How the Dark Knight Became Dark Again

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Batman started serious, went campy in the '60s, and was steered by a superfan back to the grimness of Tim Burton's 1989 movie and of Christopher Nolan's present-day trilogy.

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Batman in a 1939 comic book, in the 1960s ABC TV series, in Tim Burton's 1989 film, and in The Dark Knight Rises

The Batman who shows up in Friday's The Dark Knight Rises actually is something like your grandfather's Batman. Uttering a barely intelligible growl, facing off against villains that recall real-life terrorists, and confronted again and again by his own mortality, the Bruce Wayne imagined by director Christopher Nolan reflects the grim avenger that debuted in 1939, so po-faced that in 2008's The Dark Knight the Joker took to taunting him about it: "Why... so...serious?"

Batman has been so successfully remade in recent years that we scarcely remember how, for a generation, the Dark Knight lived in the public imagination as a pot-bellied caped crusader with a goofy sidekick. ABC's live-action Batman TV series, which ran from 1966 to 1968, was deliberately campy ("To the Batpole!") and created a long-enduring association between the superhero and the cartoonish onomopeias "Pow!" "Zap!" and "Wham!"

The story of how the farcical Batman of the '60s transformed into the solemn one of today mirrors the elevation of the comic book in general from belittled kiddie fare to the subject of academic inquiry and box-office-breaking, R-rated action movies. It's also a story of a 73-year-old franchise returning to its roots, reflecting its times, and helping build a multibillion dollar industry that churns out branded merchandise, video games, theme park attractions and annual conventions. And it's the story of one fan named Michael Uslan, who, as an 8th grader in the '60s, made a vow to save Batman.

USLAN GREW UP IN NEW JERSEY, the son of a stonemason and a bookkeeper, and escaped into comic books. He first discovered the Harvey Comics—Richie Rich, Casper, and Little Archie, by Archie Comics Group—and later Superman, which turned into an obsession. (He would write letters to the editors notifying them of "boo-boos" he spotted on the pages.) At age eight, Uslan graduated to the scarier Batman comics, where like many children, he found a hero to emulate. "I truly believed that if I studied real hard, and worked out real hard, and if my dad bought me a cool car, I could become this guy," Uslan, now 60, says. "That was when I said, 'I want to write Batman comics.'"

The ABC Batman series Uslan saw on TV didn't reflect the comic-book superhero he so loved. Producer William Dozier reportedly instructed Adam West, who played Batman, to deliver the caped crusader's silly lines "as though we were dropping a bomb on Hiroshima, with that kind of deadly seriousness." All of this pained Uslan, then a nerdy teenager. "The whole world was laughing at Batman and that just killed me," he says. "One night I vowed to erase from the collective consciousness those three little words: Pow! Zap! and Wham! I said, 'Somehow, someday, someway, I am going to show the world what the true Batman is like.'"

The true Batman, to Uslan, was the character originally co-created in 1939 by DC Comics' Bob Kane and Bill Finger, who imagined Batman as a shadowy creature that stalked criminals under darkness. Kane and Finger drew their inspiration from divine heroes throughout the ages, as Superman's creators has done before them, only they made Batman out to be more like Zorro and the Shadow, the dark mystery men of silent movies and pulp fiction. While the makers of Superman "played with the bright and impossible, Bob and Bill expanded that meme by adding the coin's other side, the dark and improbably possible," writes Travis Langley, a professor of psychology at Henderson State University. "Duality and obsession, his enemies' and his own, fill his stories." (Later, after Robin was written, Batman was softened to fall in line with Superman and the publisher's other more agreeable heroes.)

While the makers of Superman "played with the bright and impossible," Batman's creators "expanded that meme by adding the coin's other side, the dark and improbably possible."

As an undergraduate, Uslan attended Indiana University, which at the time had an experimental curriculum department in the College of Arts & Sciences that allowed any student to pitch an idea for a non-traditional course that had never been taught before, and if the faculty approved, teach it. Naturally, Uslan created a course on comic books as modern day mythology ("the gods of Egypt, Greece and Rome still exist, although today they wear spandex and capes"), and presented his case before a committee in an Amazing Spider-Man t-shirt—"for impact," he later said. One dean, Uslan says, scoffed at the idea of comics as contemporary folklore. Uslan asked if he was familiar with the story of Moses. The dean said he was, so Uslan asked to indulge him by recounting the tale. Then, Uslan asked him to recall the origin of Superman, which begins with a scientist and his wife placing their infant son in a little rocket ship. "Suddenly, the dean stopped talking. He stared at me for what I was sure was an eternity," Uslan writes in his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman. "And then he said, 'Mr. Uslan, your course is accredited.'"

Uslan says he took the news to United Press International, the wire service based in Indianapolis. Pretending to be an offended citizen, he asked to speak with the education beat reporter. "I hear there's a course on comic books being taught at Indiana University," he said. "This is outrageous! Are you telling me as a taxpayer that my money is going to teach our kids comic books?! It must be some Communist plot to subvert the youth of America!"

Uslan was playing to a prevailing cultural sentiment that held comic books responsible for a range of social ills. Fredric Wertham, a German-born American psychiatrist who made his name as a consulting psychiatrist for the New York court system and was a champion for civil rights (he provided information that helped the Supreme Court end school desegregation), was its most vocal exponent. In his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, Dr. Wertham argued that crime comics were behind a rise in juvenile delinquency—a view foreshadowing modern-day arguments about violent video games—and that comic books in general stilted kids reading, created young Communists, and caused asthma, since children were playing outside less. Boys who read The Adventures of Batman and Robin could become gay, and girls who read Wonder Woman could become lesbian. Testifying before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which took up his concerns, Wertham is said to have declared that "Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry."

