For proof that DC/Vertigo’s new graphic novel Dark Night isn’t traditional Caped Crusader fare, look no further than its subtitle: “A True Batman Story.” The key word there is true—the graphic novel sees author Paul Dini sharing a story that few people knew until recently: namely, that during the time Dini was making his reputation writing Batman, he was attacked and brutally beaten, leaving him in need of surgery and a lengthy period of recovery.
It’s not an easy journey, but Dini, who co-created both Harley Quinn and the fan-favorite 1990s Batman: The Animated Series, isn’t making it alone. Accompanying him are the characters he spends his days writing. Imaginary versions of Batman, the Joker, Batgirl and many other familiar faces show up to help him along the way—if your definition of “helping” includes a barrage of lacerating insults.
The result is a book, with art by 100 Bullets artist Eduardo Risso, that takes a very personal story and makes it more universal, not only talking about Dini’s specific experience, but also exploring how fictional characters inform the way fans react to the real world, for better or worse. It’s very much a Batman story in the important ways—our hero overcomes adversity, inspired by the Dark Knight—but it’s unlike any other Batman story you’ve read or watched before.
“You had one bad night a long time ago,” the Riddler tells him at one point. “What makes you think that anyone else could possibly give two shits for your little ordeal?” Judging by Dark Night, many people will end up caring a lot about what Dini went through. Here, he talks to Playboy.com about why he returned to the scene of the crime two decades later. You’ll also find a selection of exclusive art from the book itself.
The book is about being mugged when you were working on the 1990s Batman animated series, and the ways in which that incident, and your recovery, impacted your life, your career and even the way you related to the characters you worked with. What made now, more than two decades later, the right time for you to tell this story?
I felt like the time that had elapsed had given me some perspective on it. I had moved, professionally and personally, away from the person I was at the time [of the attack]. I felt that, had I written of the incident around the time it happened, I was still too much of that guy—that I would be looking for other things by telling the story.
I was on Kevin Smith’s podcast three or four years ago, and he wanted to hear about the mugging. We’d been friends for a while and it was something that came up, and he felt the story would be interesting to talk about. I hadn’t really talked about it that much, but the more I talked about it, the more I realized I had come a long way since then.
He also mentioned that, if it had happened to him at that age, it would’ve been a crippling event. He never would’ve left his apartment again. That reminded me of how I felt around that time, how vulnerable I felt and how lost I felt. I thought, I’ve come a long way since then, so maybe now is the time to tell that story so that other people who go through a similar incident, or are dealing with the aftermath of something like that, can see that, “Well, this person did it; maybe I can.” It’ll take time to get over something like that, but it can have a healing effect.
One of the things that makes this book so special is that the reader gets to see that part of your healing process involved talking to the Batman characters, each of whom takes on a different part of your personality as you process what you’re going through.
I tend to live in my imagination with these characters. Not only the Batman characters, but characters that I’m particularly fond of, or have written before, or even new characters that I’m creating now. I tend to be very passionate when I’m getting into a project or creating something new. Around that time, in ‘93, when the incident happened, I was constantly thinking of Batman, I was constantly thinking of these characters. It would be natural they would take the forms of mockery, encouragement, doubt, whatever emotions I was going through in my head, because the characters themselves are so vibrant.
You talk about this in the book, in a way. It opens with you explaining that the cartoons and comics and movies of your youth fueled your imagination and provided an important escape valve at a young age, and here they are, decades later, doing the same thing.
I think, to some degree, a lot of fans who grow up with these characters—with any fictional characters—tend to take them to heart, they take them very seriously, and they become kind of an extension to these people, almost like an element of family. Looking around at fandom in particular, there’s such an identification with fictional characters—with fan-fiction, or cosplay, or even people who become professional writers or actors. People are fueled with the contact they make with these characters. I think more now than ever before, you find this symbiosis between the fan and the fictional character.
I was at a convention in France recently, and without exception, people were coming up to me between 18 and 30, and they almost all said, “Thank you for my childhood.” Well, your mom and dad are the ones responsible for that really, but I know what they mean. I’m very humbled to think that the involvement I have with these characters—that a lot of other people have had their hands on—means so much to them. My work on the characters meant something extraordinary to them, seeing it at that age and in that form, on television, and it really solidified who those characters were to them. They’re a big part of their lives and their imagination.
In the book, all of the characters become a Greek chorus, in a way. They’re commenting on what’s happening even as they embody specific emotions or experiences.
Definitely one of the things I was aiming for was that the characters would have that allegory to them. I was trying to cast them in those roles, so that the Penguin is self-indulgence and self-pity, whereas the Joker is distraction, encouraging me to take it easy, you know, “Put your life on hold!” Which is really self-destructive.
There was a line in the book originally, and I took it out because Eduardo had put in so many better visuals that it worked without the line. There was one scene where the Joker was trying to convince me to stay put, and Batman had a line like, “Not every death trap has a shark pit.” Something like that, showing that the apartment and his life could be every bit as much of a death trap. The Joker came to symbolize that, the temptation to just surrender.
Batman, I didn’t want him to be a good guy. I mean, he’s a good guy, but I didn’t want him to be encouraging like a boy scout or a big brother, the “Good on you, chum” kind of thing. I wanted a drill sergeant. He’s the voice of the stern father that I think a lot of people need or want to hear. I couldn’t see him as being a pal, but the voice of something telling you to do better. He’s not even going to tell you that you did a good job. Once you’re back doing what you’re supposed to be doing, he’s just gonna leave and let you take it from there.
Something that people have asked me, “You’re known for creating Harley Quinn and she hardly appears in this comic; what’s up with that?” I said, “Harley symbolizes joy, and there’s hardly any joy in the book until the very end.”
There’s a line in the book where you say, “That’s what I do when I write. I add things, blow them totally out of proportion sometimes.” But this is a very understated book, even with superheroes and supervillains showing up to talk to you as you recover. You aren’t adding things, you’re not blowing things out of proportion. It’s a book where what you leave out is as important as what you put in.
I think I can chalk that up to my experience in animation writing, where you’re constantly instructed to pare it down. Work with the visuals, let the visuals tell the story, and really make every line like a sword stroke. You’re not saying as much as if you were writing prose, but make every line count. That was something that I tried to bring to this: There’s plenty of dialogue in there, but I wanted it all to be pointed and to serve the purpose of the story.
A thought I had when reading the book was how similar Dark Night is to the traditional superhero origin story. There’s the inciting incident, this dramatic event that changes your life forever—Bruce Wayne’s parents getting killed by a mugger, Peter Parker being bitten by the spider—and then, slowly, you discover that you’re a different person. Is this the origin story of Paul Dini as he exists today?
I think that it’s a story in a person’s life. It tells how somebody is forced to examine the path they’re on and decide if they can go in a different direction. I think a lot of things in my life got a lot better. Some of them got a lot harder, but I think that since that point, I was able to soldier on from that incident to the present day. Things got easier, my heart got a little lighter and my vision got a little clearer.
It’s been 23 years, but that’s another reason it took so long: Throughout a lot of that time, I was a work in progress. I still am, but at least now I feel I’m on a plateau where I can look back and say, “That was a-ways to come.” And then keep going.
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