Trauma comes in a variety of forms, sometimes more mental than physical, often very much a blend of the two. Regardless it is never easy to process privately, let alone share with others. That daunting task, though, is exactly what Paul Dini set out to do in his original graphic novel, Dark Knight: A True Batman Story. In the 90s, Dini was the victim of a random beating from two young men. While technically a mugging, as portrayed by Dini and artist Eduardo Risso, the robbery element seems almost an afterthought. The focus of the crime is very much the vicious glee with which they attack Dini. By simply telling the tale of his assault and recovering, Dini would have had a naturally poignant story. Instead, he deepens it further by placing the incident in the larger context of his life, not sparing any of his own character defects along the way. At the same time, he weaves his own story into the world of his beloved Batman. In the process, he creates a compelling narrative about his experience and how the colorful characters of Gotham helped him process it.
Dini dates his interactions with Batman, as most fans do, to his childhood. A chance encounter with a Batman comic at a barber shop sparked an interest soon inflamed by the 60s television show. Dini recounts how he was fascinated by every aspect of Batman’s “world. The gadgets, the vehicles, the villains!” Still he found himself returning again and again to the comics. He devoured the them, losing himself in their world. Dini refers to himself as “the invisible kid,” an idea Risso illustrates by rendering the young Dini as the loosest of sketches, only adding color when the child is shown living in his imagination. In one striking panel, Risso portrays Dini coming home from school to find his room full of his heroes from James Bond to Superman to the inhabitants of the worlds of Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carrol. In such a way, he coped with the tribulations of bullies by withdrawing further within himself.
All of this love of fantasy spurred Dini to become a writer himself. After college, he found employment at Warner Brothers, first working on Tiny Tunes, then on the now iconic Batman: The Animated Series. Fans of the show will enjoy some of the behind the scenes glimpses of scripting the series, including work on the feature film spin-off Mask of the Phantasm. Explaining how the show was made is not Dini’s intention in showing such scenes. Instead he is giving a glimpse of his own mindset at the time. The animated series is a success winning both respect (i.e. Emmys) and ratings. In addition, Dini is well compensated. Yet, despite all this, traces of the invisible kid remains. He has a habit of attaching himself to women who string him along without any hope of a serious relationship. The latest is Vivian a young, pretty, careerist actress who berates Dini about introducing her to Steven Spielberg. Even after one particularly humiliating dinner, Dini remains unable to standup for himself despite all the signs clearly before him. In his mind, Poison Ivy hisses “At least I kiss a guy before I kill him.” Ignoring the insults, the invisible kid soldiers on, rolling with the punches.
Still all of that aggression needs to go somewhere and Dini ends up internalizing it. He wallows in self-pity while wandering through the Los Angeles night, Risso’s deep purple sky matching his mood. When the attack occurs, Risso emphasizes the sudden, directness of the assault. Without any provocation, the perpetrators pummel Dini with fists and vulgarity. One moment Dini is walking, the next he is being beaten bloody. Risso illustrates not only how vicious the attack is but how helpless Dini feels. By the end, Dini is curled up in a fetal position, his bloody hands desperately covering his face, as he expects to be shot dead any minute. Only the threat of gunshots turns out to be empty words leaving Dini alive to stumble home. The final twist of the knife comes as the reminder that “when I finally reached home . . . no one would be there to [see me and] say ‘Oh my God!’”
Dini unpacks the trauma of the assault gradually, relating how his mind went through different phases. For each step, there was a different Gothamite there to offer sympathy or derision. Harvey Dent/Two-Face lectures him on Vivian’s duplicity. Pre reconstruction surgery, The Scarecrow feeds Dini’s fear of needles, effectively reinforced by Risso’s eerie addition of needles to the tips of Crane’s fingers. Batgirl shares an elevator with Dini telling him “I’ve had worse.” Whether this is a reference to the general hazards of crime-fighting or the specifics of The Killing Joke is left unclear.
However, there is a moment later in the book when the Joker’s gleefully plea for nihilism hints at Alan Moore’s famous “Why aren’t you laughing” speech from Killing Joke. In fact, the Joker prods Dini in a similar way, he goads Batman in Moore’s story. When Dini admits that there is release in temporarily viewing the world through The Clown Prince’s distorted eyes, the Joker tries pushing him further. Why stop at only brief glimpses of the insanity when the artist can fully embrace his perspective; after all, crows the Joker, “I have always been a generous muse.” Dini firmly rebukes the villain, insisting that such attitudes lead not to strength but confused sorrow. The Joker lends a way to understanding the darker side of life, which includes the violence Dini suffered. It is hardly an example, though, for how to overcome it.
For that, Dini turns to The Dark Knight himself. Batman reoccurs throughout the graphic novel, trying to motivate in his typical brusque manner. His voice is stern, demanding, yet, has much truth within it. At first, Dini wants nothing more to do with his childhood hero, refusing to see what relevance some idealized masked vigilante has to Dini’s own experience with crime. (One motif that runs through the second half of the book is how blasé the LAPD are about doing even the most basic detective work to track the assailants). Gradually he learns how Batman not only gives him strength, but through Dini’s scripts provides solace for others coping with suffering. Batman’s voice reminds fans that “we can accept being a victim or chose to be the hero of our own stories. And we make that choice by standing up.”
Dini’s script is full of difficult material, yet Risso rises to the occasion throughout the graphic novel. His barebones approach of leaving the backgrounds sparse suits the story well. In the place of objects, he fills the scene with evocative colors which heighten the emotion of the moment. His style also allows for focusing on details such as Dini’s shattered glasses laying in the grass after the attackers have departed. For all the analytic concepts running through the graphic novel, Risso keeps the emotions front and center. The reader never feels less than engaged with the story and much of the credit for that goes to Risso’s smoothly flowing artwork.
At the same time, Dini deserves praise for his clear-eyed script. This is a comic book, after all, and like the best of them, words and art blend together seamlessly. It is also a comic book which comments on the medium’s power. These characters have remained iconic over the decades because they resemble mythic figures of the past. They speak to our primal fears, while also offering inspiration for how to overcome them. Batman/Joker, self-confidence/self-pity, these are among the personal conflicts that Dini uses as the groundwork for his True Batman Story. The result is a striking exploration of how trauma can be confronted and overcome.