Can Batman Be The Hero In Paul Dini’s ‘Dark Night: A True Batman Story’?
It's no secret that, before he came to comics, Paul Dini worked as a writer in animation on series including Batman: The Animated Series and, before that, Tiny Toon Adventures --- both from the then-resurgent Warner Bros Animation studio. Dark Night, his new graphic memoir detailing a traumatic event from that time in his life, is premised as the Dini of 2016 pitching the story as he might have pitched an animated episode, pinning sketched-out storyboards to a wall before an unseen audience that will have their say when his presentation is over.
The elaborate narrative set-up isn't the only unusual thing about Dini's Dark Night. Unlike the vast majority of comics memoirs, in which the memoirist is also a cartoonist and thus writes and draws the story, this one has the more traditional division of labor/creation of superhero comics, with Dini scripting and artist Eduardo Risso handling the art. And it's also got Batman in it. A lot.
Dini cites the early development of two particular traits as shaping the events of Dark Night; one that served him well in his career, and one that didn't. Those traits are his habit of constantly conjuring cartoon characters with his imagination, and his concern over his relative lack of social status. The latter inadvertently lead to the dark night in question, while the former helped him through the dark days that followed.
In the early 1990s, Dini was in a very good place professionally, with Batman: The Animated Series a hit, and work beginning on the Mask of The Phantasm movie. But he still wasn't in a positive place personally, as he was romantically pursuing would-be starlets who were pretty clearly using him for his somewhat dubious Hollywood connections (Steven Spielberg was an executive producer of Tiny Toons, which was a collaboration between Warner Bros and Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment company, so Dini had technically worked with him, even though it's not like they shared an office or anything).
After one such date with a woman who was less than upfront about using him in this manner, Dini decided to put on a show for her, pretending he might have someone else to see. He walked away in a different direction than he would have otherwise.
That's when he was mugged --- and savagely beaten, something that Risso draws with gut-wrenchingly violence. Dini didn't lose consciousness during the attack, but he was punched so hard that parts of his skull were pulverized upon impact. They just weren't there anymore.
The irony of a guy who spends his professional life writing about a superhero who prevents violent street crime then becoming a victim of such crime himself wasn't lost on anyone, least of all Dini. It started almost immediately, with one of the responding officers laughing, "I guess you could have used [Batman] tonight."
In his imagination --- and thus on Risso's comics page --- Dini does get rescued by Batman, during a four-page sequence in which Batman intervenes after the first punch and captures the crooks. (This is not the Dark Knight's first appearance in Dark Night; while on the date preceding the attack, Dini imagines a conversation between Bruce Wayne and Poison Ivy.)
In fact, villains show up in Dini's conversations with himself as much as Batman himself. The Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, The Scarecrow, The Riddler, Clayface, Mister Freeze and, obviously, Dini's co-creation Harley Quinn all show up repeatedly, most of them assigned a set of fears or failings to represent symbolically.
Dini leads his readers through some pretty rough stuff after the attack, including a shocking episode of self-harm, periods of anxiety and depression, and a few flirtations with drastic coping mechanisms, like self-medicating with alcohol, and even carrying a gun. (When Batman and Dini argue at the gun shop, Dini tells the Caped Crusader that he can never be like him that he's just "a child's power fantasy," to which Batman cooly responds to the target-shooting writer, "And how is this not a power fantasy?")
The resolution will likely seem fairly pat, as Dini learns lessons from Batman and the other characters that he's surrounded himself with his whole life, the climax being a sort of rhetorical battle between the parts of himself represented by The Joker and the Batman.
Even readers unfamiliar with Dini's later work will surely know, simply by the fact that they are reading his memoir, that he did get back up from rock bottom and return to writing. And he did pretty damn well for himself in the process. As his story draws to a close, we finally see who exactly he was pitching his presentation, and while I won't spoil the reveal here, it offfers Dini a chance to address his fears and doubts with clarity. Again, it's rather pat, but also potent.
The major difficulty with the book is a rather existential, fundamental one, which there's no realistic way around: Dini is not a cartoonist, so he probably couldn't have drawn this story himself, which means his imagination is filtered through a different person's vision. And it's worth noting that when Batman and The Joker and any of the other characters show up, they aren't drawn to the designs or in the style of The Animated Series, nor do they appear in their default comic book incarnations. Rather, for the most part they all look like Risso's own particular visions of the character. They are all awesome designs, but their originality seems at odds with the fact that this is a memoir.
That, coupled with the dissonance that results from using the format of a comic book to tell a story presented as a pitch for an animated story, presents a sort of inter-media grinding of the gears. But once the reader gets past that little turbulence, it's a compelling, even gripping story.
There are a lot of interesting ways to read the relationship between the writer telling a story about his own life and the fictional character whose name is in the subtitle, including the idea of their symbiotic relationship or Batman's importance as a shared cultural touchstone. But maybe the most obvious reading is that heroes need not be real to be true, and likewise true stories need not be real either.
After all, Dark Night may be a true story, but many of its most dramatic moments happen within Dini's head, either in his dialogue with cartoon characters, or with the epiphanies he experienced.
Dark Night is an unusual graphic novel, telling a surprising and powerful story, using familiar characters in highly idiosyncratic ways, and rewarding re-reading and alternate readings. And it's got Batman in it.