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The Paper’d Persuader himself — mega-movie producer, author, editor and comic book authority Michael E. Uslan — returns to his formative stomping grounds of Asbury Park and Deal this weekend, in a slate of events keyed to the publication of his new book, THE BOY WHO LOVED BATMAN: A MEMOIR.
This happened in Newark, way back when we were a little kid: the Batman movie, starring Adam West and the gang from the 1960s TV show, was playing in some downtown theater when the familiar George Barris Batmobile made a promotional appearance on the streets of Brick City. Interest was high as a couple of guys in Bat-regalia hopped in, hit the atomic turbo power (somewhere alongside the Detect-O-Scope), and…nothing. No flames shooting out the back, no raptor-like scream of turbines, no Neal Hefti theme music. Just some movie house employees and helpful onlookers pressed into service for a manual push down the block, around the corner, and presumably off to the same local garage that your dad’s Rambler American would have landed in. Scarred us for life, it did.
Things worked out differently for Michael E. Uslan, a kid from the mean streets of Deal, an Ocean Township HS grad and a comic book aficionado of a level that one simply doesn’t outgrow. Possessor of a legendary collection; present at the creation of the very earliest comic book conventions, the graduate of Ocean Township HS became the professor of the first-ever accredited college course in comics — a much-publicized laurel that eventually landed him his first writing gigs in the field, on the short-lived DC series Beowulf and The Shadow.
Being a media-savvy comics expert (and the smartest guy in the room) also got him into the motion picture business, in a Local-Boy-Made-Hollywood-Good way that usually only happens in the movies. In cahoots with longtime producing partner Benjamin Melniker, Uslan’s production credits on the Swamp Thing films led to his pitch for a new, big-budget, big-screen treatment of the Caped Crusader — a tough sell that would trace a torturous path to the multiplexes with the first two films in the latter-day Batman franchise (directed by Tim Burton and highlighted by the controversial casting of Carrey-esque comic actor Michael Keaton).
With the Bat-flix an instant sensation, Uslan would turn to “sequential storytelling” repeatedly for lesser-loved projects like Catwoman, Constantine and The Spirit — in addition to producing the hit National Treasure movies and winning an Emmy for his work on the kid-ucational TV show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? But it’s to the Bat-cave that Uslan has returned time and again for his greatest successes; following through on the franchise with two relatively goofier films directed by Joel Schumacher (with future fatman Val Kilmer and smilin’ celeb George Clooney donning the cape ‘n cowl) — and an edgier re-boot that teamed one of the most unpredictable stars of our age (Christian Bale) with the filmmaker who brought us such convoluted mass hallucinations as Memento and Inception (Christopher Nolan). It’s a dynamic duo-ism that’s resulted in one of the top two or three box office boffos of all time (The Dark Knight) — and a collaboration that comes to a close with the upcoming trilogy-capper The Dark Knight Rises.
Having shepherded so many classic characters to celluloid fruition, Uslan is presently juggling platefuls of projects featuring such golden-age goodguys as Captain Marvel, Doc Savage and (again) The Shadow. But with the buzz-o-sphere practically shutting down all global communications over the 2012 release of the next Chris-and-Chris caper, it’s all about the Batman — and when Uslan hits the herringboned hardwoods of the Asbury Park boardwalk this Saturday, August 20, he’ll be celebrating another Bat-tacular release — his new book The Boy Who Loved Batman: A Memoir.
The mega-fan turned movie mogul will be spending the day at locations around the AP oceanfront between 12 noon and 11pm — with two book signing sessions, a cocktail reception featuring Q&A, an informal meet ‘n greet and a special outdoor showing of the 1989 Bat-movie by the sandy seating of Asbury’s award winning beach (also promised is a display of Batmobiles through the ages, inside the Grand Arcade at Convention Hall). Then on Sunday, August 21, the son of Deal visits the Axelrod Performing Arts Center (at the JCC of Monmouth) for a 7pm presentation/ wine reception/ Q&A/ book signing event that’s co-sponsored by Congregation Torat El. Upper WET Side caught up with this down-to-earth maker of fantastic fiction for a conversation that included a whole lot of discussion about comics (particularly the recent passing of our favorite Silver Age artist, genial Gene Colan) — and even some other stuff, which we reproduce for you with a flip of the pulse-poundingly pixelated page.
upperWETside: Last time you did a personal appearance in the local area, it was keyed into your writing for a different American hero — Archie. Now you’re doing a whole summer weekend’s worth of Bat-related signings and such. What’s the secret origin of the Asbury Park thing — did you come to them with the idea?
