With Warner Bros. putting the original Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman movies back into theaters this month and the comic book unit celebrating the character’s 80th anniversary, I passed over re-watching the old movies yet again or digging up any more trivia. Instead, I sought out one of the better reflections on the Batman mythos I’ve ever read. Maybe you’ve already heard of it, but if you haven’t Dark Night: A True Batman Story is a must-buy for Batman fans.
Paul Dini still bares the scars of his attack. They’ve softened over time and you have to know where to look to see them, but they’re there. One night twenty plus years ago, two men rearranged his face with their fists, eventually sending him to a surgeon for reconstructive surgery. The scars are still with him today. They serve as reminders of why he still shies away when strangers approach too fast or recoils in fear whenever anyone brushes up against his face. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, however, he faced a larger concern: how could ever continue on with his life?
Dini wrote for Batman: The Animated Series, which worked in conjunction with the Tim Burton Batman movies to permanently drill The Caped Crusader into the consciousness of an entire generation. As the writer of Batman: TAS episodes like “Heart and Ice,” “Almost Got ‘Im,” “Harley and Ivy” and co-creator of Harley Quinn, Dini had a lot do with that.
After his attack, he wasn’t so sure he wanted to keep going. How could he continue to peddle kid power fantasy narratives when he had been too weak to be his own Batman in real life? While going through recovery and quickly spiraling into depression, his imagination worked up images of Batman and the Rogues Gallery acting as the angels and devils on his shoulder, whispering encouragement and put-down in equal measure. Eventually, Batman won and Dini persevered, sticking with TV, film, and comic book writing, a career which he continues to enjoy today.
In 2016, Dini – with the help of illustrator Eduardo Risso – memorialized this experience in the wonderful graphic novel Dark Night: A True Batman Story. It quickly became a New York Times Bestseller. Reading it now for the first time, I am struck by its brilliant ability to personalize one person’s relationship with depression and what happens at the often messy intersection of life and pop culture. Putting all of it into a graphic novel makes it a highly irresistible read.
As Dini faces the biggest existential crisis of his life to that point, Batman, Joker and the rest spring off the page to act as a Greek chorus. If this was a film, it would remind people of works like the old, Jonathan Brandis-imagines-Chuck-Norris-popping-by-to-save-him comedy Sidekicks, Woody Allen interacting with Bogart in Play It Again, Sam or Paul Dano contending with his own creation in Ruby Sparks.
Chiefly, Dini veers back and forth between viewing Batman as an almost contemptible fantasy figure whose solitude and vigilantism sends mixed messages or as a cultural icon capable of imbuing each reader and fan with the courage to take on their own metaphorical Rogue’s Gallery.
Often, however, the Batman of his imagination comes off like the tough coach who will always get the best out of you:
This brand of cultural criticism and autobiography has become a hip thing in recent years. See also TV critic Sarah Hughes’ moving Guardian piece “Game of Thrones, cancer and me.” As someone overly prone to getting lost in the minutia of pop culture, I find such pieces a refreshing reminder of just why it is we turn to characters like Batman or shows like Game of Thrones. With Dark Night: A Real Batman Story, it comes from the guy at least partially responsible for some of my fondest Batman-related memories, which lends his story a considerable amount of intrigue and authenticity.
Few could be said to better understand the Batman mythos than Paul Dini. In his moment of need, that mythos mocked from the rafters and threatened to engulf him. However, in time he came to re-embrace the Dark Knight: “Batman’s power is not as a vigilante swinging to the rescue, but as an ideal, an inspiration. A voice I heard in darkness commanding me to stand up. The same voice that tells us when we get beaten down, we can accept being a victim or choose to be the hero of our own stories.”
Dark Night: A True Batman Story is available on Amazon and just about every other book site imaginable.