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Grumpy Old Fan | How long will Two-Face be on DC’s bad side?

Note: this whole post is about a MAJOR SPOILER from “The Big Burn,” a 2014 Batman and Robin arc which, coincidentally, has just been reprinted in paperback. As such, I recognize that it might be new for some folks. If you don’t want to be spoiled, come back next week for a 30-years-later look at Crisis on Infinite Earths #8. I’ll understand. I mean, I still haven’t finished Gone Girl.

Now then ...

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Two-Face is dead, to begin with; although there is a little doubt about that. At the very least, the conclusion of April 2014's Batman and Robin #28 strongly suggested that the erstwhile Bat-ally and longtime Bat-villain had met his end.

That arc, collected in Batman and Robin Vol. 5: The Big Burn, still seems rather odd to me. It has nothing to do with the story’s merits. Indeed, as a sleek, giddily destructive bit of noir, it’s one of Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s stronger B&R tales. For that matter, it’s a story which takes full advantage of the New 52 reboot, since it’s built around a set of wholesale changes to Two-Face’s traditional origin.  In that sense it’s the first, last, and only real spotlight on the character not just in the New 52, but for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, to me it’s odd that Tomasi, Gleason, and the rest of the Bat-handlers would dispose of a fairly major villain with little fanfare and an appreciable amount of finality. It’s reminiscent of “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” a classic Spider-Man story with a similar ending which apparently has yet to be overturned.

The ironic thing is, this isn’t the first time Two-Face has “died” -- but then again, what would you expect?

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Bill Finger and Bob Kane (with Jerry Robinson and George Roussos) introduced the character in August 1942's Detective Comics #66. Originally he was district attorney Harvey Kent, but later stories called him Dent to avoid confusion with a certain other DC character. Although Michael Fleisher’s Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes described the subsequent consistent usage of “Harvey Dent” rather disdainfully as a “chronicler’s error,” we’ll get to the significance of that distinction.

First, though, it’s worth noting that Two-Face stood out among Batman’s villains because he initially had a rather redemptive arc. Appropriately enough, the ’Tec #66 debut is the beginning of a two-parter. It relates the by-now-familiar origin: Harvey Kent, nicknamed “Apollo” for his good looks, is disfigured when gangster “Boss” Maroni throws a vial of acid in his face. It happens during Maroni’s trial when Batman is on the witness stand, but the only plastic surgeon capable of repairing the damage is out of the country (imprisoned by the Nazis, in fact), so Harvey has to live with his scars for a little while. This doesn’t sit well with Harvey’s main squeeze Gilda, who’s not exactly Alicia Masters about the whole thing. Musing on Maroni’s two-headed silver dollar -- the unique piece of evidence which sealed the gangster’s fate and prompted the attack -- the stressed-out Harvey “scars” it with a knife, and we’re off to the races. The first flip of the coin is between waiting for surgery and turning to crime. Yadda yadda yadda, after the predictable crime spree when Batman finally catches up to Two-Face, the villain flips again to decide his fate -- and the coin stands on edge, stuck in a floorboard. To Be Continued ...

... two issues later (I swear, it’s like they planned that!), in October 1942's Detective #68. Two-Face picks up the coin, vowing to let “fate” decide his destiny without any numismatic help -- but just then, a policeman bursts in and shoots Two-Face. The coin in his breast pocket saves his life, and since the bullet hit the scarred side, Two-Face takes that as a diabolical omen. Even so, he follows the coin, stealing one night and giving the loot to an orphanage the next, etc. Indeed, he covers his scars in makeup for an ill-fated attempt to win Gilda back, but their candlelight dinner ends up melting the disguise, and once again Gilda is repulsed. Eventually he’s caught, of course, and proves unrepentant, vowing to escape.

This Two-Face does, a year later in Detective #80 (October 1943), but in the course of a Bat-fight he accidentally shoots Gilda, who’s been following him in hopes of turning him good again. Indeed, seeing his true love near death’s door convinces Harvey to go straight, so he helps Batman and Robin capture his old gang. Not only does this earn him a lighter sentence, but Dr. Ekhart has escaped from Germany and (two months later, natch) restores his good looks. Thus endeth the brief criminal career of Harvey Kent.

However, Two-Face proved to be a popular villain, and spawned three -- Drat! So close! -- successors. First was the Kent family butler, Wilkins, who abducted the reformed Harvey and disguised himself as Two-Face, committing crimes in hopes of framing his boss (Batman #50, Dec. 1948-Jan. 1949). Three years later, in Dec. 1951-Jan. 1952's Batman #68, actor Paul Sloane was disfigured when, as part of a TV true-crime reenactment, a jealous prop man replaced “Moroni’s” fake acid with the real thing. Finally, in a combination of the two previous stories, Kent agreed to don Two-Face makeup as part of a charity event (don’t ask); but the unscrupulous theater manager knocked him out and posed as Two-Face in order to frame Kent. His one big mistake? “Disfiguring” the wrong side of his face (Detective #187, September 1952).

Although the Batman writers had switched to “Dent” as of Batman #50, the Two-Face stories from 1942-52 were assigned retroactively to Earth-Two (where else?), so that “Harvey Kent” could join George Taylor, Jor-L, et al., as first-draft versions who got to fulfill their destinies. (Not surprisingly, Harvey and Gilda Kent eventually did meet Clark Kent and Lois Lane, at the early-‘50s wedding of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, as told in October 1981's Superman Family #211). The Earth-Two assignations are significant because they place the February 1954 story of Harvey Dent’s re-criminalization (Batman #81) squarely in Earth-One continuity. Ironically, though, Batman #81 was Two-Face’s last appearance until the early 1970s. His scarred visage precluded any appearances on the Batman TV show (although they gave it their best shot); and it took more than 17 years for him to return to comics.

When Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams brought the bifurcated baddie back in August 1971's Batman #234, it kicked off a pretty decent second act, including appearances in The Brave and the Bold, the short-lived Joker series and two-parters in Justice League of America and Teen Titans. The latter even involved his ostensible daughter Duela, who’d been antagonizing Robin as the Joker’s Daughter. 1986-87's “Batman: Year One” (Batman #404-07) expanded on the idea that the pre-acid Dent had been the vigilante’s ally in the District Attorney’s office, thereby emphasizing the character’s “redeemable” aspect. 1990's Batman Annual #14, by writer Andrew Helfer and artist Chris Sprouse, retold Two-Face’s origin from this tragic perspective; as did Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s 1996-97 miniseries Batman: The Long Halloween.

Later, Loeb and penciler Jim Lee restored Harvey’s good looks in July 2003's Batman #615 (part of the “Hush” storyline). A reformed Harvey even filled in for Batman behind the scenes of 52, but when “One Year Later” rolled around in 2006, the “Face The Face” arc brought back his dastardly division. Clearly, the appeal of a villainous Two-Face was more than equal to that of a benevolent Harvey.

Indeed, as a villain Two-Face had become retroactively significant in the lives of various Bat-characters. An unfortunate early encounter with Two-Face (related in Robin: Year One) haunted Dick Grayson for years afterward (it was resolved in the “Prodigal” arc). Two-Face killed Jason Todd’s father, a small-time crook, and attempted unsuccessfully to woo Reneé Montoya. Naturally, Harvey Dent’s history with James Gordon, Bruce Wayne, and Batman tended to come up as well.

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Much of that is gone now, or at least lost in the murk of the New 52's five(ish)-year timeline. In “The Big Burn,” we learn (as Wikipedia summarizes)

Harvey Dent is a successful defense attorney whose clientele includes twin sisters from the McKillen crime family, Shannon and Erin. The sisters coerce Dent to become their family's legal retainer for life. They then place a contract on James Gordon and his entire family, despite Dent's protestations. The Gordons survive the attempt on their lives, but Dent, trapped by attorney client confidentiality, is unable to dissuade the McKillens from continuing their lethal vendetta. The violent attempt on the Gordons' lives prompts Bruce Wayne to use his resources to initiate and fund Dent's campaign for district attorney. Dent becomes D.A. and has the McKillen sisters prosecuted and sentenced to life in prison. After Shannon commits suicide, Erin escapes by switching places with her sister's corpse. Blaming Dent for her sister's death, Erin breaks into Dent's house, kills Gilda in front of him, and pours acid on his face, transforming him into Two-Face.

When Erin McKillen returns to Gotham in the present day, it touches off one final battle involving her, Two-Face, and Batman. Two-Face scars McKillen with acid, but Batman stops him from killing her. Calling Batman “Bruce,” and blaming him for pushing Harvey into the District Attorney role, Two-Face then escapes. Later, in the solitude of his house, he puts a gun to his head (the scarred side), there is a shot and blood splatters on the wall, and the issue ends before the two-headed coin can stop spinning.

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Now, Two-Face is at least a Top 10 Batman villain, if not Top Five. Despite being shut out of the Batman TV series, he appeared frequently on Batman: The Animated Series, and he’s been portrayed twice on the big screen. To be fair, he died in both Batman Forever and The Dark Knight, but movies can afford to be a little more bloodthirsty than serialized super-comics.

Still, it’s been over a year and DC doesn’t seem to have missed him. Batman and Robin moved straight into the return of Damian Wayne, Batman finished up “Zero Year” and started “Endgame,” Detective continued to do its own thing, and Batman Eternal found a way to use just about everyone else.

Maybe this is part of a larger trend in the Bat-offices. “Endgame” has apparently put the Joker on an enforced vacation, Eternal ended with the Penguin in prison, Catwoman’s found a good niche atop Gotham’s criminal food chain, Talia al-Ghūl is dead, and the Riddler is pursuing other interests. With a new Batman in town, the various creative teams have even more of an excuse to create original villains, so why not rest the starters? The days of intertitle serialization, when rogues tripped over one another with surprising frequency, are long gone. The Bat-books aren’t The Flash, where the death of a Rogue like The Top or the original Mirror Master could resonate for years. On the other hand, the Bat-books tend to take care of their marquee villains, although who’s on the marquee can vary from time to time. I mean, even Killer Croc had his moments in the sun.

In any event, “The Big Burn” only provides bookends for this version of Two-Face. The basics of the origin are still there: a vengeful acid-wielding criminal, a D.A.’s tragic fall from grace, and Batman’s involvement. This story added some psychological underpinnings and a set of killer twins, but nothing in it precludes a few years’ worth of (still untold) doubled-up deviltry. It just cautions the reader not to expect new Two-Face stories anytime soon.

Indeed, perhaps the Bat-teams feel that Two-Face is played out. After all those years of stories which agonized over redemptions that might never come (or might never stick), it would be hard to go back to more mundane capers involving the Second National Bank or the Janus Foundation. Moreover, today’s readership may be just cynical enough that it’d never take seriously a redemption-oriented storyline. Maybe there really was only one last great Two-Face story, and Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason have told it.

Personally, I’d find that hard to believe. After all, an ending like that practically cries out for a sequel. Two-Face II, anyone?

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