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Two-Timing Man

 

My first encounter with Harvey Dent was reading a friend's BATMAN comic back in the '70s. The issue was part of a story arc where Batman was missing and several of his foes were claiming credit for his death. And so the Gotham City Underworld staged a sort of reverse trial in which the “defendants” were pleading guilty and the prosecutor trying to prove their innocence. The advocatus diaboli in this case was a freakish-looking guy with a scarred face and a really ugly suit and tie. He was obviously supposed to be someone readers would recognize, and we were told that he was once the Gotham City District Attorney. They called him Two-Face.

I wasn't quite sure what to make of Two-Face. He didn't look like a costumed criminal to me as much as a really bizarre mob boss. (Although to be fair, really, a lot of Batman's foes were just bizarre mob bosses). He originally appeared back in the Golden Age, but had only made sporadic appearances until the 1970s. He had never appeared on the Adam West TV series, so I had never seen him before. But if he was obscure back in the '70s, since then he has become established as a major figure in the Batman mythos, and arguable the most tragic character in his rogue's gallery.

In the beginning, “Handsome” Harvey Dent was a crusading District Attorney: charismatic, ambitious, and extremely good-looking. A man who was Going Places. But his flair for courtroom dramatics became his undoing when, while prosecuting a big crime boss, he confronted the accused on the witness stand with the vial of acid that was a key piece of evidence. The mobster grabbed the acid and dashed it in Harvey's face, horribly scarring one side.

With his dashing features irrevocably marred, his political career and his life – in his eyes anyway – was in shambles. Lying in his hospital bed, he brooded over his fate and over the two-headed coin that had belonged to the mob boss and was his other souvenir of the trial. He became convinced that everything was ruled by chance. Free Will was an illusion; one might as well just flip a coin.

The coin-flipping gimmick was a trademark of actor George Raft, who was known for playing gangsters who would coolly flip coins, not to determine heads or tails, but simply as a habit, and for a time the image of the coin-flipping thug was a cliché of gangster movies.

So Harvey took the two-headed coin and scratched up one of the heads, leaving its face as scarred as his own. And based on the verdict of the coin, he turned from a career of pursuing the Law to one of pursuing Crime.

As “Two-Face”, Dent's gimmick became the number Two. All of his crimes would involve it in some way. He would rob the Second National Bank, or a jewelry store on South 22nd Street; or he'd kidnap a pair of twins. And any time he came to an important decision; whether to kill a hostage or let him live, for example, he would flip the coin. If the unblemished side came up, he'd do the good thing; if the scarred side came up, he'd do the bad.

He was even responsible for one of the iconic tchotchkes of the Bat-Cave. In one Golden Age story, Two-Face tried to steal a gigantic replica coin from the estate of a Gotham City millionaire. Gigantic replicas of mundane everyday objects was a theme in Golden Age Batman stories. He managed to capture Batman and Robin and constructed an impromptu death-trap by tying the Caped Crusaders to the “Heads” side of the penny, and placing it on a convenient medieval catapult. The catapult would flip the coin into the air, and if it landed “Tails”, Batman and Robin would be crushed; if “Heads”, they would not. (Of course, Two-Face admitted, the impact would still likely break every bone in their bodies, but they wouldn't be crushed). Batman managed to escape certain death, of course, and captured Two-Face and his gang. He kept the Giant Penny, though, as a souvenir of the case. Along with the stuffed T-Rex, it's become the iconic symbol of Batman's Trophy Room.

In the 1960s, Harlan Ellison wrote a script for the BATMAN TV series that would have featured Clint Eastwood as Two-Face, but it was decided that the acid-scarred villain would be too horrific for what was regarded as a kid's show. Recently, Ellison's script has been adapted into an issue of BATMAN '66, a comic book based on the Adam West series, and which also forms the basis of an upcoming animated DVD.

Many Two-Face stories over the years have involved doctors trying to use plastic surgery to repair his damaged face. Perhaps the most notable version of this comes in Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, in which Harvey appears to be cured. But in his own mind, “Both sides match”: his face is now completely scarred and he is completely evil.

