On a quiet night in 1993, Paul Dini was walking to his West Hollywood home after an uneventful date, when two men jumped, robbed, and beat him to the point of needing reconstructive cranial surgery.
It would take him another 23 years before he could muster the fortitude to reexamine that terror and tackle his subsequent emotional journey in the context he knows best–superheroes. Dini is a multi-Emmy Award-winning writer/producer, contributing to Batman: The Animated Series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and several Batman video games, among others. He (with animator Bruce Timm) cocreated the Harley Quinn character, which has since permeated the Batman universe and stands to be the breakout character in this summer’s Suicide Squad.
The resulting effort is Dark Night: A True Batman Story, a graphic novel from DC Entertainment imprint, Vertigo, with artwork by the Eisner Award-winning Eduardo Risso (100 Bullets). It covers the incident and emotional aftermath, with super villains like the Joker and Poison Ivy personifying Dini’s internal demons and Batman as the guardian who guides Dini back to his life. The awful coinciding of the recent Orlando mass murder with the book’s July 15 release date lends an urgency and gravitas to the work.
“We’re all painfully aware of how suddenly violence can occur, how crippling it is, and how survivors have to find a way back from that,” says Dini. “My story is just my story, and it’s not nearly as traumatic as some. But I think we can learn from each other’s experiences. That made me determined to set it down.”
By 1993, Dini had navigated an insecure childhood focused on avoiding schoolyard bullies to find sanctuary and success as an animation writer. But he contended with self-criticism and loneliness. These were his occupying thoughts as he strolled home that night. The two young men walking toward him, at first benign, began mocking him as they drew closer.
“They jumped me and held me down,” Dini tells a roomful of reporters during a launch breakfast on the Warner Bros. lot. “One got me from behind and repeatedly smashed my face. The only thing going through my head was, ‘I’m in for it.’ I knew if I’d screamed for help or tried to get away, it would have been worse, so I just went limp. They threw me to the ground, and kicked me and robbed me and said they were going to blow my head off and to cover my eyes and wait for it. And at that point, I just said well, ”This is it. Just make . . .’”
Dini’s voice trails off and he starts to choke on his words. The room is silent. Collecting himself, Dini wipes his eyes, and takes a breath.
“. . . just make what peace you can,” he continues slowly. “And I expected the last thing I’d hear was a pop or a gunshot.”
Then . . . nothing. He opened his eyes and the men were gone. “This survival instinct kicked in and said, ‘Just stand up, go home, get out of there as fast as you can,’ when all I wanted to do was just lie there,” he recalls. “I got to my feet and walked as fast as I could. It was eerie–all these nice houses around, and they were silent. Somebody must have heard something, but no one came to their door.
“At that moment, a car roared down the street,” Dini continues. “It was the guys, yelling one last stream of abuse and skidding the car to scare or hit me, and drove off. I thought, ‘That’s nice. The cherry on top of the cake.’ As I walked the two blocks to my home, I had a thought that there’s going to be no one at home when I walk through the door. That’s what hurt the most.”
With little to go on, the police were sympathetic to a point. And the rum he downed afterward couldn’t dull his shame of being attacked or solitary feeling of weathering this alone.
The next morning, his face swollen and spongy, Dini got himself to the hospital, and the alarmed doctor scheduled surgery for two days later. “I knew it was bad,” says Dini. “He said, ‘Your skull is fractured and powdered in spots, and we’re going to have to rebuild it with metal bridges.’”
Long after the scars healed, Dini was still contending with post traumatic effects–seeming to see his attackers everywhere–and the kind of ongoing internal reflection that often effects those forced to confront their own mortality.
“I wasn’t valuing who I was,” he says. “Why was I tearing myself up over small disappointments when the world will do that for you? You have to be kind to yourself to survive in the world. It was a long road of self-examination to the person I am today, which is a bit wiser and more accepting of the way I was back then; more understanding of people at a crossroads dealing with self-doubt and wanting to take it out on themselves or others.”
Dini had wanted to tell the story since that night, but needed the perspective of time, reflection, and internal change. He finally did find a life partner, magician Misty Lee, who he married in 2005. She, along with two others, convinced him to tackle the project. The first was director Kevin Smith, who, after Dini had told the story on Smith’s podcast, praised Dini’s resiliency by stating such an incident would have crippled his psyche. The other was DC Entertainment CCO Geoff Johns, who explained to Dini how he honored his sister, killed in the 1996 TWA Flight 800 explosion over New York, by infusing her spirit and qualities in certain characters in his comic stories.
“That was his way of interpreting what he had gone through and finding a way to express those emotions through his writing that made me feel better about what I was dealing with,” says Dini. “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a story worth telling if I can show how my life went into turnaround and I got out of it.’ God forbid people go through an experience like this and it does stop them.
“When I finally ripped the lid off Pandora’s box to let the demons out, I felt it would overwhelm me,” he says. “A lot of times I didn’t want to finish, and I walk around the house at two in the morning, crying.” Lee and his then-editor Shelly Bond urged him to continue.
The thugs were never caught.
“The only justice you can bring is to continue what you were doing,” says Dini. “If you stop, they win. I had to be okay with it. Maybe karma caught up with them, or they realized what they had done and made a conscious decision to improve their lives for the better and stop hurting people. You have to remember, when someone hurts you, that you are so much more than what they took from you.
“I feel like I’m on a plateau, looking back on my life, seeing where I’ve come and grateful for the chance to keep going.”