Paul Dini is one of the masterminds behind Batman: The Animated Series, but his latest story, Dark Night: A True Batman Story, has little to do with Batman directly. In 1993, Dini was mugged and beaten by two men, an event that, he reveals, capped off a series of profound emotional struggles he was fighting even as he pretended, to friends, to coworkers, to everyone, that nothing was wrong. The book, with art by Eduardo Risso, explores his past and uses Batman and the Joker as emotional sounding boards. Dini opens up about some deeply personal stories in his new comic, and he was kind enough to sit down with us and talk about going to some dark emotional places for the greater good.
What inspired you to revisit such a painful time in your life?
It was a number of things. A few friends had asked me about the event. We started talking about it in-depth on a podcast, and it was a story I’d always been meaning to deal with. I’d been talking to DC about doing something with Batman. Dan [DiDio, editor-in-chief of DC Comics] and Geoff [Johns, DC’s chief creative officer] thought it would be great to tell the story as autobiography, and Vertigo could use the format to tell personal stories. The other thing, a lot of people had grown up with the series, and it’s almost undergoing a wave of nostalgia now. The time is very ripe to tell the story, it’s a look back to that time.
There’s an interesting framing device here, where you’re more or less pitching the book to the reader. How’d you choose that?
That’s more the way it goes for a feature. I’m thinking Disney features, where the writer and storyboard artist go into a room, and you have a committee listening to the story. The story is pinned up in advance and you go through it. I wanted to stretch it a bit, as if I was pitching the story to executives. I felt it was a visual way to kick off the story, because I am telling a story, to the characters in my head, and the readers, and I wanted it to be as visual as possible and use elements of animation.
I was at Warners at a time working on a new series, and I would pin up sketches and story elements on one wall. When I finished writing it, when I was going over the last few pages with Shelly Bond, that day I actually was walking out of the studio, and I thought, why not end it the way that ended? “When are we going back to work?” It was very “of the moment.” Somebody reading it might think it’s the stupidest cartoon ever, but you can actually see it!
Probably the most shocking moment in the book is what happens with the Emmy, where you injure yourself with it after a severe emotional setback. Was it a tough call to include something that personal?
I went back and forth about it. A lot of things determined my decision to put that in. I’ve become very aware of the last few years of bullied teens with low self-esteem hurting themselves or killing themselves. I realized that I was a pretty foolish young man in a lot of ways, and it wasn’t worth hurting yourself over traumas that were largely in your head. I was lonely at the time, and I was prone to indulge in emotional drama. I discussed it with Alan Burnett, and asked if it was going too far. I thought, yeah, I’m going to do this to show, this was the state of mind at the time. It wasn’t until I was mugged that I began to see you really are a fool to carry on in this fashion, because real life has a number of surprises in store for you.
How’d you come to use Batman and his rogues gallery?
It was pretty much working through my head at the time. These incidents tend to happen in fits and spurts. The characters were in my mind all the time, because I was writing them, and at the time trying to force them out of my head. But at the time, I was listening to them as personifications of my fears, doubts and strengths. I’ve never felt any kinship with Batman, he’s the strongest part of yourself you wish you could be all the time. The villains, they’re the more negative voices, that can seem to be a bit more sympathetic and friendly, and they’re more seductive. The voice of reason is more blunt, temptation or doubt wants to stretch it a bit, not look at the truth. That was a good way to show that.
This is more than just your story, it touches on quite a few real people. Did revisiting that stir up any memories for them?
Anybody featured in the book had to sign a likeness release. Quite a number were happy to, but some preferred not to. That was fine, I was fine with that, it was a hard project to explain, and you’re dealing with likeness rights. Some never got back to me at all. Some people were kind of generic. People like Arleen [Sorkin, the voice of Harley Quinn] gave permission. I was very respectful of everybody’s feelings.
There’s a scene where a coworker, a black man himself, asks about the race of the people who mugged you that’s really powerful.
The fellow depicted is Barry Caldwell. We actually began working together in the early ‘80s. That scene actually happened verbatim. It was a pretty powerful moment between us. When he extended his hand and said, “Dammit, I’m sorry,” I wanted to capture that. When these incidents come back, it puts me back in that place. He was one of many, many people, coworkers and friends who extended sympathy, and I wanted to preserve that.
Dark Night is out now from Vertigo.