Michael Uslan is one of the most important figures in the comic book world – certainly among the few most influential people in the modern evolution of a certain character you might have heard of known as Batman.
Uslan has been an executive producer of every single Batman movie since Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster. It is he, perhaps more than any other, who was responsible for transforming the public’s perception of the character from the campy, pot-bellied Caped Crusader in the 60s TV series to the tortured, brooding goth of Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s films. If, like many of us, that is the Batman you love most, then you owe this man your undying fanboy gratitude, because by the time Uslan had procured the rights for the character in the late 70s, Batman, believe it or not, was considered a dead franchise as far as film and TV were concerned. Yes, Batfans, the Dark Knight came quite close to going gently into that good night. It was Uslan who saved him. And while dark, gritty superhero movies have now become the norm, make no mistake: Uslan was there first.
As a writer, producer, teacher and licensed (though no longer practicing) entertainment lawyer, he’s also a modern-day Renaissance Man, having begun his seminal career teaching the very first college course on comic books at an accredited university (Indiana University) and then coming full circle when Monmouth University granted him an honorary doctorate in comic book folklore. Nowadays, scholarly literature on comic books and superheroes are becoming increasingly trendy. But here, again, Michael Uslan was there first.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Uslan is busy these days working on and promoting his various projects. Among them are Batman: Black & White #2 for which he wrote the story, “Silent Knight…Unholy Knight!” which has been generating quite the buzz online thanks to a nifty, mock silent film by DC Comics paying tribute to heroes of the silent film era (like Zorro). He is also the writer for the well-reviewed limited series The Shadow/Green Hornet: Dark Nights from Dynamite Entertainment in which he brings together the two eponymous, classic characters from the Golden Age of Radio. As if this weren’t enough, he is also in the midst of producing a movie version of another nostalgic icon, Doc Savage, and of course serving as executive producer again on Superman/Batman.
At a recent industry event, Uslan was gracious enough to sit down for a brief but impassioned interview with Pop Mythology that had us brimming with goosebumps.
PM: You’re the first person to have taught an accredited university course on comic books, and you did this way back in the 70s when comics were still derided by the public. Now it’s become somewhat trendy to have courses related to comic books like the University of Victoria’s “The Science of Batman,” for example. And there are books by academic scholars analyzing comic books from a scholarly perspective – in fact, you wrote the introduction for two of them (What Is A Superhero? and Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight).
Just last year, Monmouth University awarded you the world’s first honorary PhD in comic books. This brings you full circle as far as earning the respect of academia. How does it feel to see comics being approached with greater respect, something which you helped bring about?
MU: The reason all of this is so important today, that comic books are taken seriously academically and as an art form, is because it finally brings respect to all these men and women who created this industry, this mythology and folklore, who were denigrated or ignored their whole lives because they worked on those “evil” little child-like comic books, who suffered trying to put food on the table with their art and stories. They’re getting the respect and dignity they’ve always deserved but were largely denied. I personally, having met a lot of them, felt a responsibility to see that that was done as best as I could. So I fought in the trenches and tried to bring the first accredited course to college. I tried to bring comic book and superhero movies to TV, animation, to feature films. That’s been my quest, and the greatest moment I had in the entire process was at the premiere at The Dark Knight with Jerry Robinson. Do you know that story?
PM: No, please tell the story.
MU: Paul Levitz, the president and publisher of DC Comics at the time, had a special VIP dinner before the premiere of The Dark Knight, and I was sitting with Jerry Robinson and his wife.
Jerry Robinson, of course, was Bob Kane’s first assistant and ghost artist starting in 1939 on Batman. Jerry co-created the Joker, Robin, the Penguin, Two Face and so many characters and really elevated Batman artistically in his work. I said to Jerry, “How you getting to the premiere?” He said, “Well, my wife and I are gonna go hail a cab after this.” I said, “No no no, you’re coming with us in the limo.”
We got to the world premiere in New York. The streets were lined up for blocks with people dressed as the Joker and Batman, and we turned around and pulled up to the red carpet and it seemed like there were a thousand television cameras and paparazzi. And as we’re getting out of the limo, Jerry says to me, “I’ll go in around the side and I’ll meet you indoors later.” I said, “No, Jerry, you are taking this walk down the red carpet with me.” And we got to the edge of the red carpet and I yelled out, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jerry Robinson, the co-creator of the Joker and Robin!” And with that the cameras and reporters swung around and swarmed him. It took Jerry half an hour to get through the red carpet. At last, he was getting the attention, the credit, he deserved.
After the movie, we went to the party, and I took Jerry around to each actor (he had already met Chris Nolan), and I introduced him to Christian Bale and explained what Jerry had done, and Christian embraced him and thanked him; I took him to Aaron Eckhart and said, “Aaron, this is the man who co-created Two Face”; I took him to Danny Devito and said, “Danny, this is the man who co-created the Penguin.” And then to Michael Cain. And they all embraced him emotionally as well as physically. And then Jerry turned to me and said: “This is the greatest night of my life.” That’s what made it all worthwhile. My whole life, my whole career – the payoff was watching Jerry’s face that night.
PM: More than ever before, superhero stories are becoming a multi-medium experience. You’ve got the comic books, you’ve got the movies, the tie-in novels, video games, and TV series. We’re at the point now where it actually takes a lot of work to stay up to date on all the developments, and it’s so easy to get overwhelmed. Money is also an issue for many fans since comic books, video games and DVDs are so expensive. It seems like in the era that you grew up in, it was more feasible to stay on top of everything. For kids nowadays, the sheer range of options is intimidating, especially for a newbie. Do you have any thoughts or opinions on this?
MU: Oh, I have so many thoughts and opinions right now! Let’s see if we can cut through this.
