The Man with the Dented Face

August 27th, 2008 by | Tags: , , , , , , ,

“When I speak, respond with the first word you think of. One.”

— Dr. Bruce Wayne and Two-Face from Elseworlds: The Batman of Arkham

For the past month, graphic novels have been doing quite well at the Barnes and Noble where I work. Sure, the Iron Man, Hulk and Hellboy stuff were doing fairly well over the course of the summer, but once Dark Knight arrived, everything flew off the shelves. I was put in charge of ordering in just about anything Batman-related that would sell. I mainly went with anything Joker and/or Two-Face themed. Surprisingly, Dark Knight Returns sold out early to the point that all of the warehouses were out of it. Great foresight there, guys.

Joker stuff sells like crazy, especially Killing Joke. Even the hastily scrapped-together biography we got on Heath Ledger has been taking off. Two-Face stuff, on the other hand, has been eating it. Nobody cares about Harvey, sad to say.

That’s unfortunate, because the movie really opened my eyes to the realization that Two-Face is my favorite Batman villain. And I realize how awesomely goofy a Two-Face episode of the 60’s show could’ve been, but that’s a post for another day.

(Really, though, DC. I want to write a miniseries called Batman: Season 4, featuring guest villains Yul Brenner as Two-Face, Robert Mitchum as Bane, Lee Van Cleef as Ra’s Al Ghul, and so on taking on Adam West Batman and Burt Ward Robin. Call me. Let’s make this happen. I’ll pay for lunch.)

I think the thing that makes Two-Face such a great villain is that he’s one of the few Batman villains you truly root for. Many readers would want to pull the trigger on the Joker or Penguin or Poison Ivy without a second thought, but few would want to put Harvey down. There’s too much good and potential in him. The man deserves better.

Fittingly, Two-Face is usually depicted in one of two ways. Either he’s a coin-flipping sociopath or he’s a man at war with himself. And… yeah, there was that thing from the Batman cartoon where he grew a third Judge Dredd personality to counter himself, but we’ll ignore that for the moment.

The coin-flipping part of him is his most well-known and Two-Face goes about like it’s the only way to keep him stable. It may hold him off for a while, but simple coin flips won’t stop his house of cards from falling apart. Soon he’ll turn on himself. Two-Face thinks his way of life works because of opposites and duality, but it’s flawed. If he was a simple black and white situation, maybe. Except Two-Face isn’t black and white. Sure, the scarred side of his psyche is pure evil, no doubt about that, but Harvey Dent isn’t pure good. He’s good, yes. Very good. But Harvey Dent is human and by default, he’s more complex than he’d like to believe. Instead of black and white, Two-Face is black and gray.

That probably explains how he’s always the criminal. You’d think a man so fixated on duality would’ve helped out Batgirl in a barfight somewhere along the line to keep the balance, but no. In fact, to understand Two-Face, you have to look at all the other heroes and villains with personality disorders and dual identities. Hulk and Banner, Osborn and Goblin, Bruce Wayne and Batman (I don’t go for the “Bruce is the mask” explanation), Sentry and Bob and Void, etc. You look at any of these nutcases and you can see that for each example, these at-odds personalities can agree on something to put them on the same side. Even with the party going on in Bob Reynolds’ head, the three of them each love Lindy in their own way. Even the Void.

With Two-Face, it’s murder. Harvey Dent fully endorses murder when used against the evils of society. When Holiday was off killing mobsters, Harvey rarely minded, much to the chagrin of Gordon. That’s his big flaw and the main thing that Harvey and his evil side have in common. Even on the cartoon, you have that classic exchange with Poison Ivy.

Two-Face: Poison Ivy…
Poison Ivy: It’s been a long time, Harvey. You’re still looking halfway decent.
Two-Face: Half of me wants to strangle you.
Poison Ivy: And what does the other half want?
Two-Face: To hit you with a truck!

In the comics, there was a recent disagreement with the Joker. Joker was in the middle of some scheme to run for governor and Dent didn’t like that. Despite what he’s become, he still honors his tenure as district attorney and doesn’t want Joker tarnishing that piece of his life.

Not only do Harvey and his evil half agree on murder, it’s also the big thing that separates Harvey from Batman. In both the movie and the comics, it’s been brought up a couple times that people could buy that Harvey Dent is Batman pre-disfigurement. The murder factor throws a wrench in that comparison.

It’s a good thing too, because for once we have some backup for Batman’s beliefs. For so long, the deal has been that Batman won’t kill and really shouldn’t anyway. Very rarely do they give him any justification for his actions other than keeping up sales via living Joker appearances. Harvey Dent is Batman’s vindication.

