Stop me if you’ve heard this before…but Chuck Dixon is the reason I write comics…
It was his panel on the Ten Commandments of Comic Book Writing that provided the first true spark, diverting my attention away from a writing life of action adventure and mystery novels. It was his essays on writing comics, posted up on his Dixonverse website, which provided my first formalized instructions on how it was supposed to be done, if one wanted to do it well. It was also his scripting technique that became the framework for what I’m using to this very day. Hell, I named my dog Drake because of my obsession with a certain teenage sidekick that Dixon wrote and pioneered for several years. And on and on and on.
So today we’re going to talk about one of his greatest scripts in a long, storied career that’s still seems far from over—it comes from issue 25 of the Nightwing series, and is called The Boys. On the surface, it’s really just a casual conversation between Dick Grayson and Tim Drake, two young men that wouldn’t even know each other if not for their respective partnerships with the Batman. Their backgrounds and upbringings are vastly different and they appear to have little in common. Going deeper though, this story is an intense and comprehensive character study that both further distinguishes them from the other, and explains why they’ll always be connected despite their differences. While blindfolded and balancing themselves on one foot atop a speeding train, the kind of impossible and ridiculous notion that superhero comics are built upon, they talk about everything—girls, their impressions of Batman, their thoughts about Jason Todd, Grayson becoming a cop, and the price and weight of their own fears and secrets.
The issue seamlessly transitions from subject to subject, and offers something of a clinic on how Chuck Dixon likes to write comics. There’s the completely blacked out first page, giving us a POV shot from Tim and Dick’s perspective, along with a few lines of dialogue that makes it impossible not to turn the page. That’s his first commandment. As an extension of this, the final panel on every page continues to propel the story and action forward, which is the ninth commandment. While there is a great reward to the readers already incredibly familiar with both of these characters, the story unfolds in a simple, easy to follow narrative that could be read, understood, and enjoyed by almost anyone. That’s the eighth tenet—every comic book is someone’s first comic book. There’s also the perfect balance between exposition and action, neither element crowding the other out, and giving both the perfect amount of space to shine. That’s a combination of both second and third commandments.
The most impressive thing to me though is the consistent level of characterization, easily interpreted as a manifestation of the fifth and sixth commandments. There are things he obviously likes and dislikes about both characters, and he knows their strengths and weaknesses intimately. For instance, the physical acrobatics always come second nature for Dick, but is something Tim is constantly working at. Tim is more cerebral, and incredibly more practical, resisting unnecessary risks even if he’s capable of defeating them. There are also things about Bruce that Tim understands, but Dick doesn’t, and vice versa.
It’s this kind of subtle and developed characterization that I’ve always enjoyed most about Chuck Dixon’s work, and he never changes facets of a character to better fit his own writing style or perspective, which is something even the greatest writers routinely do. He digs into what’s always made the characters tick, and still finds interesting and exciting ways to manifest that in his stories. The Boys is only one great example of his incredible skills and experience, but it’s always been one of my favorites, and will remain so for years to come.