There are two comic book achievements that Dick Grayson will always be remembered for. The first is that he was Batman’s most famous sidekick, the original Robin, aka the Boy Wonder. The second is his ass, which has become the most famous — and sexiest — behind in comics.
If your knowledge of superhero lore ends with the modern cornucopia of live-action entertainment, the magnificence of Dick Grayson’s ass is likely unknown to you. In fact, you may not even know that Grayson stopped being Robin way back in 1984, when he left Batman to strike out on his own. He took the name Nightwing, who never entered the pop culture zeitgeist as Robin had. (Grayson-as-Nightwing finally made his live-action debut last year on Titans, which only airs on the DC Universe streaming service.) In the comics, however, Nightwing has been a major character since his debut: He’s led the Teen Titans, filled in for Batman on multiple occasions, was briefly a superspy and starred in his own solo comic almost non-stop since 1996, which is no small feat.
But his greater feat may be this: Dick Grayson has become comics’ first and foremost male sex symbol, thanks in no small part to his sexy, sexy ass. The iconic keister first came into prominence (tee hee) in 2009’s Secret Six #9, written by Gail Simone. Nightwing only stops by for a few pages, telling some supervillains to get their acts together, but it’s not his advice that anyone remembers. It’s the panel where artist Nicola Scott drew the male hero in the infamous “boobs-and-butt” pose, which female superheroes have been placed in for decades.
To understand the significance of this, you need to understand the pose itself. Stand in front of a full-length mirror, then turn around so your bottom is perfectly parallel to the mirror itself. Twist the upper part of your torso around as far as it can go, so as much of your chest as possible is visible in the mirror as well, while keeping as much of your ass visible as possible. It’s meant to satisfy the male gaze by allowing it to see boobs and butts simultaneously, even though the pose would be exceedingly painful to try to emulate in real life, if not anatomically impossible.
It’s the perfect emblem for how focused mainstream comics have traditionally been on their target audience — teenaged, heterosexual, mostly white and male — to the exclusion of all others. They would quite literally twist women into impossible shapes to entice readers. Not all artists or mainstream comics indulged in this practice, of course, but there was still a vast gulf between the medium’s depictions of the two genders. “At the time there still weren’t that many women working with superheroes regularly, so I felt a duty to bring some sexy to a few of our male characters,” says Scott.
The pose was already notorious as an icon of comics’ prevalent sexual objectification when the artist drew the fan-favorite Nightwing in it, putting his ass front and center, but she didn’t mean it as a statement. “I really wanted to give him a decent hero shot and the only appropriate place to do it was his last panel,” Scott said. “I was telling myself [the pose] was just to get his [weapons] in the shot, but I knew what I was doing. I thought it would give Gail a laugh, that editorial might not notice and some of our readers would appreciate it.”
It still almost didn’t happen. “If it was Superman, I wouldn’t have done it,” says Scott. “If it had been any other book I possibly wouldn’t have done it, either. But it was a case of the right time, right place, right tone.”
It also happened to be exactly the right character.
Dick Grayson was a sex symbol long before he had the most famous butt in comics. Added to the Batman comics in 1940 in hopes of bringing younger readers to the comic by giving them a surrogate, Robin spent his first few decades essentially playing a damsel-in-distress, constantly needing rescuing by the paternal Dark Knight, while providing kid-friendly light-heartedness. As the most famous sidekick in the medium, he was the obvious choice to lead the kiddy versions of DC’s other main heroes (e.g. Superboy, Wonder Girl, Aqualad, etc.) in a Junior Justice League, later renamed the Teen Titans.
But the new Teen Titans comics had grown up, and Robin had grown up with it. Without the authority figure of Batman to butt up against (so to speak), Robin began to evolve and mature. “DC Comics had to figure out who Dick Grayson was outside of his past,” says Polygon’s Comic Editor Susana Polo (who, in full disclosure, has been an editor of mine).
As a result, unlike so many comic characters, Grayson was actually allowed to grow up. He left Batman and took on his own heroic identity, the aforementioned Nightwing. Working better with others than his grouchy mentor ever did, he became a more dynamic leader of the Teen Titans. DC wanted to clear any doubts that the former Robin had grown up in other ways, too. “It wasn’t long before he was the focus of romantic pairings, like Barbara Gordon [Batgirl] or [his Titans teammate] Starfire, and that certainly positioned him as a sex symbol,” says Jill Pantozzi, Deputy Editor of Gizmodo’s pop culture site io9 (and another editor of mine, for the record). “There were definitely a lot of hormones racing through the pages of Teen Titans in the 1980s.” Nightwing was also visibly presented as a sexual being, at least on occasion: In 1984’s New Teen Titans #2, Dick and Starfire (who’s a flying, orange-skinned, 6-foot-4 alien princess, just FYI) were the first unmarried couple to be shown sleeping in the same bed, says Polo.
