When Kyle Higgins pitched Nightwing: The New Order to DC Comics in October 2015, the world was a different place. The threat of fascism was something that belonged in history books, not a shocking reality in contemporary America. But throughout 2016, as Higgins reunited with his New 52 Nightwing artist Trevor McCarthy on their new miniseries, everything changed. Current events, such as Trump’s Muslim ban and an emboldened white supremacist movement, inadvertently imbued their Elseworlds-style tale — in which superpowers are treated with prejudice — with a stunning relevance they hadn’t anticipated.
“There’s never a good time to put out a book like this,” Higgins admits to Inverse in a phone interview, “but as a writer, I think it’s good to be uncomfortable to level up your game.” He remembers DC editor Jim Lee telling him after his pitch: “Make it count.”
In Nightwing: The New Order, Dick Grayson — Batman’s first Robin evolved into his own entity, Nightwing — took it upon himself to stop a catastrophe in Metropolis by eliminating superpowers. Exactly how and why will be laid out in upcoming issues, but for now, all readers need to know is that Nightwing made a judgment call that changed this alternate DC Universe forever.
In case it may look or sound like The New Order is about a superhero dictatorship, Higgins says it’s not. “It’s not a dystopian story,” he says, because objectively, things are better in this alternate DCU. There is, in fact, less crime, and as it turns out, citizens are at a much lesser risk when there aren’t superpowers out and about. “That’s part of what made it really interesting from a premise standpoint, because things are better.”
But how Nightwing achieved “peace” is where the book’s true conflict lies. “As people see in Issue 2, Dick joins the Crusaders, which is a program the country wanted and Dick joined it believing he could be a moral compass to it,” Higgins explains. “There’s the quote that the Mayor of Charlottesville used: If you dance with the devil, you don’t change the devil, the devil changes you. That’s that problem when you’re looking to be kind of the arbiter of all that is good and right.”
If there’s any writer qualified to upend Nightwing’s image, it’s probably Higgins, a self-professed fan who served as the lead writer on DC’s 2011 Nightwing for thirty issues. A few years after Nightwing ended, Higgins found it was the perfect time to challenge himself by placing Nightwing in his own “Elseworlds” riff — Superman: Red Son in particular was a big inspiration — in a story where Dick Grayson has gone astray.
To ensure his point is clear, Higgins and McCarthy have introduced Jake Grayson, Dick’s adolescent son, who narrates the book as an adult in the past tense. “Jake was about the age Dick was when he was Robin. There’s different layers to that, but the fatalistic quality was intriguing to me,” he says. Knowing The New Order would be a “hard concept” to buy, the book’s team use Jake to foreshadow the person Dick will soon become. “A narrator that is basically telling us, ‘Yeah, my dad was on the wrong side,’ I think helps with the buy-in. You understand this is going somewhere, because Jake is in the future narrating backwards.”
This new light on Dick Grayson is a compelling thought experiment, but many comics fans weren’t sold when previews of Nightwing: The New Order surfaced last spring. Internet reactions were divisive. Timing played a part; the book’s announcement came right when rival publisher Marvel released the first issue of its controversial series Secret Empire, which wrapped up late last month. Although there are key, fundamental differences between The New Order and a totalitarian Captain America, critics and fans dwelled on the similarities.
“I understand how those opinions formed,” Higgins says. “I know it was in the zeitgeist. I understand how sites would run, ‘Nightwing Murders the DCU,’ but that’s not what the story is. It’s hard to convey nuance in 2017, and a lot of ways that’s what this book is trying to explore.”
The adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” rings true for The New Order, but for many fans it was hard to look past the aesthetics the covers channeled. “The covers are designed as homages to old propaganda posters, Chinese, Soviet posters,” explains its author. “That’s in the spirit of the themes we’re looking at, [but] we’re looking at them in a more nuanced way than just ‘Dictator Nightwing’ because that’s not what the story is.”
Whether they’re reactions to the current times or not, Higgins has made recontextualizing contemporary politics into genre form one of his signature moves. Before The New Order, Higgins flexed his muscles in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers for BOOM! Studios, with an ongoing arc involving a dystopian alternate timeline. His Power Rangers could be read like a prototype for The New Order, but like in the case of Secret Empire, there are still big differences. “Lord Drakkon [in ‘Power Rangers’] rules with an iron fist and embraces being a god. That’s very much not Dick Grayson. Drakkon is a dictator. Nightwing believes he can be a compass. Drakkon is cool with the path he’s carving.”
“Dick Grayson believes [superpowers] was an issue people wanted [solved] and he can be a moral compass. As we see, he definitely lost his way,” adds Higgins, who says the best science-fiction “rewraps issues of our modern world” into a thrilling narrative. “That’s the stuff I grew up reading,” he says, “and as I’ve written more and more, I have found that I’m fascinated by high concepts as a vehicle to explore moral conundrums. Whether it’s sci-fi or fantasy, that’s my thing.”
Nightwing: The New Order #1 is available now. Issue #2 will be released on September 27.