Movie Producer Michael Uslan on Superheroes, Comic Books and Why Hollywood Doesn’t Get It

Movie producer Michael E. Uslan didn’t come from a Hollywood background. He was, by his own description, “a blue-collar kid from New Jersey.” His journey from the son of a stone mason to a Hollywood producer is a classic tale of success through a combination of heartfelt passion and relentless persistence.

At the age of eight, Uslan decided he wanted to make comic books his life’s work. The goal: To write Batman comic books. He took the first step toward that ambition in college, when Uslan persuaded academic administrators at Indiana University to allow him to teach a course on the history and culture of the comic book. The topic gained national attention (in part because of Uslan’s shrewd public relations maneuvers) and resulted in Uslan getting a summer job at DC Comics, publishers of Superman and Batman. When editors there found themselves without a writer on a tight deadline for a story for The Shadow, Uslan volunteered to pinch hit. Upon successfully completing that assignment, he was offered the opportunity to pen a Batman story.

Having achieved his life’s ambition at a young age, Uslan set his sights on a new goal. When the “Batman” television show had debuted on ABC in 1966, Uslan — then a teen — was “simultaneously thrilled and horrified.” He was thrilled to see Batman on television — in color! — and driving a cool car. But he was horrified that people were making fun of his hero. Uslan was determined to show the world the dark and serious Batman he loved as a child. After going to law school and working for United Artists for several years, Uslan and partner Benjamin Melniker secured an option for the movie rights for Batman from DC Comics.

Uslan was convinced that Hollywood would jump at the chance to develop a big-budget, serious film about the Dark Knight. He was wrong. His idea was rejected by studio after studio — often with bizarre responses, a few of which are described in Uslan’s new memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, to be published in August.

It took 10 years to get a studio to commit to the production. The resulting film, Batman, was the top grossing film of 1989 and launched a franchise that is still going strong.

Now a successful producer, Uslan, 60, still remains something of a Hollywood outsider. He stays close to his roots, living not in Los Angeles but in northern New Jersey. And Uslan brings an outsider’s perspective to the deal-making that drives Hollywood. He still occasionally writes for comic books, recently completing the “Archie Gets Married” series for Archie Comics.

Knowledge@Wharton met with Uslan as he was beginning production of The Dark Night Rises — the next film in the Batman franchise and the third with visionary director Christopher Nolan at the helm. Uslan spoke about his personal history, Hollywood’s efforts regarding comic book adaptations and the future of the comic book industry.

An edited version of that conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: You have said that when you were a boy, you wanted to find a way to make comic books your life’s work. Was that just a vague notion or did you have a plan?

Uslan: Well, it wasn’t a strategy; it was a dream — starting at age eight — to write Batman comics.

There was a progression when you read comic books growing up. I started with Harvey Comics — Richie Rich, Casper, Little Max [followed by]Archie Comics, especially Little Archie. And then I discovered Superman, mostly because of the influence of the TV show and my older brother. Then it was every issue with Superman I could get my hands on: Superboy, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, whatever. Batman was a little bit different than Superman. It was a little scarier.

At age eight, I graduated from Superman to Batman. I identified with him more than I did Superman or Spider-Man or the others. I realized that with the right costume, the right training, the right car, I could be this guy. That was when I said, “I want to write Batman comics.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Later, to fund your way through law school, you sold 20,000 of your comic books. Was that painful?

Uslan: It was. Life is made up of choices.

I was okay [financially], but I didn’t come from money. My dad was a mason and my mom was a bookkeeper. I was marrying the girl of my dreams, who I met the first day of my freshman year of college. Between the two of us, we had basically nothing. Our folks were supportive, but neither one of us felt entitled to live off them.

So what do you do? I had assets. The first stuff I shuffled off was my Lois Lane collection.

Knowledge@Wharton: In 1979, you acquired an option on the movie rights to Batman. You’ve never disclosed the price you paid.

Uslan: It’s irrelevant. In 1979 dollars, it was huge.

Knowledge@Wharton: If you had to sell your comics books to go to law school, how did you assemble the funds to purchase the film rights? Did you take on investors?

Uslan: The money came from individual investors who were people I knew. Each put up a little bit of money until my partner, Ben Melniker, and I were able to secure the option.

Ben was a legend in the movie business, and I have to credit his expertise. As a lawyer, for me to have attempted to represent myself in that deal with DC, I might as well have slashed my wrists. I would have said “yes” to anything. If part of the deal was I would have to dress in the costume for the next 10 years, I would have done it. I was very happy to have someone who was not emotionally involved and knew how to mount a production.

