Paul Dini is a talented writer and lifelong fan of superheroes. He combined those two passions to become a screenwriter and comic book writer. His TV credits include “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Tiny Toon Adventures” and even “Lost.” With Bruce Timm, Dini created the character of Harley Quinn, an iconic Batman adversary coming to the big screen this summer in "Suicide Squad."
But Dini is also a crime victim. He was mugged and badly beaten in 1993, but the suffering he endured at the hands of others began well before that. As a child, he was regularly bullied, and from an early age, he would retreat into his imagination.
When Dini joined The Frame, he discussed his new graphic novel “Dark Night: A True Batman Story,” in which Dini writes about his childhood, his beating and his road to recover his self-esteem.
This book is really about an assault in 1993, but I want to talk about the assaults that preceded it. To me, those are as harrowing, if not even more harrowing, and they occurred when you were repeatedly and violently bullied as a child. Can you talk a little about what happened to you when you were a kid?
It just seems to have been something that happened that dovetailed with my first school experiences. I remember very vividly going to school, being very happy, and then just having guys there who were just out to make my life miserable.
I remember showing up one day with a toy that I'd gotten — I had sent in some cereal boxes and I'd got a stuffed toy — and I wanted to show it off to everybody at school. So I get there and the door's closing, and there was this one guy, I don't even remember who he was, but he stood outside and said, "You're not going in," and he knocked the toy out of my hand and closed the door and locked it. I couldn't get in, and I'm sitting there while he's smiling, and I went home crying that day. That might have been where it started.
How old were you?
Four? Four or five.
So you write in the book about becoming what you call "an invisible kid," and you illustrate a scene where there's a school bus and you're getting beaten up in the back of the bus. Can you read a little bit from this page of the graphic novel?
Sure. "So you get the idea. In order to survive, I devised this unique coping mechanism. I could put up with any sort of mindless torture in public, as long as I could let my imagination run wild in private."
It's a horrible way to get from point A to point B, but is it fair to say that the way in which you were treated and how you saw yourself as a child led you to become an artist?
Yes, definitely. And I think that, if there was anything healthy about that that I could teach myself, it was to direct that anger at something to create something positive. A lot of people grow up being bullied and they say, "I'm directing that anger at the people who bullied me, I want to get even, I want everyone to know how bad I feel."
It's wrong to become a bully yourself or to take it out on other people, and in my case, I just retreated to a place where I was safe. And that place was my imagination, books, and television.
And there was clearly something that meant a lot to you about Batman. By 1991, you're working on "Batman: The Animated Series," and you've worked on other Batman projects in the years since. What is it about Batman that really inspired you and attracted you to the character?
He was a character that had always been sort of around, and then suddenly the TV show and everybody's talking about it. I remember I really wanted to see the first episode, and my father, Bob Dini, was a singer in the '50s. He said, "Oh, I performed with this guy Frank Gorshin, and he's in this TV show tonight." But we didn't get channel 7 very well, so I had to go over to a friend's house, and I watched the show and saw Batman and the Riddler for the first time.
In those first episodes, Batman was really cool — he had the car, one of the henchwomen died in the episode, and it seemed like a fun world that was also darker than something like the "Superman" reruns I'd been watching in the afternoons. I enjoyed the character, but then I fell out of it, and the more they began making the show gaggy and campy, the less I watched it.
But a few years later, I was really gravitating toward the comics by Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil. I thought, Oh man, the character can be strong, powerful, dark, and mysterious. Why didn't they do this on TV? This would've been cool.
In the graphic novel, there are a lot of conversations that you relate with therapists, and what they're telling you to change in your life. And you generally don't listen. Does the act of writing this book serve as some sort of therapeutic event itself, even if it happened so many years after you were mugged?
Yes it does. When I told people I was writing the book, some people said, Why are you doing this? Is it some sort of therapy? Yes and no, but I also feel like it's a story I'd been thinking about a lot, and I think that I could tell it and maybe people would get something from it. It was kind of like ripping the lid off Pandora's box again — I had to deal with stuff that I'd internalized over the years. But once I took them out it was like, Yeah, this is still nasty, but I don't need this anymore. I was able to mentally clean house quite a lot while writing this.
When you were mugged, you were working on the animated movie, "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm." And after you were mugged, you find yourself essentially unable to write Batman stories, and in the introduction to the graphic novel, you write, "The last thing that made sense to me was to continue writing stories about a fantasy crimefighter." Why was that?
Because it was like a horrible joke. In these stories, there's some sort of justice that comes to the characters — either Batman is able to stop a criminal and bring them to justice, or that villain dies, perishes, or is defeated as a result of something they've done. And Batman's the mitigating presence, the one who brings justice. Justice is served because he's there.
In this case, it was like I couldn't write myself a happy ending out of this. I couldn't even write an ending to this, because everything I did after the attack — trying to get more information out of the police, trying to go to a couple help groups — was met with... there was no solution to it, nothing happened, nothing came of it. It was a bitter joke, like, OK, I have to write a happy ending for this guy? I have to tell an untruth, knowing that there was someone who was victimized and there won't be any help for him.
But then, through talking to other people and examining where my life was, and hearing how much people liked the things I'd worked on, it was like, Well, you're not doing this for yourself. You're doing this because it maybe helps someone else's day get a little better, so you should keep doing this.
One of the things I was most struck by in this novel is your relationships, which is probably too strong a word, with women you name Vivian and Regina. These are women you go out with, but it's clear they're not interested in you in the way you're interested in them. Can you read two pages of dialogue from the book for us? This is what you do to yourself after Regina decides not to attend an Emmys ceremony with you because it's not going to be televised.
Sure. Oh boy, OK. "She forced you to look at yourself as you really were. With all your imperfections and inadequacies laid bare. What does she see that she hated so much? At every place you saw imperfection, you left a little mark, confirmation of her judgment on you. Of course, she never really hated you; probably never liked you much either, but my guess is she rarely thought about you at all. Even that would have required too much emotional investment. The only hatred you experienced was from yourself, because in that moment, you looked at yourself and despised what you saw."
Can you describe the images that are on those pages?
Yeah. I'd gone to the Emmys with the crew of "Tiny Toon Adventures," and I had this date who basically blew me out of the saddle the day of the Emmys. I felt so miserable about myself and I'd idealized so much what I had felt this relationship was leading me to, that I took it out on myself. I stripped off my tuxedo, stood semi-naked in front of a mirror, and like I said, every time I saw something I didn't like or felt she didn't like, I took the wings of the Emmy and cut myself. In that moment, I was in love with the idea of bringing pain to myself and hurting myself as bad as I could for being a failure, for putting this image out there of someone perfect, and then I was the one who destroyed it for myself. So, you know, I look back on it, and it affects me to read the words more than it does to relive the event. Now I think the event is really kind of stupid and the person definitely not worth it, but I do empathize with that sad version of myself from years ago. Not only do I want to be more comforting to him, I just want to say, Schmuck! What the f---? Take that Emmy, put it on the shelf, be proud of it, and never think about it again. But at that point, I was a creature of my own imagination and taking it out on myself.
We should point out the nice postscript, which is that you're here with your lovely wife, Misty, so it all gets better. And I'm wondering now, is the point of this graphic novel that it all does get better?
I mean, I'm leaving here and going home and writing a Harley Quinn cartoon. So the more things change, the more they don't. I'm still doing it, but I'm doing it because it's fun, it's pleasurable, people enjoy it, and it's where I want to be at this moment.