If you watch cartoons, you know Paul Dini's work. The award-winning writer's IMDb page overflows with credits that span decades, from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to Tiny Toons Adventures to Duck Dodgers to Ultimate Spider-Man. Yet no fictional universe has felt his presence quite like Batman's.
Dini was part of the team behind the beloved 1990s show Batman: The Animated Series. In the first episode he wrote, “Heart of Ice,” Dini thawed out old villain Mr. Freeze and won an Emmy for his efforts. In his second episode, “Joker's Favor,” he and artist Bruce Timm created a “henchperson” for Gotham's best known evildoer who became a force on her own: Harley Quinn.
Sitting inside a large conference room at DC Comics' Burbank office, Dini says, “Harley Quinn was sort of a lucky accident.” In the 24 years since her debut, Harley Quinn has become a fan favorite who has turned up in comics, video games and will be part of the forthcoming Suicide Squad movie. Go to a comic book convention and you won't be able to avoid Harley fans. Dini recalls seeing a group of Harleys in a convention hall, their costumes ranging from the original incarnation of the character to a steampunk iteration, the cosplayers spanning generations and including both women and men in their ranks: “There was Harley, Harley, Harley!”
Just as his co-creation has permeated the Batman universe, so has Dini. Since The Animated Series, he has written for other Batman TV shows and animated films, comic books and video games. Now, Dini's real life and the fictional characters in his head intertwine in the autobiographical novel Dark Night: A True Batman Story. Published by DC subsidiary Vertigo, the book will hit comic book shops on June 15 and will be available in general release on June 21.
In early 1993, Dini was reaching a career high. At the same time, though, he suffered an intense trauma. While walking home alone on La Peer Drive in Los Angeles one night, he was attacked by two men. The beating was severe and the emotional impact was immense. In Dark Night, Dini tells his story in a way that connects the trauma to the crime fighters and criminals who lived in his work. With art by Eduardo Risso (100 Bullets), Dini gives insight into his life, how he went from an “invisible” kid with a big imagination fueled by comics and cartoons to a successful TV animation writer. At the time of the incident, Dini was immersed in Batman-related work, and so that world is intertwined with the trauma that he endured. His colleagues from the era — including friend Arleen Sorkin, the inspiration for Harley Quinn and the voice of the character — make appearances. So do the characters themselves, sometimes to taunt Dini in the aftermath of the event.
“Even within hours of the incident happening, 23 years ago, I thought, I've got to write this down,” Dini says. At the time, he collected notes and sketched out details, but knowing that the story should be told and knowing when was the right time to tell it proved to be two different things.
For years, Dini's memories were wrapped in anger — toward the perpetrators of the crime, toward the police officers who didn't solve the case, toward those who reacted with a shrug and a “you'll get over it.” Then there was the anger directed toward himself. “I beat myself up in my head, like why did you walk down the street? Why were you doing this?”
He needed the clarity that comes with the passage of time to revisit the awful night. “I had to go beyond it and I had to reach this point of, I survived and that's enough,” he says.
“I'll never get any sort of justice about it,” he continues. “The attackers are out there. And, you know, I don't really harbor any ill will toward them. I forgive them for what they did because … you've got to forgive people. At least they didn't kill me. I'm very grateful for that.”
Even with more than 20 years standing between Dini and the attack, this wasn't an easy story to write. He says that he enjoyed the work, but there were times when the subject matter was difficult to handle. Months would pass without much completed work. Dini credits his editor, Shelly Bond, with encouraging him through the rough patches. “A lot of the stuff made me cry again,” he says. “Shelly helped me soldier on and get through it.”
Years later, Dini wasn't just better able to revisit the attack but also he could see the benefit of sharing his story with others. “I began thinking, maybe there are people who have gone through things like this, or similar tragedies, and that's arrested their life in some way,” he says. “Maybe this could be a way of telling people that if someone like me could get through a situation like this, then they could, too.”
Dini adds that the story does have a message, particularly for young people who might be currently enduring traumatic situations. “Some bad things can happen to you, either not so bad or much worse than what I went through,” he says. “You have to get through it because the best part of your life is still going to come. You can't let cruelty define where your life is going to be.”
A few weeks before our interview, Dini happened to be in the neighborhood where the 1993 incident occurred and decided to visit the site of the attack. “I drove up the street to the exact lawn where I was lying on years before and it's still there and there's still the same bump in the pavement that I remember, that nobody has ever repaired in 23 years,” he says. “The house looks exactly the same.”
Dini continues, “Then I drove on. I felt very good about that.”