Number one, the digital experience is going to be very helpful because it’s cheaper, it’s easily accessible so people might be able to keep up more easily by going digital as opposed to simply print. Number two, there are different areas of a branded franchise that might resonate more strongly with you or might resonate more strongly with someone else. For instance, if you’re inherently a gamer, then go to Arkham Asylum or Arkham City. Everyone who loves games says these are the best comic book video games ever made, so if you’re a gamer, then make sure you have the money to get those.
And let’s talk about quality. I used to be a completist. That’s a terrible word for a fan, I’m telling you, because there’s been an explosion of product. When I was growing up there was Thor. That was one comic book! If you were a fan of Thor, you could collect every issue of Thor. When the movie came out, I went into my comic books store and that week I think there were seven or eight or eleven different Thor titles that were on sale, each one costing about 3 or 4 bucks. So as a completist, where you feel you must collect all the Thor comics, there’s no money left for Fantastic Four or for Avengers or anything else.
So my advice, having learned the hard way, is if as collectors we can get over the addiction of being a completist and go for the quality because at that time in my humble, subjective opinion, there was one Thor title that was superb, one that was very good, and there were five or six or seven or eight that were…eh. So, to me, the answer is get the one or two that are really great and if you’ve been collecting a title for years and now the quality has gone down, stop and spend your money instead on something that would support something that’s doing great work creatively on another title.
But it’s a hard thing. It’s truly like an addiction.
PM: There’s a section on our site called “Hero Worship” which discusses how ordinary people can use superhero mythology as a way to inspire themselves to become real-life superheroes of a sort. And, speaking of real-life superheroes, a book called Heroes in the Night was recently just published which documents a social phenomenon in which regular people dress up in costumes and become active with diverse causes that they care about. Do you have any thoughts on the idea of real-life superheroes?
MU: There’s a brand new documentary that just had its premiere last Saturday night down in Tampa, Florida, by Brett Culp, Legends of the Knight. Actually, I’m in it. But the point is that there are these people doing this and Brett’s documentary really does recognize them and bring them attention, which I think is a really great thing.
Look, in my life, I’ve learned a couple of things. We do have real superheroes. We in the New York area in particular learned that lesson harshly during 9/11 when we learned about the heroes who are police, firemen and EMTs. And in my personal experience, I learned that the greatest superheroes in the world are terrific, impactful teachers.
Teachers can change the lives of people, good teachers. They can inspire, they can make all the difference in the world. They can impact your self-esteem and your self-confidence. It happened to me. I had two teachers who changed my life and made me believe in myself.
PM: Who were they?
MU: My seventh and eighth grade English teachers. Quick story. In seventh grade, Mrs. Stiller was walking around the classroom one day as I was concentrating hard on my notebook behind which I had a copy of X-Men #1, which was my favorite comic book of all time. And I got lost in the comic, didn’t realize she was walking around the class and the next thing that happens is she pulls the comic right out from under me, holds it up and the whole class starts laughing at me.
And Mrs. Stiller said, “If I were you people, I wouldn’t laugh. Michael’s the best creative writer in this class. He has the best imagination. And I think if you want to be anything like the writer he is, maybe these things will spark your imagination, increase your vocabulary. You might want to try reading some of these.” And then she turns to me and says, “But not in class!”[laughter]
Mrs. Stiller said to me that I had a creative ability and I could do something with this in my life and she nurtured it. Then in eighth grade she turned me over to Mrs. Friedman, who had the reputation of a merciless red pen, who’d strike at the hearts of English students everywhere. Mrs. Friedman said to me, “Michael, you could become a wonderful writer and spend the rest of your life doing creative things, but you’re not getting out of this class until you learn self-discipline as a writer, to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, learn your vocabulary, learn how to diagram sentences, learn grammar – I am going to teach you the craft of writing.” And she beat me over the head with her red marking pen and when she let me go, I left believing that I could have a career in the creative arts. I believed in myself because of these two women.
We move now to 1989. It’s the premiere of Batman. My dream come true. I got to speak to the crowd for a few minutes before the movie started. I had tracked down Mrs. Stiller and Mrs. Friedman, had sent a limo for them and brought them to the premiere that night and I told everyone there the same story I just told you. I said, “I would not be here, this movie would not have happened, none of you would be here tonight if it wasn’t for these two teachers.” And I had them stand up and they got a standing ovation. That was like an amazing fantasy come true for me. Proof positive that there are real-life superheroes. And real superheroes in life are great teachers.
PM: Now that you’re in a position of great influence, do you find yourself wanting to reach out and offer your assistance to other aspiring creators who may be struggling to be heard?
MU: My role, I feel, is to tell my story in an attempt to have an impact on young people, to inspire them. It doesn’t have to be comic books or movies. They can love fixing stereos or painting houses but they’ve got to get up off the couch. They’ve got to sacrifice any false sense of entitlement they have in the belief the world owes them something or that the world will come to them. They’ve go to knock on doors ‘till their knuckles bleed, and in order to do that they’ve got to have a very high threshold for frustration, and believe in themselves and their passions, that they can make their dreams come true.
I’m living proof of it. Because I did not come from money; I did not come from influence. I didn’t know anyone in Hollywood and I had no relative in the right place. And I was still able to do what I wanted to do in life and make my passion in life my work. That’s what my mission is. That’s what my lesson, my life, can impart. That’s why I wrote The Boy Who Loved Batman. People think it’s a Batman book; it’s a motivational book disguised as a Batman book. That’s why I’ve spoken at over 75 universities now, to try to reach out to people. So that’s really where I see this section of my life going. I’ve spent most of my life trying to entertain people for two hours at a time. Now, if I can inspire them by the example of my life, how I’ve lived it, then I really feel like I’ve accomplished something truly worthwhile in the time I have here.