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Michael Uslan is the executive producer of the Batman movies and is bringing other characters to the big screen. He donated his 45,000 comic book collection to Indiana University as a ‘thank you’ for his education. Jeff McLaughlin talks to him.
Michael Uslan: Comic books have always been a legitimate American art form, as indigenous to this country as jazz. What has been sad is that even the people who were drawing, producing and creating these comics in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s had no concept that what they were doing was art or historic or of any importance whatsoever. They were all just looking to survive the Depression, to get through the Second World War, to make a buck to feed their families – and spending years hiding from other people the fact that they were working on comic books. Ironically and wonderfully, they’ve spent the last decade reveling in it and being treated like rock stars at comic book conventions. The pendulum has really swung and it’s great to witness – to see these great, great writers and artists getting the attention that they deserve for what they’ve given us.
What people have to acknowledge is that the comic book is not just an art form of illustration, but it’s also an art form of storytelling. That sets it apart. It was bittersweet when Lichtenstein and Warhol took panels of comic books and reproduced them exactly the way the artists conceived and created them, and made millions off these pictures. The artists from whom the work was directly taken received nothing except anonymity.
Jeff: It is the storytelling that makes it an art form?
Michael: I think that’s part of it. They’re ‘frozen movies’. If you look at the Marvel method of doing comics, it gave the artists all the latitude in the world for creating the flow and perspectives of the story. It’s all highly stylized, and it’s one of the only art forms where more than one artist can have his or her imprint in a single drawing – the penciller, sometimes a layout artist, the inker, and the colorist. It’s quite amazing how many hands can be involved in each panel .
Jeff: I remember Stan Lee [Marvel’s first boss] telling me about keeping his real name for when he wrote the great American novel, and I told him that the impact he has had on American culture is probably far greater than whatever novel he could have written.
Michael: That’s so true. I don’t think that any writer espouses philosophy in comics more than Stan Lee. You only need to read the dialogue of the Silver Surfer if you want to read philosophy. On the other hand, if you take a look at Dr Doom and the supervillains Stan created, there’s Machiavelli – absolute power corrupting absolutely. Stan really does stand out in terms of how he revolutionized the comic book world; how he single-handedly made it more sophisticated, a more cooler art and literary form that appealed to older audiences. It transformed the whole industry.
Jeff: I can assume then that you think comic books can be philosophical.
Michael: Oh yes, absolutely, absolutely. At the root of it, it’s all about acceptance and alienation. It’s also about our dreams, desires and fantasies. It’s about good versus evil. It’s about gods and demons, and monsters and damsels in distress, and heroes and heroines who can take on any challenge. All the elements of myth and folklore are there.
Jeff: How did your view of comics carry over to the way you produced the Batman films?
Michael: The theme is that “one person can make a difference in this world.” If you’re willing to sacrifice, willing to commit, then one person can make a difference. For me that’s the bottom line. The fact that we’re also not dealing with a guy who has powers and abilities far beyond those of other men means we’re talking about a person being the best he can be mentally and physically. Batman’s sacrifice was born out of raw tragedy, driving him to the point of obsession. At age twelve, he sacrificed his childhood to commit himself to getting the guys who murdered his parents – to getting the bad guys. It’s a remarkable, inspiring story.
Jeff: You have these superheroes righting wrongs, but the bad guys always come back. We’ve held off the evil for a little bit but it’s always going to be there.
Michael: That’s true whether your stories are coming from the Bible or from mythology. Consider the Hydra: you cut off one head and two take its place. It is an eternal battle. You can’t look at Batman and not conclude that for all he’s done for the past X number of years, crime is still bad and there’s still crazies running around. The whole point is that you have to be in there fighting every day.
Jeff: What do you think about scholars who scrutinize comic books? I know you started this off, bringing them into the classroom in 1971. How did that work for you?
Michael: That was phenomenal. It changed my life actually. I had been campaigning to get comics some recognition since 1963, and so I had been at it for almost ten years at the time. In the 70s, Indiana University had an experimental curriculum department in arts and sciences, the idea being that if you had an idea for a course that had never been taught before and could get the backing of the department, you had the right to appear in front of a panel of deans and professors to attempt to convince them to accredit your course and allow you to teach it on campus. If you look at the plots, the motifs, the stock characters, it’s all very obvious that comic books are contemporary folklore. So I went to the Folklore Department for backing, then went in to see the panel of deans and professors. I walked in with my comic books and wearing my Spider-Man T-shirt. The room looked like the Justice League of America secret sanctum, and I’ll never forget the dean looking at me from the end of the table and saying, “So you’re the fellow who wants to teach a course on funny books at my university?” I launched into my thesis and he let me talk for two or three minutes before cutting me off. “Come on, Michael! Comic books as mythology and folklore? Art? And literature? Give me a break! Comic books are cheap entertainment for children – nothing more, nothing less.”
So I said to him “Can I ask you two questions?” He said, “Ask me anything you’d like.” I said, “Are you familiar with the story of Moses? Can you summarize very briefly the story of Moses?” He looked at me like I was crazy and replied, “Well, I don’t know what game you’re playing here, but I’ll play it with you. The children of Israel were being persecuted, their first born sons were being slain. A Hebrew couple put their infant son in a wicker basket and sent him down the River Nile where he was discovered by an Egyptian family and raised as their own son. When he grew up and learned of his heritage, he became a hero to his people because …” And I said “Stop. That’s great. You said before that you read Superman comics?” “Yeah,” he said, “I always read them as a kid.” I asked, “Do you know the origin of Superman?” and he replied, “The planet Krypton was about to blow up and a scientist and his wife placed their infant son in a little rocket ship and sent him to Earth where he was discovered by the Kents who raised him as their own son. And then when he grew up …” He stopped, stared at me for an eternity, and said, “Mr Uslan, your course is accredited.” I became the first college professor of comic books!
