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‘IU ... set me on the path to accomplish everything I wanted to do’

Oct. 10, 2013

Batman-nemesis Shame (aka “the cowboy of crime”): “Your mother wore Army shoes.”
Batman: “Yes, she did. As I recall, she found them quite comfortable.”

A view of Michael Uslan's recently released

A still image from the recently released silent film "Silent Knight … Unholy Knight!" also featured in issue #2 of the "Batman Black and White" graphic novel. | Photo By DC Comics/Dave Bullock

Thanks to the campy “Batman” TV show that aired in the 1960s, the superhero brought to life by Adam West became known as a goofy, pun-dropping dude in tights who spouted such lines as “Come on, Robin, to the Bat Cave! There’s not a moment to lose!” and “I never touch spirits. Have you some milk?”

The sophisticated, densely layered Batman we’ve come to recognize on screen today owes much of his extreme image makeover to IU alumnus Michael Uslan, who earned three degrees at IU: a Doctor of Jurisprudence at what is now the Maurer School of Law, in 1976; a Master of Science in urban education from the IU School of Education in 1975; and Bachelor of Arts in history in 1973.

Crash! Bam! Pow!

A lifelong comic book lover, Uslan initiated and taught the first-ever college accredited course on comics at IU in the 1970s -- as an undergraduate student -- and went on to a career writing for DC Comics. He later produced blockbuster, Oscar-nominated superhero films that began with “Batman” in 1989, and he won an Emmy Award for the children’s television program “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”

Among other projects, Uslan has produced films and TV shows and authored comics, graphic novels and books, including his 2012 memoir, “The Boy Who Loved Batman." His 2006 commencement address at IU was named one of the top 10 commencement speeches of all time by USA Today.

In 2003, Uslan donated about 30,000 comic books from his collection to the Lilly Library, commencing a lifelong partnership with IU and ensuring regular visits to Bloomington to deliver more pieces from his collection, including movie outtakes, film posters and script notes.

Inside IU Bloomington chatted with Uslan during his trip to the Lilly Library in late September.

Along with stories about his current projects and summer trip to Rwanda and Kenya with his wife, Nancy, and two children -- what he calls “a life-changing experience” -- Uslan reminisced about being a DJ as an IU undergrad, eating at Hinkle’s Hamburgers and Nick’s English Hut, and meeting his wife of 40 years on his first day in Bloomington.

‘Cheap entertainment for children’

In the early 1970s, IU’s College of Arts and Sciences started a program through which students could propose new courses with the backing of a department, followed by a successful presentation to a panel of deans and professors.

Uslan approached Henry Glassie, his folklore professor, and shared his concept for a comic-book based course. “He said, ‘Michael, you’re absolutely right. Comic books are contemporary folklore; it’s modern-day mythology.”

After Glassie said he’d back the idea, Uslan went to present his concept to a panel.

“I had my Spider-Man T-shirt on,” he recalled. “My hair was down to my shoulders, and I had love beads on -- I was really very dapper looking. I went in clutching a pile of Superman comics and some artwork.”

Michael Uslan looks over a collection of graphic novels he recently donated to the Lilly Library at IU.

Michael Uslan looks over a collection of graphic novels he recently donated to the Lilly Library at IU. | Photo By Chris Meyer

Uslan said the room he walked into reminded him of the Justice League’s secret sanctum.

“The dean took one look at me and said, ‘So -- you’re the fella who wants to teach a course on funny books at my university?’”

Uslan launched into his pitch for the course: The conventional stock characters, plots and motifs in comic books are parallels to such classic tales as David v. Goliath and Beowulf v. Grendel -- essentially, they’re about brave warriors battling the demons and dragons of their day.

The dean cut him off after a couple of minutes.

“He said, ‘Mr. Uslan, I don’t buy this. At best, comic books are nothing more than cheap entertainment for children.’ I could hear the disgust in his voice.”

The dean admitted he’d devoured Superman comics as a kid -- in fact, he said, he’d read every Superman issue he could get his hands on.

“But I don’t buy any of this about it being a legitimate American art form like jazz,” the dean told him. “I don’t buy that its modern day mythology, that it’s folklore.”

In what would be a life-changing moment for Uslan, instead of picking up his “funny books” and slinking out, he tried one more time, figuring he had nothing to lose. He looked the dean in the eye and said, “Can I ask you two questions?”

