Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Terror of the Two-Headed Coin, Part 2

Jake has an interesting new post on Two-Face that prompts me to make one of my own. I would have replied on his blog but I didn't want to go on and on in a comment. That's what blog posts are for.

Now, I could write about Two-Face all day. Every day. And, before you ask, yes, that has come up in therapy. Now, that could be because I'm secretly a wanna-be supervillain, desperately sublimating my destructive impulses by punishing criminals instead. Or, maybe Two-Face really is one of comic's most fascinating and potentially deep characters.

In either case, like Jake, I was a little dissatisfied with James Robinson's recent portrayal of Harvey Dent (although for different reasons). What bothers me most about Robinson's Two-Face -- indeed, most post-Crisis interpretations of Two-Face -- is, appropriately enough, two-fold:

1. Two-Face/Harvey Dent is portrayed as two sides of a split personality.
2. The "good" and "evil" sides of Two-Face as being in conflict.

I don't think Two-Face should be a "split personality". I don't want to see Two-Face "talking to Harvey Dent", or vice versa. For one thing, as I understand it, that's not how "split personalities" work at all; they are mutually exclusive "modes" of the subject. They can't "talk to each" any more than "on" can talk to "off". In fact, the inability of the multiple personalities to "talk" with one another is part of their problem to begin with.

When Two-Face was created, the writers knew what a split personality was; in fact, they used the schtick in other contemporary Batman stories (particularly the "Adam Lamb" story). They weren't rubes who tried to write a split personality story and missed the mark; they were going for something more sophicated and scarier.

There's little uniqueness of characterization for Two-Face if he's just another "multiple personality" killer. There are plenty of those (and better ones) in literature, in comics, even in Gotham (or at least there were, until somebody rugged out the Ventriloquist & Scarface). Two-Face, in my opinion, stands for something much more frightening... .

Similarly, I never want to hear Two-Face refer to himself in the plural ever again. Two-Face is NOT a "we"; that doesn't sound scary, it just sounds silly; the man's a psychotic, not Queen Victoria.

I can accept a portrayal of Harvey Dent as having a "good side" and a "bad side", with impulse toward both that are at odds with each other; that's true of us all. But when Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face, it doesn't represent the triumph of the "bad side" over the "good side". It represents something much much worse: someone who's given up on trying to choose between the two.

Harvey Dent isn't the "good side" and Two-Face the "bad side"; yawn. Harvey Dent was a man having trouble reconciling his personal views about good and evil with how the world works; he became Two-Face because Two-Face doesn't have that problem at all. Two-Face isn't Harvey Dent's problem; he's the solution to Harvey Dent's problem.

A very unpleasant, dangerous, and unwise solution, yes. But still a "solution" that resolved Harvey's inner conflicts and that is why Two-Face survives and Harvey Dent doesn't. And here's one of the scene that proves it: his origin ...

Two-Face doesn't (or shouldn't) struggle with the difference between good and evil; he's abrogated all that decision making to the coin. As a crusading District Attorney, Harvey Dent spent his life trying to ensure that bad deeds got punished and good deeds rewarded. His scarring flew in the face of that worldview; in Gotham, bad guys get away with murder and good guys like Harvey Dent pay dearly for their attempts to right the world.

In such a world, Harvey lost the motivation to make sure he was doing the right thing. If your efforts to enforce the difference between right and wrong don't make any difference, why bother? Why distinguish them in your own life? It's really just in how you and others look at things any way, so if you look like a monster, why not be one?

If you look at some of the pre-Crisis Two-Face stories, you'll notice some pretty fascinating psychology at work, with Two-Face able to justify actions as either good or bad in disturbing or novel ways. I've read all of the Two-Face stories over the years ... but never a Two-Face scene more chilling and sophisticated than this one:

Now, that is Comic Book Irony ... and perhaps the cleverest two-panel scene in the history of DC comics.

Two-Face's "evil" action (killing his incompetent henchmen) is perfectly equated with the "good" action he would have taken as Harvey Dent (sending a killer to the electric chair). Two-Face doesn't represent our fear that our bad side will triumph over our good side; he represents that idea that we will lose (or abandon) the ability to make any difference between the two. As such, he's a conceptual threat to the entire moral framework of the DCU.

The irony, of course, is that he muddles the differences between good and evil in the name of preserving the difference between the two. Being a lawyer helps, I suppose. Almost as a necessity to doing their jobs, attorneys have to set aside their right to judge the accused in the process of defending or prosecuting them. So the very training that led to Harvey's career as a Champion of Good may have helped weaken his moral certitude enough to enable his career as a villain (good becomes evil, and vice versa).

There are many unkind things than can be said about what was done with Two-Face in the film Batman Forever. But they did get one thing right: Two-Face's obsession isn't good vs. evil, it's justice versus random fate. The heart of Two-Face's distress isn't the scarring of his face, but the monumental injustice that it symbolizes.

While I may not have liked everything that Robinson did with Two-Face, Jake may well be right. Robinson may be creating a more self-understanding Two-Face, one who is Harvey Dent's "solution", not his problem. A Two-Face who (like the original one in the story shown above) became who he is through his choice in how to react to an unjust world that judges poorly and often by appearances. A Two-Face who, in denying that our personal choices between good and evil matter, does so by an active choice, thus contradicting himself.