MICHAEL E. USLAN: I’m working with Madison Marquette on these events…rather than do a single tightly scheduled book signing, we’re kind of spreading things out, all up and down the boardwalk, throughout the day and night. The fans will have plenty of opportunities to meet and greet.
Well, we could use a little Batman here in Asbury for sure. Although we take comfort in knowing that Michael Uslan is on the case.
It’s a homecoming, really, even though I spend time regularly on the Jersey Shore, in addition to spending one week out of each month in LA. In fact, the Axelrod is just three blocks from the house where I grew up, in Deal.
I look at this as a validation of my journey; a way for me to acknowledge the people and the places that have empowered me to make my dreams come true.
I would argue that nothing empowered you more than your own go-getter skills, your intelligence and your enviable ability to make your childhood interests into a game-changing grownup reality…
Well, I have to give all due credit to my friends and family members who set such a great example. My father was a mason for many years, working six days a week, outside in all kinds of weather — and he just loved it. I could take you on a tour of the Shore and show you all the houses that he worked on, all the patios that my dad made. My brother Paul and I both worked with him for a short time, and while I can’t say we shared his love for masonry work, we knew that he had the right approach to life. We just needed to figure out what OUR bricks and stones were.
How crucial was it that you grew up where you did? The absolute epicenter of the comics business was always Manhattan — in fact, it was the epicenter of the Marvel universe as well — so not only did you have easy access to the city, but you surely came to realize that most of the guys who made the comics lived in and around the city…a whole lot of them in Jersey. (Side note: for a brief moment, official DC Comics continuity suggested that Batman’s hometown of Gotham City was in NJ; an idea that apparently went the way of Bat-Mite)
It’s true! So much of my exposure to comics can be traced to the fact that I grew up in New Jersey. It became the foundation for a lifetime of relationships. I got to know Otto Binder, who wrote the old Captain Marvel stories — he created Mary Marvel, the Marvel Family — because he lived in New Jersey. And he put me in touch with people like C. C. Beck.
My friend Bobby Klein and I would ride the train to New York City from Asbury Park…we got to take a tour of DC Comics; meet some of our favorite writers and artists. We met guys like Joe Simon at Harvey; of course Stan Lee; Samm Schwartz at Tower Comics. It was all just a short trip away.
This was at the very dawn of fanboy culture…maybe even a few years before it all started to take root. And without realizing it at the time, kids like you and your friend really got the ball rolling on what would eventually become ComiCon, just by writing letters to the editor or sending away for a Merry Marvel Marching Society button.
When I found out about the existence of the first fanzines…I can’t begin to tell you how much impact that had on me as a fan. Prior to that, comic books were an isolating hobby — you could grow up thinking you were the only person in the world who was interested in them.
I remember the very first comics convention…July 1964, at some fleabag hotel off the Bowery. I saw the very first panel discussion, the first comics auction, the first costume competition. My own first costume was the original 1930s Sandman, Wesley Dodds, with the fedora and the gloves and the gas mask!
Back then of course you could find all that cool stuff inside your uncle’s closet, right down to the Civil Defense gas mask. Now old Wesley Dodds — just like Batman, The Shadow, even Iron Man later on — was one of those dashing playboy types who for some reason became crime fighters. It was a common backstory during the Golden Age.
And Oliver Queen — Green Arrow, and the Green Hornet and many others. There was that tradition with a lot of heroic characters; the seemingly devil-may-care playboy type who led a secret life as a defender of the helpless.
A lot of comic book characters, Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, seem happy in their secret identities. They’re rich and influential and appear to have everything they want. But all of them have this need to have accomplished something…they wound up having this personal moment, had a crisis, and made a vow to put things right. Spider Man, who of course is NOT a millionaire, had this moment too..he originally looks at his super powers as a way to make money, but when his actions lead to the death of someone he loves, he realizes that he needs to apply responsibility to power.
Well, Batman is very much a product of his time, but he’s been able to adapt to the different eras, seeming either serious or silly depending upon whose stewardship he’s under.
I have several different favorite eras of Batman…each one has its own mood and character. There was the original 1939, pre-Robin Batman by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. And a little later on, Dick Sprang did what I think is the most incredibly stylized treatment of the character that anyone has ever done — even at the age of 8, 9, 10, I knew that those stories were not drawn by the same guys that started it.
