Superheroes appeal to children because, as Paul Dini points out in this memoir, they’re a child’s power fantasy. This book is about how he got brutally injured in a mugging while working as a writer on Batman: The Animated Series and his irrational shock that Batman wasn’t there to save him. Therefore the book is also about the fragile mental state of adults who still idolize superheroes beyond childhood, but Dini skims over that. He still idolizes funny underwear men for a living to this day, and that perceptual limitation is really the only thing keeping this very good comic from being great. Still, it’s probably the best Batman story of the year by far. They should’ve gone all out on promotion, instead of making it a Vertigo Book and arbitrarily consigning it to second-tier notice, for the sin of admitting Batman isn’t real.
A young man’s interest in fictional superheroes as objects of sincere admiration, rather than entertainment, grows inversely to their maturation, including the ability to physically defend themselves. This is the true stereotype of the 98 pound weakling who’d rather read Batman comics than play sports growing up – and now it’s worse, they’d rather play the Arkham Asylum games which Paul happened to write. Batman wins every millennial’s popularity contest for being the so-called “most realistic” superhero. His lack of superpowers suggests the illusion that if his geekiest admirers were sufficiently motivated by the most primal early trauma (premature loss of parents) and had access to unlimited time and money, they too could become strong enough to scare bullies. To step back and chart one’s enjoyment of Batman over time is to graph one’s personal growth or lack thereof. For those lucky enough to land a job writing the character, reality can get even more confused if you’re not sufficiently grounded. Paul Dini was vicariously living in Batman’s world for a living before reality kicked the living shit out of him.
Dark Night is about his rehabilitation and the wisdom garnered, only he didn’t seem to learn all that much in the final analysis. So he uses Batman, who has more moral authority than Jesus to people of my generation, as one of several licensed characters serving as an imaginary chorus whose words can convince us, and himself. It’s a very well done comic, but also a bit of a therapy session that’s overly self-congratulatory. Big questions about the power of myth or the actual danger of crime are sidestepped in favor of solipsism. At the conclusion he postures towards sharing some greater knowledge from the experience, but it winds up a fatuous “shit happens, dust yourself off and don’t be bitter” kind of message, after frequent avoidances of weightier aspects touched briefly and then ignored. The only one he devotes any attention to, since it figured most prominently into the difficulty of his recovery, is the low self-esteem of the average nerd. Even one whose dream of writing Batman cartoons came true.
I grew up on Batman: The Animated Series and as many fans will tell you, Dini wrote several of the most memorable episodes. What seems obvious in hindsight is how many of his episodes were either about bullied wimps or the lovesick: Joker’s Favor, The Man Who Killed Batman, Heart of Ice, and especially Mad as a Hatter – an effective origin tale for The Mad Hatter in which Jervis Tetch plays White Knight to his own workplace Alice and becomes a Dark Knight villain. At the episode’s climax, Alice is rendered comatose by mind control and Batman enrages the lovelorn geek by pointing out that what he truly wants is “a soulless little doll,” not an actual three-dimensional woman. Dini makes a big point of establishing his unsuccessful love life as the catalyst of fateful evening, albeit indirectly – it happened after he walked home from a bad date, rather than accepting a ride from the young would-be starlet who’d just given him the kiss-off. As Dini points out, the walk was through wealthy West Hollywood so it wasn’t an irrational assumption that he’d be safe. As he imagines various Batman villains anthropomorphizing his inner demons, the face of womanly torment is Poison Ivy rather the perhaps more apt choice of Mad Hatter. When narratively taking stock of his poor life decisions, chief among them is his pursuit of dating actress/model types whom he could brag about to his friends, rather than a woman he could someday marry. Soulless little dolls. As the adage goes, Hollywood is high school with money and a writer for Tiny Toons with ties to Steven Spielberg is like a dork whose rich parents are lending him their Bentley.