Knowledge@Wharton: Batman was a big-budget movie — and this was your first time producing?

Uslan: I had learned during my four years at [United Artists] as a motion picture attorney how to finance and produce movies, but I never mounted a production. I was in my 20s, and this was a big, big jump.

When I produced my first film it was exactly the way my dad described learning to swim at Boy Scout camp in the Catskills: They put them on a canoe, rowed them out to the deep end of the lake, threw them overboard and said, “Swim.” That’s how I learned to produce movies.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’ve been active lobbying for creators’ rights in the comic book industry.

Uslan: [Superman creators] Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster apparently signed away all their rights to Superman on the basis of being paid $10 a page for a 13-page story for a total of $130. They sued the company in 1947. They lost that case. As a result, they were virtually blacklisted. Their names were stripped off of all the Superman comics. Siegel wound up working in the mail room of some company. Joe Shuster, the artist, was legally blind and ended up [living] in a cold water flat. They had no medical insurance, they were broke and their creation was the success of the century.

It got so bad for them and their families that at the time the first Superman movie was being shot in the 1970s, [fellow comic book artists] Jerry Robinson and Neal Adams came to the rescue. Since the legal system had denied [Siegel and Shuster] any benefit from Superman, [Robinson and Adams] took their case to the public. As a result of their efforts, Siegel and Shuster were given a settlement, which paid them a certain amount every year, took care of their medical expenses and restored their names to not only the comic books, but to the upcoming movie. It gave them back, if not economic stability, at least some dignity.

Knowledge@Wharton: This seems to have been a problem throughout much of the history of the comic book industry.

Uslan: The problem with the comic book industry is that the creators — the writers, the artists — historically were never really taken care of. There were no benefits. There were no pensions. There was no union. [Publishers] would use [the creators'] works over and over again in many different formats, and there was no royalty structure. It was just a flat, onetime payment.

And you have [artist] Roy Lichtenstein — who took the panels right out of the comic books, recreated them on a big canvas and sold them for millions and millions of dollars — giving the comic book’s artist zero. Over the years, they have tried to petition Lichtenstein’s estate — nothing. So these are people who have been denigrated.

Now, after years of all of us battling in the trenches, you can find [comic book creators'] works hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution, the Louvre. There are universities that teach their work. There are 135,000 people showing up for a comic book convention. Their work is the basis of hit international blockbuster movies, television shows, cartoon series and video games. It’s impacting the culture and fashion. This is a wonderful thing. It came too late for many of them, but it’s important that these people be acknowledged.

Knowledge@Wharton: Under current copyright law, creators and their heirs can seek to regain the copyright given to a company after 56 years. Disney’s Marvel Studios is about to release a Captain America film. Does that mean that [Captain America writer and artist] Joe Simon and the estate of [artist] Jack Kirby can claim rights to that character?

Uslan: Yes, there are recapture rights. The Kirby estate has already filed on all of the Marvel creations that Kirby was involved in. They put Disney on notice. Joe Simon was the first comic book creator to use this new recapture provision on Captain America and take it to court. I’m happy to say as Joe approaches his 98th birthday, that he’s succeeded.

Now the floodgates have opened. The biggest litigation, which has been going on for years, is the attempt by Jerry Siegel’s widow, who [recently] passed away, and his daughter to reclaim half the copyright of Superman. The most recent decision in that case has been in favor of the Siegel family. Now the Shuster family is becoming involved. There are a couple of key decisions to be handed down shortly. There’s a possibility that the copyright on Superman will no longer solely be [owned by] DC comics.

Knowledge@Wharton: Some of the middle Batman films were less successful, both critically and commercially. Was there a point when you became aware that the series was getting off track?

Uslan: Let’s talk generally in the movie industry rather than specifically. Generally, years ago you were dealing with simply movie studios. Today, the bulk of those studios are worldwide conglomerates that have their hands in many different businesses. Sometimes, unfortunately, people lose track of what is important. As a result, at some points in time, the tail begins to wag the dog. [These conglomerates] become way too focused on merchandizing, toys and Happy Meals, and begin to impose directives that movies should have three heroes, three villains, and each one should have two vehicles and two costume changes. Then the danger you run into — which I have seen over and over again — [is that the movies become] products that closely resemble a two-hour infomercial for toys, rather than a great piece of film that’s character-driven and plot-intensive. That’s sad.