Jeff: Were you teaching comic books as literature, as art, as folklore?
Michael: I broke it up into 6 academic disciplines. I did comic book history; the comic book as literature; the comic book as art; the psychological impact of comic books on their audience; sociologically – how comic books have reflected a changing American culture over the years; and comic books as folklore and mythology.
Jeff: As you were teaching this what were your general thoughts? Some people still have the same view as the professor who asked if you wanted to teach ‘funny books’, that it’s a dumbing down of education. How do you respond to that? I remember taking a film class, and people said to me “You’re taking a Mickey Mouse course” and it was actually one of the most difficult courses.
Michael: That’s the answer. My course was difficult. The students couldn’t get into my course without my interviewing them first. I didn’t want goofballs going in thinking it would be an easy A.
In terms of it dumbing down education I can reject that as thoroughly as the dean of arts was prepared to reject my theory. I can teach mythology using comic books. I can teach the things I learned from Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton on mythology and gods using Stan Lee and Gardner Fox and Otto Binder and Edmond Hamilton, and all the other great comic book writers.
Jeff: When you were growing up and reading did you see messages in these comics or did you just read them as entertainment?
Michael: Oh no, of course there were messages. It is almost going to seem crazy, but I think a lot of my philosophy and the way I’ve conducted myself in life was inspired by Superman and Batman and the code of the superheroes. I’m not alone. I know a lot of people I’ve spoken to who grew up with this stuff and found it influencing them in terms of their lives and how they saw things.
Jeff: Were they intended to do that?
Michael: Never. The creators were intending to entertain their audience, who, at the outset, they felt were either 8-12-year-old boys or servicemen. They altered their thinking a bit with the advent of the Second World War, when they felt they had an obligation to promote patriotism and boost the morale of the kids on the home front as well as the servicemen overseas. So that was at the forefront of their intentions – not the idea that what they were doing was historically important and was going to take its place in the pantheon of great literature and mythology. Not at all.
Jeff: I don’t know if it was Arnold Drake who told me that he was quite liberal in his philosophy and so tried not to put it in the comics, that he purposely pulled back on it, and yet people would say to him, “Wow, there’s so much social commentary in your work!”
Michael: Well, people wanted social commentary by the 60s. When the 60s generation hit everything was in transition. The issues facing the youth culture or counter-culture became the war in Vietnam, trying to get 18-year-olds the right to vote, and the beginning of awareness of the environment. When you had young people in the streets campaigning for women’s rights, civil rights, everything was changing. Denny O’Neil and Stan Lee took the lead in ushering in these relevant issues into the comics of the day. Comic books wound up gaining international attention through a cover story in the New York Times magazine section. Green Lantern/Green Arrow was the focal point of it. Instead of the villains of these stories being classic supervillains, the villains become pollution, overpopulation, Spiro Agnew’s concept of a uniform society with everyone thinking and acting alike, Native American issues and issues of racism. The biggest focal point was the drug issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow and the drug issues of Spider-Man which Stan remains so proud of. He probably considers that one of the greatest contributions he’s ever made to the comic book industry. And Joe Kubert and Bob Kanigher’s Sgt Rock which in the guise of a World War Two story was actually a commentary on Lieutenant William Calley and the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Jeff: Are there themes you try to capture in your films that you draw from the comics?
Michael: It really depends on the character. Stan Lee introduced themes in comic books that nobody had touched before, including this concept of the enemy being an internal enemy rather than an external force. Among the Fantastic Four it really wasn’t so much about Dr Doom, it was really much more about the personal conflicts, the inner conflicts, and their own demons. Whether we’re talking about the alienated Ben Grimm, the impulsiveness and immaturity of Johnny Storm, or science gone mad and the need to control it, this was fascinating stuff! You had Stan dealing with Reed Richards on the one showing how science could be channelled for the good of mankind, and on the other you have Bruce Banner and the Hulk showing the military industrial complex going haywire and the negatives that could come out of science. Stan also opened it up on a cosmic level, which led to things like Dr Strange and the Silver Surfer taking us places we’d never been before. He introduced supervillains like Dr Doom who weren’t about black hats and white hats – there was a lot of grey. I don’t think Dr Doom ever considered himself to be a villain. He had his own moral code, his own objectives, and his own agenda, although it probably didn’t jive with the Fantastic Four’s. Certainly, Sub-Mariner never pictured himself as a villain. This was revolutionary. And so in doing the films, the underlying themes are what you go with as you try to maintain the integrity of the themes and characters of the comic books. With Batman it’s that one person can make a difference although it requires the ultimate sacrifice. I think that is as compelling a theme and character-driven story you could ever achieve. Or how about the Superman theme based upon him being the ultimate immigrant? His is another great story dealing with alienation. This is all great, great material.
Jeff McLaughlin is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops B.C. Canada. He edited Comics as Philosophy and Stan Lee: Conversations. His next book is entitled Philosophy: In Black and White and Color. He is grateful to the interviewee for his time and insightful comments.