Friday, 1 July 2016

Dark Night: A True Batman Story Review (Paul Dini, Eduardo Risso)


In 1993, Paul Dini was living the dream. A lifelong Batman fan, he was a writer on the landmark TV show, Batman: The Animated Series, receiving critical acclaim and working for the likes of Steven Spielberg at Warner Animation. But he wasn’t happy. A loner by nature, he had low self-esteem and was making himself miserable chasing beautiful but shallow starlets who only gave him the time of day because of his connections. And then one dark night he was brutally mugged, almost dying from the encounter. Dark Night: A True Batman Story is an autobiographical comic that explores this time in Dini’s life and what Batman meant to him in the aftermath of such injustice. 

Like most Batman fans who grew up in the ‘90s, Paul Dini forever has a special place in my heart for giving us Batman: The Animated Series (and, yes, Kevin Conroy is still THE best Batman ever). Not only has this guy contributed a major original character to the Batman universe - Harley Quinn, co-created with the awesome Bruce Timm - but he’s also written the first two Arkham games (still the best two in the series), Mad Love (one of the best Batman books ever), and numerous first-rate Batman comics; in short, he is easily one of the greatest Batman writers of all time. 

It’s been a few years though since a Paul Dini Batman comic so I was delighted to hear he was returning this year with an original Batman graphic novel - and he doesn’t disappoint with Dark Night. 

Let me get my minor criticism of this book out of the way first and I know it’s gonna make me sound callous but I’m being honest: I enjoyed it but I wasn’t as enthralled all the way through as I’d hoped. Some parts were even a little boring. Even though it’s an important part of the story, Dini chasing starlets unsuccessfully wasn’t very interesting to see once, let alone a few times. And maybe if I hadn’t heard most of this story on Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman podcast when Dini and his wife Misty Lee (a real life Zatanna!) guested, I would’ve been more gripped. But there it is. 

That said, I did really like most of the book and am extremely grateful for Dini to put himself through the ordeal of revisiting this painful part of his life to give us this. I loved how he worked in the Batman cast to act as a Greek chorus throughout, adding their perspective to certain parts of the story - Batman giving his two cents in the aftermath of the mugging, Joker encouraging his bad habits of excessive drinking and giving voice to his insecurities, Two-Face commenting on Dini’s badly damaged left side of his face. 

It’s also morbidly fascinating to see such a tragedy befall Dini and watch him slowly stand back up. Earlier when I said some parts were boring? The recovery is a bit dull even if real life recovery from physical and mental trauma isn’t exciting or quick - there’s no moment when Dini figures it all out and he’s miraculously cured! No, he wallows in self-pity for a while, ditches work, writing, drinks too much, hates himself. There’s even more shocking personal reveals that weren’t on the podcast that appear here. 

What was really interesting was seeing how Dini, a man who built his career on writing stories of Batman saving the innocent, could reconcile the injustice of being mugged (the thugs were never caught) and having no-one come to his aid - not even someone on the street came over afterwards to call the police. How could he keep writing Batman, believing in the Dark Knight and human heroism, when the stark reality is that the innocent get fucked over and there’s sometimes no justice whatsoever? 

Dini comes to the same conclusion anyone would, that Batman is a source of inspiration to us rather than an actual protector - how could he be anything else, he’s a drawing! - and Dini uses the ideals Batman stands for to rise above his trauma and stand back up. Mostly anyway - it’s clear Dini’s still deeply affected by this mugging as it’s 23 years later and he feels the need to address it publicly. 

Eduardo Risso’s art is very different from what you’d expect. The lines are softer as are the watercolour washes and the imagery is more realistic to suit the autobiographical subject matter. I noticed that in the traumatic sequences - the mugging and the cutting scene - Risso went back to his classic 100 Bullets art style which has harsher lines, lots of black ink, and more solid colours; overall a more stylised cartoonish look. I wonder if that choice was to make it easier for Dini to look at if he saw it as a more comic-book experience - these are obviously very difficult moments for him to deal with, if Risso had drawn it in a more realistic way, would that have tipped Dini over the edge and abandon the project altogether? 

I was also surprised not to see Batman or Joker depicted as The Animated Series versions of their characters given this time period when Dini was actively working on the show. Maybe it was too on the nose? At any rate, first-class work from Risso, as you’d expect. 

Batman is a character with so much range and potential for writers and artists to draw on - he wouldn’t have lasted 77 years if he wasn’t so adaptable and compelling. In yet another variation, Paul Dini uses the Dark Knight as a means of telling a very personal story that’s moving, powerful, and hopefully inspires and helps others in a similarly dark place to get themselves through it. A great book with a heroic message Batman would be proud of.

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