How ironic.


Jake said...

So, the difference in opinion seems to be whether Harvey should be incapable of making decisions or apathetic to the decision making process. I've always thought of him as being unable to make decisions, based largely on Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum graphic novel. I can also buy the "fate screwed me so let's see if you get a good flip or a bad flip" to decide what happens to you.

What I don't like is when Two-Face makes his decision and tries to justify his actions based on the coinflip. While I can see how the henchman could be killed in those two frames either way, I can't see how District Attorney Harvey Dent could justify crippling a policeman because he got a "good flip."

By the way, what trade did you get those scans from?

Anonymous said...

"he represents that idea that we will lose (or abandon) the ability to make any difference between the two... that he muddles the differences between good and evil"

Isn't that the basic premise for every anti-hero in comics?

And that is why Two-face will never be interesting again

Steven said...

I suppose I look queer... but I'm not ashamed any more! Now I flaunt my two sides....

Uh, is he becoming a supervillain or coming out of the closet?

Anyway, the real irony of Two-Face's dichotomy between justice and luck is that there is no luck in a comic book. Every coin flip is determined by a writer who knows the outcome. There was no way that coin was going to come down good side up. Harvey Dent was always going to become Two-Face.

Anonymous said...

"Every coin flip is determined by a writer who knows the outcome."

Now there's an idea... a Two-Face story where the writer actually flips a coin at each decision point, and has to abide by the results.

Anonymous said...

...hey, that *is* a good idea.

And as for Anonymous's comment: Note that Two-Face is a villain, not a hero, even anti. Which makes him an especially interesting contrast...

Well-done essay, Scipio.

Scipio said...

"By the way, what trade did you get those scans from?"

The original Two-Face trilogy appeared in Detective 66, 68, and 80.

The entire trilogy was reprinted in the DC 100-page Super-spectacular #DC-20.

You can find the first two stories in "Batman, featuring Two-Face and Riddler", and the third in "Batman in the Forties".

Naturally, they are all available in the Batman Archive Volumes 2 & 3, which I recommend, so they can be read in the context of contemporary stories.

Anonymous said...

Even when I haven't got the time to visit comics blogs on a daily basis, I still insist on stopping by here. Posts like this are exactly why that's the case. I never really found Two-Face a compelling villain. He's so off my radar screen that I'd forgotten he'd even been cured by Loeb in Hush, though that may be because Hush itself wasn't on my radar. It would be fantastic if someone were to take up your interpretation of Two-Face for a few issues and really let Batman steep in the moral complexity of his rival. It never occurred to me how much Two-Face's hyper-rationality offsets the Joker.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfullly done. Two-Face is one of the most compelling and interesting characters in all comics and it's a shame a writer hasn't delved deeper into his problems or his history. You should examine more villains like this.

David C said...

Damn, you need to write this up as a submission to DC!

One thing that fascinates me about Two-Face is how many different strongly-held, but essentially incompatible, interpretations there are of him.

Chuck Dixon once wrote on his site that he and Denny O'Neil had a friendly but irreconcilable (save that O'Neil had the deciding vote as editor) disagreement over whether Two-Face would ever "override" the verdict of the coin.

O'Neil saw Two-Face as essentially a pawn of fate who *must* do as the coin commands. Dixon saw him more as an evil man who uses the coin to justify his evil acts. Someone who'd basically go "OK, best two out of three" when the coin came up with something he didn't *want* to do.

I think Dixon's is probably closer to the mark, because of one crucial factor that's always in Two-Face's control: *WHEN* do you flip the coin? He doesn't flip for every damn thing he does, it's only for certain key actions.

But I can see validity (dramatic, psychological, or both) in all sorts of different approaches.

Anonymous said...

In the page displayed, it's kind of funny how happy Harvey "Kent" is when crime wins the coin toss.

Anonymous said...

How come they never used Two-Face in the 1960s Bat-Man series? Can't you just see James Garner as Two-Face? That would have been so cool!

Great essay, Scipio. In the 1970s, my first exposure to Two-Face was in one of those 13" X 10" Collector's Editions, a reprint of the newspaper comic where he was Harvey Apollo (I think, haven't seen it for years).

I also had a DC Special that had a SECRET ORIGIN for Two-Face where the big secret was that he wasn't really the intended target of the gangster's acid-throwing. (That's the secret?) But they called him Dent! But in the other one, his name was Apollo! WTF?

Two-Face is awesome.

Anonymous said...

In the first Two-Face story, DA Harvey Kent was nicknamed "Apollo" by the press because of his dashing good looks. Presumably, it was because he was so darn handsome to start with that the shock of having half his face burned off drove him over the edge. Hey, I don't make this stuff up.


Anonymous said...

Two Face has abandoned any concept of free will, and would never be frustrated at the turn of the coin.

This probably isn't canon any longer, but in "Half a Hero--" (Batman 346) & "--Is Better than None" (Detective 513), Two-Face keeps our favorite nemesis locked up for a week (or two?) until the coin turns up scarred, meaning he can kill him. He flips the coin every day, but doesn't release him when the unscarred side comes up repeatedly.

And when it comes up scarred, I believe he says, "At last..."

Anonymous said...

Harvey Dent, Diceman