Defying all expectations, 2017 could shape up to be the Year of Orca.
Granted, expectations were pretty low, as the minor Batman villain is unlikely to appear on anyone’s list of favorites (in fact, she’s popped up on more than one rundown of the worst). Yet, Dr. Grace Balin will make her big-screen debut in February in “The LEGO Batman Movie,” and even receive her own minifigure. That’s an impressive feat for any lower-tier DC Comics rogue, let alone one as routinely mocked as the Whale Woman. Take that, King Shark.
Introduced by Larry Hama and Scott McDaniel in 2000’s “Batman” #579, Balin was a kindly marine biologist at Gotham Aquarium who devoted her spare time to educating underprivileged youth and feeding the homeless — that is, until an accident left her partially paralyzed. As with so many comic book villains, Balin was involved in controversial (and unauthorized) scientific research, in this case gene-therapy studies involving the human regeneration of spinal cord tissue using orca tissue. In the process, she apparently developed a serum derived from a killer whale at the aquarium, which she tested on herself. The good news is that it worked; the bad news is that it transformed Balin into a human-whale hybrid with super … human? … strength and stamina.
Naturally, Balin used her new form and abilities to give poor children uplifting rides in the Atlantic, and to catch fish to feed the hungry. No, that’s a lie. She turned to crime, or at least vigilantism, stealing a $6 million diamond with the intent of exacting revenge on a sinister socialite/slum lord, nicknamed the “Witch of Gotham,” and hocking the gem to fund a soup kitchen, rehab clinic and daycare center. See? Orca isn’t all bad; she’s at least part whale.
As you may have guessed, Orca’s criminal career wasn’t particularly distinguished or long. To make a short story even shorter, she was found dead in the Gotham sewers some six years later, leaving behind a grieving Mr. Orca (they met at a party; she liked nerds, he liked full-figured women). And that was the last anyone saw of the Whale Woman. That is, until this week’s “Nightwing” #11.
Her return wasn’t exactly a secret, as she’s depicted in all her Cetacean glory on the cover of January’s Issue 12 (top), but we may have not been fully prepared for her Rebirth. You see, Orca is back not only with a vengeance, but with a posse … or a pod, maybe: The Whale’s Enders, described as “one of the worst street gangs” in Blüdhaven. It remains to be seen whether that means they’re among the most dangerous gangs in the city, or just really bad at what they do.
She’s also acquired an all-important article, becoming The Orca, apparently so she won’t be mistaken for any of those other whale-human hybrids swimming around the DC Universe. So far, that’s pretty much all we know about Orca 2.0. However, the details surrounding her reintroduction into DC continuity are beginning to take shape, placing Orca in good company. Well, “good” company.
For years writers — in comics, television and film — have toyed with the idea that the very presence of a vigilante dressed as a bat has helped to turn Gotham into an incubator for costumed criminals. It’s an intriguing enough notion that helps to explain the rapid acceleration from “Year One’s” run-of-the-mill mobsters to full-blown supervillains, while also coloring public perception of Batman and his unrelenting mission. But what happens to those colorful rogues who aren’t bad enough for Blackgate or crazy enough for Arkham? What happens to the ones scared straight by the Caped Crusader and his allies?
We learn in “Nightwing” #11, by writer Tim Seeley and artist Marcus To, that some of them end up in Blüdhaven, in a support group, and in the middle of a conspiracy. Just as Dick Grayson is looking for a fresh start in the city, so too are these Gotham “run-offs” — one beyond the reach of the Bat-Family. They’re reformed criminals who barely rate as footnotes in the 1990s and early 2000s rogues galleries of Batman and Nightwing, never mind a mention in the same breath as The Joker, Two-Face and Poison Ivy.
There’s Stallion, a former pro football player turned Penguin’s enforcer, who was killed a continuity ago, during 2006’s “Infinite Crisis,” and now is apparently coming to terms with his repressed sexuality; Giz and Mouse, the boyfriend-and-girlfriend hackers/thieves who briefly partnered with Catwoman and, um, blew up Dick’s apartment building (again, in the old continuity); Thrill Devil, a street racer and mercenary who once worked for Blockbuster; Gorilla Grimm, a Gorilla City native and gun runner last seen in “Nightwing” #10 being arrested for a murder he claims he didn’t commit; and Grace Balin, who was “seduced” by The Whale’s Enders into returning to her old ways.
Nightwing’s accidental discovery of the support group comes as he’s seeking out Shawn Tsang, Dick’s supervisor at The Haven Community Center, who turns out to be the former “art terrorist” Defacer. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because she’s retroactively inserted into Dick’s past through a flashback to his time as Robin. Apprehended by the Dynamic Duo with her mentor The Pigeon following a series of statue heists, a young Defacer worried Dick even then. “It doesn’t seem fair,” the Boy Wonder tells Batman. “She just had the wrong mentor. Without Pigeon’s manipulations — her only crime is being angry.”
Jump forward to the present, and Shawn and the too-smooth James Nice are mentors of sorts to the Run-Offs, and not nearly as sinister as their introductions in “Nightwing” #10 may have seemed. It turns out the costumes James insisted “they” wear weren’t for criminal activity but rather for a therapy session. However, his earlier use of “Grace” as a cautionary tale certainly takes on a darker, and more literal, tone now that we know he’s referring to Orca.
Two issues into “Nightwing’s” fresh start, there are of course more questions than answers: Who’s framing the Run-Offs for a series of murders? What’s really going on at the Convention and Tourism Bureau? Can’t Dick afford a real bed? We can add to that list whether Orca — The Orca — will reemerge after 10 years as a formidable foe Dick Grayson. Will she become a terrifying sea monster lurking at the edges of a map of Blüdhaven, or remain where she was, swimming among the dredges of Batman’s rogues?
At this point it’s difficult to say, but considering her upcoming appearances on two ferocious comic covers, to say nothing of her big-screen and LEGO debuts, Orca at least has a leg — er, fin — up on the Ten-Eyed Man.
“Nightwing” #11, by Tim Seeley and Marcus To, is on sale now.
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