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101 Masterpieces: Moby-Dick

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PECK: AF ARCHIVE/ALAMY ; WHALE: STEPHEN FRINK COLLECTION/ALAMY
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Herman Melville had everything a young author could dream of. By the age of 30, he’d traveled the world and written five books, including two bestsellers. He’d married the daughter of a prominent judge, and he owned a beautiful farmhouse. He hobnobbed with the literati. Strangers asked for autographs.

Then he wrote Moby-Dick and ruined everything.

Today, the book is often hailed as the Great American Novel, an epic D. H. Lawrence called “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world.” But in Melville’s time, it was a total flop. Readers couldn’t comprehend the difficult narrative. Critics dismissed it as the ravings of a madman. When Melville tried to mend his image with a follow-up, titled Pierre, the reviews were equally brutal, and the work cemented his reputation as a lunatic. At just 33, Melville was finished. When he died in 1891, at the age of 72, people were shocked—not because he’d passed away, but because they thought he’d been dead for decades. It would take half a century—and a bored academic—to resurrect the author’s legacy.

THE WRITER AT SEA

In 1839, a 20-year-old Melville boarded a merchant ship docked in New York City and voyaged to Liverpool as a cabin boy. The trip kindled his spirit for adventure. Two years later, he joined a whaler named Acushnet and set off for the Pacific. That’s when he learned how terrifying a 70-foot sperm whale could be.

A full-grown whale can weigh as much as eight elephants. Fifty-two teeth—each nearly the length of a bowie knife—ring its lower jaw. The fluke dwarfs the size of most minivans and can smash a small whaleboat into splinters. And while the behemoths are generally timid, over the years, they’ve given whalers plenty of horror stories to tell. Two in particular stuck with Melville.

The first concerned a seaman named George Pollard Jr., captain of the whaleship Essex. In November 1820, a sperm whale attacked Pollard’s ship in the Pacific, about 2,000 miles from shore. The 85-foot-long leviathan barreled into the boat headfirst and rocked the crew to their knees. When the men heard wood crack below, they rushed into the ship’s hold: The Essex was leaking, but the damage looked repairable.

Then the whale returned.

This time, the animal tore through the waves twice as fast, snapping its jaws as it thundered back into the bow. Seawater gushed in, and the ship tilted on its side. The Essex slowly slipped beneath the waves, leaving Pollard and his men lost at sea.

Melville also learned about Mocha Dick, a vicious whale that had attacked at least 100 vessels and sent 20 boats to the ocean bottom. Lore of the whale fueled nightmares: Rusting harpoons protruded from its back, a ghastly reminder of how many men had failed to kill him—and died trying.

In 1838, Mocha Dick attacked an American ship after its sailors killed a calf and its mother. Enraged, Mocha smashed apart one of the whaleboats, but not before a sailor managed to plant a harpoon in his back. Mocha dove and dragged the man under, but it was a mortal blow. When the whale surfaced, the sea was stained crimson. A dark clot of blood frothed from its spout. Its last breath showered the sailors in red mist. Mocha Dick was finally dead. A decade later, Melville would attempt to make him immortal.

WHALE OF A TALE

ALAMY

After four years of hitchhiking the oceans and collecting adventures—including an escape from Polynesian cannibals and a stint in a Tahitian jail—Melville left the sea to embark on a literary journey. His first book, Typee, was an immediate bestseller, making him one of America’s most beloved adventure writers. His second, Omoo, was also a hit. Both were rollicking yarns—easy and fun to read. Inspired by these early successes, Melville became a literary machine and produced nearly a book a year. By 1849, he’d already started his sixth novel: Moby-Dick.

Early drafts of Moby-Dick began like the rest of Melville’s stories, as a playful romp on the high seas. But that same year, the author made a life-changing decision: He moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he befriended author Nathaniel Hawthorne. The relationship would become one of the most intense literary bromances of all time.

