One night while walking home from a dinner date, Paul Dini was mugged and beaten within an inch of his life. Twenty-three years later, he decided to turn the story of the attack, his life at the time, and eventual recovery into a graphic novel with art from someone who is no stranger to Batman’s adventures (or worthwhile collaborations with Brian Azzarello), Eduadro Risso. The end result is alternately frightening, funny, indulgent, and life-affirming. It’s a bizarre mix of tones and styles that shouldn’t work when combined in one volume. I think the reason Dini and Risso are able to get away with it is because they know how to modulate them.
We see this in the beginning as Dini frames the story as an informal recounting of his story to a mounted handheld camcorder. He talks about his life growing up where his vivid imagination brought the characters he was most familiar with in books, comics, and cartoons to life. This leads him to a very successful job later in life at Warner Bros. Animation, working on “Tiny Toon Adventures,” and “Animaniacs,” before joining the project that would define his professional career: “Batman: The Animated Series.”
Dini’s vivid imagination also provides the central narrative conceit of this story as Batman and all of his A-list villains show up at various points to offer their distinctive brand of commentary on his life. Batman/Bruce Wayne is the voice of reason and determination that eventually gets the writer off of his ass and back job at work. The Joker offers mean-spirited yet funny observations regarding Dini’s love life and friendly (for a given definition of the term) encouragement to wallow in self-pity after his attack. Poison Ivy, Riddler, and Penguin also show up to offer their two cents at a given moment. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, but one that’s cleverly used and written. It only starts to feel indulgent when Dini brings out Mr. Freeze to comment on emotional detachment for a couple of panels. Or has Harley Quinn show up for bit at the end, because of course she has to be here. He created her after all.
Indulgence is a key part of this story as well since it’s not just about the mugging. Aside from the bits we get about Dini’s early years and time at Warner Bros. Animation a great deal of time is also spent on what was the sad nature of his love life at the time. Some of this is necessary for the story and his character, but I really don’t think we needed to know that he sliced himself up with the Emmy he won for “Tiny Toons” out of despair for his self-image regarding the opposite sex. Even if such an image is leavened with the knowledge that he had to go in for a tetanus shot afterwards. Most disappointing is the fact that after all this talk about the women in his life he didn’t get, we only get a passing mention of the fact that Dini is now happily married with a kid. Then again, I’m sure his wife had something to say to the man himself about this.
Other indulgences in “Dark Night” are far less maudlin and actually entertaining. Seeing Risso illustrate Dini’s attempts to get a girlfriend as a “Road Runner” cartoon is definitely fun and inspired. Also, the writer’s pitch for an episode of “Batman: TAS” involving Morpheus and Death was awesome. It’s disappointing that it never came to be, but maybe if the right person at Warner Bros. reads this…
As fun as these diversions are, they don’t really have any relevance to the core narrative involving Dini’s attack and recovery from it. This is the most interesting material in the volume, from the harrowing nature of the assault, as the stark shadowy art from Risso really drives home its harrowing nature and the writer’s own feeling that he was going to die. The self-pity and depression that Dini sinks into afterwards is also palpable and fully articulated thanks to the commentary from the “guest stars” here. His recovery also works because we see that it was more than just Batman telling him to feel sorry for himself, Dini also had to fall a little further before he could pick himself back up again.
All of this is good, and I wish that more time had been spent on it. “Dark Night” is ultimately a worthwhile tale of recovery, but one that rambles and goes down several paths that aren’t that relevant to the story it’s telling. It’s a credit to the talent of Dini and Risso that most of these digressions are still interesting and entertaining. I’d like to read the story of the creation of “Batman: TAS” that the writer touches upon here from the same creative team. Assuming that it can be done with more focus than what they demonstrate here.