"This low" meaning "Is DC now publishing torture porn?" How sad would that be?
Over at Every Day Is Like Wednesday, I came across a description of Nightwing #149: "[I]t is incredibly, spectacularly awful." Caleb goes far more into it, and I just thought, "I must buy this. I must read it." And so I bought it. And I read it. Boy howdy, he's right. He celebrates its awfulness, however, believing that nothing can come "anywhere near the terrible glory" that is Nightwing #149. I can't be quite so blasé about it, however. This is a bad comic. More than that, it's a depressing comic. In a DC Universe that has recently been all about cruelty, this stands out. If you didn't buy it, I thought I'd break it down for you.
Page 1: Nightwing is narrating. He's breaking through "the safehouse window" and he can "smell them" before he can see them. We see some major Batman villains: Joker, Scarecrow, Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc, Penguin, Poison Ivy, and Two-Face. Joker is holding a crowbar with blood on it, the tip of Penguin's umbrella has blood on it, and Killer Croc has blood dripping from his teeth and claws. Unpleasant, but nothing terribly egregious. Thanks to Nightwing's narration, we learn that he might be hallucinating some of this because of Scarecrow's "fear serum." Okay.
Pages 2-3: These are two big splash pages, with the credits on Page 3. On page 2, our perspective is from behind Dick as he stands above the villains. Each villain is menacing a woman, but we quickly realize it's the same woman, so this must be a hallucination. Much of what follows is just that - not "real." However, that doesn't change the fact that the events are drawn on the page. Anyway, Mr. Freeze has, well, frozen his woman. Behind him stands the Joker with his crowbar, and the woman at his feet has blood streaming down her face. The Penguin clutches his victim against his chest with his pointed umbrella across her throat. Oddly, she has two large round blood splotches on her breasts, where her nipples would be. It's bizarre. Croc has very clearly eaten his woman. Even though Dick is blocking most of our view of that, we see a stump of a leg. Charming. On page 3, Dick leaps down among them and starts beating on them. This all takes place in what looks like a lake of blood on the floor, by the way.
Page 4: We learn that the woman's name is Carol. We have no idea who she is, yet (we'll find out). Croc has Carol's head in his mouth, and blood is pouring down her face. She chastizes Dick for failing to save her. Croc falls forward into the blood on the floor. Dick leaps backward and then lands on Croc's head. He takes his two sticks (nunchucks?) and ... rams them into Croc's eyes. Blood spurts out with a swell sound effect: "Sklatch." The Penguin appears to stab Dick in the back. It's unclear whether he stabs him or just whacks him with the flat of the umbrella's point.
Page 5: Our hero kicks Penguin in the face, knocking him against a wall and presumably giving him a concussion (that is, if Oswald were there, which he's not). Then we see Scarecrow, holding Carol's limp body as blood coats his shirt. Dick leaps at Scarecrow and tackles him.
Pages 6-8: Dick holds Scarecrow under the level of the blood on the floor, asking him why he looks so scared - "What's the problem - my hands too tight?!?" He continues, "Fear got your tongue?!? Spit it out - I can't hear you with all that blood in your mouth!" Behind him, Poison Ivy wraps vines around his neck and pulls him backward. She asks him if he can smell the "beautiful leaves and flowers." Dick responds, "I like the smell of cut grass better after it's been mowed." Uh, what? Ivy makes her vines smash him against the ceiling, telling him to "apologize" to it. Uh, what? As he hangs there, Carol shows up again. This time she tells him what happened to her: "Ivy broke my windpipe ... squeezed every last breath from me ... and you let her ..." Dick breaks free and shoots a rope at Ivy. This somehow electrocutes her. But then Mr. Freeze shows up! Behind him are several frozen people. At least there's no blood!
Pages 9-10: Underneath the now-frozen blood, Carol lies, blaming Dick for her plight. Dick breaks free of Freeze's ice and breaks his helmet. He takes Freeze's gun, shoves it in his mouth, and fires. Not without saying, and I kid you not, "Ever drink a chocolate shake too fast ... and get a brain freeze?" Icicles shoot out of Freeze's eyes and nose. Behind Dick, the Joker says, "Ever talk too much and get a brain fart?" Um, what? I know this is mostly a hallucination of Dick's, but the shadow that the Joker casts shows him holding the crowbar over his head, while he's standing with it lowered. Good stuff.
Pages 11-12: So the Joker bashes Dick for a page, evoking Jason's death both visually and by referencing it himself. Dick, however, grabs hold of the crowbar and punches the Joker out. That leaves Harvey, who compliments him on defeating his "hired help."
Pages 13-14: Harvey tells Dick that he shot our hero with bullets laced with fear serum, and then he drags out the real Carol, still very much alive. I should point out that they're still standing in what looks like blood, and it's up to their waists. Yes, their waists. Meanwhile, lying on the ground, underneath the surface, are several punks that presumably Nightwing saw as the villains. Um, are they dead? If not, they're going to drown pretty soon. I know they're bad guys, but damn, Dick - that's cold. Anyway, we find out that Harvey came to Dick and asked him to keep Carol safe. So now he's proving that Dick can't keep her safe. Yes, it makes sense. Dick tries to reason with him, but there's only one logical solution that Harvey understands - the coin! He flips a coin.
Pages 15-16: Okay, I hope Dick is still imagining things, because the coin Harvey flips grows huge, knocking him through a wall as a bomb goes off. He falls and imagines that his parents are falling with him, while suddenly, Harvey and Carol are on the roof of the building. Okay, a wall collapsed and the building is still standing? And they were in the room where the bomb went off but now they're on the roof? Hmmm ... Carol tries to get through to Harvey, but he tells her, "I need you to die," and pulls the trigger.
Pages 17-19: As Dick fires a line toward the roof, we see a close-up of Carol's face. Then we pull back and we see her bleeding from a gut shot. She's remarkably lucid for just getting shot in the gut, as she asks if Harvey's just going to stand there and watch her die. You'd think she'd be doubled over moaning in pain, but not Carol! On the next page, she's lying on the ground in agony, bleeding out (that was a quick transition!) as Harvey leaves, saying he's "going to walk out slowly" so he doesn't "slip" on her blood. Classy! Dick reaches Carol, who is apparently back inside the building, and he imagines he sees Barbara lying there, shot through the spine. Then he sees that it's Carol, blood all over the floor beneath her. Nice! He starts to administer CPR, which means he has to rip open her shirt so we can see her breasts as she dies, and then he slaps her for good measure. All for naught. Sayonara, Carol.
Pages 20-22: There's a funeral, and then we cut to Harvey at "Bear Mountain State Park." He's standing by a limosine, and the man inside is watching coverage of the funeral. We learn that Carol was the district attorney in the "Blackhole investigation," and this guy hired Harvey to kill her so that the Feds wouldn't be able to prosecute. Harvey realizes that Dick failed to save her, so he blasts the guy in the limo. And that's a wrap!
Sweet fancy Moses, this is yucky. I realize that pretty much all of it doesn't actually take place, but that doesn't make it any less yucky. And Carol does die "in reality," so there's that (and I think we can safely put this in the Women in Refrigerators section as our Dread Lord and Master defines it, as her death does serve a purpose in the context of the larger story, but immediately, it's simply to get an emotional reaction out of Dick, which is that he's a lousy hero). Beyond the utter awfulness of the vile violence, however, is the underlying message of DC these days: Heroes can't do anything to help anyone. Until recently, this was a relatively minor subset of superhero comics. Now, it's basically the way things are, mostly at DC, but it's also creeping into Marvel as well. Dick fails in pretty much every way in this comic. He doesn't overcome Scarecrow's fear serum, he tries and almost succeeds in "killing" "Scarecrow" (and would have if Ivy hadn't stopped him), he leaves unconscious thugs to drown, and he can't stop Harvey from killing Carol. It's not the end of the story, so I'm sure in Nightwing #150 he'll do something to prove he's a hero, but the fact is that in this issue, he's an utter failure. Not only is he an utter failure, there's nothing to even hint at any redemption. There's absolutely no reason for this issue to exist except as "torture porn," meaning that it allows the creators to indulge in horrific violence for violence's sake, and they can't even use the excuse that it's all in Dick's head, because the character he's supposed to saved gets gut-shot and bleeds to death.
Peter Tomasi, who wrote this, and Don Kramer, who drew it, should be ashamed of themselves. Tomasi has written some decent stuff in the past, but this might negate everything he's ever done. This is poorly-written (remember Dick's comment about "cut grass"?), ugly, and pointless. As Caleb points out, it might have been a meditation on Harvey's psychosis (he wants Dick to protect Carol, and then makes sure he can't), but it's swamped, quite literally, by the blood. You might think I'm being overly squeamish. Well, I read the novels of Michael Slade and love them, so I don't think that's it. It's that this is a mainstream DC superhero comic, and therefore, as Greg Hatcher pointed out recently, it's probably going to be a bit immature. DC has been trying very hard to make their comics "mature," but what that means to them is killing people in gruesome ways. I don't want to go all "Won't someone think of the children?" here, but the fact that this isn't labeled as a "mature readers" book and that any kid can buy it depresses me. DC should shit or get off the pot. Make their superheroes "mature" books or stop printing crap like this.
I know I'm pissing in the wind with that, so I'll do the only thing I can: Beg you to avoid buying this book or any like it. Not only is this horrifying in all the wrong ways, it's dull, dumb, and ugly. It's everything we should think of when we think of offensively bad comic books. It's symptomatic of what's wrong with so much of DC's output these days. It's not even fun to eviscerate this thing. It's just sad.
(I'd love to show you some scans of the pages, but that, I think, would be as bad as drawing it in the first place. I hope you can live with my descriptions of what happens. Seeing it might depress you even further.)