When Michael Uslan was a boy, he watched the stuff that dreams are made of literally go up in smoke.
A friend’s father, who shared the dim view of comic books most grown-ups held in the 1950s and ’60s, burned his son’s collection in his fireplace as young Michael watched in horror. Uslan estimates that the comics he saw consumed in flames that day, which included Spider-Man’s first appearance, would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today.
“There were comic book burnings in various towns,” Uslan told TODAY.com. “In postwar America, comics were blamed for juvenile delinquency and, my favorite, asthma, because comic book readers stayed indoors to read instead of playing outside in the fresh air.”
Despite all that, Uslan grew up to not only write comic books, but become the originator and executive producer of the “Batman” film franchise, which has brought in nearly $1.9 billion at the box office since 1989. But soon he will receive vindication that, if possible, may actually be sweeter: On Oct. 10, he’ll receive the world’s first fine arts doctorate in comic books, conferred by Monmouth University, a stone’s throw from where he grew up the son of a stonemason in New Jersey.
That degree will close a wide circle for Uslan, who in 1971 taught the world’s first accredited college course in comics, at Indiana University.
“One of my life’s goals is to make the world aware that comics are an indigenous American art form, as legitimate as jazz,” he told TODAY.com. As the modern equivalent of ancient mythology and a mirror to society, he maintains, comics are “contemporary American folklore.”
But reaching for that goal has been no easy task. “When I first got out to Hollywood with Batman, I was rejected by every single studio,” he told TODAY.com. “The prejudice was incredible.”
That changed with the release of “Batman” starring Michael Keaton in 1989. Uslan feels “the first film by Tim Burton was revolutionary” in conveying the original vision of Batman as a dark avenger of the night, not the campy buffoon who cavorted on TV in the late 1960s.
And that vision, he believes, culminated in the three Christian Bale Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” and this year’s “The Dark Knight Rises”). “What Chris has done has been to elevate the comic book movie,” Uslan said. “People say ‘that was a great film,’ not ‘that was a great comic book movie.’”
So, in homage to his hero, will “The Boy Who Loved Batman” (as Uslan’s memoir is titled), dress up like the Dark Knight to collect his degree?
“They’re putting me up there in the black robe, and I’m hoping it will be pointy like Batman’s cape,” Uslan said with a laugh. “If not, maybe I can wear Batman Underoos underneath.”