This year at San Diego Comic-Con, I was fortunate enough to have several amazing opportunities and experiences. A few (such as having drinks with Neil deGrasse Tyson and sitting front row center for the Star Trek press conference with William Shatner, Scott Bakula, Bryan Fuller, and so many more) stand out above the rest. But if pressed to name a highlight, my answer might be surprising: shaking Paul Dini’s hand and telling him, personally, what an inspiration he’s been.
Though I don’t write creatively for film and television, I do make a living (out in the real world and – to a much lesser extent – here online) wrangling words together, so most of my creative idols are writers. And Paul Dini is pretty darn near the top of that list.
Like many people working in comics and animation today, Paul got his start writing for many of the 80s cartoons that we geeks tend to prop up on a pedestal of nostalgia and revere through rose-tinted glasses: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Smurfs, Dungeons & Dragons, Droids, and Ewoks.
“Back then I defined my self-image largely by the people I knew and the things I had acquired.”
But it was his time with Warner Bros animation that really launched his career into another realm. Tiny Toon Adventures gave way to Batman: The Animated Series, and the rest – as they say – is history. Paul Dini and the animated DC universe of the early to mid 90s were basically one and the same. He wrote for the groundbreaking Batman show, which remains one of the best animated shows to ever be produced, as well as the feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, The New Batman Adventures, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League.
And this is just skimming the surface of his career. Because in the midst of all that, he also created a little character called Harley Quinn. You might’ve heard of her. And, more recently, he wrote the Arkham games.
Paul Dini is a legend.
“Good days and bad days. Like I said, good cartoons always help.”
So it was with much anticipation that I picked up his new book, Dark Night: A True Batman Story. The book is a graphic memoir about a specific event in his life – a random, terrible act of violence – and how that event affected his entire life.
In 1993, while he was working on Batman: The Animated Series, Dini was mugged and left for dead. Half of his face was essentially destroyed (“powdered on impact”), and he was left to make sense of the senseless. It was an intensely vivid imagination that guided him through childhood, when he felt like an invisible kid, and led to a successful Hollywood career that gave voice to some of the most well-known heroes and villains ever created.
It was that same imagination that helped him cope with and ultimately heal from that one night of senseless violence. Batman and his Rogue’s Gallery became fixtures in his life – not just on the pages he would write but also in the world around him. Some people might have the proverbial angel and devil on opposing shoulders when faced with a difficult decision; Paul Dini was faced with Batman, Batgirl, Joker, and Two-Face in the waking world.
His imagination went to what it knew best to help him survive.
“The same voice that tells us when we get beaten down, we can accept being a victim or choose to be the hero of our own stories. And we make that choice by standing up.”
The book certainly doesn’t pull any punches, and Dini lays it all out there. With the graphic (in both meanings of the world) retelling of the attack and its aftermath, Dark Night is ultimately a work of unparalleled bravery. It is a raw, honest account of a life spent in pursuit of material gain that Dini now sees as self-destructive and pointless. It is an unflinching, sometimes uncomfortable look at the darkest moments in a person’s life. It is required reading.
Paul Dini’s characters and words have been in my life for almost as long as I can remember. He’s been an indescribable inspiration on me and on countless others. Dark Night isn’t just a reminder of how fragile life is and how it can be irrevocably altered so quickly. It’s also beautifully illustrative of the redemptive and therapeutic power our creations can have.
“The woods are full of bears; the sky is filled with lightning. I can’t predict disasters but I won’t live in fear of them, either.”
So let’s return to Comic-Con. Generally speaking, I’m not really keen on waiting in long lines, but there was one Thursday afternoon panel I didn’t want to miss: a one-on-one conversation with Paul Dini. As expected, it was an amazing hour full of emotion and inspiration, and I left the panel enriched for the experience.
The following day, I attended a press breakfast sponsored by DC Comics. The room was full of creative superstars, such as Jim Lee, Gerard Way, Tom King, and Dan Didio. But it was Paul Dini, standing quietly in the corner, who made my geeky heart flutter.
I ignored the mild case of anxiety that was creeping up and made a point to go over and say hello. Not to geek out or be a fanboy or take a selfie (thankfully, I didn’t do any of those things) but just to say thank you.
Thank you, Paul Dini, for everything you’ve given us. You’ve been incredibly generous with your talents, and we’re all the richer for it. Thank you for sharing your stories – both those that bubble up out of your imagination and those real-life stories (no matter how painful) that help define who you are.
You’re an inspiration, and we’re lucky to have you.
“Batman may not swing to the rescue in real life, but maybe the few minutes people spend watching his cartoon makes their day a little better. It’s small, but it’s something. And if I can be a part of something like that, I don’t think I want to walk away from it too soon.”