Another version of this comes in an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series” where Dent is kidnapped while being transported from Arkham Asylum to a hospital where he will receive plastic surgery. Batman searches the Gotham underworld trying to find which of Two-Face's enemies is out to get him. In the end, it turns out that Two-Face himself hired the thugs who kidnapped him, without Harvey Dent being aware of it, because Two-Face doesn't want to be cured.

Both of these stories bring out a point which has become an important part of Two-Face's background over the years: his one-time friendship with Bruce Wayne. Both Dent and Wayne would have moved in the same social circles, so it makes sense that they would know each other. DARK KNIGHT RETURNS has Bruce Wayne remarking on Dent's apparent cure saying that “We need to believe that we can conquer our demons,” speaking as much about his own demons as about Harvey's. And in Miller's BATMAN: YEAR ONE, a mini-series set early in Batman's career, Miller has Batman working with Dent when Harvey was an up-and-coming Assistant DA. This personal connection between Harvey and Bruce gives Two-Face a tragic dimension that Batman's other foes lack. Bruce never forgets that Harvey was once his friend and he wishes Two-Face to be healed.

Because of the association both characters have with facial disfigurement, toxic chemicals and madness, Two-Face has sometimes been connected with the Joker. The 20XX film “Batman: The Dark Knight” has Joker responsible for Dent's scarring; but this plot point was anticipated by a revival of the Batman comic strip which came out following the 1989 “Batman” film starring Michael Keaton. In most re-tellings of Two-Face's origin, however, his scarring is the act of an ordinary gangster.

The 1989 “Batman” featured Harvey Dent in a small role, played by Billy Dee Williams, leading fans to speculate that Two-Face would be appearing in a future movie. He eventually did, in 1995's “Batman Forever”, but the character was re-cast with Tommy Lee Jones; a good actor, but not a fellow with conventional “Pretty Boy” looks. I remember when the film came out seeing a “Behind the Scenes” special about the movie on TV; (the kind of promotional show that these days gets put on the DVD as extras). At one point in the special, they had a clip of Tommy Lee being interviewed and telling how director Joel Schumacher explained the character to him. In his interpretation, Harvey was all about the dichotomy between Light and Darkness, Good and Evil. Which struck me as true enough as far as it goes, but ultimately a superficial take.

Because although Two-Face's look may be all about Dualism, his motivations and his obsessions are all about the random, pointless nature of Fate.

Grant Morrison understood this in the graphic novel, ARKHAM ASYLUM: A SERIOUS HOUSE ON SERIOUS EARTH, he wrote in 1989. Morrison was part of the British Invasion that hit DC following Alan Moore's acclaimed run on SWAMP THING. He went on to write the remarkable ANIMAL MAN revival and the downright surreal re-working of DOOM PATROL; but ARKAHM was his first project for DC.

In the book, Batman is summoned to Arkham to deal with a riot at the asylum where many of Gotham's most twisted criminals are housed. Early on in the story, he encounters Harvey Dent, and the psychiatrist treating Dent explains that they are trying to wean him away from his dualistic view of the universe. First they took away his coin and replaced it with a six-sided die, giving him multiple options. Then they replaced the die with a deck of Tarot cards. Next week they'll give him a set of I-Ching sticks. Batman looks on in horror as Harvey compulsively flips over card after card. By giving him so many options, they have rendered him incapable of taking any action at all except to sit paralyzed and consult one card after another. Later on, Batman manages to swipe Harvey's old coin and sneak it back to him.

In the end, Batman's fate winds up in Dent's hands. Should the inmates kill Batman while they have him at their mercy, or let him go? Two-Face flips the coin, and declares Batman free. But after Batman has gone, we see that the coin in Harvey's palm came down scarred side up. Did Harvey decide on his own to override the coin's decree? Or did he decide that letting Batman live would be the most evil act? The reader is left to speculate.

Sometimes I think that too many of Batman's villains are depicted as insane. It becomes a cliché, and a sloppy shortcut to characterization; and sometimes lesser writers have applied it to villains who are definitely not insane, like Penguin or Bane. In the case of Two-Face, though, his madness is just a part of who he is. His past, his relationships, his misfortunes and his mistakes combine to make him in some ways sympathetic as well as chilling. And that's what makes him one of my favorite Batman villains.



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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.