. You don’t have this pervasive, almost oily feeling that comes across you when you look at a panel drawn with the male gaze in mind. (Something such as Starfire’s everything from Scott Lobdell’s Red Hood and the Outlaws). Issue three is really the only issue where you get that feeling and you kind of side-eye our creative team for it because it’s jarring. It pulls you out of the safe space that this comic creates.
Notice that so far, it hasn’t happened again.
Now the one character that we do see shirtless and relatively sexy all the time is our main man. Dick is a total beefcake in this series and it’s a good thing. Normally, male spies and superheroes are simply sex symbols in the loosest sense. They’re sexy because of their suits, not because of how good they look while shirtless. And above all, they really power fantasies directed towards other (straight) men.
Dick isn’t like that. Grayson isn’t like that.
The series isn’t directed towards straight men.
It’s not directed towards that “men aged 18-34″ demographic that we kept hearing as an excuse for why comics weren’t for anyone else. Instead of the St. Hadrian girls and Helena being portrayed as super sexualized characters who are always barely wearing clothes, Dick is the character we see shirtless the most. Even though it’s only about three times in eight issues (as opposed to how lady characters are sexualized all the time in their own books and turned into literal objects for male consumption), it’s a refreshing change from what is pedaled as the norm.
3 – The St. Hadrian girls and their all around awesomeness
They get a whole point to themselves because their very existence is indicative of a huge twist on ingrained tropes. I’ve written about this before, but in most series set in/around a boarding school, we get a roomful of boys and their adventures.
The St. Hadrian girls not only get to be these fun characters that you kind of ID with (especially over their extreme thirst for Dick) but they kind of add a bit more depth to St. Hadrian’s as a school and wind up integral to the plot.
The last time we saw St. Hadrian as a school (way back in Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes), it wasn’t nearly as fun. It was doom and gloom and you had the sense that the girls there were at the school to fill a mold and they might not have had a choice for it. Aside from one or two characters that interacted with Stephanie Brown, we didn’t really get a sense of identity coming from them.
The St. Hadrian’s girls aren’t like that. There are distinct personalities within the group of girls that we see chasing and lusting after Dick. On top of that, we do get this feeling that even if their parents sent them to the school to learn how to become killers, soldiers, and spies, that they are dedicated to doing it on their own terms.
And they’re not shamed for it. Remember how Lotti actually gets extra credit for her ingenious camera set up around the school first and then punishment second – and even then, it was for them being out after dark and on the grounds? Yeah, that’s a big deal!
Another thing about the girls that is trope defying is how they are sexual beings but not sexualized. The girls are college-age (which is anything from 16 to early 20s at the absolute latest). Their reactions to Dick are genuine. He’s hot and frequently shirtless and they so want a piece of that. It’s refreshing to see girls looking at a cute guy and saying “yummy” or “I wouldn’t kick him out of bed”.
Because even in the lady-dominated arenas of YA-fiction and fanfiction, they don’t really get to do that. We don’t really get to see young women confident in what they want and frank about finding men attractive and we get that with the St. Hadrian girls. They’re open about what they want and even though they know they can’t get Dick (because of his persona as a gay French teacher), that doesn’t stop them from being cheerfully open about it.
And it’s not framed as shameful! Yeah, it’s a little bit creepy but let’s be real: there are entire films about men and boys literally objectifying women. A few girls commenting on a handsome characters attractive attributes twice out of a ten-issue series does not make for actual objectification or something worthy of shame.
In Issue 8, we have our core group of girls re-appear, and at first it seems like we’re going with the weirdly familiar gag of them drooling over Dick Grayson. And we do, for a few panels (hilarious as they are, I’m not complaining). But then our girls go off to help and when was the last time you saw that? Junior spies and assassin types that were all girls and all ready to save the day.
And holy crap did they save it. Without the St. Hadrian’s girls in the mix, Dick would be dead. Straight up, dead.
When was the last time we had a superspy saved by a bunch of teenage girls? Seriously, King and Seeley take the boarding school genre with all of its jokes about innocent male sexuality and invading women’s privacy for gratification and give us a group of girls that lift up the plot, help save the day, and make you wish for a St. Hadrian-centered ongoing or mini.