This sexiness of Nightwing’s has become a major part of his character, to the point where he’s had many, many super-girlfriends over the last 36 years. But his character is also such that he’s not considered a lothario or some kind of love-‘em-and-leave-‘em James Bond-esque jerk. “It shows he makes these emotional connections, unlike Batman, who’s the guy who can’t love because his life is so goddamn tragic,” says Polo. “He’s bright and cheerful and he has problems, but he has an optimistic view of the world. His love life is varied and he doesn’t always do the right thing, but you never get the sense that he doesn’t deeply care about and love [his partners] when he’s with them.”
Nightwing benefits from comparison to his former boss in another way, too. While Batman, Superman and most other major heroes have hulking, massive bodybuilder-type bodies (ones that serve not as eye candy for female readers, but rather as wish fulfillment power fantasies for men), Grayson’s background as a child character — assisted by his origin as an acrobat in a circus troupe — means Nightwing transformed into a sexy, genuinely caring romantic figure with a slim, taut, Olympic gymnast’s body. He’s a character who has moved past the traumas that defined and trapped Batman, but still possesses a sense of vulnerability, too.
“First of all, girls have always read comics, and second of all, girls have always been thirsty for Dick Grayson,” avows Polo. “And so I think that now the fandom definitely has a focal point, by which I mean his ass. But people have been attracted to Dick Grayson for a very long time.”
After Scott opened the door with Secret Six #9, Nightwing’s real-world status as a superhero sex symbol has been carried into the comic books as well. In Grayson #8, a bevy of high school girls openly drooled at his physique while the comic art simultaneously gave readers a great view of his rump. In 2018, Nightwing #38 managed to get Grayson to go briefly undercover as an exotic dancer (where he made a great deal of money).
The magnificence of his backside has also specifically become part of the character; in recent years, not one but two superheroes — Dick’s former flame Batgirl and the gay vigilante Midnighter — have used its singular beauty to identify Dick Grayson while he was in disguise.
While no one’s going to pretend the world of superhero comics has reached some sort of parity, Polo believes Dick Grayson’s ass has had a broader impact on much more than the character. “The upside of Nightwing for me is that creators, who want to honor this history that [the character] has with female and queer fans, are getting the freedom to do that,” she says.
This freedom extends beyond just Nightwing. “It’s likely helped shape a lot of younger creatives’ ideas about what a male comic book character can look and act like,” adds Pantozzi. Some creators have begun experimenting with allowing other male superheroes to be sexy, including the current Batman comic, where writer Tom King and artist Clay Mann have been portraying the titular hero with just as much sex appeal as Catwoman has been shown with for decades. Pantozzi points out that the Big Two publishers — Marvel and DC — have still primarily focused on providing the traditional “male power fantasy” and rarely step out of that space, but that means they’ve begun trying a small, occasional, tentative step here and there, which is still an improvement, albeit painfully slow.
With help from the increasing awareness of the diversity of the comic-reading audience, Scott thinks her fateful drawing of Nightwing has helped depictions of female characters in superhero comics improve as well. “It’s added to a broader and growing cultural conversation, which has allowed male heroes to have some sex appeal and tempered some of the depictions of female characters,” she says. “[Characters like] Catwoman, Vampirella and X-Men’s Emma Frost all have their own brand of sex appeal, but there’s way more nuance now.”
Female heroes and villains are less likely to be placed in the “boob-and-butt” pose, for instance, as creators have become more aware of the diverse gender identities, sexual orientations, races and ages that make up the medium’s avid fans. This awareness, Scott adds, has also led to less sexualized depictions of teenaged female superheroes, an extremely welcome change.
After all, no one’s looking to turn superhero comics into pornography. “I’d hesitate to say comics need to be 100 percent sexy all the time, the same way I’d hesitate to say comics need to be for kids 100 percent of the time,” says Polo. “What I want to see is artists feeling free to put their versions of the characters on the page.” Meaning, not just those catering to a single segment of comic book readers.
But while things seem to be getting better, there’s still a long, long way to go. A few superheroic hunks here and there don’t balance out decades of increasingly sexed-up female characters, and there’s no guarantee that the medium will continue to get more inclusive, or ever manage to truly serve its diverse audience equally. But somewhere in the multiverse, there’s a potential timeline where this future exists.
Let Dick Grayson’s ass lead the way.