I had the opportunity to interview producer Michael Uslan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Constantine, National Treasure) when he was in New York to speak at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art about his memoir The Boy Who Loved Batman (published by Chronicle Books) which chronicles his life and career from young comic book collector to film producer. His latest film, the highly anticipated The Dark Knight Rises directed by Christopher Nolan, hits theaters tomorrow.
It was a childhood trip to the local candy store with his older brother Paul that introduced Michael Uslan to Detective Comics and a character named Batman.
“I was about five years old …and my brother had brought me to the first candy store I had ever been to. I’d never seen a rack of comics before…floor to ceiling, wall to wall comic books. …I think it was a Detective Comics, it was my first look at Batman. I had known Superman because the TV show was on the air, so every kid in the 50’s knew of Superman, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen. But Batman was something new, and it was clearly something darker, it was immediately clear it was something more adult than I was prepared for. And why do I remember this cover? Because it had this picture of this car this guy was driving, but it was not the Batmobile we all kind of remember as the 50’s Batmobile, this particular issue had a Batmobile that was an urban assault tank. Not to be seen again really for many, many decades later when it somehow mystically showed up in Batman Begins. What a coincidence! And then I was hooked.”
By the time he graduated high school, he had amassed a collection of 30,000 comic books dating back to 1936. Some of his personal treasures such as Amazing Fantasy #15 (the first appearance of Spider-Man), Fantastic Four #1, and The Hulk #1 just to name a few are each worth five to six figures today, and he purchased a lot of them for a dime apiece.
Yep, that’s right, folks. A dime apiece. That includes four pristine copies of Fantastic Four #1 that he was forced to purchase by the crotchety old candy store owner who saw him thumbing through the other three copies to find the best one. That 40 cent shakedown turned into $208,000.
He still owns many of those iconic comic books because thankfully, unlike many parents of the day, his mother didn’t throw them out on the condition he also read novels and news articles.
Bless you, Mrs. Uslan!
But the turning point in his life came on a cold night in January 1966 when a new television show called Batman premiered on ABC.
“Finally, after only having seen George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman, Batman was coming to television. I couldn’t wait for this show. And then it came on the air, and I was simultaneously thrilled and horrified by what I was seeing on TV. I was thrilled because it was in color, the sets were extravagant, the car was cool, that opening animation looked just like Bob Kane’s work. But then I was horrified that the whole world was laughing at Batman. They had made a mockery of Batman. He was a pot-bellied funny guy who POWs, ZAPs and WHAMs. Who was there doing the Bat-tusi, and it just killed me.”
It was at that moment that Michael took his “young Bruce Wayne” vow: he would bring a dark, serious version of Batman to the silver screen.
“I swore that somehow, someday, some way, I would show the world what the real, true Batman was like. The Batman. The creature of the night who stalks criminals from the shadows, the way he was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939. I would find some way to eliminate from the collective consciousness of the world culture, those three little words POW, ZAP and WHAM. And that became my mission.”
Michael Uslan went on to executive produce all seven Batman films with his executive producing partner Benjamin Melniker starting with 1989’s Batman starring Michael Keaton and directed by Tim Burton.
The Boy Who Loved Batman gives the readers Uslan’s first hand account of the steps and roadblocks along the way: from his early days of comic collecting, to teaching the first comic book related college course in America while a junior at the Indiana University, to how he got his first writing assignment for DC Comics, to the ten year odyssey he endured to bring Batman to the movie screen after securing the rights. A comic or movie fan can’t help but be inspired by the stories of his persistence.
What is it about Batman that makes him withstand the test of time over 70 years?
Uslan: I keep saying it’s these three things: First, It’s the fact he has no superpowers and that his greatest superpower is his humanity. Number two, it’s that primal origin story that transcends borders and demographics and cultures. And number three, he has the greatest super villains in the world. And that is probably the main cause of longevity in this superhero. And nobody can touch Batman’s rogue’s gallery. They just can’t. So I think that’s what keeps him fresh and will always keep him fresh.
Who’s your favorite villain in Batman’s rogue’s gallery?
Is there a villain that you think has been under represented and should be touched on more in the stories?
Catwoman. I think the greatest villainess since the Dragon Lady (of Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates comic strip). Batman’s predilection for bad girls is worthy of exploration through Catwoman. The relationship makes Catwoman a stronger character than she is individually.
Two-Face. Scarecrow. I tend toward those psychologically damaged villains more than I do toward a Penguin or a Mad-Hatter.
Ra’s al Ghul. I think one of the greatest Batman villains ever created, and nobody really cares for him as much because he was created in the 1970’s after the TV show. So he’s not ingrained in the culture and he should be.
