Paul Dini has been writing about Batman for most of his career. He's written comics in addition to his work as a writer and producer for the animated TV show. He's also the co-creator of everyone's favorite jester-themed Gotham villain, Harley Quinn. His newest graphic novel, however, is not your average Batman comic. Dark Night: A True Batman Story is just that: a true story of crime, recovery, and the Caped Crusader.
Back in the 1990s, Paul Dini was working on the Emmy-Award-winning Batman: The Animated Series. One evening, walking home alone, he was attacked and brutally beaten by muggers. The damage was so severe that parts of his skull were powdered on impact. Recovery was arduous, and Dini wasn't sure whether he could return to writing about superheroes fighting for good after coming face to face with actual evil. But with Dark Night, Dini takes his own ordeal and retells it through harrowing encounters with Batman villains, and conversations with Mr. Wayne himself.
With gorgeous art by Eduardo Risso, Dark Night: A True Batman Story is a Batman comic like no other. Paul Dini has given us a raw, intense, and ultimately uplifting autobiographical tale of dealing with trauma. I was lucky enough to chat with him on the process of writing such a personal story, and what makes Batman so enduring:
You say in the beginning of the book that this is somewhat different than your usual stories. What was it like writing a story based on truth?
"Well, it was was hard making the decision to cast myself in the role of the writer, and for a while I went back and forth. Should this be a character with another name? Should it be somebody who’s writing a show like Batman? And then I thought, you know, let’s go for it—just make it yourself. And I’d been given the rights very generously by DC to use the characters, and so if I’d created a one-off version of myself, then people would have said, “Well, that’s just you,” anyway. So when I went into it, I felt that, once I realized I was telling a story about myself, that I put a lot more of myself into the story than I would have if it was a roman à clef or a substitute for myself. So I was more honest with things like relationships, with the abuse part of it, with the family stuff, than I would have been if it was a slightly fictionalized version of myself. And that was hard getting into, and there were times I would ask friends and family, “Am I going too far with some of this?” And pretty much 100% said, “No, follow your feelings. Go with what you feel is right.” And I did, and that made it a bit easier.
What was hard was looking at certain instances in the book, in the way that Eduardo had rendered them, because I told him to be brutal and be very honest. For instance, when I saw his pages of the actual attack, I… I kind of, like, burst into tears and couldn’t look at them for a week. I looked at them once, started crying, and just put them away. It was hard. It was hard to see that. But he captured it beautifully, and with every bit of intensity and power that I wanted. And empathy, also."
What was the collaboration process like with Eduardo Risso on something so personal?
"The script took me a long time to write, so I don’t think I ever handed him—there were a lot of times, early on, he was was not working from a full script. And I would write it in bits and pieces, and I had a detailed outline worked out, of where I was going with it, and the actual script pages I would write in bursts and get them to him. And later on in the process he had a full script.
But just trying to get through some of the incidents… I would write them, and then I would send them to him, and then I’d go back and think some more, and write more, and send them to him. Because it was hard. It was hard to put them down in one “plunk.” And I wanted to get him started on the process as soon as possible, and not wait for a full script. And I knew where the story was going, so I felt confident in doing that.
And Eduardo, it was very easy working with him. One thing I suggested early on that he not do was follow the look of the animated version of the characters. Which is a look that I love and adore, but I felt that, in order for the book to have visual contrast, that the few times we see clips of the show they had to play as clips of the show. If it was the same version of Batman and the Joker from the show, there wouldn’t be a sort of live world, animated world contrast. So I told him to do Batman and the Joker and all the characters as he felt fit the story. And he did, he came up with a look for all the characters that is uniquely his and unique to the story."
You talk a little about the different characters who got you interested in comics and cartoons. What do you think makes Batman such an enduring character?
"He’s a wish-fulfillment in a lot of ways. Of elements of our personality that we kind of wish we could do in real life. Everybody has some injustice in their life, or some situation that they wish they could change. And I think that over the last few decades, Batman has become an amazingly potent figure: somebody who is of the real world, and all he needs is a disguise, some money, and a fast car, and he can go out and solve all the problems. And I think that it starts when you’re a kid. Every time I see a kid running around in a Batman costume, I think they like the idea that the mask has the power of mystery—you don’t know who’s under the mask. Although, you know, there’s only so many little kids in your life, you could probably figure it out. But they love the fantasy, playing, “you don’t recognize me, and I’m powerful, and I’m Batman, and I can do just about anything.”
And I think that that is a feeling that endures throughout the years, in that you like the character, you kind of identify with somebody who can become dark and powerful and a force for good. I just think that, you know, a lot of people like that fantasy. In some cases it’s a fantasy they try to incorporate in everyday life, or they try and look for some sort of inspiration in a character like that, to bring into their everyday lives.
I got a very nice letter from a police officer who was inspired by the animated series. And he said, “I couldn’t be Batman in real life, but I could be a policeman, and I could make a difference.” And he thanked me very much for writing stories that he loved, that influenced in his decision to become a police officer.
I feel like, if you have that sort of effect on people, that you also have a responsibility to do your job well, and to keep doing it. And, you know, that’s not a responsibility I take lightly… It’s like they say in It’s a Wonderful Life. One person’s life touches others. So, if you can contribute something positive, and that sparks something positive in something else—even if it’s just a cartoon story, or a comic book or something, if that resonates in the real world in a positive way, it’s a good thing."
And you’re essentially doing that by sharing such a personal story of how you processed something so traumatic. What are you hoping that people will take away from this book?
"I think everybody can learn from everybody else: how they’ve survived different situations, and dealt with tragedy or disappointment. I certainly didn’t want to just paint a downer story. I wanted to show that, OK, we all have problems, and here’s how one guy dealt with his. If that gives you any sort of a clue, or a reader can solve something in their life, or just, you know, keep going, keep doing what they’re doing in a positive way, then that’s mission accomplished for me."
Images: Giphy (4)