If you’re a fan of Dick Grayson, chances are you’ve heard the name “Blüdhaven” every now and again. It’s a city, sure, one that’s only a short drive down the coast from Gotham, and it’s got a pretty nasty reputation care of its crime rate and corruption—but it also represents a massive part of Nightwing’s history.
So how, and more importantly, why did Gotham’s dangerous little sibling become such an integral part of the original Robin’s story? What is it about Blüdhaven that makes it so important?
Let’s break it down.
Leaving the Nest
Contrary to what you might expect, Dick’s exodus from Gotham actually had nothing to do with any bad blood with Bruce. Quite the opposite—Dick’s move to Blüdhaven was actually done as a favor to Bruce.
The move itself happened officially on the pages of NIGHTWING #1 back in 1996. This was Dick’s first ever solo ongoing series, coming hot on the heels of a handful of one shots and limited series, and massive Batfamily events like “Contagion.” All things considered, this was a pretty healthy time as far as family relationships were concerned through the entire family, and despite the occasional near death experience and world-threatening catastrophe, things between Nightwing and Batman were pretty good.
So, it’s in the spirit of this relative goodwill that Bruce decides to send Dick on what will undoubtedly prove to be one of the most challenging solo missions of his super heroic career. A string of murdered corpses have washed up in Gotham’s bay, and the trail leads right back down the coast to—you guessed it—Blüdhaven. What’s worse, the murders all have the markings of a major shift in the power scheme of the underworld, and it looks like they might all lead back to the dangerous super villain Black Mask.
Now, up to this point, Blüdhaven had essentially been a “no fly” zone for vigilantes—it’s that bad, and it’s that dangerous. Imagine Gotham several years before the first appearance of Batman, imagine the GCPD but without a Montoya or a Gordon to act as a moral compass, now sprinkle in a criminal element who largely migrated from Gotham after learning a thing or two by being on the wrong end of a Batarang and you’ve got all the makings of Blüdhaven.
It’s not a pretty place.
Still, the murders merit investigation. Lives are at risk, especially if Black Mask really is making a play, and Dick is no stranger to going up against incredibly bleak odds. He agrees to be Bruce’s man on the ground (or the gargoyle, as it were) and take on the case.
Messy Truths and New Enemies
Unfortunately, like so many things in this line of work, the truth of the situation in Blüdhaven turns out to be anything but cut-and-dry. What ought to have been a simple in-and-out mission to track down Black Mask and bring him in ends up evolving into a veritable Russian nesting doll of horrible realizations.
It turns out that Blüdhaven’s problems are even worse than its reputation would have you believe. The entire city is rotten from the inside out—everyone from the cops to the courts is taking a cut of the action—and at the heart of the whole tangled web of corruption and lies? A monstrous super villain and mega-genius named Roland Desmond, aka Blockbuster.
This epiphany escalates Dick’s temporary away case to a full-on, all consuming mission to take Blockbuster down and turn Blüdhaven around in a similar style to Bruce’s initial cleanup efforts in Gotham.
Something that is, most definitely, easier said than done.
Nightwing’s presence in the ‘Haven acts like a swift kick to a wasp’s nest and soon enough Dick finds himself facing down not only Blockbuster, but a whole parade of costumed criminals sent in by the crimelord to put a stop to this new heroic local trend. Villains like Brutale, the Trigger Twins and Lady Vic all come swarming at Blockbuster’s order.
The statement is clear: Blüdhaven is no place for do-gooders. But then again, neither was Gotham in the beginning. And Dick’s still close enough to home to get (and give) the occasional assist from his family.
Over the course of Dick’s time in Blüdhaven, Blockbuster becomes one of Dick’s most enduring and formative villains, joining the ranks of characters like Deathstroke and Two-Face in terms of sheer narrative force. Dick’s war with Blockbuster wages off and on for nearly a hundred issues of Nightwing before finally coming to a head in issue #93.
Day Job/Night Job
One unexpected hurdle nearly threatens to stop Dick short before he can even get his new mission off the ground—information.