Man-Bat. I think it’s a beautiful, dark romance that certainly is a modern day take on Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and I find it fascinating.
The Reaper. One of the most powerful Batman stories ever told: The Night of the Reaper is probably my second favorite Batman story of all time.
Which of the many comic book characters that haven’t gotten the full movie treatment would you like to see on film?
My favorite was always Captain Marvel…the Harry Potter of superheroes. It could be spectacular and different, and based on family. The Shadow. His best interpretations outside of print were on radio. I would love to see it visually done in a stunning way. I’m a big fan of the pulps: The Shadow, Doc Savage, things like that. Some of my favorite comic books growing up were Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, which to me is like The Right Stuff of superheroes, when they go out and recruit these guys in real life to be superheroes and every power has a curse attached to it. I loved that. Doctor Strange. Fabulous material. The Question. I had a chance to write that with Alex Toth. I was the first writer after Steve Ditko, and working with Toth I never learned so much about graphic storytelling in my life. That was fun. That’s another character I have a soft spot in my heart for. That pretty much sums it up.
What is your take on the current state of comic books? In the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s the stories were more about adventure and now the storylines seem geared more toward the internal turmoil of characters vs. going out and fighting the bad buys. In your opinion how do today’s comics measure up to the comics of your youth?
A world apart. Comic books when I was a kid were aimed at 7 to 12 year old boys and today’s they’re aimed at adults. And in too many cases kids are ignored, and so are women. And for awhile it was Manga that was filling that gap. And I’m happy to see comics become a little more diverse and opening the doors again to kids and females which is important. Technologically the comics are completely different. The graphic storytelling has changed. One of my pet peeves is when I open up a $3 or $4 comic book and there’s an average of seven words on a page. It’s called a comic book. It’s supposed to be art and words mixed together and not having the words abdicated entirely to the artist. So I like my comics to have more meat on them in terms of their literary value. You’re right, this started with Stan Lee with Marvel Comics when he began to create conflicts based on internal conflicts more than the external conflicts of super-villains or aliens or whatever. And that it became more important as a Marvel reader what was going on in Peter Parker’s life and in Spider-Man’s life. The torture of the Hulk, the military industrial complex, science gone mad, but it was that switch over to the internal conflicts. And now I think today that is the rule rather than the exception, even with the villains. When the villains come in they are internally conflicted and the relationships between the heroes and the villains, the symbiotic relationships, are explored opening doors to make it feel more mature, to make it feel more real to a much older reader. But the days when I picked up a comic book to be entertained for pure escapism, it’s not quite the same. And sometimes I feel I’m weighted down by a lot of them and other times I feel they’re inappropriately dark and gritty just to try to keep pace with what everybody else seems to be doing. And the movies can make the same mistake. You can’t have the dark and gritty Superman. You can’t have the dark and gritty Ant-Man. And for God’s sake you can’t start making Casper the Unfriendly Ghost.
If you were to make a Batman movie in the 1940’s what talent would you put together for that project?
Wow. Let me start with director. My directors would be Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Max Fleischer, they would be my first three. Stars, oh my God, stars…Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Did you ever see The Mark of Zorro, the silent version? I showed everybody when we originally started Batman this scene where Zorro challenges the commandante to have breakfast with him in the center of town. They set the table for him and he leaps in through a window, sits, takes a bite, and he springs out the next window. I said, “That’s Batman. That’s what’s got to be captured.”
You took an idea you had as a teenager and not only made it your life’s mission, but made good on it by producing all seven Batman films starting with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. In your book you describe the obstacles you faced for ten years trying to get the film made. Where did this persistence come from?
Passion. If I had to boil my life down to one word, it’s “passion.” I was raised by an amazing woman who not only let me keep my comic books, but brought up my brother and I in a way that once you make a commitment, you honor it. Period. End of story. You’re not happy? You’re sad having to be on this little league team because you hate your coach? I’m sorry but you made a commitment to the kids on your team and you have to see this through. Next year you don’t have to do it, but you made a commitment, you see it through. I made a commitment to bring a dark and serious Batman to the silver screen. I thought it was going to be a breeze. It wasn’t. And I’ve learned since that I can accomplish anything I want to in life, but always the longest, hardest possible way. There was never an easy path for me. There was never a quick path. You look at the other movies I was involved with: Constantine, National Teasure. These movies have taken nine, eleven years to bring to the screen. So I’ve always got there but never the easy way. And so I have a bit of a siege mentality as a result. I don’t expect anything less than agony (laughs) and duration to get to where I want to go. But I so want to get to where I want to go that I’ve learned how to channel that frustration and deal with it and not let it beat me.
A very special thanks to Michael Uslan for taking the time to meet with me for this interview, and to the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art for the opportunity.
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