Melville worshipped Hawthorne. The two spent hours together talking philosophy, literature, and life. As their friendship grew, Melville became increasingly enamored with his new mentor. When Hawthorne suggested he rewrite the merry sailor’s tale into a metaphysical monsterpiece, Melville agreed. It was time to quit penning pabulum and start crafting something literary! At Hawthorne’s urging, Melville missed his deadline. He put the manuscript aside for a while to study Shakespeare and Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. Within a year, Moby-Dick was transformed. When Melville sent it to his publisher in 1851, he proudly wrote to Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as a lamb.”

What he submitted was a 135-chapter tome. The story follows a sailor—call him Ishmael—aboard the Pequod, a whaleship commanded by the monomaniacal, peg-legged Captain Ahab. Looking for revenge, Ahab scours the sea for an albino sperm whale that chewed off his leg long ago. His obsession to find and fight the monster drags everyone but Ishmael to Davy Jones’s locker. But what sounds like an adventure is a plot freighted with symbolism and wild digressions cataloging practically everything about the Yankee whaling industry.

Reviews were merciless. The London Athenaeum called Moby-Dick “trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature.” The London Literary Gazette said the story made readers “wish both [Melville] and his whales at the bottom of an unfathomable sea.” The New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review charged Melville with crimes against the English language.

The poor reception wasn’t entirely Melville’s fault. The British first edition accidentally omitted the epilogue. The publisher also deleted 35 crucial passages to “avoid offending delicate political and moral sensibilities.” But those excuses linger only as a footnote. Critics and fans alike had expected a wild ocean adventure. Instead, Melville gave them a 635-page philosophical brick.

Just 3715 copies of Moby-Dick were sold in Melville’s lifetime. The book earned him a measly $556.37 in the United States. His popularity plummeted—and so did his bank account. “Dollars damn me,” he griped earlier to Hawthorne. “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot.” Within a year, Hawthorne stopped writing back. Their friendship dissolved.

In 1863, Melville returned to New York City and became a customs inspector. He held the job for the rest of his life, quietly writing poetry in his spare time. In 1867, Melville’s oldest son killed himself, sending the already alcoholic author spiraling into depression. The day after Melville died, his obituary appeared in just one newspaper. It was a paltry six lines long. Melville would have to spend three decades rotting in a pine box before critics realized there was more to his story.

REVISITING MELVILLE—AND MOBY-DICK

Things changed in 1919, when Raymond Weaver was given an assignment he didn’t want. A Columbia graduate student, Weaver was schmoozing with Professor Carl Van Doren at an annual spring dinner when they began discussing the forgotten author. Van Doren had moonlighted as the editor for The Nation and knew Melville’s 100th birthday was coming soon. He wanted to print a short tribute in the magazine and asked Weaver to write it.

Weaver was hesitant. He’d tried to read Typee in college and hated it. But after some prodding—and the promise of a paycheck—he caved. Calling the gig “child’s play,” Weaver dug through Columbia’s library looking for information. But he was quickly surprised by what he found ... and what he didn’t. Melville’s oeuvre was huge: nine novels, scores of short stories and poems—but nothing on his life. Weaver had to hunt for Melville’s personal letters and memos on his own. By the end of the chase, two years later, he had written Melville’s biography.

One discovery in particular recharged scholarly interest in Melville’s work: a yellowing manuscript tucked inside a tin bread box, unearthed by Melville’s granddaughter. Recognizing it was an unpublished novella, Weaver had it printed. The work is now one of Melville’s most beloved narratives—Billy Budd.

The timing couldn’t have been better. In the 1920s, academics were trying to assemble America’s literary canon. When they rediscovered Moby-Dick, they realized it had everything they were looking for: artful prose, iconoclastic ideas, rich symbolism, universal themes. It melded fiction with fact. It was experimental. It defied genre. Critics finally understood why Moby-Dick had been so poorly received—it was 70 years ahead of its time.

By the 1930s, Melville had become king of the American canon. William Faulkner hung a print of Captain Ahab in his living room. Ernest Hemingway pegged Melville as the literary genius to beat. Moby-Dick would inspire countless authors, including Albert Camus, Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Jack Kerouac, Cormac McCarthy, and Robert Pirsig.