Dini puts so much weight into his lack of validation by beautiful women before getting jumped – and then, weirdly, the only follow-up is the unsurprising detail that one of these gold diggers barely cared about his situation when called up for sympathy. By this point we’ve already read the chilling page where, bloodied and beaten, he realizes upon staggering home that there will be no one inside to comfort him. Later in a flashback sequence during his hospitalization, he recalls being stood up by another pretty girl as his date to the Emmys. Despite winning and taking home one of the awards, his self-loathing apparently ran so deep he proceeded to cut himself in front of the mirror using the statuette, expressing disgust with his own chubby bespectacled nerd self. It’s a stunning and powerfully symbolic admission. He prefaces the night of his attack with all this fear of sexual inadequacy, but fails to draw any connection between the twin injuries to his masculinity: romantic rejection and getting your ass kicked. It doesn’t get any worse than that for the male ego, especially in the course of a single evening. His subsequent despair that he somehow deserved what happened, as karmic balance to his artistic success in life, is a crisis of manhood that he thinks himself too unique to grapple with. As his own narrator to this chapter in his life, he never lets on any understanding that the reader might have endured the same fears and sufferings, including his soon-to-be lowest point.
Recuperating from the horrific attack, holed up in his apartment and descending into depression, the principal question quickly becomes how Paul will find the will to continue writing Batman in a world where Batman doesn’t swoop in to save you IRL. The most striking passages of this comic aren’t Dini imagining Batman as a stern father figure, telling him to get up and stand tall after being knocked down. They are of The Joker insidiously urging him to wallow in self-pity and retreat into comforting overindulgence – fast food, video games, movies, et cetera – after the world has traumatized him. Joker even sells this retreat as a return to the “childhood bedroom” of Dini’s “invisible” youth, fleshed out in a few autobiographical pages at the start. This is particularly fascinating when taking into account how The Joker has equaled or eclipsed Batman’s popularity in mainstream culture by embodying narcissistic hedonism. (The 1989 film puts the sensitive creative person’s spin on this: The Joker as the dark power fantasy of the insensitive artist who “makes art until someone dies.”) Paul’s apartment is a den of toys, animation cells and “the trappings of geek nirvana.” Holy Target Audience, does he even realize he’s describing a large section of his readership? What’s disappointing is that he took what could have been a widely relatable true-life parable for every superhero fan about the limits of their escapism, and the soul death of arrested development, and instead portrays the restoration of his professional status quo – product output at the dream factory – as the crucial triumph.
Probably the most fascinating and telling scene is Dini’s anecdotal rebuttal to the traditional methods of manning up. As the wounds start to heal, Batman recommends that if he feels unattractive and physically vulnerable, he could lose weight, get in shape and start learning how to fight. In response to this completely reasonable proposal, Paul does a shock jump-forward to the day he almost bought a gun. Batman then mocks him for wanting to be like James Bond. In an evasive obfuscation, Paul retorts that he could never be like Batman. Now, Batman wasn’t implying that Paul become a real life Batman, just that he could regain confidence by dropping a few pounds and looking less of an easy target. Batman, who is of course Paul Dini writing a dialogue with himself, accuses Paul Dini of engaging in a power fantasy. It’s circular and manipulative; Paul is actually reassuring himself that there’s no middle ground between being totally defenseless and deluding yourself into thinking you can become James Bond by buying a gun, or Batman by taking karate lessons.
In the introspective wrap-up of the book’s conclusion, The Scarecrow taunts Paul with the potentiality of living his life in fear of future assailants, to which he retorts that he can’t live his life in fear of lightning strikes, either. He seems oblivious to the fact it is an extraordinarily privileged position to regard potentially fatal assault and battery as a statistical freak occurrence, no more predictable than natural disasters. For pity’s sake, one of the best scenes in the comic is the LAPD’s indifference to Paul’s plight after the incident, and his incredulousness that they’re not even going to dust for prints like The Dark Knight Detective™. He certainly admits to the hard-learned fact that the police aren’t always going to be there for him, let alone Batman, but he still won’t take any personal measures to feel safer in the future, still regarding violence as something unreal. Rationalizing to Batman that he’d have been murdered if he’d “tried anything physical,” he’s more or less alluding to the “one bad day” trope of The Killing Joke every Bat-fan knows by heart, telling The Joker that to “embrace anger and cruelty and try to use them to feel powerful” would be going down the path of Joker rather than Batman. Jeez, Paul, we get it, you didn’t want to start lifting weights. It’s a bit socially irresponsible to promote the idea that taking measures towards self-defense is tempting fate, just because you never thought you’d have your life threatened and don’t want to believe it could ever happen twice.
