Nearly 25 years ago, while at the height of his career, writer Paul Dini of Batman: The Animated Series fame was mugged and beaten nearly to death while walking home after a bad date. Nobody was there to save him, and on the painful, lonely road to recovery, he suddenly found it difficult to continue writing about the adventures of a hero that is always there when you need him most. It’s a fascinating premise for the new graphic memoir Dark Night: A True Batman Story, written by Dini with art by Eduardo Risso and letters by Todd Klein. Is it good?
Dark Night: A True Batman Story
I feel like I’ve been waiting my entire life for a memoir like Dark Night. Frankly, I was hoping that I could write one myself. When you think about a character like Batman as much as I do, that world becomes such a part of your personality that it would be difficult to properly talk about your life without talking about this make-believe thing that you love so much.
Alas, this review is about Paul Dini’s memoir, not mine, but by framing his story through the lens of his relationships with fictional characters, he endears himself to everyone else that, in one form or another, has some sort of relationship with fictional characters that gives them comfort and, in an odd way, keeps them sane.
Conversely, if you’re not a Batman fan, or generally don’t understand how people could take superheroes or even fictional characters in general so seriously, this book may enlighten you a bit.
Because here’s the thing: despite the literal shadows of Batman and The Joker on the cover, Dini’s story does not take place in the fictional world of Gotham City. The world of Dark Night is as real as that of Angela’s Ashes or any other memoir, which is to say that it takes place strictly within the bounds of our own world, even if some fictional characters make a few visits.
A large part of determining how much a memoir works can be determined by how much emotional honesty the reader can sense from the writer. Obviously, it’s impossible for me to tell what Dini may have omitted or embellished, but one does get the sense that this was a difficult story for him to retell, especially in the uniquely postmodern way that he chose to do it. I often ask myself, while reading memoirs, “would I be able to reveal something like that about myself in my own book?” The answer, several times throughout Dark Night, is no. Regardless of whatever other feelings I have about this book, that is the thing that I respect the most.
Yet even then, I hate to admit that there are times throughout the book in which I feel as if Dini holds back. I don’t mean that it feels dishonest, it’s just not always quite as raw as it seems that it could be. This is especially true of the way that he depicts real people in the book, including friends, family, and colleagues. A memoir doesn’t have to be a “tell-all” exposure of all the contempt that the writer has for the people in his life, but it doesn’t have to be reverential towards them, either.
Yet again, I don’t mean to give the impression that I don’t have an enormous amount of respect for what Dini has accomplished here. I also have to give some credit to the decision makers at DC comics for allowing this story to be told the way it is. This is far from the first time that the publisher has allowed a comic that addresses the inherent problems with superhero fiction to see the light of day, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that by the end of the book, Dini does circle back to explaining why the Batman franchise is indeed great. But if it weren’t for the fact that Dini has done wonders for DC through Batman: The Animated Series alone, I don’t know how much they would have trusted him to use their beloved, often rigidly defined characters for such a personal tale.
Similarly, it’s interesting to me that this comic really could have only been published through Vertigo. Obviously, only DC could have given Dini the rights to use their characters, but with the “mature readers” Vertigo imprint, it allowed the creators to tell a Batman story set far outside of the mainline DC universe.
I haven’t mentioned Eduardo Risso’s art yet, but it’s absolutely crucial to how much this comic works. The best word I can think of to describe it is “versatile.” Depending on the mood, content, and context of the scene, Risso’s style ranges from painterly and realistic to cartoonish and surreal. The fact that Risso inks and colors his work here by himself helps lead to a singular vision for this story, and the fact that he was able to collaborate so directly with Dini likely means that it’s as close to Dini’s vision as we are likely to get. No two scenes have the same color palette, and no two pages have the same layout. Dini, perhaps appropriately, is the star here, but there are few other artists that could have brought the writer’s story to life like Risso does.
Besides the logo design by Chip Kidd, the only other creative collaborator here is Todd Klein, and what’s to be said of him that hasn’t already been said? Like Risso, there’s a versatility to his letters when the scene or character calls for a different font, but Klein never overdoes it. Every letter he puts on the page seems appropriate and deliberate.
Dini may have been through a terrible ordeal, but he is a lucky man to have such wonderful people to collaborate with.
Is It Good?
Dark Night: A True Batman Story is the kind of memoir that I wish I had written first. But if someone else had to get to it before me, I’m glad that it’s this good.