The book’s cultural footprint remains deep. The story has been adapted for film more than six times and for countless staged plays. It has been referenced far and wide, from The Flintstones to a Marvel comic book to a rock song by Led Zeppelin. The phrase “white whale” is everyday business lingo. Even Starbucks pays homage, taking its name from Ahab’s first mate.

For his part, Melville was always convinced people would warm up to his work eventually—it would just take time. While editing Moby-Dick in 1850, he prophesied, “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.”

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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How Rocky Turned the Common Man Into a Hero
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Sylvester Stallone wasn’t born a leading man. Complications at birth left the son of a hairdresser with nerve damage that slurred his speech and curled his lips into a permanent snarl. His childhood wasn’t easy. His parents fought constantly, and he and his brother slipped in and out of foster care. By high school, they’d moved back in with their mother in Philadelphia, but Stallone’s emotional problems followed him. He struggled academically and was expelled from multiple schools. The arts became his refuge. He spent his free time painting and writing poetry, but his real dream was the silver screen. By the time he was 18, he knew he wanted to act.

Stallone studied drama at the American College of Switzerland and then at the University of Miami, but then abandoned school to pursue a career in New York City. By his mid-twenties, he was getting by on odd jobs like cleaning lion cages and ushering at movie theaters. The bit parts he did manage to land were few and far between. Once, when funds were short, he took a role in an adult film to keep from living in a bus station. When Stallone landed bigger parts, it was because his drooping, stone-chiseled face made him the perfect heavy (Subway Thug No. 1. wasn’t an uncommon credit). By 1975, the 29-year-old actor was desperate for something bigger, so his agent sent him to the L.A. offices of Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, two producers who had a standing deal with United Artists.

The meeting didn’t go as planned. When Winkler and Chartoff met Stallone, they didn’t see a movie star. Dejected, Stallone had his hand on the doorknob when he turned and made one last pitch. “You know,” he said, “I also write.”

The script Stallone turned in was an underdog tale, the story of Rocky, a streetwise palooka who gets an unlikely opportunity to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. But the story of how the film itself got made is even more improbable.

Earlier that same year, a boxer named Chuck Wepner had silenced the world. Pitted 40:1 against the heavily favored Muhammad Ali, Wepner landed a blow that knocked Ali down. Though Ali ultimately knocked out Wepner in the 15th round, Stallone was riveted by those moments in which it seemed like Wepner stood a chance. When he sat down to write a screenplay, it took him just three days to dash it off.

Stallone centered his story around Rocky Balboa, a club boxer plucked from obscurity and eager to go the distance. But Rocky would have the odds stacked against him. Even his trainer, a salty old cynic named Mickey, would write him off—until a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fight against brash champion (and Ali stand-in) Apollo Creed arises.

To ground his story, Stallone drummed up a love interest for Rocky: Adrian, a shy pet store employee. The unlikely romance allowed the film to become as much a character study as a genre slugfest. But when Stallone’s wife, Sasha, read an early draft, she pushed him to sand down his hero’s rough edges even more. In the rewrites, Rocky, who had started out as a violent thug, emerged as a gentle and deceptively wise soul who, in the actor’s words, “was good-natured, even though nature had never been good to him.”

Impressed by the story’s heart, Winkler and Chartoff agreed to produce the film with United Artists, which gave them creative freedom for any picture budgeted under $1.5 million. But the studio balked. A boxing picture and all its trappings—extras, location, and arena shooting—just couldn’t be made for so little money. And with a nobody in the lead role, the flick seemed doomed to box office failure. Chartoff and Winkler countered by offering to make the movie for less than a million, promising to cover any overages out of pocket, and the producers sent the studio a print of Stallone’s recent independent film, The Lords of Flatbush, to seal the deal. With no one in the screening room to recognize him, the executives assumed handsome costar Perry King was the young nobody who had written the script.

Fine, they said. Go make your boxing movie.