Then of course Neal Adams, Denny O’Neill brought the character to a whole new level in the 1970s. The writer Steve Englehart did what I think is the most darkly romantic version of the character. You mentioned Jim Aparo, a DC artist from the early 70s who did such good work, with a number of different writers, on The Brave and the Bold. Norm Breyfogle…the list goes on!
It seems to me that Batman brings out the best in his creative teams, in ways that Superman and other guys just can’t. For all his limitless power, Superman winds up being a very limited character — whereas Batman, despite the old fashioned aspects of the character, found himself positioned to take advantage of the more adult currents that started taking hold in mainstream comics in the 1980s.
And Hollywood has definitely not been the same, although of course it took them a few more years to get the memo that “Bang! Zoom! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” Not so long ago a WATCHMEN movie would’ve been unthinkable, and by the time it finally arrived it arguably got lost in the middle of a crowded field.
I’m sure you realize that you’re one of the two or three people who are most responsible for moving that puck forward…and it’s got almost everything to do with the fact that you’re a true lover of comics; you respect the source in ways that countless other Hollywood types couldn’t be bothered. I’ve cited THE DARK KNIGHT as my fave superhero movie to anyone who’ll listen, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that it works so well outside the protocols of the superhero story. To me, it’s one of the great modern cops and robbers stories; up there with Michael Mann’s HEAT. The scenes in the interrogation room and courtroom, with these perfectly cast actors, are worth a thousand explosions…although I gotta say that truck crash was very groovy indeed.
The real credit has to go to the man in the Batman suit, Christian Bale; such a great and intense actor and just so perfect for those films — and to the man behind the camera, Christopher Nolan. I absolutely believe that Chris is the first director of the 21st century who should be studied in film schools.
Hopefully they’ll have another look at THE PRESTIGE, which I thought deserved better than a quick box office death. Now the success of the Batman franchise, along with X-Men, Spider Man and a few others, has obviously tipped the scales toward a genuine trend in superhero blockbusters, to the point where a lot of people are complaining that there’s nothing else playing at the multiplex.
As I explain in my book, it wasn’t so very long ago that they’d be showing you the door if you came to them with a pitch for a quality big-budget movie based on a comic book. But yes, we did experience a shift in attitudes, and nothing helps that more than favorable results at the box office.
Now of course it seems as if most of the well-known superhero characters are on their way to the big screen, if they haven’t gotten there already. The special effects have really caught up to the original vision of the creators — back when we were first reading comics, what we saw on the page represented the best special effects available outside of our own imaginations — although there’s been a big rush in the past couple of years to work everything into 3-D.
A lot of the stuff that’s out there really shouldn’t be in 3-D — it plays very flat, with the 3-D done as an afterthought — and underneath all of that, it’s still very necessary to tell a compelling story. I love the new Captain America movie…that one really delivered for me, and it has nothing to do with Cap’s shield flying off the screen into your face.
I’m especially interested in the fact that you’re reaching back beyond the silver age comics, to the 1930s pulps for some of your upcoming projects…The Shadow, Doc Savage. It seems like a bit of a gamble for the studios, getting a new generation psyched for a character for which they have no real point of reference, other than some very disappointing previous screen attempts.
That Doc Savage movie produced by George Pal (starring future Miss America Pageant emcee Ron Ely, and featuring a score of John Philips Sousa marches) was one of the worst movies ever made. A complete embarrassment and a disservice to the character.
Actually, Space Cabby would have made a great picture! Can you imagine it with Danny De Vito, flying around picking up fares from the Star Wars cantina, getting into adventures? I really think we missed our window of opportunity with that one.
I’m not so sure about other things, like the Legion of Super-Pets…Hot Stuff, The Little Devil. And they’ve always had problems with Ant Man/ Giant Man/ Yellowjacket…they never knew what to do with him, and the character himself went kind of nuts as a result.
Well, if anyone can work that one out, it’s you — and I’ll look forward afterward to THE BOY WHO LIKED ANT-MAN. Looking forward as well to all the things you’ve got in the works…how awesome is it to get to play high-stakes action figures with all these classic characters?
It’s amazing. I get to report to a sandbox to work every day. I get to be 16 for the rest of my life!
The August 20 schedule of BAT-happenings on the Asbury Park boardwalk is bookended by a pair of signing sessions at The Sundry Times (noon and 10:30pm), a discussion plus Q&A at Watermark (2pm), a casual hang at The Beach Bar (6pm), and a special beachside screening of the 1989 Batman movie starring Michael Keaton. All this plus a display of real live Batmobiles in the Grand Arcade of Convention Hall; take it here for full details on the Asbury Park events, and here for tix to the Axelrod event on August 21.