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If you go
What: Talk by Michael Uslan, producer of the “Batman” movies
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Cordier Auditorium, Manchester College, North Manchester
Admission: Free
The Journal Gazette

A Knight like this

IU grad never stopped pushing for best Caped Crusader franchise

In 1966, Michael Uslan was a comic book-loving eighth-grader living in Cedar Grove, N.J., when an event of monumental importance to all comic book-loving eighth-graders occurred.

It was an event that would change the course of comic book history.

As important events in history go, this one was unusually campy, whimsical, leering, hammy and unflatteringly dressed.

It was the debut of the “Batman” TV series.

Light-hearted portrayals of the Dark Knight were nothing new, but this was something else entirely.

Uslan had mixed emotions, to say the least.

“I was simultaneously thrilled and horrified with what I was seeing,” he says. “I was thrilled that Batman was coming to TV. It was in color so someone was spending a lot of money on it. The car was cool.

“But I knew the world was laughing at my Batman,” Uslan says. “And that killed me.”

Uslan says it was about this time that he began to formulate a goal in his head.

“That I would one day eliminate from the collective consciousness of the world culture the words ‘pow,’ ‘zap’ and ‘wham,’ ” he says.

Years later, Uslan would accomplish this goal – by executive-producing Tim Burton’s first Batman movie and returning the character to its noir roots.

Uslan will talk about his life and career at Manchester College on Wednesday.

Unlike many comic book fans with comic book aspirations, Uslan went a more practical route in school. He majored in urban education and history at Indiana University, where he went on to earn his law degree. But he never stopped dreaming of Hollywood.

“I was thinking, ‘How do I get to Hollywood from a chair in Bloomington?’ ” he recalls. “I came from a blue-collar family. I don’t have relatives in the business. I don’t know anyone in the business. I don’t have the money to buy my way into the business.”

One thing Uslan did do, which had more to do with his love of comics than his love of Hollywood, was persuade IU to let him teach a class about comic books. It was, perhaps, the first such class that had ever been taught anywhere.

The class drew national media attention and, subsequently, the notice of comic book execs at Marvel and DC Comics.

DC’s Sol Harrison flew Uslan to New York, and soon Uslan was contributing to such titles as “The Shadow” and “Batman.”

But Uslan’s real dream was to buy the screen rights to the Dark Knight.

“I told Sol what I wanted to do, and he looked at me like I was nuts,” Uslan says. “He said, and this is a direct quote, ‘Batman is dead as a dodo.’ ”

Harrison advised Uslan to get some experience in the movie business, so Uslan got a job as an attorney for United Artists.

Eventually, Uslan teamed up with former MGM executive Ben Melnicker and the two acquired the screen rights to Batman.

But even with Uslan’s enthusiasm for the character, Harrison was proved right, at least initially. Nobody wanted to do a movie about Batman, especially not a serious movie.

A decade of rejection followed, then Uslan was approached by a young filmmaker named Tim Burton.

Uslan watched Burton’s “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and grew excited by the possibilities.

“I had never seen a director whose direction was so married to his art direction,” he says, which is just a fancy way of saying that Burton’s films have a distinct look.

Uslan put his faith in Burton and that faith was threatened only once, when Burton cast Michael Keaton in the title role.

Readers might recall that Keaton was then known primarily as a comedic actor.

“When an executive called me to find out what I thought about Tim’s latest idea, I said ‘Oh that’s great. Mr. Mom as Batman. It’s dream casting,’ ” Uslan recalls. “I thought he was playing a joke on me. When I found out he was serious, I went crazy.”

Uslan pointed out to Burton that Keaton had none of the physical attributes to play a convincing Batman.

“And Tim said to me, ‘Michael, a square jaw (does not equal) Batman,’ ” Uslan says.

Burton told Uslan that he was more interested in finding an actor who was charismatic enough not to be blown off the screen by Jack Nicholson as The Joker.

As controversial as the casting of Keaton was before the release of the first “Batman” movie, nobody could imagine the role being played by anyone else thereafter, Uslan says.

The franchise took a turn toward the silly in the third and fourth installments. All Uslan will say about that is: Sometimes marketing in Hollywood gets too wrapped up in the creative side.

Director Christopher Nolan returned Batman to the dark side in “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight.”

Uslan says of the latter that it’s the first great comic book movie that’s also just a great movie.

Uslan is producing movies based on “The Shadow” and “Shazam,” and he was the writer responsible for the controversial storyline that had Archie contemplating marriage to Veronica.

“I knew it would create a lot of general interest, but I didn’t know it would create a public firestorm,” he says, chuckling. “It got media coverage everywhere – in India, China and Sweden. It has just been unbelievable.”

That particular series of comic books proved to consist of what-if scenarios, including one in which Archie married Betty.

spen@jg.net

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