This university has given the world many incredible, passionate and interesting individuals, and alumnus Michael Uslan, a comic book scholar and executive producer of just about every Batman film project under the sun, is no exception.
Uslan attended IU for his bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s degree in urban education and a doctoral degree from the Maurer School of Law. It was as a student that Uslan researched, assembled and received University approval to teach the first-ever college-accredited course on comics in the history of academia.
Uslan said he is proud of his alma mater and regularly tells people, “Indiana (University) is a place where you never have to accept ‘no’ as an answer.”
Weekend was elated when he agreed to do an interview to discuss the 75th anniversary of Batman as well as his own experiences in the world of comic lore and film.
IDS: As a published expert on comics, does part of your involvement as a movie producer include being a constant person to reference for capturing the Caped Crusader’s universe?
Uslan : Let’s go back to the early days when we were first thinking about Tim Burton, and they brought Tim Burton aboard.
My first mission for the first Batman movie — which we now are celebrating its 25th anniversary, I cannot believe it — we set up three lunches with me and Tim. And my job was to indoctrinate Tim into the world of Batman, but not just any Batman, the dark and serious Batman.
I had to give Tim the reference material out of my collection. I made sure he saw the first year, ’39 through ’40, of Batman in detective comics and understood the creature of the night who stalks criminals in the shadows the way he was originally created.
I showed him the Denny O’Neil-Neal Adams run of the comics in the 1970s that returned Batman to his dark roots after the campy years. And then I gave him the Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rogers issues from the ’70s that really was a very dark, romantically dark vision of Batman. Those were the primary references Tim had going forward.
So yeah I take all the blame or whatever for that for being the resident Batman or comic expert. I take pride in that. I take a lot of pride in that.
IDS : Fans, as you know, can be pretty attached to the original content. What is the process like for you, seeing the comics become adapted to the screen and seeing the changes to the canon that happen along the way?
Uslan: There are changes whenever you go from one medium to another. You can’t just take one thing, pluck it out of context and put it in another medium and expect it to work.
What you try (to do) is always work with someone who has a passion for character, who you can see has an understanding for character, who then has a clear creative vision for the character and in whom you believe has the ability to execute the vision.
We have been so fortunate over the decades regarding Batman to have four people I consider to be geniuses attached to the Batman franchise. One was at the very beginning, Tim Burton along with my dear friend Anton Furst.
Anton was the production designer for the first Batman film; he won the Oscar for that. It was Anton under the direction of Tim Burton who created the look of Gotham City, the Batmobile and the whole look of the picture.
I think Tim Burton’s vision for Batman and that movie and Anton Furst’s design work and Danny Elfman’s musical score impacted and influenced every genre movie since to this very day.
And then the next genius to come along — thank God — was Christopher Nolan. Chris was able to restore the darkness and dignity to the Batman and made audiences believe that Gotham City could be a real city in our crazy, gray, order-versus-chaos world, that Bruce Wayne could be a real, traumatized man on a lost horizon journey through life and that the Joker could be real today. A homicidal maniac, a modern-day terrorist who places no value on human life could unfortunately be real today to us, and that was a masterful accomplishment.
Chris raised the bar, not just for the Batman movies but all genre movies. When you walk out of one of his Batman films, you don’t say, ‘Gee, that was a great comic book movie.’ You can say, ‘That was a great film.’
IDS : What is it about Batman and the franchise that has made it so relevant to our culture for these 75 years?
Uslan: It’s several factors. And first let’s start by tipping our hats to the people who don’t get enough recognition, and that’s the people who for 75 years — the artists, writers, editors and publishers of the comics — who have brought fans back every single Wednesday to find out what’s going to happen next to our Batman. That is an enormous, unique, incredible accomplishment.
Second, let’s give a tip of the hat to the people who have been involved in the animation. I always contend that some of the best stories to come out of Batman have been on the animation side, particularly ‘Mask of the Phantasm,’ which still holds up beautifully after 20-something odd years.
Beyond that, it is the fact that Batman is the superhero without superpowers. His greatest superpower is his humanity. There is his primal origin story that transcends borders and cultures and puts him in a very unique category.
Next, I subscribe to the Stan Lee theory of super villains, and that is that the greatest and most long-lasting superheroes are those who have had the greatest super villains. Assumedly a superhero is defined by his super villains. Batman has had the greatest rogues gallery in the history of comics. And inarguably has had the greatest individual super villain ever created in the Joker.
Last thing I would say in terms of his world popularity and why he’s been around for 75 years? The last thing we have to throw in: the cool car. It’s something that, again, goes beyond all cultures.
I think those are the primary elements that add up to the world acceptance and embrace of the Batman.
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