Sending up the Bat Signal

Early 1970s. Wiseguy kid in Spiderman T-shirt and jeans talking animatedly to group of skeptical Indiana University department potentates.

Scene: Early 1970s. Wiseguy kid in Spiderman T-shirt and jeans talking animatedly to group of skeptical Indiana University department potentates.

First professor (half-glasses perched on tip of his imperious nose): “Comic books are not folklore, not mythology. They’re cheap entertainment for kids—no more, no less.”

The Kid: “Are you familiar with the story of Moses?”

First professor: “I am not sure what game you are playing here, son, but I will go along with it. The Hebrews were being persecuted and first-born sons were being slain, so one family took their son, put him in a wicker basket, and sent him down the River Nile. He was discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as her own. Then he grew up, learned about his background, and became a hero.”

The Kid
: “Okay, stop there. Do you remember the story of Superman? Planet Krypton is about to be blown up, so a scientist and his wife put their son in a little rocket ship and send him to earth. (Celebratory music builds.) He’s discovered by the Kents, who raise him as their own.”

First professor (staring at the upstart in bemused defeat): “Your course is accredited.”

Next scene: Victorious student, arms full of comic books, bursts onto the quad, ready to begin life as Comics Man.

It’s easy to see this scene as just a kid trying to get one over on clueless administrators. But Michael Uslan is Comics Man—faithful and true to family and friends, able to leap studio lunkheads in a single bound, more powerful than the argument against bringing superheroes to the big screen—and he was serious. He wrote The Comic Book in America to be used as the textbook in the new class, titled Comic Book Folklore.

Fresh from his success before the Indiana panel of department heads, Comics Man ran back to his dorm and called the education reporter for United Press International in Indiana. “What is wrong with you?” he said. “I just heard that Indiana University is allowing a course to be taught in comic books! It’s outrageous! I am a taxpayer in the state, and college students get to study comic books? It’s shameful!” Then he hung up. The year was 1971.

“From the time I was eight, I wanted to make a living doing something with comic books,” Uslan says. “When I got the course, I knew some publicity would help. Next thing I knew, I was getting calls from Stan Lee at Marvel—the Stan Lee. I got calls from magazines, TV stations, newspapers—everyone covered the story. But most important, I got a call from DC Comics. They flew me out and I had a summer job.”

Uslan had just made his first successful pitch and taken his first meeting in what would become a career dedicated to bringing comic-book stories to life. He taught that class from 1971 to 1973 in person and through correspondence classes until 1977, just as he started a Sisyphean task of his own that would take 25 years to get right: reclaiming the essence of Batman. Ultimately he would capture the rights to produce Batman, battle doubters who didn’t believe it would work without the cartoonish camp of the 1960s TV show, and be responsible for all the Batman movies, including last summer’s Batman Begins, which grossed more than $210 million in the United States alone.

Uslan was a toddler in 1951 when his parents, Joseph, a mason contractor, and Lillian, a bookkeeper, moved him and his older brother, Paul, from Bayonne to Ocean Township. “Dad was an old-world artist who could do anything with bricks and stones,” Uslan says. “Everything revolved around family, but my mom…made sure that Paul and I became well-rounded people.”

On his first trip to the barbershop in Asbury Park, young Michael thumbed excitedly through the shop’s coverless comic books. “Richie Rich, Archie, Superman—I couldn’t get enough,” he says. “I learned to read with those things. I couldn’t wait for Wednesdays, when the new issues would come out.”

Fortunately, Uslan had a staunch supporter in Elinor Stiller, his seventh-grade grammar teacher at Ocean Township’s Dow Avenue School. When Stiller caught Uslan reading a comic book behind his textbook, “she told me that it was okay and asked me to tell her about the story,” Uslan says. “I was stunned.”

“I love what comic books represented to kids,” says Stiller, who lives in Long Branch. “There was a hero, there was a villain, there was conflict, and the villain always got caught and punished.” It didn’t hurt that Stiller’s son, Robert, liked the comics as well. “I asked Michael if Robert could join his comic-book club,” Stiller says. “I said, ‘Okay, he can join,’” Uslan recalls with a laugh, “‘but he’s got to take a written test first.’ He passed, and we had meetings in their basement for at least a year.”

Of course, no superhero is complete without a trusty sidekick, and Comics Man found his in fifth grade in Bob Klein, a new kid at his school. “ [The teacher] asked if anyone would share their locker with me,” Klein says. “Michael volunteered, so we walk out into the hall, he opens his locker, and there’s a Superman poster taped to his door. We’ve been best friends ever since.”