The small budget meant that the production team had to get creative. Interiors were shot in L.A., since a full 28-day shoot in Philadelphia was too pricey. Instead, the team spent less than a week on location, quietly shooting exteriors using a nonunion crew. Driving around in a nondescript van, director John Avildsen would spot an interesting locale—a portside ship, a food market—and usher Stallone out to jog, sometimes for miles, while he rolled film. It wasn’t long before the actor gave up smoking.

The slim budget was evident everywhere. Stallone’s wardrobe was plucked from his own closet. His wife worked as the set photographer. But it was more than that— the movie’s finances also meant that the director had to be choosy about how many shots to film. A crucial scene where Rocky confesses his fears about the fight to Adrian (played by Talia Shire) was almost cut before Stallone begged the producers to give him just one take. The scene became the film’s emotional spine.

When the director proposed shooting a date between Rocky and Adrian at an ice rink, the producers laughed. A rink full of extras, combined with the costs of filming all the takes, seemed risky. But when Stallone convinced them of the scene’s worth, they wrote around it. In the movie, Rocky pays off a manager to let the duo skate in an empty rink. The result was easier to shoot and made for a beautiful metaphor: a clumsy dance between two misfits, each holding the other up.

But improvisation wasn’t always an option. For Rocky’s climactic bout with Creed, Stallone and actor Carl Weathers rehearsed five hours a day for a week. Though both were incredible physical specimens, neither had ever boxed and their earliest attempts were exhausting. (Ironically, only Burt Young, cast as Rocky’s sad-sack pal Paulie, had any actual ring experience: He was 14–0 as a pro.) When the director saw their first sparring efforts, he told Stallone to go home and write out the beats. Stallone returned with 14 pages of lefts, rights, counters, and hooks, all delivered using camera-friendly gloves too small to be legal in a real prizefight. As they practiced, Avildsen circled them with an 8mm camera, recording them to point out their weaknesses. He even zoomed in on Stallone’s waistline to remind him he needed to shape up.

Studying all that footage paid off. The fight was shot in front of 4,000 restless extras, corralled with the promise of a free chicken dinner. In the original ending, Rocky walks off with Adrian backstage. But composer Bill Conti’s score was so soaring that the director decided to reshoot the finale, despite having run out of funds. The producers paid for the overage themselves, allowing for the unforgettable final scene: Rocky in the ring, with Adrian fighting through the crowd to reach him, her hat pulled off by a crew member using fishing wire. The image freezes with Rocky embracing her— stopping at what Stallone later called the pinnacle of Rocky’s life. It was the perfect crescendo to an emotional journey—not only for Rocky, but for his alter ego.

The parallels between the actor’s story and Rocky’s were not lost on United Artists’ marketing strategist, Gabe Sumner. A clever publicist, Sumner knew he had quite the task in front of him: selling an old-fashioned boxing movie starring a nobody. Rocky’s competition at the box office didn’t make it any easier. Late 1976 was filled with blockbusters, and Stallone’s hero had to battle with King Kong, a new Dirty Harry sequel, and Carrie for ticket sales.

To compete, Sumner turned up the volume on Stallone’s shaggy-dog story. He sold the narrative about Stallone, a self-made actor-writer who had scraped and clawed his way to the top, as irresistibly American. And he bent the facts a little, too. In Sumner’s version, studio execs offered Stallone hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the script if they could cast a bankable movie star in the role. The impoverished actor, despite having a pregnant wife and just $106 in the bank, stood his ground. He hitchhiked to auditions. He had to sell his dog. But Stallone wasn’t a sellout, and this was his one chance to break through. The truth, Sumner later admitted, was that the studio had never met Stallone. None of it mattered, though—this was Madison Avenue mythmaking at its best.

The marketing strategy struck a chord. The actor’s tale so perfectly mirrored his onscreen role that the film received significant attention from both the media and audiences. And as word of mouth spread, Rocky became the highest-grossing picture of 1976, earning more than $117 million at the box office (the average ticket price at the time was just over $2). Audiences were equally captivated by the soundtrack. “Gonna Fly Now,” Conti’s trumpet-heavy theme, which accompanied Rocky’s training montage, moved more than 500,000 units.

