At the end of Dark Night: A True Batman Story, writer Paul Dini says to Batman:
“It’s taken me years to accept what you told me back then, that you were there for me that night, not as a vigilante swinging to the rescue, but as an ideal, and inspiration, a voice I heard in darkness commanding me to stand up. 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.”
This revelation is the crux of everything that is wrong with this book. As a journey into self-awareness, Dark Night: A True Batman Story goes nowhere. In the end, Paul Dini has learned nothing from his trauma except how to tritely reframe his issues so as to become the hero of his own story.
Dark Night: A True Batman Story lionizes the fragile masculinity behind old guard comics fandom and perpetuates all that is wrong in the closed world of corporate comics culture.
Framed as a story pitch in the Warner Brothers Studios, Dark Night is an autobiographical narrative concerning the events leading up to and following Paul Dini’s savage beating and mugging by two black men in his neighborhood. This assault resulted in the bones on the left side of his face, specifically the zygomatic arch, being “powdered on impact”. While his injuries were severe, the true toll of the attack was upon Dini’s psyche, leading him to question his life in powerfully fundamental ways. Through the course this story, Dini and artist Eduardo Risso expound upon the influence of Batman “not as the dark avenger, but the savior who helped a discouraged man” as it says on the dust jacket of the book.
Dini begins Dark Night by giving context and background. He talks about his childhood as an “Invisible Kid” — a young man who didn’t fit in, the target of bullies, whose goal was to slink through his school days without attracting any attention.
After establishing his individual persona, though, Dini significantly shifts from using singular personal pronouns to using plural personal pronouns, essentially making the “I” into “we”. He suddenly begins to use phrases like, “… to us quiet, lonely kids…” and “… when we’re slinking home, fighting back tears…” and “… we invisible kids learned …” This shift in pronouns is significant in that it belies an assumed connection that Dini is trying to foster. The change from “me” to “us” posits that Dini casually takes for granted that his audience is of a similar background: white, middle-class, male, outsider.
The audacity inherent in such an assumption underscores so much of what is at the heart of current criticism of corporate comics culture. The issues behind the lack of diversity in corporate comics ultimately stems from the fact that those in power in these institutions assume their audience reflects them. The “I”, as far as they are concerned, is “we” and therefore they produce comics for themselves and are shocked when anyone else points out the fact that there are others in the audience who aren’t them.
Going further, though, the comics they do produce for themselves are, as Dini himself points out in Dark Night, “the unrealistic, unattainable extension[s] of a child’s power fantasy.” Specifically, of course, a white, male child. Batman is one of the best examples of this, precisely because he has no “superpowers” and is, at heart, just a rich white guy with cool gadgets who knows how to fight and take a serious beating. Batman, as with all superheroes, conveys a certain conception of masculinity to which Dini and his ilk, through their identification with this character, aspire.
In this scenario, the idea of what it means to be a man is defined by an impossible model and judging himself through the lens of that ideal is at the core of almost all of the problems Dini confronts throughout Dark Night. Worst of all, in the end, instead of rejecting this false conception of masculinity, he just reframes his relationship with it. It is the source of all his insecurities, self-loathing, and trauma. And yet, it is his foundational perception of himself and, because of that, he cannot abandon it.
In Paul Dini’s world (and, by extension, the world of corporate comics culture), a man wins fights, has a specific type of physical characteristics, exudes confidence, and objectifies women (more on that point later). Every part of Dini’s life, as it is shown in Dark Night, conforms to this self-imposed set of expectations. It is his initial salvation, a definition and purpose, but in the end it’s not the stories he creates that are important, it’s how he is able to put himself into those stories. He sees them as a reflection of himself, “running around in real life.”
Which is the set up for the failure of this book. And the source of Dini’s problems. Remember, these are “his” problems, not necessarily “our” problems.
Dark Night is filled with references to this. When his attackers call him “bitch” and “faggot” as they strike him over and over again, these words take on a particular power. They are biting only because in Dini’s conception of manhood — brought about through his “heroes” — these pejoratives point to his failure to live up to the ideal. When a man is demeaned by being called a “bitch” or a “faggot” he is only demeaned because he sees these labels as markers of his inability to be the type of man he believes a man should be. If a man is insulted by these words then that man sees women and homosexuals as inferior to him. They are only insults to misogynists and homophobes.
In this conception, weakness is not masculine. It is unacceptable in the face of the ideal.