There is another trap in the movie and TV industry, whereby people who do not understand the comics and who don’t have the same respect for the integrity of the character or its creators, are willing to ignore 20, 40, 60 years of history and mythology of a character, and make changes for nothing more than the sake of change or, on some occasions, for [the sake of] someone putting their own ego stamp on it so they can claim it as theirs. I have found that never works.

If, however, a company such as the current management at Warner Brothers, for one example, finds a great filmmaker with a passion for a character and a vision for a character, and gives that filmmaker everything he or she needs to execute that vision, that’s when you get great pieces of cinema like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises. For example, when audiences walk out of The Dark Knight, they no longer are limited to merely saying, “That was a great comic book film.” They can now say, “That was a great film.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Will The Dark Knight Rises be in 3-D or is Nolan doing it in 2-D?

Uslan: He and [cinematographer] Wally Pfister have said they would not shoot in 3-D. I totally believe he’s right. He’s going for something that feels very real…. I think 3-D doesn’t behoove that effort.

Knowledge@Wharton: Some industry observers have wondered whether 3-D is overhyped.

Uslan: One of the great experiences I had as a member of an audience was going on opening night to see the restored print of Lawrence of Arabia at the Cinerama Dome [movie theater in Hollywood]. I couldn’t add to that. It’s a learning curve. And it’s not just about the technology developing; it’s about the techniques developing.

My biggest objection at the moment is to what Hollywood is always really, really good at — which is killing the golden goose by taking movies not shot in 3-D and playing with them in post production [to generate a 3-D image] to try to salvage bad pictures, or to come up with a flimsy excuse to charge $12, $15, or $18. When you inundate the public with a lot of bad movies in 3-D, just as fast as you turned them onto it, you will turn them off of it.

Knowledge@Wharton: What surprises you most about the way the comic book industry has evolved over the years since when you were a comic-reading kid?

Uslan: Who could have anticipated the demise of print? I think you are going to see a pretty rapid disappearance of the traditional print pamphlet comic book as you see comics starting to appear on apps in new creative ways.

A lot of the creators are uneasy about what’s going to happen in the digital world because no one yet quite understands how it’s going to work out economically. You can’t just [tell creators], “Well, you’re going to get x, y or z.” It’s more like, “Hold on, we’re all trying to figure this out.”

[My son David] is working with a company called Graphicly, which is funded by Microsoft and venture capital. They have a deal with 80% of all comic book companies, including Marvel and Archie. They are doing incredible creative stuff to make the digital experience something unique in and of itself, and not simply throwing digital versions of a comic book page up on a computer screen.

The digital comic book has really only existed [for a little over a year]. It was April [2010] when the iPad went on sale that people said, “Oh my god, we can monetize this.” Everything changed that day. Now it’s become a locomotive and is moving at lightning speed. I think it’s going to be a very exciting next turn for the American comic book as we know it.

They’re creating a Wednesday-at-the-comic-book-store atmosphere digitally, [with opportunities for reader] interaction with other fans and with the creators. Graphicly is putting up comic books where you can strip the color out and see the original art. Then you can strip the ink out and see the original pencils. You can read the original script or variations of it. There’s one [application] where you can take out all the captions and word balloons, or you can [translate them into] any language you want. There’s another one that gives you a music and [sound] effects track. You could be reading a Conan comic book and hearing the music from Gladiator, and listening to someone like Jude Law read the part.

All kinds of new things are being done. In another generation or two, you’re going to see 3-D comic books coming out of your iPad or notebook. It’s not going to be 3-D like the old comic books; it’s like Disney’s Haunted Mansion [amusement park ride]. It’s incredible. I’ve seen a demonstration. It knocked me out.

I still like the tactile experience of holding a comic book, collecting a comic book, having them on my library shelf. But I am the brontosaurus of the group — which, by the way, is a role I’m exceedingly comfortable in.

Knowledge@Wharton: What pleases you most about how the industry has changed?

Uslan: I’m delighted how comics have grown up with me and matured and become sophisticated and, thanks largely to [comic book artist] Will Eisner, developed into the graphic novel. They’ve opened up to all genres and are not just all about superheroes anymore, which I think is critically important.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s the most negative industry trend you have observed?

Uslan: They have turned their backs on kids and on females. There have been various attempts over the last few years to try to reach out and capture that [audience]. Manga has already captured the young female market. And as a result, 20 years from now it’s going to be movies [based on] manga books that are going to be the equivalent of our Batman, Superman and Spider-Man movies.

