Spotlight On: Paul Dini

Paul Dini HeadshotPaul Dini is an Emmy Award winning comic book writer and producer behind familiar works like Batman: The Animated Series and Tiny Toon Adventures. After he was traumatically jumped and beaten while walking home one night, Dini courageously decided to use his experience as inspiration for a new Batman story. Dark Night: A True Batman Story is an autobiographical tale that incorporates the world of superheroes and villains to tell the story of Dini’s terrifying experience and valiant recovery. Keep reading to find out some exclusive details from Dini himself!

Q: DARK NIGHT is a big shift from some of your other work, and it’s your first Vertigo title. How was writing this autobiographical graphic novel different than writing your other types of graphic novel works like the Harley Quinn books or the Zatanna OGN, or even Batman: The Animated Series

A: It took me a long time to wrap my thinking around how I was going to tell this story. I’d never told a personal story in quite this way. I’ve used elements of my life or my background or personal experiences in other stories and kind of cloaked them in a Batman adventure or another character’s experience, but this was the first time I’ve actually taken something from me—something that had been with me for a long time—and sort of pulled it out of the recesses of my mind. I realized I couldn’t tell the story exactly the way that I would—a Batman story—that it had to be more free flowing than that. I had to kind of set the rules up front that I was both talking to characters of my imagination, as well as the reader, as well as be kind of aware that I’m in a comic book.

Once I got the rhythm of it down, I found it challenging to maintain that; but, it was a lot of fun to tell a story like that. I’ve read a lot of comic book stories and graphic novels that have been from the creator’s point of view—such as the work of Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb and a few others who make themselves sort of the narrator of their story—and once I got into it I found that I could do it, too. It allowed me a certain freedom to tell the story the way I wanted to, and in a way that I felt engages the reader and makes them a part of the action.

Q: You said something interesting there: that you’ve used a lot of personal experiences and anecdotes and things like that in your work. This story is about you, but it’s also centered around a traumatic event that’s happened to you. How has that developed your approach to your fiction writing? Did that have any direct effect?

A:  I guess what I was looking to do was take the true incidents that happened and put them in a narrative that worked for the format that I was dealing with. And it’s the true story in that the events are true and the people are true, but I did use a certain shorthand here and there, and it’s not a by-the-numbers document of what happened. It’s not like I wrote down a diary and wrote down every incident that happened within that period. Some things had to be dropped out or changed slightly or reworked in order to conserve the narrative flow of the highlights of the event.

There’s a scene where I’m talking to the police at the sight of the mugging later that night, which was an actual incident that happened that disseminates a lot of information to the reader. A friend of mine read the book and he said, “I’m not in the book! And I went with you another night after that to the mugging site and we drove around and talked about it.” He wasn’t really upset that he wasn’t in the book. We talked about it, too, and I said, “Yeah, I know, and I wanted to put that in there, but I’d already given that information to the reader during the scene with the cops.” I had to sort of use a sort of shorthand there in order to bring in new elements that told the story, and leave out some of the true life things that happened because I was going over the same information. I didn’t want it to just be a string of people that I had told the events to, because that would get repetitive and by the third time the reader would have gone, “Yeah, I know what happened and we saw it happen—why’s he talking about it again?” So, that’s where I had to use a little bit of  shorthand.

Q: How long after the events of the graphic novel did you actually get the idea to write the book or start to jot down an outline?

A: I did jot down some notes at the time. I had been in therapy at that time and my therapist said that it would be helpful to just write down a few thoughts; and I did, which kept a lot of the incident straight in my head. Also, it was such a vivid experience that there’s no way I could forget that. I talked to my sister, my friends and the people I turned to for some comfort around that time, so it wasn’t like I wanted to forget the whole thing. I would pull it out of my memory at times and go over it.

It had always been in the back of my mind that maybe I’ll tell this story someday, and I was on the fence: should I tell the story? How should I tell the story? Should I just forget the whole thing and continue on with my life? And it wasn’t until about four years ago—my wife Misty and I were appearing on Kevin and Jennifer Smith’s podcast, which they call the SModcast. We’re good friends with them—they had us over because they were doing a podcast that they hosted themselves and while we were talking, Kevin said, “Tell me about the mugging.” And I was kind of surprised because I didn’t think he knew about that. He’s a very incisive interviewer and I said, “You want to hear about that?” And he said, “Yeah, tell me about it.” So I went over some of the details with him and after we were done he said, “If that had happened to me, I never would have left my apartment.” I said, “Yes, you would have.” And he goes, “No, I don’t think I could have.” And I’m looking at this guy—you know, a film director who’s done incredible work and who is very brave in a lot of ways and I thought, maybe things like this happen all the time and maybe they just do crush people’s spirits and maybe there are a lot of people out there who had gone through this and whose lives have gone into turnaround as a result—and maybe that makes my story worth telling. Because if it shows how this one guy got through it, maybe that will be inspiration for somebody else.