And this leads to further problems in this book. There’s this powerfully emotional moment in Dark Night where, right after he is assaulted, Dini somehow makes it back to his empty apartment (his “geek nirvana”). Here he realizes that “what hurt the most was knowing that when I finally reached home … no one would be there to say: ‘Oh my God!’”. Artist Eduardo Risso does an amazing job of capturing this moment. Dini’s face is awash in blood, his head is tilted with a shadow to accentuate his isolation, angular framing furthers the detachment, a look of pure anguish is transcribed in the lines of the face. It’s the bottom panel on the page, and given this placement its emotional heft lingers all that much longer. At the top of the next page, though, the focus is on Dini’s broken glasses and he has himself say, “Oh my God!” This all but denies the previous moment of weakness, contextualizing it as shameful, broken, something to be hidden.
Dini cannot allow himself this frailty. It’s not what Batman would do.
The rest of Dark Night proceeds to become a conversation between Dini and the fictional world of his hero. Through these conversations, Dini further declares allegiance to the particular idea of masculinity represented by Batman and acknowledges his failure to be that kind of man. This disconnect between desire and reality contributes to what had already been an overarching sense of failure in his life. No matter what sort of accolades he had received, he still wasn’t a man. The attack he suffers furthers this spiral and he begins to withdraw from the world.
In his self-imposed isolation, Dini continues his crisis of identification. In this, he has conversations with a number of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, specifically The Joker who seems to represent to Dini the kind of failure he feels that he has become — the anti-Batman, painted, garish, and cowardly. Through these conversations, there are moments of true self-understanding. When talking to Two-Face, Dini admits that his insecurities surrounding his sense of masculinity led him to act in a deplorable way. But this revelation is quickly dropped and is never mentioned again.
There is a refusal to allow any of these admonitions to stick. Dini continues to hold on to his conceptions at the expense of growth. What he is able to do — and masterfully so — is finally reframe his identification with the ideal in a manner that preserves his ego, but does little to alter the underlying deceit.
Dini returns to his life with renewed vigor at the end of his story. At one point he pitches a Batman/Sandman team-up tale which exemplifies his reframing of the Batman masculinity. In the pitch, Batman is about to die and Morpheus comes to him and tells him he is important to the Dreaming. That “dreams of Batman in all forms pervade human minds,” his image haunts the nightmares of the wicked and has instilled hope in the dreams of the people he’s saved.
Batman remains the masculine hero. He is an ideal to which “we” should aspire, “a voice [he] heard in the darkness commanding [him] to stand up,” the one who gives us the model for being either a “victim” or a “hero”.
This is a clever card trick of self-deception. In no way does it acknowledge that the idea of masculinity that Batman represents for individuals like Paul Dini is wrong in its conception or toxic to the psyche, even as the comic itself show this. Rather, Dini is able to continue to compare himself to this model without it damaging his ego. He encases the side of him that the Joker represents in a prison of stone, keeping it from his consciousness, and reframes his own choices as heroic because he perseveres, just like Batman, just like a man is supposed to.
The problem is that nothing changes really. Dini may be able to get on with his life, but he ultimately continues to conceive of the world through the lens of a particular sensibility. This conception of masculinity also has, as one of its main features, an inherent misogyny.
Evidence of this misogyny is rampant in the pages of Dark Night. Women play one of two roles in this book: Nurse or Temptress. While Dini’s mother washes dishes, it is his father who questions his life choices. His female friend brings him a blender and “listens”. His sister allows him the opportunity to provide exposition. Two girls at the bar are suddenly introduced to emphasize Dini’s self-consciousness. Batgirl is first introduced by a close up of the bat logo splayed across her chest. Risso draws Dini’s female therapist as a vixen with an ample breast straining against a low buttoned shirt. Many of the panels have her reduced to legs and lips.
But the worst misogyny is reserved for the two romantic interests in this story, Vivian and Regina. They are presented solely as seemingly interchangeable, one-dimensional objects of desire who use men in order to gain success. Dini sees them as trophies, signifiers of his success as a man. At one point he compares himself to Bruce Wayne who has brought three dates to the restaurant, all drawn as lustful, wanton caricatures, indicative of the conception of women that Batman’s masculinity engenders. It is no accident that, on the final page of Dark Night, after Dini has healed and moved forward, that he is accompanied by a prancing Harley Quinn who asks, “What have you got for me today?”
At the end, Dini still sees “his” story as “our” story, regardless of the truth that surrounds him. The white, frail man who has to be a hero at the expense of women, gays, and his own physical failings is the underlying operative notion behind the myth of the superhero and the business plan of corporate comics culture. With Dark Night: A True Batman Story, Dini and Risso demonstrate the lengths to which the old guard will go to hold on to this conception. At the expense of alienating a wider audience. At the expense of lying to themselves.