“He said, ‘Ask me anything you like.’”

Uslan asked the dean if he was familiar with the story of Moses, and if he’d be willing to briefly recap the story.

“He goes, ‘I don’t know what game you’re playing here, but I’ll play this with you: The Hebrew people were being persecuted, their first born were being slain, so a Hebrew couple placed their infant son in a little wicker basket, sent him down the river Nile. There, he’s discovered by an Egyptian family who raised him as their own son. When he grew up and learned of his true heritage ...’”

Uslan stopped him there and asked his next question.

“Dean, you mentioned before you read Superman comics when you were a kid -- do you by any chance remember the origin of Superman?”

“He said, ‘Of course!’ Planet Krypton was going to blow up. A scientist and his wife placed their infant son in a little rocket ship and sent him to Earth. There, he was discovered by the Kents, who raised him as their own son. When he grew up ... ’ and then he stops,” Uslan recalled. “He stared at me for an eternity.

Then he said: ‘Your course is accredited.’ And that’s how I wound up teaching the first accredited course on comic books here.”

That moment launched Uslan on the path to living a life, as he said in his commencement address in 2006, where he wakes up “on a rainy Monday morning excited about going to work.”

Making a passion his life

“That instant, in that room, is what launched me on the path that would eventually have me working at DC, writing Batman, writing the Shadow  -- so why am I giving IU now however many tens of thousands of comic books? Eventually you’re going to have all my files, memorabilia, artwork, posters, whatever I’ve got ... it’s payback. Because it was IU that gave me the opportunity that set me on the path to accomplish everything I wanted to do which, if you want to boil it down, was make my passion my life.”

IU alumnus and movie producer Michael Uslan, left, goes over the notes of his collection with Lilly Library staff member Whitney Buccicone.

IU alumnus and movie producer Michael Uslan, left, goes over the notes of his recent donations to the Lilly Library with special collections cataloger Whitney Buccicone. The notebook he's holding is leftover merchandise from the 1989 film Uslan produced starting Michael Keaton. | Photo By Chris Meyer

At this point, Uslan said, his home comic collection is down to about 1,000 or 2,000 -- something that makes his wife happy.

One of the current projects he’s most excited about is the adaptation of his new black-and-white Batman graphic novels to a silent Batman movie inspired by the film “The Artist.” The film is an homage to animator and producer Max Fleischer, best known for his work on the Superman cartoons in 1940. By Christmas, Uslan and Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee plan to publish their graphic novel omnibus by DC Comics, “Stan Lee’s Imagine,” in time for Lee’s 91st birthday.

Among all of his professional accomplishments, though, Uslan is most proud of being asked to present the 2006 commencement address at IU.

“That was so incredibly important to me, and it was such a great honor,” he said. “To be able to speak to kids who are literally sitting in the same chairs that I was sitting in -- I can still replay the whole thing in my head like I’m watching a videotape of it.”

That address launched another aspect of Uslan’s career: He has since been asked to speak at West Point, the Smithsonian Institution, the United Nations, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art and the Economist Magazine’s Human Potential conference, among other appearances. More important to him than joining the speaker circuit, Uslan is pleased he had the opportunity to take his journey and try to inspire college students to “get up off the couch and discover their passion,” then try to make their own passion into their work.

The extended Uslan family is connected to IU, too.

Nancy Uslan travels frequently to Africa for her work for Books & Beyond, a cross-cultural literary exchange for students and teachers from IU’s Global Village Living-Learning Center, TEAM Schools in Newark, New Jersey and the Kabwende Primary Center in Rwanda. Uslan’s son David, a Hollywood producer and founder of the Hollywood Hoosiers alumni group, frequently connects both socially and professionally with other IU alums in the business.

Uslan’s brother, an optometrist in Michigan and IU alumnus, loves tormenting his patients with an exam room that’s a shrine to IU athletics. Uslan describes his niece Cassandra, once a shy kid hiding behind her mother’s skirts, now a confident executive for Hugo Boss living in New York City, as finding and tapping her potential through support of her IU professors and the IU community.

“That’s what IU does for people,” Uslan said. “I believe that this place transforms people.”

View a video of Michael Uslan talking about his Lilly Library collection from Sept. 19, 2013.

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