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Paul Dini has spent his career writing about Batman in both television and comic book form. And just like Batman, who was born out of a tragic mugging that killed his parents, Dini also lived through a violent assault that altered his life.
In 1993, the co-creator of Batman villain Harley Quinn (being played by Margot Robbie in next summer’s Suicide Squad) and winner of several Emmys for writing Batman animated shows, was walking down La Peer Drive in Los Angeles one evening when two men approached him and mugged him. It was so bad that parts of his head were shattered – his zygomatic arch, for one — while parts of his skull “powdered on impact,” according to the doctors. He needed surgery.
Now, more than two decades later, Dini is revisiting that traumatic event with a highly personal graphic novel. Coming in June 2016, the book isn’t an indie but rather hails from DC’s imprint Vertigo and features the Caped Crusader and his rogues’ gallery as a kind of Greek chorus. Titled Dark Night: A True Batman Story, it is one of the most autobiographical books ever published by the company.
“What makes Batman and what makes other superheroes work is the myth that when life is at its lowest, and when you need a hero, a hero swings down and helps you,” Dini says over breakfast in Studio City, suddenly overcome by emotion and choking back tears. “And I didn’t have that.”
“Here I am writing these stories for an audience that loves this form, in comics, in animation, but now I was saying to myself, ‘I can’t go on with this. I don’t believe in it anymore. There is no hero for me. Where is my hero?’ ”
Dini composes himself and then says, “The answer is: You have to be your own hero.”
The 121-page book, drawn by Eduardo Risso, the acclaimed artist of Vertigo’s crime series 100 Bullets, shines a spotlight on Dini, then a recent Emmy winner for Tiny Toon Adventures, who drinks too much and dates the wrong women (one woman bails on him as his Emmys date when she finds out the animation category isn’t televised). Then one night he runs afoul of two thugs. In the days, weeks and months that follow, he tries his best to recover but has to navigate Batman and his infamous cohorts, who offer criticism and advice as if angels and devils on his shoulders.
Batman, a blunt parental figure, berates him and tells him ways he could have gotten away. The Joker, slyly evil, nudges him to take it easy and not leave his apartment (when just the opposite is what he really needs). Dini cites Woody Allen’s 1972 film Play It Again, Sam, in which a film critic tries to get over a divorce with the help of Humphrey Bogart, as an inspiration. And he combined it with his writing process, which he says includes conjuring up characters who tell him their dialogue.
“I’m not saying I talk to cartoon characters all the time, but the characters are very real to me,” he explains, quickly adding, “In a very non-insane way.”
The whole process of expunging the story was therapeutic but not without turmoil. There were nights Dini went to bed weeping. And then there was the first time seeing the assault in art form.
“When I first downloaded the pages from the attack, I looked at them very quickly once, horrified. Then I put them away for a week,” he recalls. “I burst into tears. I couldn’t look at them.”
But with the book now closed on that chapter of his life, Dini says a burden has been lifted. For the most part. “I feel like, even if it hasn’t completely, I feel stronger and I can carry it better. I feel like it’s not going to crush me.”
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