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Shortly thereafter I met with Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns and I pitched them the idea and Dan went for it in a big way—they both did, and they were both very supportive of it. Shelly Bond got on board and I told her what the story was and she just really seemed to gravitate to it; and Dan really wanted the story to be told, so that started the process about three or four years ago. It was a long process to get going, because they’d never really done a story like this. What I wanted to do was a sort of exploration of a writer’s mind and going through the creative process—especially somebody who is also a cartoonist, who tends to deal in larger than life situations and hyperbole and really bring the Batman world into his consciousness to show how a creator—at least in my case—deals with the characters running around in his head. And the characters had to be who they are in the comics and in the animated series in order for that idea to work, and that took some doing. It took some doing for us to work it out with DC and to get the tone right and the story right and work out a few details about how the characters were going to be presented. But everybody felt it was worth doing, and I wanted to really honor the characters and make them pretty much what they are in the comics—not change them much and not do a behind-the-scenes look at what they’re like when they’re not on stage. It’s really me in their world, with myself dealing with them as I see them in their most vivid roles.

Q: In terms of writing this graphic novel, was your hope more—as you said—to kind of explore that bad things happen to good people, or bad things happen to people all the time and how these traumatic events affect their lives? Was that your hope when you wrote it, or was it to more to work through your own issues with it in a therapeutic way?

A: I think it was a bit of both. Without being too cavalier, it’s like—here’s this guy who starts off fairly smug and callow and living like he wants to, and then he gets upset in a way and he’s faced with a choice: do I retreat and try to build up what was essentially a life that suited me, or do I try to get out and be part of the bigger world? So I think it works as one person’s story, but I think it also shows that everybody has problems, everybody is faced with choices—whether they’re going to be a victim or try to get back on their feet. And I think those stories are worthwhile regardless of who they come from. You could be a regular person; you can be a politician or a soldier or something—everybody’s got a story to tell. I think people get inspiration from all sorts of different people and there’s a spirit of, “Hey, if he can do it, I can do it.” I wanted it to be inspirational; I wanted it to be a shout out to people who might be at a crossroads in their life, and who could read it and get some entertainment from it but also say, “There’s a little something for me in here.”

Q: We want to talk about Eduardo Risso for a second because his stuff in this book is some of his best work we’ve ever seen. When did he join up in this process, and how did his contributions to the book impact your creative process?

A: There are countless contributions and what he gave to the book is immeasurable in terms of tone and storytelling. There was a shortlist of [artists] we had discussed early on and he quickly rose to the top of the list. It was very important that—as much as I love the animated style and the look of the work of the Warner Bros. cartoons—I didn’t want that to be present in the story except in little snatches here and there, like times when I’m watching TV or it just happens to be in the background, because I didn’t want this to look like a foray into that world. I felt like there had to be a visual delineation between the real world and the cartoon world, and I felt that Eduardo’s take on that captured it perfectly. There’s also a sense of drama and character in a lot of his work that I was hoping to get. There’s what I call a kind of “silent violence” in a lot of his 100 BULLETS stuff, where you’ll see something incredibly shocking happen, but it’s almost like a very quiet still image of something horrific. It’s not like a Jack Kirby “BANG!” explosion—it’s more like someone in silhouette falling over after they’ve been shot. I pinned up a lot of his artwork to inspire me—I’d written most of the story, but then I went back once I knew he was coming on board and I tailored a few scenes that I knew he’d bring a lot of life to. Once I knew he was going to be a part of it, I structured some of the scenes with an eye toward how I thought he would approach it, and he always surprised me. He always got what I was going at, but always in a more striking and more dramatic way than I could have ever imagined.

Dashes

Are you inspired by the way Dini handled his experiences? Share your feedback in the comments below, or feel free to shoot us a tweet!

DON’T MISS YOUR CHANCE TO WIN!

We are giving away a copy of Dark Night: A True Batman Story!

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  • After you’ve finished the Q&A, share the link on Twitter!
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