How Batman Saved the Life of a DC Comics Legend: 5 Questions With Paul Dini

Marcus Errico
Editor-in-Chief, Yahoo Entertainment
‘Dark Night’ recounts writer Paul Dini’s struggle to recover from a horrific attack. (Vertigo Comics)

Paul Dini has a mantle full of Emmys for a TV-writing career that has included such shows as Tiny Toon Adventures, G.I. Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Star Wars: The Clones Wars, and even ABC’s Lost. But he’s revered for his work expanding the Batman universe, first on the seminal Batman: The Animated Series, where he famously created the character of Harley Quinn, and later with DC Comics. His most recent graphic novel, however, is not fantasy — it’s the harrowing account of a brutal mugging that left Dini a broken man… and how the characters in his mind, led by the Caped Crusader, helped pulled him back from the brink.

Related: The Secret History of Harley Quinn—a Brief Oral History by Paul Dini

Illustrated by Eduardo Risso and published by DC imprint Vertigo, Dark Night: A True Batman Story is uncompromising in its depiction of Dini’s depression, his inability to work or go out in public, his reliance on alcohol as a crutch, and his imagined conversations with Joker, Penguin, and other members of Gotham’s rogues gallery taking the writer to dark places. Ultimately, though, it’s a version of Batman who, along with intense therapy, manages to rouse Dini from his depths. The writer recently met with Yahoo Movies in an office at DC headquarters, where he discussed the attack, his struggle to regain his life, and which of those comic-book characters still pop up in his head.

This book gives a very unflinching portrayal of what you went through. Was there ever any hesitation in putting yourself out there so candidly?

I knew I was going to open myself up, and I feared I was going to get a fair amount of derision from peers. It’s almost like stage fright: “What if they’re going to boo at me.” But some of them are going to boo and some of them are going tease [me] over this, but f**k it. Like I say in the book, if I let what people say bother me that much I would never have become a writer. As a writer you’re your own worst enemy. You have to fight your fear. This is something I had to say.

Memory is so visual — is that why you decided to tell Dark Night as a graphic novel?

I never thought I could tell this as a prose story. It wouldn’t have the same impact. I’m a very visual person, with a career in animation and comics. I thought, “Why not tell this story visually, why not illustrate the story?” And the graphic novel format was perfect. It would bring out everything I was hoping the readers would feel.

I don’t think I could have described the mugging as in prose as dynamically, as eloquently as Eduardo rendered it. It was so dramatic that when I first saw the pages, I shrieked and closed the book and couldn’t look at the file for a week. I just couldn’t look at it. But it had that emotional impact for me. I thought if I could look at this and burst into tears then it has the effect I want it to have. It’s really going to convey what I went through and the impact the incident had on me to readers.

Related: The Evolution of Harley Quinn—From Sketch to Screen Queen

It’s like I’m telling the story to friends and I make the point at the end, when I say I tell the story occasionally just to see what I’ve learned and where I’ve come from so I don’t forget what happened. And maybe if someone else is going through something similar, I can tell them not to block it out, not to be in denial. You don’t have to be ashamed of it.

Dark Night Interior (Vertigo)
Dark Night Interior (Vertigo)
Dark Night Interior (Vertigo)
Dark Night Interior (Vertigo)

Did it take long to write or did the story pour out of you?

It was something I almost had to wrench out, like pulling a tooth. I started back in 2011, and the actual scripting took about two years. There were times I didn’t think I could tell the story. We would pause and I’d walk away from it. Yet Shelly Bond, my editor, never let me give up on it. My wife, Misty Lee, told me to keep doing it, if only for the sake of having peace in the house. There were times I would walk around the house at 2:30 in the morning, crying or banging my fist feeling like I couldn’t write it.

The beating I wrote very fast. I remembered all the elements for that and I wrote it for an action sequence…

The hardest part was the therapy stuff. The part where I’m talking to the villains at the end, summing up. And also figuring out how I wanted to tell the story in regards to any feelings of closure that I had. I had to really examine that. The first time I wrote it there was a lot of anger in there, a lot of anger directed toward the attackers. And I ultimately realized that they’re not an element in this — they’re almost like a force of nature. They could be an attacking bear or a flood or an earthquake. It’s not about them, it’s about how I’m recovering from them. I realized I didn’t have anger toward them, I had anger toward myself. That was really the cathartic moment. It was more making peace with myself, than making peace with strangers.

Batman obviously isn’t real, but your internal conversations and conflict with him really helped your recovery…

Batman is eternal, or at least he has been for the last 70, 80 years or so. He is a wonderful character and his is a wonderful world for creative people to embrace and bring things from their own experience into that world, both for Batman and the villains.

Eduardo’s version of Batman is great. Stoic, uncompromising. The dad we don’t want to admit we need. Almost like a drill sergeant. He’s concerned about you, but not to the point where he’s going to say, “old chum” or “buddy buddy.” He knows that you need an ass-whupping to get back on your feet again.

All these years later, do you still talk to characters in your head? If so, are there any in particular?

All the time. It’s whoever I’m writing at the time. I was writing a short cartoon with Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. I took an afternoon off and in my head I was flashing back, seeing them in my office saying to each other, “When is he coming home?” “I don’t know.” “Let’s rob the place.”

Paul Dini, now in a much better head space. (Photo: Alan Weissman)

Watch Margot Robbie talk about her Harley Quinn get-up in ‘Suicide Squad’: