In Dini’s “Dark Knight”, You must be your own Hero

Had to write this for a class at AU. Not in my traditional review style, so let me know what you think. Grouping it in the Opinion category for the moment.

Paul Dini has written video games, created popular Joker love interest Dr. Harleen Quinzel and even put his personal touch on Star Wars and He-Man. Behind all that contribution to pop-culture, it’s hard to believe stands a man who used to cut himself with an Emmy.

This grim scene is but a brief moment in the autobiographical Dark Knight: A True Batman Story. Drawn by Eduardo Risso of 100 BULLETS fame, the graphic novel from D.C. Comic’s Vertigo imprint takes us on a journey through tough times for Dini. Showing how the Caped Crusader and his villains stood in for the pain he endured after a brutal mugging in 1990’s Los Angeles that left him within an inch of death and ultimately motivated him to recover.

The tale begins with the one-time Batman: The Animated Series writer speaking to an unseen audience about his story. After subtly breaking the fourth wall, we’re treated to panels depicting his early life in 60’s New York. Amidst sepia colored bullies, a black and white colored Paul drifts through the scenery. Dodging fists and eventually finding solace in a Batman comic discovered after a trip to the local barber shop, subsequently kicking off a love of animation.

Using images of Adam West’s Batman, Superman and James Bond, Dini and Risso take more time than was needed in showing the passion emerging during the childhood of the artist. Where it should have transitioned to the era of Los Angeles that would come to be defined by a racial riot and an alleged murderer nicknamed “Juice” after the panels in the barber shop, there is unnecessary filler afterwards. Scenes of imagined characters entertaining the child at church, dinners with family and declining grades are all drawn to pad out the opening act. Eventually, Paul is sent to a therapist who gives him various models to make in counseling sessions. After rebuking his theory that the young and promising artist might not know the difference between cartoons and the real world, we flash forward a quarter of a century to the run down and ramshackle animation lot at Warner Bros nicknamed “Termite Tower” by those that worked there. Though, according to Dini, the name never caught on.

Dini then transitions to his early career successes. Writing Tiny Toons, working with Steven Spielberg on a quirky little show called Animaniacs and writing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm all take center stage here. At one point, during a trip to England, Paul decides to buy series branded shampoo to bring home as proof of the show’s success. “I can’t believe people shower with this shit,” exclaims one writer. Everything is going great, but beneath the surface, the artist has several issues that he wishes the heroes he writes each day could come solve.

Problems with intimate relationships, family passing away and exploitation all gnaw away at Dini and his outlook on life. As things get worse for him and his loneliness increases, the fictional characters he loves begin to manifest in his psyche. Taunting his choices and mocking him relentlessly. For a time, the one place where Dini found solace poisons him, eroding his confidence in the process.

The art in these moments is beautifully drawn by Risso. Whether it’s the puke green of the room where grandpa Louie is slowly slipping away to cancer and demands an autograph from his up and coming grandson, the Looney Tunes style art documenting how Dini often went after women who were uninterested in him in his younger years or the dark colors of Bruce Wayne and the Joker reaching out to taunt Paul after a no-name starlet friend-zones him, there isn’t a single bad panel in the bunch. But, out of all of it, the best design is when, after being rejected by his date and walking home in West L.A., the mugging occurs.

Out of the purple darkness of the page panels, two hooded males emerge like demons in the night. They punch, kick, and even attempt to cripple Dini’s knee. Thanks to good luck, he manages to survive and elude them when they try to run him down with their car. As they go off into the night with their ill-gotten gains, their insults float across the page like lyrics in the liner of a crudely written album.

After getting home and collapsing, we’re treated to the recovery process. Compounded by his already existing issues, Dini wallows for a time in his own misery. How, he wonders, can he seriously do his work anymore when, in reality, heroes don’t come from the night to save those who need them? Manifestations of the Joker encourage him to retreat into the warm comfort of his home and for a time he does, even buying a gun to feel some sense of power.

I won’t spoil what happens, but in the end, our subject tells us that “when we get beaten down, we can choose to accept being a victim or choose to be the hero of our own stories.” Though the piece starts slow, Dini eventually succeeds in doing the latter of the two. Readers looking for help in their own lives could get inspired to do the same by his book.

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