There’s no better example than Paul Jenkins’ story Batman: Jekyll and Hyde, where he not only further examined the evil Two-Face entity, but gave it a name, Murray. You see, Murray Dent was Harvey’s brother. He was an asshole. From the few flashbacks we saw of him, he likely would have grown up to become one of the most despicable criminals alive. He also tried to coax Harvey into doing bad things. When he got Harvey to set the drapes on fire, the fire got out of control and Harvey went to go get help. Except that after leaving the room, he decided to slam the door and keep his brother in there.

He let Murray die because even at that young age, he realized that the world would be better off without him. Unfortunately, his actions had a horrible effect on his life. His father blamed and hated him, his mother went insane and Harvey himself would unfortunately go insane. I’m sure it was the sight of his burned half-face that trigged “Murray” to take over.

Again, Two-Face is a “black and gray” personality. While his situation makes him more evil than good, his personality is so misshapen and unbalanced that his 50/50 disposition can’t maintain order. The goodness of Harvey Dent finds a way to take over every once and a while and derails the rest of him.

He survived that. Go figure.

Even in the movie, there’s this cute little piece of subtle desperation for Harvey to be good after he’s undergone his transformation. He’s given into the idea of flipping the coin to see who lives and who dies, but he doesn’t give in 100%. When the coin first hits heads and he has to let the Joker live, you can see the pained fury in his expression. When he can’t kill Marconi, he manipulates luck by killing the driver instead, thereby getting his revenge anyway. Then notice that when playing the blame game at the end, he chooses to flip the coin on himself before Gordon’s son. He was willing to give the kid better odds at the expense of his own life.

I dig that about the character. At key times, despite being the underdog, the good part of Harvey will be triumphant. It just takes the right push. Like during No Man’s Land, when Two-Face was forcing Gordon to take part in his own twisted murder trial. Gordon asked for Dent to be his defense and Dent proceeded to tear his Murray self a new one with cross-examination. His ex-wife Gilda has been able to steer him on the right path once or twice. Then there’s the ending to Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which is one of my all-time favorite comic moments. Though you could say that both sides of Two-Face made the decision to bypass the coin’s ruling purely out of respect for what Batman did for him/them.

Looking at the character, especially due to the movie, I notice other things about him. Just about every media incarnation of Harvey Dent is portrayed as a good friend of Bruce Wayne and/or Batman. Even the crappy Tommy Lee Jones version. Yet after his transformation; after Harvey has lost himself and becomes Two-Face, he gets the same kind of support from the Joker of all people. They don’t hang out too often, but when they do, Joker seems to carry some sort of… well… let’s just say “admiration” for what Harvey has become.

In Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Joker mostly mocks Two-Face for soiling himself. Why wouldn’t he? Not only is a grown man pissing himself funny, but Harvey is being pushed away from being Two-Face. Joker is chastising him for that, as if he and Bruce are playing tug of war with Harvey’s soul. When Batman shows up at the end and pushes Harvey back towards being Two-Face, Joker laughs his ass off and calls it brilliant.

Really, it makes sense that Joker would get along with Two-Face on some level. Joker is a man who loves to be unpredictable. Who’s more unpredictable than Two-Face? The man doesn’t even know what he’s going to do until the coin lands.

I think another thing that makes Two-Face so enthralling is the underlying tragedy in his character. Bruce wants him get better. We want him to get better. Harvey himself wants to get better… but it won’t happen. Not for long, at least. There will always be something. The sad truth is that as much as we’d like to think Harvey Dent could almost be like Batman, he’s too flawed to make it happen. It isn’t just the murder thing I mentioned earlier. Harvey is just too petty.

The way he turned back to his tricks in Face the Face, even after an entire year of sanity, shows how weak he ultimately is. He just about jumped at the first chance to relapse, accusing Batman of trying to toss him aside upon his comeback and then accusing Batman of accusing him. He didn’t fight the false evidence against him. He folded hard and immediately.

To be petty is like the opposite of being a badass. That’s the way Two-Face and Batman are opposites. Batman looks ridiculous. No matter how you look at it, a guy dressed in a bat costume is ridiculous. End of story. We don’t mind, though, because he’s a badass inside and out. He carries himself so well as a top tier detective/scientist/ninja/ladies man/spy. You can take away his mask or his sidekick or his money and he will still thrive and win.

Two-Face… not so much. He looks awesome. He looks like a badass and acts like one. If you saw someone facially fucked up like that in real life and he acted like the cock of the block and seethed confidence, you’d likely be in awe of his presence. But he’s not a badass. He’s dependent of his own gimmick. Look at what happens to him when you take his coin away. It’s like stealing the keys to a car.

