By Hannah Means-Shannon
It’s no surprise that Michael Uslan’s panel drew celebrity-level crowds away from the con floor on Friday afternoon to wait in intricately directed lines just to hear about “How a Boy Who Loved Batman Brought a Dark and Serious Batman to the Silver Screen”. To say it was a big week for Uslan would be a massive understatement. It would be more appropriate to say that this was a big week for comics –because- of Uslan, who received on Wednesday the first “Doctorate of Comic Books” from Monmouth University in New Jersey. The completion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight film trilogy also synchronized with this look back and assessment of the origin and rise of a “darker” Batman figure in film initiated by Uslan’s work. It was also timely considering the 2011 launch of Uslan’s memoir THE BOY WHO LOVED BATMAN, available for signing at the con on Saturday.
Uslan’s address was worth waiting in line for. In tour-de-force oratory he narrated his life’s ambition, singular, rather than ambitions, plural for 45 minutes without, apparently, taking a moment for air. From the first comic fanzine, which appeared when Uslan was in 7th grade, to the remarkable encounters Uslan had with legendary comics creators like Bill Finger, Otto Binder, and others, Uslan described his earliest recognition of the fact that nothing beats a “firsthand history” of comics from those who made history. He took the audience through the experience of his first convention in a seedy to hotel, and the features of that con that set trends still evident at NYCC: panels, cosplay, auctions, and collecting. Then he moved into “why Batman”, which was pretty much synonymous with “why Uslan”. His moment of “eureka” was being savagely disappointed by the comic presentation of Batman in the 1966 television series. “Horrified” by what he saw, he became determined (and even that word is too mild) to bring the “true Batman” to the screen.
Whether familiar or unfamiliar with Uslan’s epoch-making initiation of the first comics scholarship course as an undergraduate student, hearing it first-hand was its own experience, complete with dialogue necessary to convince the Dean of his college that comics were not just “funny pages” but a current and powerful modern mythology. Working for DC, and his vertical movement into finally reaching a personal dream of writing BATMAN completed one childhood ambition and left vacancy for another, the visual presentation of a true “dark” knight. The audience responses audibly to his well-timed ironic punch-lines regarding his own history, the stars that aligned after years of hard work at law school and in Hollywood film production to bring him the “young, genius filmmaker” Tim Burton. Uslan was frank about his initial doubt casting Michael Keaton, a “comedian” in the role of Batman, and equally frank in his personal, highly favorable, opinions about Christopher Nolan’s films, which brought him face-to-face with his own filmmaking and comics promoting legacy in bringing a Batman to the audience who would seem “real” and moving.
His blow-by-blow critique of the casting and choices made by Nolan emphasized the realization of potential in developing Batman’s “dark” mythology based on his origins in comics. Intermittent applause and cheers rallied around Uslan’s driving narrative, the high points of which always concerned beating odds and maintaining clarity of personal vision. Uslan wasn’t shy about commenting on plenty of the Batman-related animation, comics, and films in existence, praising his favorites and declining too much commentary on the less successful ventures. His finale, which received a standing ovation, was a verse from Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”. It was an extra personal touch in a panel already deeply personal but in Uslan’s hands, remarkably universal: pursue what you love, celebrate it, and don’t abandon personal conviction.
Uslan said that when he was 8 years old, he firmly believed that if he studied hard, worked out, and got a cool car, he could in fact BE Batman someday. Dr. Uslan may need to evaluate his progress if he now thinks that’s an impossibility. A similar unswerving and singular vision is also an iconic trait of the Dark Knight.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.