Recently, Warner Brothers got around to re-releasing Batman: the Animated Series, this time remastered in glorious HD. Heck, after a week or two, they even managed to upgrade the digital copy to HDX as well. BTAS is a high water mark, not only for super-hero cartoons, but for animation in general. What with the holidays approaching, Batman: The Complete Animated Series makes a great gift, albeit an expensive one. It is glorious and worth the price of admission.
If you have a Batman fan in your life who grew up with the animated series, but you’re not quite ready to drop the hundred bucks to get the blu ray set (or if they already have the cartoons), allow me to make another suggestion: Dark Knight: A True Batman Story by Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso.
Fair warning: Unlike the animated series, which dealt with mature fare occasionally on a level that could be appreciated by adults and kids simultaneously, this is one of the only Vertigo (more mature) Batman stories out there, and a certain maturity level is required to deal with some of the darker elements of the tale. Just because it’s Batman doesn’t mean it’s safe for the kiddos. So why would I use BTAS as a starting point for the discussion? Because the writer, Paul Dini, also wrote for Batman: The Animated Series, and this book focuses on a period of his life where he was working on the cartoon, only to be mugged on his way home. He then uses the Batman characters to simultaneously aid and impede his recovery from some pretty catastrophic injuries.
Before I travel too far into the inner workings of the book, I want to make sure Eduardo Risso gets the proper credit for his art in this original graphic novel published in 2016. Too often, it’s easy to forget how talented artists are once they settle into their own particular style. Risso shows off his plethora of talents as he flows effortlessly through a multitude of styles in this series, ranging from the cartoony to the photorealistic, to the comic-based art we know and love. Without Risso’s formidable talent and his ability to switch so quickly and effectively, this story wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.
The reason I wanted to get that out of the way that the superb art isn’t the draw in this story: it’s Dini’s personal tale. Paul Dini is famous for being one of the better writers in animation (Tiny Toons, BTAS), comics (his Detective Comics run is sublime), or video games (he’s responsible for the story work in the critically acclaimed Batman: Arkham series of games). Here, he gets deeply personal, warts and all, in a tale that focuses primarily on his recovery from the mugging, but also goes back to his childhood and into the present day as well.
- Ha! Dignity!
What makes the story so relatable is the way that Dini falls back on fictional creations to reveal various aspects of his personality. Instead of angels and devils on his shoulder, he has Two-Faces or Jokers or Batmans to prod him along and provide that inner monologue we experience through our day.
- We get it, Batman. You’re not helping.
What makes the story so dark is how much of Dini’s soul he lays bare in this tale, from the brutality of the mugging and his coming to grips with his own inaction, or even revisiting some acts of self-harm that Dini holds against himself. He really doesn’t hold back on any of the gory details of self doubt or loathing or loneliness that come along the way. It’s bad enough to make a mistake, it’s even worse when you have Batman giving you the business because of it. It’s the absolute worst when all you have is Batman because of your life choices. Dini seems especially hard on himself as he comes to grips of his choices as a young man, critiquing his choice of romantic interests and hobbies and escapes and everything else.
That’s before the big traumatic and random mugging happens.
From there, Dini is forced to deal with choices he didn’t make so much as have them thrust upon him. So much of being a functional adult, especially after a period of trauma, is coming to grips with our choices and life decisions. Watching Dini work that out through the personification of these characters that live in his head even more than they live in the heads of his fans–it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and fascinating. I imagine many folks out there are like me, and they use the fantastic elements of cartoons or comics as an escape from reality. Poor Dini can’t escape the fiction, let alone the reality of his situation. When his love life is revealed for what it is, Poison Ivy is there to rub salt in the wound.
When he falls into a drinking problem, the Penguin is there running the bar.
When he falls into hopelessness, it’s the Joker encouraging him to stay on the couch until he feels better.
- Ok, I guess you are helpful sometimes, Batman.
When he has to face his irrational fear of shots, who shows up, but the ole’ Scarecrow.
Even when dealing with the police and how they handle the crime scene, Dini has to deal with a Batman, who would have dusted for prints, by the way. Of course, Batman also would have used a judo toss or two to easily deal with his attackers instead of suffering what Dini had to suffer. Stupid holier than thou, Batman.
- He’s still not the world’s greatest detective when it comes to feelings.
Quick side note: Years ago when I lived elsewhere, we had a break-in at my apartment. Nobody was hurt, thank goodness, and my dog didn’t even bother to wake up. Still, I was shocked and appalled how much the police force in reality is not like Batman. They didn’t dust for prints, cross-reference serial numbers of the stolen goods in some super-smart computer, or any of that. There were no utility belts. They didn’t stand vigil above my apartment at night with their capes flapping in the wind. They told me to check in with our renters’ insurance and possibly check the local pawn shops for signs of our missing stuff. They were going to be busy with other more pressing matters, basically. It was very anticlimactic from what I was expecting. Reality can be that way, I guess.
Still, Dini is pressed after the crime to recover, both physically and mentally. He has to confront his fears (they have his wallet; they know where he lives!), and misgivings (super heroes don’t matter! How can he tell stories he doesn’t believe in?) and self-loathing (he deserved this and more!)….and get back to work. Spoiler alert: He does. He finds some friends (both real and imagined), and he finds the strength that he needs to set his life back on track.
He suffers through good days and bad days on his road back, but he makes it back regardless. Thank goodness he did, because from his pain and suffering he’s able to pull a very relatable human story about how we use these fantasy elements to cope with our realities. He also ends up telling a very realistic, very heartfelt, very challenging, and ultimately, very true Batman story.
Final Grade: A+
If you have a grown up Batfan in your life who not only appreciates the animated series but also is curious about the people behind the fiction he enjoys, this is for them. This is for the comic fan who has suffered through trauma and adversity and was able to make it through to the other side. This is for those of us that can appreciate the role these fictional characters can play as an escape and as a coping mechanism in our true, day to day, existence. This is a great book for someone looking for a true Batman story.