There’s an awkward racial component in Dark Night, injected but never acknowledged, which may help explain why Dini depicts himself as so guilty over his instinct to somehow toughen up after his bloody beating. Yes, the two guys who stomped him bore the curse of Ham and moments before their paths cross, Dini’s inner monologue chastises himself not to “be the dick who changes direction just because he sees a couple of black guys.” Later, Batman criticizes him for not thinking like Batman would upon seeing “two figures huddled close together, faces obscured, moving toward toward you in a predatory manner!” Hey, Bats, you don’t really need to profile when you live in a fictional city unstuck in time where all the criminals still wear fedoras. Batman then blames Paul for not changing direction from the two thug-lyfe looking gentlemen because he was “too worried about looking scared or judgmental.” It’s worth considering that at the time, it had only been a year since the Rodney King riots and Los Angeles was still on edge about black-on-white violence. One page later, a black colleague at the Warner Brothers Animation office bluntly asks Paul if the guys who did it were black. And he lies – he says only one of them was. “Damn it” the staffer says, and offers Paul a handshake, an implicit apology on behalf of all brothers. The matter is never brought up afterwards, and Dini doesn’t feel it incumbent on himself to explain to the reader what it says about him that he felt the need to lie. Later, there’s a suspicious glance cast at a black guy who approaches him in a music store, but whew – turns out he’s just a Tiny Toons fan. Again, as omniscient narrator, Dini never acknowledges any of this racial tension. I’d guess his reluctance to start seeing the world in a harsher light is at least somewhat tied to a fear of racially profiling which his conscience can’t allow. This fits right in to his self-absolving faith that the morally superior attitude towards violent crime is, as he literally states, to think of it as lightning which won’t strike him twice.
Dark Night promises more than it delivers in terms of thematic depth. However, the emotion is all there. The concept of a Batman writer, especially a talented one like Paul Dini, using the characters as invisible friends and enemies throughout his true story of surviving being the victim of a violent crime is such a solid, inspired basis for a graphic novel. It’s the kind of meta-story for which these characters are very well suited after 75 years of exhausting every possible straightforward comic book plot. They function best now as icons, which is why the comic is a clever and enjoyable read and The Lego Batman Movie will make more money than all the other Batman movies combined. It’s always preferable to see more poetic use of the characters than seeing them wedged into ill-fitting “realistic” stories. Dini does muddle around the big questions when he uses Batman for rhetorical stances on actual important matters like guns and criminal justice. What’s genuinely moving are the times when he sincerely exposes his vulnerability, holds his ego to account and examines how creative artistry shapes his worldview, in good times and bad.
Speaking of artistry, there’s really nothing to say about Eduardo Risso’s illustration except that it’s masterful. Dini’s career requires him to visually reference not only Batman: The Animated Series but other pop culture from Beany and Cecil to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and he’s always on-model. His own original designs for the Batman villains are simultaneously ugly and very appealing. He draws Paul past and present, in realistic and caricatured styles, sometimes changing from panel to panel depending on narrative needs, without ever misstepping. The color is also incredible, emphasizing every mood and blending human beings with Paul’s cartoon imaginings seamlessly.
This “True Batman Story” ends on a note of hope, with Harley Quinn welcoming Dini back to work. Harley Quinn is one of the worst Batman characters ever created, a supremely irritating Manic Pixie Dream Girl that could only have been invented by someone with issues around women.
Still, at least she only shows up in the last couple pages. Highly recommended!
Dark Night: A True Batman Story; story, Paul Dini; art, Eduardo Risso; letterer, Todd Klein; publisher, DC Comics.