Though some critics, including The New York Times’ reviewer, panned the flick for its sentimentality, most media embraced it. "Rocky KOs Hollywood," crowed a Newsweek cover. The Academy agreed. At the 1977 Academy Awards, Rocky became the first sports film to win Best Picture, beating out heavy hitters Network, All the President’s Men, and Taxi Driver. Frank Capra and Charlie Chaplin wrote Stallone congratulatory letters. He became a bona fide movie star, anointed by two Hollywood legends who had built their careers making heroes of the common man.

Today, Rocky's boxing trunks hang in the Smithsonian. Wedding ceremonies have been held at his statue near Philadelphia’s Museum of Art. Fans still run up the adjacent steps, mimicking his sprint to glory. As for Stallone, he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011, making him the only actor ever to receive the honor. In his vision of a gentle slugger searching for an opportunity to shine despite the longest odds, Stallone crafted a story that continues to resonate with millions of moviegoers: It’s the American dream played out at 24 frames per second.

When Sumner’s publicity exaggerations were discovered in 2006, few seemed to care. Perhaps that’s because as a character, Rocky did more than go toe-to-toe with Apollo Creed. At a time when Taxi Driver’s sociopathic antihero Travis Bickle preyed on audience fears and Network played to the bleak pessimism of a struggling nation, Rocky reminded the country what it means to hope. As Sylvester Stallone once said, “If I say it, you won’t believe it. But when Rocky said it, it was the truth.”

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The Boy Who Saved Batman
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Michael Uslan lived and breathed comic books. When he was a teenager, his collection was so vast, it consumed his parents’ New Jersey garage. In seventh grade, he co-founded a comic book club that coordinated a field trip to DC Comics’ Manhattan headquarters. He even completed a script for a daily comic strip about the Cricket, a superhero he invented, and submitted drafts to newspapers. An employee at The Sacramento Union was so impressed, he suggested they collaborate—until he realized the author was in junior high.

No superhero fascinated Uslan like Batman. Unlike Superman, Batman didn’t have special powers. His strength came from his will, training, and armored flying suit. Batman was human and damaged—as a child, he’d watched a stranger murder his parents and swore to avenge their deaths. That origin story deeply affected Uslan, who couldn’t consider a world in which his mom and dad didn’t exist.

So it was with great excitement that he tuned in to the ABC premiere of Batman on January 12, 1966. Watching it, Uslan’s heart sank. Portrayed by Adam West, TV’s Batman was stilted, overly earnest, and almost buffoonish. Paired with his guileless sidekick, Robin, he wore tights and spoke in corny adages (“Crime never pays!”) while imparting good-citizen lessons about proper grammar and paying taxes. Even the bad guys were ham-handed jokes, nothing like the terrifying, unhinged criminal overlords of the comic. The fight scenes? Slapstick routines replete with full-screen flashes of onomatopoeic gibberish (“Pow! Crash! Boff!”).

“Society was laughing at Batman—and that just killed me,” Uslan said in the 2013 documentary Legends of the Knight. To him, Batman was an orphan whose vigilantism was a civic and emotional reconciliation, not a campy pop-art punch line. There and then, teenage Uslan made his own Bruce Wayne–like vow: “I would restore Batman to his true and rightful identity as the Dark Knight, a creature of the night stalking criminals from the shadows...a master detective who survived and thrived more by his wits than by his fists.”

He would do this by making his own Batman movie.

Alamy

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, to a mason contractor father and a bookkeeper mother, Uslan learned to read by thumbing through his older brother’s comics. At 5, his brother brought him to a candy shop and let him pick two comics, one of which was Detective Comics #236, a 1956 title featuring Batman and Robin battling mobsters in a purple armored Bat-Tank.

Batman quickly became an obsession. Soon, Uslan was dutifully purchasing every title in which the Caped Crusader appeared. “In my heart of hearts, I believed that if I studied really hard and worked out really hard, and if my dad bought me a cool car, I could be this guy!” Uslan remembers in his 2011 memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman. By the time he was a high-school senior, he’d amassed a collection of 30,000 comic books.

