Like any superhero worth his cape, Michael Uslan has an origins story.
In 1966, when he was a teenage comic books fan growing up in Monmouth County, ABC began to air the campy TV action comedy Batman starring Adam West. Uslan made it his goal to one day restore dignity to one of his favorite comics characters.
“I was horrified that the whole world was laughing at Batman,” said Uslan. “I swore I would find a way to show everybody the true Batman, the way he was created in 1939 as a creature of the night stalking criminals from the shadows. I wanted to eliminate from the collective consciousness of the world those three little words: ‘Pow,’ ‘Zap,’ and ‘Wham.’”
Twenty-three years later, Uslan became the executive producer of Batman, a feature film starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Basinger. It earned an Academy Award for art direction and more than $400 million at the box office.
Uslan would go on to serve as executive producer of five more Batman blockbusters, plus the highly anticipated 2012 release The Dark Knight Rises.
On Aug. 21, Uslan took the stage at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center at the JCC of Greater Monmouth County in Deal to share stories from his new memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman (Chronicle Books).
“Wow, I’m home,” Uslan told an audience of about 100 people, many of whom were fellow members of the Ocean Township High School Class of 1969. “I look out and see friends, teachers, neighbors, cousins, a dear aunt.
“I haven’t seen this many of you since my bar mitzva.”
Uslan’s family moved from Bayonne to Wanamassa when he was three, later relocating to Deal Park. His parents, the late Joseph and Lillian, were among the founding families of Temple Beth Torah, where he attended Hebrew school. He was also heavily active with Temple Beth El’s USY chapter, which he said was “so hip” that he plotted to register his envious non-Jewish friends.
Uslan described his lifelong odyssey from “comic book geek” to blockbuster producer. A graduate of Indiana University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in history, a master’s in urban education, and a law degree, Uslan convinced the dean of the school to hire him in the ’70s to teach the world’s first accredited class on Comic Book Folklore. He got nationwide media coverage for the course by calling United Press International with an anonymous tip.
“I started yelling at the reporter and asking why UPI hasn’t reported how outrageous it is that taxpayers’ money helps fund a college that teaches a course on comic books,” recalled Uslan.
His ploy worked. “The article was picked up by nearly every newspaper in America,” said Uslan, 60, who lives in North Jersey with his wife, Nancy. Their two children live in Los Angeles, where they also work in the entertainment industry.
Uslan wrote for DC Comics, then segued from legal and financial counsel in the industry to producing TV shows in the ’80s. “Then my quest began to bring Batman to the big screen as a compassionate, emotionally vulnerable character. It was the challenge of a lifetime. Hollywood kept telling me no, but I held on for 10 years.”
Signing Nicholson was “the greatest day of my career,” Uslan said. He admitted to being “apoplectic” when Keaton was cast as Batman. “Keaton was a comedic actor, with no muscles, no height, and no square jaw,” he said. “But they proved me wrong, and I eventually ate my hat.”
Uslan described his memoir as a motivational book. “If you are willing to knock on doors till your knuckles bleed, you really can do it. I read my first Batman comic book at five. By the time I was eight, I figured out that his greatest superpower was his humanity. I knew if I worked out really hard and studied really hard, and if my dad bought me a cool car, I could be this guy,” he told NJJN.
Uslan credits his parents for instilling in him and his brother, Paul, the values of family, hard work, and perseverance. “My mom said the greatest gifts we can give our children are roots and wings.
“They gave us the most incredible set of roots that enabled me to sprout bat wings,” he told the audience.
Two Ocean Township Middle School English teachers, Eleanor Stiller and Rita Friedman, also played a pivotal role in his life, he said. He sent a limousine to bring them to the New York City premiere of his first Batman movie. “It was one of the most special moments in my life,” he said. “The greatest superheroes in real life are great teachers.”
As Uslan signed books in the Axelrod lobby, his friends gathered to reminisce. Former high school classmate Randy Faiella of Marlboro recalled how Uslan once hid a tape recorder in the closet of his history classroom, which broadcast screams for help. The teacher went into a frenzy searching under boxes for a boy in distress.
High school friend Robin Burke recalled peddling comic books with Uslan from a DC Comicmobile along the ocean in Asbury Park, Bradley Beach, and Belmar. “It was early market research for Michael. One of the most interesting things we discovered was that young girls wanted to read something scary,” said Burke.
“Kids used to call me a freak geek for still collecting comic books after the age of 12,” Uslan told NJJN. “What used to be so uncool and nerdy then is now the basis for blockbuster movies and TV shows, which impact popular culture and fashion.
“To all my fellow comic book geeks — we win!”
The evening with Uslan, which included a book signing, wine and cheese reception, and Q&A, was chaired by Toby Shylit Mack, Axelrod trustee and community relations chair for Jewish Federation of Monmouth County. It was cosponsored by Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst. Uslan was introduced by Axelrod trustee Jeff Donner of Torat El.