He had three major storylines in the Batman cartoon and two of them ended with him paralyzed by his inability to use his coin. First time, Batman tossed a tray of silver dollars at him, causing his own coin to get mixed up. Second time, Batman used a magnet to manipulate the coin and cause it to land on its side, driving Two-Face mad and taking him out of their fight. There was also his segment in Almost Got ‘Im, where Batman yoinked his coin away and caused him to go – no pun intended – batshit. Then, of course, there’s Arkham Asylum, where removing his coin turned him into a cowering piss-ant. Cool as his asymmetrical suits are, when you strip him down, Two-Face is just a crybaby with an easily-abusable crutch.

In the animated universe, we got to see closure to the Joker, Harley, Bane and Mr. Freeze. We never did see what became of Two-Face, but that may be for the better. It could only end badly for him. Frank Miller hit the nail right on the head with Dark Knight Returns. It doesn’t matter that they cleaned up his face and made him look completely like Harvey Dent. By that point in time, there’s nothing left of Harvey. There’s no reason for there to be anything left. His life and potential have been pissed away by his own madness and all he can do is fully succumb to his demons. At least his evil still has things to do.

Maybe it’s a good thing that his neck snapped in the movie.

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12 comments to “The Man with the Dented Face”

  1. Pretty insightful look at things. I had forgotten about that part in DKR… I think that came across pretty clearly in the movie. (Spoilers from here on out, in case someone cares) Even though Harvey knew he wasn’t making a bet at all by flipping his coin, the fact that he was willing to threaten Joker’s crony in the way he did shows that he has that potential inside him. Besides that, he is pretty explicit through most of the movie that he doesn’t feel like the white knight everyone thinks he is.

    I do feel a bit disappointed that there won’t be any more Two-Face, especially given that they’ll have to recast Joker to have him appear in more movies. I do, however, think that he got his due in this film. You’re right, it’s a shame that Two-Face books aren’t selling as well, but it’s harder to think of a book that’s as iconic for him as The Killing Joke is for the Joker.

  2. Good writeup Gav. Although it reminded me how sad I am about the direction Norman Osbourn has gone in–back when he was “mild mannered industrialist/homicidal lunatic” Spidey had a damned good reason not to kill him, but now that he’s “Barely restrained sociopathic scuzzbag/homicidal lunatic” it’s turned into one of those “seriously why DON’T you kill him?” questions instead.

    Although that interpretation can be very amusing on it’s own, as in Thunderbolts

  3. Excellent write up.

  4. Man, when I see DKR art these days it sure looks a lot more like Janson that it does like Miller.

  5. It’s kind of amazing how that first image almost seems like a homosexual coming-out – “Now I flaunt my two sides!”

  6. He’s not ashamed that he looks queer anymore. Good for him!

  7. Two-Face has been my favorite villain for a while. While the Joker has become too diluted, too overused by writers not capable of writing him properly, Two-Face has stayed fresh. One of my favorite stories is this one, from Batman: Black & White #1:

  8. This was beautiful! I love Harvey and I think he doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves in the rogue’s gallery (because at the moment Joker seems to be taking and bathing in all the lime light at the moment) but for the few moments we got to see Two-Face in the movie – it was entertaining.

    I do have some questions for you – if you don’t mind answering them via email. What were the comic issues for the one where Joker wants to run for mayor and that DC Animated Universe image you have where the Joker is talking about Harvey dent “I knew Harvey only needed the tiniest little push…”

  9. ^^ Oh sry btw! Email address – cathyg_91@hotmail.com

    I would greatly appreciate it if you got back to me about those comic issues! Thanks!

  10. I don’t know man. As great as the cartoon was, I’d prefer if Harvey weren’t two distinct personalities in one. I am more for the Loeb/Nolan approach, where he’s a good man who just lost hope and doesn’t see the relevance in the notions of good or bad. Being two distinct personalities kind of colors the actions he does as Two-Face as self-consciously wrong. However, Harvey wouldn’t commit actions thinking them wrong, rather, he’d do so, as impartially as possible, in the notion of fairness. Check out this (dare I say greater) article on what makes Mr. Dent tick:
    http://absorbascon.blogspot.com/2005/05/terror-of-two-headed-coin.html – Part I
    http://absorbascon.blogspot.com/2006/08/terror-of-two-headed-coin-part-2.html – Part II

  11. What graphic novel/ comic is the sixth picture down?- it looks pretty cool and I’ve seen similar pages elsewhere with two face and joker escaping together.

  12. Dan Slott’s Arkham Asylum: Living Hell. It mostly focuses on original characters though, not Two-Face or Joker. Hell, other than Great White I don’t think any of them appeared anywhere else.