In 1972, the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington, offered an experimental program allowing students to pitch entirely new classes for credit. As a junior undergrad, Uslan drew up a syllabus outlining the scholarly merits of comic books and presented it to the department’s board, arguing that superheroes were modern mythological gods. The attendant dean cut him off, insisting “funny books” were entertainment for children.

Thinking quickly, Uslan, who wore a Spider-Man T-shirt to the meeting, asked the administrator to recite the story of Moses: “Moses was an endangered Hebrew infant sent to safety in a river basket and recovered by a couple who raised him as their own. Later, he became a heroic figure to his people after learning his heritage.” Then Uslan asked him to recall Superman’s genesis: “Superman was an endangered Krypton son sent to safety by his parents in a rocket ship, then recovered by a couple who raised”—there, the dean cut himself off, and the 20-year-old became the world’s first professor of a college-accredited comic-books course.

The United Press International ran a story about Uslan’s course, and soon he was fielding television and radio requests from around the globe. Journalists were sitting in his class, which became so popular that the university asked Uslan to adapt it into a correspondence course. They even paid him to write a textbook on the subject. DC Comics also called. The company’s execs had heard Uslan on the radio and wanted to offer him a job. He could work in DC’s Manhattan office in the summer; during his senior year, they’d keep him on retainer. Uslan was beside himself.

Before graduating, Uslan sent 372 résumés to industry names he’d found while scouring Variety, hoping to land a position working in movies or television cartoons. The responses—all two of them—were dismal. Discouraged, Uslan applied to law school, calculating it as a backdoor to Hollywood, and funded his further education (along with his wedding to his college sweetheart) by selling 20,000 comics from his collection.

After law school, he took a position in the legal department of movie studio United Artists, where he drafted contracts for smashes like Raging Bull, Apocalypse Now, and Rocky. He also busied himself plotting out his purchase of the rights to Batman.

The world wasn’t cooperating, though. The DC exec who’d hired him back in college advised Uslan not to waste the money. Batman was considered a “dead brand.” After ABC canceled the TV show, the Caped Crusader’s merchandising sales took a nosedive and never recovered. Warner Publishing had recently negotiated the deal for Superman: The Movie, and would expect the same pricey terms, even though Batman was worth less.

But Uslan wouldn’t be talked out of his dream. He convinced the father of a co-worker, former MGM executive Benjamin Melniker, of the project’s commercial potential, and in October 1979, after six months of negotiation, against all advice or logic, the production partners acquired Batman’s film rights for a reported $50,000. Uslan immediately quit his day job.

That year, the partners started pitching Hollywood studios. One by one, each declined. Execs told Uslan that he was crazy: Outdated TV shows weren’t being remade into movies. Besides, this was TV’s cheesiest character. How could this story be turned into a serious film? Superman’s success proved superheroes needed to be pure and almighty (not dark and internally conflicted).

Eventually, Uslan and Melniker signed a deal to make Batman with the producers behind Midnight Express and A Star Is Born—but they still couldn’t get a studio on board. Meanwhile, Uslan needed cash to get by, so he and Melniker got a different project off the ground: Swamp Thing, a popcorn flick featuring a rubber-suited monster.

The movie was a success, which only strengthened Uslan’s resolve. “You could either chalk it up to stubbornness or abject stupidity,” he says now, “but every time my back was against the wall, I went back to that one question: ‘Is the rest of the world right and I’m wrong, and I’m just being stubborn?’ Or do I truly believe in this? I kept coming up with [the answer]: ‘This is the right way.’”

The right way demanded years of conversations about distribution, contracts, and filmmakers. Gremlins director Joe Dante was attached to the project, and then he wasn’t. Ivan Reitman was on board, as they waited for him to finish Ghostbusters—and then he wasn’t. At one point, Uslan’s former intern urged him to stop telling people about the project because it made him sound like a joke.