Even Oracle’s hacking can only account for so much when it comes to street level intel, and in a city as rotten as Blüdhaven, knowing who to trust is worth more than gold. Back in Gotham, Bruce spent years crafting networks of GCPD officers, informants and alter egos to be as in-the-know as he can be at any given moment.
Dick, however, doesn’t have the luxury of that sort of time. Drastic measures are called for.
That’s right, it’s time for to get a “day job.”
Dick begins to work as a bartender at a local cop bar called Hogan’s Alley with the idea that slightly tipsy police would feel more comfortable spilling secrets to a friendly server than they would a random stranger on the street. He’s right, of course, and his time spent mixing drinks does make some real headway in his efforts to bring Blockbuster (and the corrupt cops working with him) down.
But keeping an ear to the ground of a beer-soaked dive bar only goes so far. It’s not long before Dick realizes he needs to take a more extreme step.
He’s got to get inside of the Blüdhaven police force.
He’s got to become a cop.
If you’re thinking, “that sounds like a terrible idea,” you wouldn’t be alone. Just about everyone in the Batfamily had a similar sentiment as Dick enrolled himself in the academy. Never mind that vigilantes typically want to avoid the kind of scrutiny that becoming an actual officer of the law would bring down on them, just about everything about the life of a cop runs counter to the life of a super hero. The unpredictable hours, the obligations to the legal system, the constant accountability for things like whereabouts and time off...the list goes on and on.
It’s a major risk, and one that nearly falls flat before it can even get off the ground as Dick’s academy work is interrupted again and again by his “extracurricular” activities. The delicate balance of trying to look good-but-not-too-good, skilled-but-not-too-skilled, confident-but-not-too-confident proves to be like walking a tightrope.
Which is to say, it’s a good thing Dick’s got acrobatics in his blood.
Eventually, after several near misses and close calls, “Officer Grayson” becomes an official member of the Blüdhaven Police Department.
Dick’s time as a cop provides a great chance for some real cornerstones of his character to be explored in new ways. Remember, prior to his move, the vast majority of Dick’s development and growth came, not unexpectedly, in conjunction with his identity as a hero. Whether it was with his fellow Bats or with the Teen Titans, Dick’s life, with only a handful of exceptions, was largely defined as something that both started and stopped with a domino mask.
Dick and the Blüdhaven PD turned the tried and true Bruce-and-Gordon formula that had worked so well back in Gotham on its head, allowing Nightwing to remain at arm's length with the force while Dick himself dove right into the thick of it. His relationships with his fellow officers (both positive and negative) provided a nice mirror with which to judge his relationships with his network of super hero friends and teammates and did wonders for building up Dick’s independent persona.
Endings and Beginnings
Eventually, Blüdhaven was leveled by a devastating chemical explosion, courtesy of the villain Chemo during the events leading up to INFINITE CRISIS. Devastated, and with his city in ruins, Dick was forced to relocate to New York City and later, back to Gotham.
Still, ultimately tragic fate notwithstanding, Blüdhaven provided the backdrop for any number of pivotal moments, everything from astronomical gains to devastating losses.
Beneath the city’s looming shadow, Dick took on temporary sidekicks of his own (one even named himself “Nite-Wing”...it’s a long story), met long lost family members (who he eventually had to bury), helped rehab mentally unstable former super villains (Aaron Helzinger, aka Amygdala, even became a prison guard with Dick’s help), and suffered some of the most brutal and challenging blows to his moral compass a person could possibly endure (one of Blockbuster’s plots involved not only discovering his secret identity, but systematically murdering the people in the ‘Haven he cared about—it was rough).
Make no mistake, nothing about his time spent there was a walk in the park, but overall, Dick’s tenure as Blüdhaven’s guardian helped forge him into the hero we recognize as Nightwing today, scars and all.
You can catch Dick’s long awaited return to a reborn ‘Haven in NIGHTWING #10, which lands in comic shops today. What new challenges will this crime-riddled coastal city bring to his life in and out of the mask? Only time will tell, but whatever it is, it will be the latest chapter in a legacy that has produced some of the best Nightwing tales ever told.