I was very disappointed, especially, with how they turned their backs on kids. I am delighted with the progression of the quality of the story and the graphic storytelling and the art. I am chagrined that, today, readers, as well as people working in the business, have lost sight that this was created to be a comic book. It is unique because it is a blend of art and the written word. And there’s been a memory lapse here.

Knowledge@Wharton: How so?

Uslan: The majority of comic books today have no more than 25 words on a page. Some have six words on a page.

[Writer and editor] Denny O’Neil taught me there was a maximum of 35 words in a word balloon. Then it became a maximum of 35 words in a panel. And now there is, “Don’t bother me with words. Every word balloon should have one to nine words in it.” While I find [contemporary comic books] interesting in terms of the graphic storytelling, I don’t find them literate. It is turning your back on what this medium is supposed to be.

I don’t think you’re going to get people to continue to shell out $3 or $4 for a comic book that will only entertain them for four minutes.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s your view on how Hollywood interprets comic book superheroes?

Uslan: I’m chagrined that in a lot of places, they still don’t get it. They’re still making changes just for the sake of change in comic book superheroes that are being brought to TV and movies.

I sat through a meeting in Hollywood where a production executive, who was approximately 26 or 27 years old, said to me and a very famous director, “The lesson of The Dark Knight is that all comic book movies must be contemporary, dark, gritty and violent.” I looked at the director and he looked at me, and we said, “Excuse me, what?” “Yeah, period pieces don’t sell,” [the executive replied.] I said, “Is that something that you have facts and figures to back up? Or is that just something you heard in the hallways that you’re regurgitating?” He said, “Well, everyone knows it.” I said, “Like Titanic?” And he said, “Well, that’s different. That’s history.” I said, “Like Indiana Jones?” He replied, “Well, that’s different.”

I said, “No, the lesson of The Dark Knight is if you respect the integrity of the character and have a filmmaker who’s passionate about it, with a vision for it, who can execute it, then that’s what you do. Otherwise, you guys will be on a kick to do The Dark Ant-Man, The Dark Flash and Casper The Unfriendly Ghost. And all you will do is continue to violate the characters.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Are there any projects that are underway that you want to talk about?

Uslan: “Archie Gets Married.”

Knowledge@Wharton: That’s a long way from a dark and serious Batman.

Uslan: Not at all. It’s the beginning of the journey. It’s what I was born and raised on. Before I read a Batman comic book, I read Archie and Little Archie. I loved those comics.

When I was a kid, 80% of my preconceptions of what high school and dating were going to be like came from Archie comics, 10% from “Leave It To Beaver” and 10% from “Ozzie and Harriet.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Did real life look anything like any of those?

Uslan: No, not at all. The biggest disappointment for me through high school was the fact that we never had a malt shop within walking distance of the high school. It was like an important chunk of my heart was missing.

Knowledge@Wharton: You frequently lecture at college campuses. What do you tell the young people you talk to?

Uslan: I’m a blue-collar kid sitting in New Jersey with dreams of writing Batman, with dreams of one day making the dark and serious Batman movie that will potentially erase from the collective world culture those three horrifying words: “pow,” “zap” and “wham.” I had a dream and I had the passion for it.

I didn’t come from money. I couldn’t buy my way into Hollywood. I didn’t know anyone in Hollywood. [I succeeded] by following my dream and deciding I was going to make it my life’s work, and being willing to get up off my butt and walk through hell.

I promise everyone sitting in any of my lectures: Doors are going to slam in your face when you leave school. I guarantee it. When that happens, what then? What are your choices? You really only have two. You go home and cry about it or you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, go back and knock again.

When I talk to students, I say the same thing. It’s about “carpe diem.” When you see that door opened a wedge, shove your foot in it. Just shove your foot in it. But you have to get up off your ass to do it. This dark and serious Batman movie franchise happened on the basis of my bleeding knuckles.

It’s harsh for me to stereotype like this, but I now find that something close to 90% of the kids seem to think that they’re entitled to something, that they can sit back and the world will come to them. And there’s 10%, give or take, who try to make something happen. I think that’s half the difference. The other half is: Do they have what it takes to knock on the doors and to keep knocking?

You don’t have to do anything glamorous. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about your passions. I use my dad as my primary example. My dad was a mason and he was a real artist and craftsman. He loved what he did and did it for over 65 years, six days a week, and woke up every day with a smile on his face and couldn’t wait to get to work. I [tell young people] that if you love fixing stereos, then fix stereos. If you love painting houses, then paint houses. But take what you love in life and make that passion your work.

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