By 1986, Swamp Thing’s earnings were dwindling. Uslan—now in his thirties, with two children—bet everything on his next undertaking, a historical miniseries for CBS pegged to the Texas Revolution’s sesquicentennial. When executive reshuffling killed the project, Uslan stubbornly insisted he was less than six months away from securing enough money to tide him over until a studio signed on to make Batman a reality. His father-in-law made him a deal: He’d pay the family’s bills for five months, but if his son-in-law didn’t have that six-figure paycheck by the end of the grace period, Uslan would return to practicing law and stop this Batman nonsense. “That was my lowest moment,” he says. He accepted the deal.

As the clock ticked, Uslan grasped for salable ideas. Then one day, he had an epiphany: What about dinosaurs from outer space? The kid-friendly lightning bolt resulted in Dinosaucers, a 1987 animated television series that provided just enough cash to get by. On the exact date of his father-in-law’s deadline, a paycheck came to his house.

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Around the time Uslan made that last-ditch deal with his father-in-law, a graphic novelist named Frank Miller published a new Batman title called The Dark Knight Returns. It revived the darker, grittier origins of Batman that Uslan loved. Other people were drawn to it too: It was an instant, huge success, breaking out of comic book shops into mainstream bookstores. Suddenly, the appeal of a dark Batman didn’t seem so far-fetched.

By this time, the producers with whom Uslan and Melniker had partnered were signed to Warner Bros., and an imaginative director who’d recently worked on Warner Bros.’ Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was also interested. His name was Tim Burton, and his second project for the studio, the one that could give him the credibility to make a big, expensive tentpole movie, was right around the corner: Beetlejuice. (It starred Michael Keaton, who the director thought was versatile enough to play Batman too.) Burton had a script inspired by The Dark Knight Returns, and he approached Sam Hamm, a 31-year-old Warner Bros. screenwriter (and longtime Batman fan), about working on it. Finally, the stars had aligned. Batman got the green light for pre-production in the spring of 1988. In October, the movie went into production.

On June 23, 1989—almost a decade after Uslan and Melniker obtained the rights—Batman opened, starring Keaton as the title character, Jack Nicholson as the Joker (Uslan’s idea), and Gotham City as a steaming apocalypse of metropolitan corruption. Anticipation was so high people smashed the glass at bus stops to steal the poster, even if—in a twist of delicious irony—diehard Batman fans fretted that Keaton, known as a comic actor, was too goofy to play Batman. Those fears soon proved unfounded. In its opening weekend, Batman raked in a record-breaking $43.6 million.

Batman’s cultural impact was enormous. In November, Uslan watched the Berlin Wall fall on CNN and saw a boy in the wreckage wearing a Batman hat. “This had become more than just a movie,” he writes. “It was, indeed, revolutionary.” In North America, the film was the highest-grossing movie of 1989.

Over the next decade, follow-ups rained down with varied success (Uslan has a producer credit on all of them). The choice to hire auteur Christopher Nolan to reboot the franchise was, according to Uslan, “a godsend for hardcore fanboys, as well as mainstream audiences around the world.” Nolan’s gothic Dark Knight trilogy (2005’s Batman Begins, 2008’s The Dark Knight, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises) accomplished the nearly impossible feat of achieving both critical and commercial acclaim, depicting Bruce Wayne as a psychologically complex figure and pulling in nearly $2.5 billion worldwide.

Next year brings Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which Uslan and Melniker executive produced. “My greatest wish is that I could have a narrow tube into the past, so I could yell to Michael at age 8, 12, 16, and 20: ‘Hey, guess what I’m doing?!’” says Uslan, now 64. “But I know in my heart of hearts I always believed.”

He also believed that the world needed new role models. The Golden Age of comics took place during World War II, when Americans were desperate for stories of good overcoming evil. As the 20th century progressed, they’d realize the enemy wasn’t simply abroad, but sometimes within. Someone larger than life had to embody existential conflicts over justice, selflessness, and purpose. Uslan had known this since he was a teenager: Batman might not be the superhero everybody wanted, but he was the one that would speak to a new generation.

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