Dark Night: A True Batman Story
There’s such potential in Dark Night: A True Batman Story. Fans of superhero characters are already prepped to want to know more about the author, Paul Dini, who was so instrumental in making Batman: The Animated Series. The idea of exploring how working on a fictional superhero changes after the artist has been severely mugged is a fascinating one. Unfortunately, I found the execution superficial and self-indulgent.
At a time when he was helping write the animated feature Mask of the Phantasm, Dini was attacked and beaten to the point that his nose was fractured and eye socket shattered. During his recovery, at a time when he was feeling even more sorry for himself than usual, he had a lot of imaginary conversations with Batman and his villains.
Dini reiterates obvious points. He was artistic and different. He lived alone, surrounded by toys and talking of substantial matters only to therapists. He didn’t fit in, except at work (which seems to involve a good deal of hazing, but it was ok, because they were all similar personalities). The real changes are glossed over.
Dini is playing to a very supportive audience here, many of whom will identify with growing up bullied and finding relief in comics and cartoons. Dini shies away from any true insight, though. He spends time on how badly the actresses he dates treat him, going out with him just because he works with Steven Spielberg, but we never see him with Misty Lee, the woman he credits briefly in text with showing him real love.
He wallows in the struggles but only tells the reader briefly in passing of the improvements. It’s odd that I found such problems in pacing, given Dini’s professional career. The balance of content is way off, and Dini shies away from deep exploration of the topic, instead coming to the conclusion that, although he felt betrayed that no hero kept him from being beaten up, devoting his life to such fiction is ok because it makes people feel better.
I don’t disagree with this. I disagree with someone shading their story so much. A reader needs to trust an autobiographer to be honest, and I don’t feel that. There are hints of issues — as when we jump from Dad saying, “I’d like to know what kind of job you can get by watching cartoons,” to Dini saying he worked at Warner Bros. Animation, with the parents only getting mentions in passing in the rest of the book — but the difficult questions are barely raised and rarely answered. There’s an indication early on that Dini, as a child, is lying to his psychologist in order to avoid being diagnosed with something serious. I get the same feeling later on, that’s he’s glossing over anything that would be too disturbing.
The art, however, is outstanding. Eduardo Risso does an amazing job both with the real-world people and the fantasy characters overlaid as figments of Dini’s imagination. The coloring is wonderful, indicating through tone shifts which characters are real and which aren’t, and which have more importance to Dini at the time.
Seeing that work is what kept me going through the pages of self-blame and near-alcoholism portrayed, with Batman as the voice of “you should have done this instead”. (There’s actually more Joker than Batman in his internal monologue.) The biggest indicator to me that Dini is still not being honest with himself (and the readers) is near the end, when he’s summing up how things changed in a few pages and says, to the Riddler,
“If I worried that much about what other people thought, I wouldn’t have become a writer.”
The whole book is about him worrying what other people think of him, of him having internalized self-disgust based on their expectations. If he’s truly gotten to the point where he no longer cares, I would have liked to have seen how, but that’s not on the pages here. Dark Night: A True Batman Story is getting a lot of praise from people who find the autobiography striking, but I suspect those people have been attracted to the big-name superhero in the title. Anyone who’s read one of the many other biographical comics available, without the corporate tie-in, will find this story disappointing in what it lacks.