Paul Dini has done a lot for Batman. He wrote for “Batman: The Animated Series”
and “Batman Beyond.” He worked in comics, writing classic stories about
Zatanna, Black Canary, and Batgirl. He even invented one of today’s most
recognizable villains, Harley Quinn. His writing is mature and thoughtful in
all the right places–rare qualities in a medium that’s often dismissed as
fodder for the imagination of little boys.
Having disclosed my bias, it should come as no surprise that I was psyched to
read Dark Night: A True Batman Story. Here is a comic book about Dini’s
recovery from a brutal mugging, where in order to cope with the trauma, he
imagined conversations with the characters from the comics.
That’s all I knew going in to it, and I expected something similar to the 2018
movie, Welcome to Marwen. The premise isn’t quite so entrenched, though; Dini
never depicts himself as delusional. Instead, he uses the characters as a
vehicle for self-reflection. He jumps between addressing the reader directly
and working through his trauma in conversation with the likes of Batman, Bruce
Wayne, Poison Ivy, and Scarecrow. In a bit of subtle fan service, artist
Eduardo Risso renders these characters in more than one style, referencing
distinctive eras in their decades-long history. Think “Adam West’s Batman,” or
“the Animated Series’ Joker.”
That combination of fantasy and introspection might sound pretty niche or even
insufferable. It it were told by a typical Batman fan like me, it probably
would be. What saves Dark Night from droll fanatical escapism is Dini’s
uniquely personal relationship with the characters. There’s a certain dynamic
to those imaginary friendships, where Dini values the inspiration he receives
from the characters, and they recognize his role as their voice.
“Huh. Two scars. Two crummy little scars. I can barely see them. After all
that whimpering, you’ll get no sympathy from me.”
“If I did, you wouldn’t be much fun to write, Harvey.”
It’s not a total head trip, though. Conversations with family, caregivers, love
interests, and coworkers help to keep the book grounded. A little bit, anyway.
Unfortunately, one of those exchanges includes a kind of jarring moment. As a
story of trauma and recovery, Dark Night is necessarily distressing. But when
a Black coworker essentially apologizes for all Black people (one of the
assailants was Black), Dini unintentionally slips into racist rhetoric. His
choice to include the conversation feels like a well-intentioned attempt at
solidarity, but the subtext is that a group can somehow be responsible for a
bad actor based solely on their physiology. It’s a rare sour note for a story
so focused on emotional sensitivity.
Paul Dini tells a deeply personal and distressing story. Batman fans will have
no trouble accepting the appearance of the Caped Crusader in this context, of
course. The bigger challenge comes from winning over folks who aren’t used to
thinking of comics as serious
Dini’s polished execution goes a long way, but that’s not all there is to it. A
story like this can very easily feel indulgent and self-involved, cartoon
characters or no. The lessons from the terrible experience (combined with a
liberal use of self-deprecation) save Dark Night from that fate. The
conclusion may not be as cohesive as an issue of Detective Comics, but that
just makes it feel more authentic.