Uslan’s parents drove him and Klein to the Collingswood Auction, halfway between Asbury Park and Freehold, every Friday night to look for comic books. “The guy would bring in boxes of old books from New York City and sell them to us each for five cents—less than half what we could buy new ones for,” Uslan says. “We wound up with originals, some dating back to 1936, and it helped us build a collection.” The turning point for Uslan came when his parents took him and Klein to Manhattan for the inaugural comic-book convention in 1964. “We didn’t know there were other geeks like us out there,” Uslan says. “We got to meet the writers, the creators, the artists—the people who made these books we lived for. We found out about fanzines—the magazines devoted to the comic-book industry. I started writing for them when I was a teenager.”

Though eager to follow his passion, Uslan also wanted to marry and support his college sweetheart, Nancy, so he enrolled at Indiana University’s law school. He’d come home and toss his books disgustedly, finding solace in writing stories for the Batman comic books, and he vowed to find a way to make that his life’s work.

Like any superhero, Comics Man does have one weak spot: He can’t leave New Jersey for prolonged periods. After law school, Comics Man, like the illustrated men and women he idealized, toiled furiously, never revealing his alter ego as a film studio copyright attorney on projects such as Raging Bull and some of the Rocky movies. The nearly four years in Hollywood were merely a means to get back home and continue his mission to bring the true Batman back to the big screen.

Back on the East Coast, Uslan won a “Best Animated Series” Emmy Award in 1995 for producing Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? for the Fox Network. But he could no longer contain his Batman obsession. He partnered with longtime Hollywood producer Benjamin Melniker to create BatFilm Productions Inc. What might have been the final straw for him came in a meeting in which he was pitching the concept of a serious Batman. “ ‘This Batman will never work, because Annie didn’t do very well at the box office,’ the studio exec said. I just stood up and walked out,” Uslan says. “I knew I would get it done. I just had to.”

Batman memorabilia tastefully dots the first floor of Uslan’s North Jersey home. But along the stairs leading to what he calls the “Bat Cave,” original artwork from the legends of the comic-book world cover the walls. Uslan fills the tour with arcane tidbits about each artist, each superhero. He works with three assistants in this home office, whose walls are lined top to bottom with resource volumes, books Uslan has written, and inspirations for new projects, 30 of which are in various stages of development.

Uslan’s painstaking commitment to reviving these heroes is as unyielding as his commitment to the Garden State. “This is where Nancy and I raised our children. My father built the first home we had across town,” Uslan says. “We have phones, e-mail, and planes. I can go wherever I need to go, but I always need to come back to New Jersey.” Their daughter, Sarah, is studying fashion in New York City, while their son, David, has joined his father’s new company, Comic Book Movies LLC. “We are going to finance the development and production of my future film franchises based upon comic book characters I loved as a child and grew up with, upon cutting-edge contemporary American comic book characters, and upon the leading edge of Japanese manga comic books and graphic novels,” Uslan says. Batman Begins has cleared the way for him to produce movies that rely less on gadgets and more on story lines.

While his son runs the company’s office in California, Uslan is staying put, hoping that bringing out the true spirit of the superheroes will rekindle interest in them. “At its core, Batman is a story of a man who wants to avenge the death of his parents, but he also wants to rid the world of villains,” he says. “It’s a much darker tale, but it’s truer to who he is and what the stories represent.”

Between film projects, Uslan found time to dust off a children’s story he had written 28 years ago but never published, Chatterbox: The Bird Who Wore Glasses. “After Nancy moved off campus,” he says. “I bought her a powder-blue-and-white parakeet. I named the bird after the Chatterbox, the restaurant where we had our first date. The bird talked all the time. She also flew into windows, crashed into drapes…and dive-bombed me incessantly. Nancy and Chatterbox were inseparable, but Chatterbox caught a cold and died. To comfort Nancy, I stayed up that night and wrote a children’s story.…When I read it to Nancy the next morning, she laughed and cried. I stumbled across it as I was moving old files around. I submitted it to EE Publishing as a lark, and now its publication is looming.”

Looking back on his career, Uslan says, “There have been some amazing times, and some times when I had no idea where my next dollar was coming from. But I am so proud that I was able to see it through. My dad always said, ‘I am not afraid of dying. I am afraid of running out of time.’ I’ve been blessed. My parents taught me that it’s okay to be different. I knew that I would work hard like they did, and if I am going to spend twelve to twenty hours a day doing it, I’d better love it. And it all started nineteen miles from where I am right now.”

When the semester started this fall at Indiana U, Comics Man was back on campus. It was Batman Week, and Uslan was there to remind students that the trials of a superhero are a reward unto themselves.

Article from November, 2005 Issue.

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