The backlash that Wertham inflamed ultimately stoked comic-book burnings in some American communities, and led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a code of self-censorship that forbid suggestive postures, banned sympathetic criminals and the portrayal of drug use, and also demanded realistic drawings of women, exaggerated bosoms be damned. The code lasted up until just last year.

Uslan's feigned indignation paid off. UPI ran with the story of the world's first accredited university course on comic books, and the long-haired Uslan was soon taking interview requests from major television networks, newspapers, and magazines like Family Weekly and Playboy. Three weeks later, his phone rang: It was Stan Lee from Marvel Comics, the venerated co-creator of Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and the entire pantheon of Marvel superheroes. "This course you're teaching is great for the entire comic book industry," he told Uslan. "How can I be helpful?" Then, just two hours later, Uslan recalls, the vice president of DC Comics in New York—the publishers of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—also phoned. He wanted to offer Uslan a summer job.

One morning that summer, Uslan says, he was walking by the office of an editor of the series The Shadow, when he overheard the editor complaining about a script he needed finished by the next day. Uslan poked in his head and offered to pinch-hit, making up something about a great story idea he had. Overnight, Uslan became a comic-book writer. A few weeks later, the editor of Batman, Julie Schwartz, passed him in the hallway and complimented his script on The Shadow ("it didn't stink"). Would he like to take a crack at writing Batman?

FOR USLAN, fulfilling his childhood dream to write Batman comics called for a new goal, and he set his sights on making the "dark and serious" movie that would redeem the Kane-Finger character. He says that Sol Harrison, the vice president of DC Comics at the time, assured him this was foolhardy. Ever since the ABC show had left the air, he told Uslan, Batman was "as dead as a dodo." What's more, Uslan knew nothing about making movies. He sold 20,000 of comic books from his own collection to raise tuition for an entertainment law degree and fresh out of school took a position as an attorney for United Artists, handling legal and business affairs for films like Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, and the early Rocky movies.

Together with Ben Melniker, a former MGM exec who had put together the deals for Ben-Hur, Dr. Zhivago, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the two fielded money from individual investors, and on October 3rd, 1979, for an undisclosed sum, optioned the film rights to "Batman" from DC Comics, forming Batfilm Productions.

To help him convey his idea for a dark and gritty "Batman" movie, Uslan wrote a 17-page, single-spaced "creative blueprint memo" that specifically outlined the difference between the campy TV Batman and the Kane-Finger concept of Batman as a creature of the night. He also carried around a screenplay he had drafted in 1975 with his friend from Indiana University, Michael Bourne. Titled Return of The Batman, the story featured Batman in his 50s, forced out of retirement to confront the first appearance of terrorism on America's shores. (Years later, the president of DC Comics would note how the screenplay predated by a decade the seminal graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, whose tone later inspired Christopher Nolan's trilogy.) The script didn't contain any super villains. "I wanted to show that The Batman did not need over-the-top super-villains in order to be a great story," Uslan writes in his memoir. "It showed off the dark-knight detective's ability to be just that—a detective."

The final piece of the puzzle, as he puts it, occurred on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend in 1980. Uslan was at Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan waiting for a bus to return home to New Jersey, when he spotted a publicity still of Jack Nicholson in The Shining in The New York Post—the "Here's Johnny" scene—which was opening that weekend. "I immediately realized what I was looking at," Uslan recalls. When he got home, he began doctoring the image, applying Wite-Out to Nicholson's face and red pen to his lips. He colored his hair with a Magic Marker. "Voila!" Uslan writes in his memoir. "He was the only actor then who could play the Joker! No, he was the Joker."

During a season in which Marvel's The Avengers became the third movie ever to earn over $600 million at the domestic box office, it's hard to imagine that in 1970s Hollywood, comic books still carried the residual stigma of Dr. Wertham. Stan Lee once told Uslan that at cocktail parties he'd avoid telling people his real profession, disclosing only that he was in the "children's literature business." When Warner Brothers acquired DC Comics in 1969, the deal gave the studio the right to first refusal for any project involving the publisher's properties. But initially, Warner didn't want the Batman film—they didn't even hear the pitch—so Uslan and Melniker took it to United Artists, Uslan's former employer. A production VP there rejected the proposal: "Batman and Robin will never work as a movie because the movie Robin and Marian didn't do well," Uslan recalls him saying. (That film starred Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as an aging Robin Hood and Maid Marian, and to this day, Uslan can't follow the executive's logic.) Columbia Pictures was no less encouraging. The head of production predicted that Batman would never work as a movie because their film Annie had flopped. "They're both out of the funny pages," Uslan says he was told.

One after the next, every major Hollywood studio turned Uslan and Melniker away. "'Rejections' is not the correct term," Uslan writes in his memoir. "They were more along the line of 'This is the worst idea we've ever heard.'" Execs doubted that a comic-book character other than Superman could succeed on screen, let alone a dark and serious depiction. Melniker had an idea. While he had been running MGM, a decade earlier, he had tried to recruit a talented young exec named Peter Guber. In the younger Guber, who was now heading up PolyGram's new film division, Melniker saw a more receptive audience to the Batman idea than the industry execs they had been courting, and he was right: Uslan and Melniker flew to Los Angeles to make the pitch, and in three days they had a movie deal. A few years later, after several cold trails, Polygram managed to pique the interest of Warner Bros. again.

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Andy Isaacson is a Berkeley-based writer and photographer. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, and The New Yorker.

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