Friday, July 29, 2016

Recommended Reading for 7/29: Dark Night: A True Batman Story

Paul Dini is a creator I've written about often. This guy writes exciting super hero stories for comics and TV, funny stories of wacky animals and equally funny fantastical people. And as he points out right at the top of his graphic memoir, Dark Night: A True Batman Story, this is none of those. Dini's graphic memoir centers around a brutal mugging he suffered in 1993, and the physical and emotional aftermath of the event. It's an uncompromising and sometimes harsh look at where Dini's life was at the time and where it has gone since. But in the end, there's hope, hope inspired by a vigilante who stands in Gotham City.

Throughout the prologue of sorts, the story of Dini's life until the main events of the main plot kick off, and as it continues, Dini talks to the characters he loves, be they Beanie and Cecil when he is at his youngest, to Batman and his rogues in the main story and into the present. I think any of us who grew up as lonely, weird kids, "invisible kids" as Dini calls them,can relate to these kind of imaginary friends, being easier to talk to and interact with than real people. It's an understanding of my own youth that drew me in and immediately got me to empathize with Dini

Narrated by a present Dini, the main story flashes back to Dini around Christmas time in 1993, He's living a good life, working on a hit show and preparing for a feature (the much loved Batman: Mask of the Phantasm), but a lonely one. It feels like most of his friends are people he's just sort of passing by, and his love life is full of would-be starlets that he's using as arm candy, and who are using him for possible connections in Hollywood. He works, he leaves a geeky life that many of us would envy, and he goes to therapy. This is his life.

The mugging scene is the center of the story, and is a singularly bleak and brutal sequence. Eduardo Risso, best known for his work with Brian Azzarello on 100 Bullets and Spaceman, whose art I'll discuss more later on, draws this scene with a brutality that may make some readers uncomfortable. And that's good, because it should. It's an act of violence without conscience, the kind of thing that we are often desensitized to in media, but here it's so stark that you wince when you see what's being done, and Dini's own thoughts, the thoughts of if he's going to survive, of the people he'll be leaving behind,make it all the more painful.

After the mugging, much of the story deals with Dini thinking about what it means to write Batman when he feels like the character doesn't matter. Where was Batman when he was being beaten? Where is Batman now that the police can't find the men who beat and mugged him. I appreciate a memoir that doesn't try to apologize for the person's behavior. Dini not only looks at the dark moments that happened after, the drinking, the thoughts about buying a gun so he can feel safe, the inability to work, with self-harm he had already perpetrated even before these events. It's painful to watch someone do these things to themselves.

It's through the classic Batman characters that Dini deals with what is going on in his mind. The Joker is. not surprisingly, the voice of a nihilistic sort of self destruction. Poison Ivy asks uncomfortable questions. The Scarecrow is the voice of fear. Penguin encourages a wanton self destruction through alcohol. Two-Face is what Dini sees in the mirror in his own broken face. They are a greek chorus of bad thoughts.

Now, all of this sounds pretty bleak. And a lot of it is. But there's hope in it too, and that hope is the voice of Batman, always encouraging Dini to get up and move on. I have always found Batman to be a hopeful character, no matter what dark trappings he is wrapped in. Because Batman took one of the greatest tragedies that any person could face, and he stood up. That image, that wording, that you have to stand up, is Dini's message. "We can accept being a victim or choose to be the hero of our own stories. And we make that choice by standing up." And watching Dini come around to that statement, one he makes at the very end of the book, by realizing that his cartoons matter to people, and why Batman matters to him and to others, it's what makes this book more than just an exercise in casting out personal demons: it makes it a statement of hope.

I've always liked Eduardo Risso's noir tinged pencils, between 100 Bullets and his work on Batman, both in Wednesday Comics, Flahspoint: Batman, and Broken City. His work here is slightly different. It runs a gamut of tones from more realistic to gritty street to surreal supervillains, all while maintaining Risso's trademark style. The colors soften and harden based on how deeply you are inside Dini's frequently damaged thoughts. I love how Risso draws the different Bat villains, from a very traditional Joker, to an Arkham Asylum inspired Scarecrow with the finger needles, to a Penguin halfway between the classic and the vision from Batman Returns. But it's his illustrations of Dini himself, the facial work and body language, that really jumped out at me. There are plenty of heavy shadows and sharp angles, stuff Risso is known for, but it's in the faces and the character work that he really shines in this book, and where Risso shows himself to have whole different layers than the crime artist he is best known to be.

There's a lot more that I could say about this book, but much of it is details that I'd like for you to discover yourself as you read it. I loved seeing Dini interact with his fellow writer and artists on Batman: The Animated Series, and his comment that the story of the produciton of that series deserves its own graphic novel is something I'd love for him to swing back to at some point. It's interesting to see that one particular character, the one Dini is most associated with, Harley Quinn, only makes her first appearance at the very end of the book, but it feels right, as it's only when Dini sort of comes back to himself that Harley, who is so filled with joy and zeal, can talk to him again (although Haroley's voice actress, Arleen Sorkin, appears as one of Dini's few close friends repeatedly in the book).

Also, as a fanboy, I have to point out there are some wonderful nuggets for the Batman fan, despite this not being a book about Batman in the fictional story sense. There's a tidbit about an initial thought on Joker's fate in the world of Batman Beyond that is chilling. And there's a three page scene that reveals a treatment for an episode of Batman: The Animated Series that never was, one featuring characters from The Sandman, that I don't want to spoil any more about it, but wow, I would love to have seen this animated, and if not, Mr. Dini, if you're reading this, that would make a heck of a one-shot, I'm just saying.

Batman means a lot to me, personally. He's been my friend, my confidant, and my inspiration for many, many years. And it makes me feel a kinship to Paul Dini that he has done the same thing. Dark Night is a book about finding hope and standing up. It's one of the best graphic memoirs I've read in a long time, a mix of fact and fantasy that takes full advantage of the medium, and a worthy addition to anyone's Batman library.

Dark Knight: A True Batman Story is available in hardcover at comic shops and wherever books are sold.

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