For decades, Paul Dini has been one of the most respected names in animation. After all, he was part of the multiple time Emmy Award winning team that brought so many iconic DC characters to life through “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Batman Beyond,” “Justice League Unlimited” and more shows. But his life hasn’t been all fun and games. At Comic-Con International in San Diego, Dini emotionally recounted one of the most difficult nights of his life, the basis for his new graphic novel “Dark Night: A True Batman Story,” in which Dini and artist Eduardo Risso tell the tale of the night Dini was beaten almost to death by two assailants, and the struggle Dini faced during his long physical and mental recovery as he endeavored to find meaning in a world without Batman.
DC Comics VP of marketing John Cunningham opened the presentation with a shocking Risso illustration of a bandaged and bruised Dini recovering from reconstructive surgery. The illustration set the tone for what would be a personal and often brutally unflinching recollection recounted by Dini to a visibly moved audience. Cunningham juxtaposed the image of a broken Dini with a Risso drawing of Dini as a child. Describing himself as “an invisible kid,” Dini explained “people that become creative people… they have a hard time with communication or connecting with people, so I think early on there’s a denial of the self… Like a lot of kids, and many of you in this room, my imagination… was very vivid to me.”
It’s no secret that the World War II era “Superman” cartoons by animator Max Fleischer informs much of Dini’s work, and the animator recalled the first time he encountered these legendary adventure cartoons as a child. “I just thought, ‘This is stunning — why haven’t I seen these before? Why didn’t they do other heroes? Where’s Batman, where’s the Flash?'” It was these cartoons that made him, Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett and the rest of Warner Bros. Animation wonder, “What if we could make a powerful, noirish image of Batman?”
Discussing the search for “Dark Night’s” artist, Dini recalled, “When Shelly and I went over the list of artists for candidates for the book — it was a very short list. Eduardo was among the top three we were talking about… There was a quality to his work that I’d call ‘quiet violence’ that I really loved in ‘100 Bullets’ and some of his ‘Batman’ stories. In a lot of cases, I didn’t know what I was looking for, but Eduardo told me what I was looking for”
Dini confessed that he lived a rather empty life before the violent incident related in the book. “Back then, I defined my self-image largely by the people I knew and the things I had acquired” Asked how he now defines himself, Dini replied, “If not wiser, more aware of my past and mistakes I made. Maybe a bit more knowing of my past.”
Cunningham than showed Risso’s illustrations of Dini’s assault. “Eduardo caught everything that was in my mind… When I first saw them, I shrieked and put them aside for about a week… I can’t overstate Eduardo’s artistry on this book.” The praise for Risso continued when the pair shared the art that dramatically reveals the moment Dini first sees the damage done to his pulped face after the assault. Discussing the power of the page, Dini said, “I’m writing ‘Batman,’ and half my face is messed up, so naturally I think of Two-Face.”
The graphic novel also addresses how Dini handled the intense feelings of loneliness, desperation and fear that followed the assault. “The loneliness of it was what I was dealing with more than anything,” Dini admitted. “When I look back at my life at that time, part of me thought I had it pretty good. I was working in cartoons, I could go to Comic-Con, buy the Hal Jordan ring, I could buy animation cels. But at the end of the day, I come back to an empty apartment… and when I was broken, my world was broken.”
Cunningham then turned the discussion to what he called “the most shocking moment in the book,” a sequence where Dini revealed that he once committed a stunning and disturbing act of self-inflicted harm, slicing his torso to bloody shreds using the sharp edges of his Emmy Award. “I debated a long time whether I wanted to put this in the book,” Dini said. “I had a conversation with Alan Burnett, and he said, ‘That’s really powerful.’ I thought about it, and thought it was kind of the smoking gun I had to put in there as to why this guy would devalue himself so much, and when two people who really don’t care about him go after him, now you’ve really got something to cry about. Now, you’re a callow and selfish person. It boomerangs back, and you see yourself as someone who needs to be punished. At the time, I was lost in my own pathos, lost in my own drama, and I felt I had to work through it that way… I wrote the book because I’m well aware of people who take it out on themselves…and in some cases they take their own life… I wanted to show them that at some point you’ll probably laugh or forget it.”
One moment revealed in the book that would be of particular interest to Vertigo fans is when Dini recounts his desire to pen an episode of “Batman” featuring Neil Gaiman’s iconic Sandman and Death. “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a story where Batman stands between life and death?” Dini recalled wondering. “‘Sandman’ was very popular at the time… and I thought it would be cool to do a story of Batman as a symbol of terror for crooks and inspiration for others. I thought that would be a really good vehicle for Sandman and Death. I talked to Neil about it… At the time, it was something I wanted to do, but they didn’t want to do it in production… [‘Dark Night’] gave me a chance to talk about the incident, and tell what we might have done with this.”
Cunningham told Dini that in his mind, telling the autographical story was “heroic.” “I owe a lot to Misty for that” Dini said, referring to his wife, stage magician Misty Lee.
Cunningham then turned the panel over to questions. A fan asked how Batman inspired Dini to overcome his challenges after the assault. “To overcome any form of adversity,” Dini said. “To not give up, to not give up on yourself, your dreams, to not sequester yourself away from people, that’s the most important thing to do with your life. To be inspired by a real-life person or a person created in fiction, that’s the most amazing thing.”
The panel ended with the poignant question of: If Dini could confront the two people that attacked him, that hurt him so badly, what would he say to them?
“I forgive you.”
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