The identities of Deathwing and the mastermind behind the abduction of Dick Grayson’s girlfriend aren’t the big surprises of “Nightwing” #17; they aren’t really surprises at all. The latter is teased in the solicitation for Issue 18, which mentions Professor Pyg, while the former is telegraphed on the cover of this week’s issue, where he’s depicted wearing the surgically attached face mask of one of the mad scientist’s Dollotrons. Yet "Nightwing" #17 still contains a revelation that could reach beyond Dick Grayson, and tie into the overarching mystery of DC's Rebirth universe.
Written by Tim Seeley and illustrated by Javier Fernandez, the second chapter of "Nightwing Must Die!" sends Dick and Damian to western France in search of Shawn Tsang. Waiting for them instead is Deathwing, who has not only Nightwing’s old costume but his memories. (Never mind how he crossed the Atlantic ahead of this Dynamic Duo; perhaps there’s more than one Deathwing Dollotron.)
When his forehead is slashed open by Deathwing’s weapon, Dick begins to hallucinate, observing, “I’m at the bottom, looking up. All around me, paths branching off. I can’t remember which one of me I am. Am I the hero or the villain? Is this a dream or a nightmare?”
What Dick sees isn’t a vision of his past, but of himself from alternate realities. Fitting for the occasion, there’s Deathwing, the Dick Grayson from an alternate future who traveled back in time to the present, where he was promptly transformed into the violent, bloodthirsty servant of an evil Raven (that is until “Zero Hour” came along, turned continuity on its head again, and revealed him not to be future-Dick but instead a sleeper agent of the Time Trapper).
Next to him is none other than the Dick Grayson of Earth-Two, who as an adult Robin succeeded a retired Batman as the premier protector of Gotham City and a member of the Justice Society of America. Frequently partnered with Bruce Wayne’s daughter Helena, the Huntress, he continued to fight crime until the events of “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” during which they were killed and Earth-Two wiped from existence.
To the left of Earth-Two Robin is Talon, the Dick Grayson of Earth-3 who served as the sidekick of Owlman, the evil counterpart of Batman. One of his successors, presumably the Tim Drake of that reality, joined the Teen Titans of New Earth with his girlfriend Duela Dent during the Lost Year following the events of "Infinite Crisis."
On the far right appears to be Richard Grayson, aka Rickart Graustark, the Robin of Earth-37, depicted in the 1997 Elseworlds miniseries “Batman: Thrillkiller" (although the jacket sleeves are different). There, the former circus acrobat joins socialite Barbara Gordon (alias Batgirl) to fight a female Joker in swinging-1960s Gotham City. His death inspired Bruce Wayne to take up the mantle of Batman.
The Dick Grayson of this reality experiences another hallucination when Damian comes to his aid. However, what at first glimpse appears to be a vision of the Batman Family is, upon closer inspection, different versions of Damian, topped off by the one from 2007’s “Batman” #666, which depicts a pre-apocalyptic future where he becomes the Dark Knight following Dick’s murder.
It seems likely Deathwing’s blades are laced with a psychotropic drug from Professor Pyg’s arsenal, which would certainly explain away hallucinations. However, Dick’s perception is so altered that he appears to open a window, if only briefly, into other realities, and other potential futures. It’s not merely an instance of contemplating what might’ve been, or what could still be, but of pulling back the veil to reveal other Dick Graysons and other Damian Waynes.
In another scenario, we might shrug off those pages simply as Easter eggs designed to entertain the reader. But this is DC’s Rebirth universe, where the pre-“Flashpoint” and New 52 realities are stitched together with fraying threads, and Wally West and the Titans somewhat-leisurely pursue the truth behind the altered timeline and a decade that's somehow been wiped from the memories of most of those who experienced it. (Let’s not even get into the mysteries surrounding Superman and the Watchmen.) There’s simply too much going on to ignore the possibility that, well, there's more going on.
We then have to wonder why those Dick Graysons are seen and, perhaps even more importantly, how. Deathwing, in all his spike-wearing 1990s glory, has an obvious connection to this story, and Earth-Two is of course the traditional home of DC's Golden Age heroes, so it's possible the appearance of that world's Robin is the latest tease of the imminent arrival of the Justice Society into Rebirth continuity. But the other two? They're anybody's guess.
"Nightwing" #17, by Tim Seeley and Javier Fernandez, is available now from DC Comics.