For further thoughts on the girls, go check out this commentary by tumblr user dickiebirds, wherein they talk about how Dick Grayson isn’t being objectified by the St. Hadrian girls and what objectification actually is. It’s 100% on point!
4 – Sensitive superspies
They do things for themselves or for the good of their country, but not so much other people. One of the major worries that people had when Grayson was announced (and a worry that I’ll admit to having before the series started) was that Dick would be shoehorned into this role where he’d have to make the hard decisions and the small sacrifices, but would lose his charming personality in the process.
And so far, he hasn’t.
The Dick Grayson in Grayson is the real deal. He’s authentic, with King and Seeley portraying him as sensitive and open and just plain fun unlike recent history where he’s beaten down, mischaracterized, and kind of only kept afloat at times by the fact that Nightwing is very appealing to people that aren’t cis, straight dudes.
But back to the sensitivity:
Despite being taken out of his element and placed into the deep end of a dangerous position, Dick is still the same quipster we know and love and that changes the game. He’s not some stiff in a suit with a poison gas pen in his pocket just waiting for his target to show up. He isn’t a lackey that takes orders without questioning the person giving them.
In issue three, he goes to give The Old Gun the eyes that Spyral wants from him because he wants the man to see his son and for his son to see him.
In issue five, he protects that precious little baby with his life, talking and singing to the little thing through the desert. He doesn’t stop to think that maybe he’d move faster without a baby and at the end of it all, he gives the baby to a good home rather than let Spyral take the little girl’s heart.
Look at his interaction with the St. Hadrian girls. He’s playful with them, testing them as much as he’s playing with them. He’s in this unfamiliar environment and he’s still like “okay there can be fun here too”.
He’s portrayed as such a genuinely good guy and so sensitive.
It’s a far cry from the ultra macho hero that we usually get in superhero comics or the sleekly sharp secret agents pushed at us in the spy genre. He’s got his hard edges and can do what it takes to get the job done right, but at the heart of it, he’ll do the right thing and the fun thing first.
5 – Shades of Grayson
One of the earliest things I reference in this piece is how the spy genre is essentially glorifying this patriarchal and imperialistic system. Simply put, spy stuff is frequently racist as hell because your bad guys aren’t the British or French or white South Africans, they’re Muslims from “fictional Middle-Eastern country that serves as an allegory for a real one”, Africans, Brazilians, and Koreans.
In most spy series, the few people of color you’re likely to see are villains or sex symbols for the main character to fall into bed with. They don’t get names. They barely get screen or page time.
Grayson knocks that out of the water within the first issue and then keeps on going.
We have Helena Bertinelli who got everyone excited because she’s (probably) a black Sicilian, Agent 1 who is a Muslim man of color (from one of DC’s many fictional Middle Eastern nations perhaps), and, thanks to the lack of retconning, Dick Grayson is still of Roma descent. You have stories set all over the world and characters that show up that aren’t even close to fitting into the conventional mold of characters held up by both the superhero and spy genres.
In most works in these genres, I go into them feeling like I probably wouldn’t exist in those worlds. There are entire comic books and books where there are no women of colour, much less black women, and I don’t feel that way about Grayson. A lot of people don’t feel that way about Grayson.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the series adds more characters of color as it progresses because like the Authority and Stormwatch before it, Spyral is one of those agencies in the DCU where they’re not attached to one country. There’s already more positive diversity here than in many actual superhero comics (to say nothing of how lacking POC representation is in spy series).
King and Seeley have put their own spin on the character and it’s a good thing. You go into Grayson expecting a cheapo knock-off of the James Bond franchise but what you get is this tightly wound canon where few things are as you expect and women, despite it being a Dick Grayson centered comic, really do rule the world.
It isn’t a perfect series (after all, there’s no such thing) but it’s done so much in terms of bucking trends and subverting tropes that even if you somehow don’t like the plot, you should read it just for the way the characters do the unexpected.
Zina is a long-time comics fan and is never happier than when she gets to yell about comics on the internet. Follow Z on Twitter @stichomancery!