Even among the many shining stars of the Batman firmament, Paul Dini stands out. The producer of Batman: The Animated Series, and one of the principal writers throughout the show’s acclaimed run, Dini created Harley Quinn, Baby Doll, Roxy Rocket, Mercy Graves, and many other memorable characters, in addition to developing Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond. Along the way, Dini picked up five Emmys and two Eisners — for The Batman Adventures: Mad Love and Batman Adventures Holiday Special. But for much of his extraordinary career, Dini was reluctant to discuss an incident as dramatic as anything he’d scripted. An incident that occurred at the height of his work on Batman Animated, in which he was attacked by two unknown assailants, who battered his skull and left him for dead. This month, Dini finally shares this traumatic story with the world, in the DC/Vertigo graphic novel Dark Night: A True Batman Story. In so doing, he turns personal tragedy into artistic triumph.
I spoke recently with Dini about Dark Night, and he explained why he was unable to tell the story before and how his approach to telling it has evolved over the years.
“I was too angry and I was too hurt in a lot of ways,” explains the scribe. “In fact, when I started writing, I wrote a lot about my feelings, almost speaking out to the attackers. Then I realized I couldn’t do that. It had to be more of a personal story, more of an everyman story. It couldn’t be me saying to the bad guys, ‘Look, here I am.’ What happened was so sudden that I didn’t want to honor them anymore than I had to. This is a force of nature, it’s something that happens. Cruelty from one person to another. There can be no happy ending. There is no justice to the situation. There is only acceptance and forgiveness for yourself.”
While real life did not offer a Batman to deliver justice to Dini’s assailants, in the days following the incident, Dini found himself considering what the hero and his enemies would say to him. That dialogue is incorporated into Dark Night, with characters like the Joker and Harley appearing at various points in the book.
“They presented themselves to me at different times,” explains Dini of the Batman characters featured in his story. “That’s because I never really stop thinking about these characters when I’m working on them. They’re always sort of running around in my head.”
To illustrate Dark Night, Dini turned to Argentine comic book illustrator Eduardo Risso, of whose no-holds-barred work on Vertigo’s violent crime title 100 Bullets he was a fan.
“He has this great sense of capturing violence,” says Dini of Risso. “There’s some absolute brutality in 100 Bullets. I knew if I described it the right way he could capture the incident of the beating. I didn’t want to soft-pedal it—I wanted to show it as it happened. He caught it angle by angle, and he did it so wonderfully that I flipped through the pages and I put it down and I didn’t look at it for a week. I couldn’t. He just brought a power and a sensitivity to it I thought was terrific.”
Dini also credits his wife, the famed stage magician Misty Lee, with helping him tell his story. An abuse survivor herself, Lee channeled her own experiences into a noted PSA in which domestic abuse was depicted as a straight jacket from which she escaped.
“When I would get mad and go off track, she’d say, ‘What is the point of your story? The point of your story is you stood up. You heard a voice in your head that said, ‘Stand up.’ And that’s what you did. You’re telling other people, ‘Stand up and go on.’’ That’s all you can do in a situation like that. When people say they can’t, that’s when they have to. You have to. Then once you do it, life gets easier to handle. You can’t just sit there and accept what’s happened to you.”
Having finally put his story in print, Dini is now preparing to launch his next TV series, Cartoon Network’s Justice League Action in the fall of 2016. The latest entry in the writer-producer’s long list of career accomplishments, it’s yet another testament to a spirit as strong as Batman’s own. Dini, however, remains modest when summarizing his attitude towards recovery.
“The incident forced me to evaluate my life and to say, ‘When things happen, whether personally or professionally, when there is a setback, you’ll persevere. You’ll find a way to go on.'”
He shrugs. “It’s all we can do really.”
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