So! A flawed but fascinating new Two-Face story has just come out in the online pages of DC's digital relaunch of the venerable Batman title Legends of the Dark Knight.
Has anyone been reading the new LotDK? I've been curious to check it out, as that's a title which is very close to my heart. I was intrigued by the fatally-flawed-but-well-written first issue written by Damon Lindelof of Lost and Prometheus fame/infamy, and I was curious to read the other stories. I had hoped it would yield a neat mixed bag of interesting stories by different creative voices ala the original LotDK and Batman: Black and White, but I also feared that it'd just end up being a dumping ground for misfit stories, ala titles such as the late and unlamented Batman Confidential and, well, what LotDK itself eventually became.
As such, I've held off on reading the new LotDK, which I understand has been pretty much nothing but Joker story after Joker story. I also heard about a three-parter with Slam Bradley versus Black Mask, and as I loved Slam from Brubaker and Cooke's Catwoman, I'd like to read that at some point. Of course, when I learned that issue #15 featured a standalone Two-Face story, which you can all buy and read right now for just 99¢! Obviously, I had to make an exception and splurge, even though I had no idea what to expect.
The writer, Jonathan Larsen, is apparently a relative comics newbie who mainly has experience producing shows like Countdown and The Daily Show, as well as his current gig producing MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes. That's an impressive resume, but it didn't tell me a dang thing about what a Batman comic by him would be like. The art, meanwhile, is by Tan Eng Huat, whose work I loved in John Arcudi's little-read Doom Patrol run before it evolved into a more grotesque style in stuff like Andrew Helfer's (!) Batman: Journey Into Knight, a maxi-series which I really wanted to love more than I did.
Now, having read their Two-Face story in LotDK, I can't help wonder if I was too distracted by the artwork to enjoy the story, because I fear that it got into the way of my enjoyment of this one too. Not that the story itself is perfect either, but all the same, this is a surprising little story that actually treats Harvey with more respect than he's gotten in years, and it's one of the most interesting attempts to tackle Two-Face that I've read recently.
Note: I go really in-depth with this one, so you might just want to buy the issue for 99¢ and read it first, then join me to pick it apart. But I'll do my best to keep you up to speed about the plot along the way.
The issue spends its first few pages to setting up the crime and having Batman investigate in his own Bat-manner. This familiar set-up is handled quite well by Larsen, who even manages to make it a touch personal for Bruce with just one simple line. Unfortunately, these pages will eventually take up time that might be better spent on character stuff in the second half, but this is a Batman story, so we have to have a certain amount of set-up and detective work. Thankfully, while this routine is often handled tediously, Larsen takes us through the beats in a swift and compact fashion.
The gist is this: two children have been kidnapped, both of whom are epileptics who recently underwent radical neurosurgery. This doesn't sit well with Batman, who sees it less as two families who lost their children, but rather children who lost their families. Nice touch, that. Batman is ready to put the surgeon at the top of his suspects list until he discovers that the doctor himself has also been kidnapped!
Reading through the surgeon's files, Batman deduces that the surgeon was the real target all along, while the two kids were mainly kidnapped to study the procedure's effects. And when Batman reads what the procedure actually entails, he realizes that only one person could have done this, and that "the motive is too horrible to imagine." Rushing to the surgeon's private clinic in the middle of the night, Batman takes out the henchman (the single henchman, something which, for him, "should be unthinkable") standing guard.
As he races towards the OR, Batman thinks, "This time there's no coming back. If he gets away with it. Don't do it. Please. Don't let him do this to you." And he bursts in, calling Harvey's name.
In case it's not clear from the narrative (and I didn't find this clear at all the first time I read it), but Batman assumes that Harvey's ultimate goal is to pull a Batman: Jekyll & Hyde on himself, completely locking his good side inside his own head and thus giving the monster Two-Face full control forever. Yeah, I'm no neurosurgeon, but I get the distinct feeling that this plan wouldn't work even a little bit, especially since this story makes the same B:J&H mistake of of thinking that Harvey's "good" and "evil" sides are actually LOCATED in the left and right hemispheres of his brain. Well, LotDK is out of continuity, so let's accept that Harvey's brain works that way in this universe.
Also, since it seems that patients undergoing corpus callostomies are put to sleep through sedation during the procedure, the fact that Harvey's awake the whole time is a nice throwback to the great story where Harvey stayed awake through his own plastic surgery, keeping a gun on Dr. Ekhart the whole time to ensure no funny business.
But unlike Ekhart, this unnamed neurosurgeon is more of a risk-taker, and when Harvey orders his men to shoot Batman, the neurosurgeon quickly jabs a syringe into Harvey's exposed brain! Gyahhh! I know the brain has no feeling, but even still...! Batman quickly subdues the other henchman, whose stray gunfire blows up some medical equipment, starting a fire which threatens to burn down the clinic. Well done, Bruce! But at least now he can focus on Harvey... whatever's left of him.
Oh man, so many mixed feelings about this.
First off, remember, we're accepting the premise that Harvey's mental illness works this way for this story's continuity, because it sure as hell doesn't for Harvey anywhere else, much less in real life. If the "bad side" could be so specifically located and locked out, then theoretically, he'd just need to regularly numb that side of his brain (or, say, undergo one-time brain surgery, *meaningful look*) and he'd at least be able to keep Two-Face at bay. Keep that in mind (hurr) for when we get to the end.
So okay, the bad half of Harvey's brain is numb and he's finally free, but he cannot actually speak. I'm assuming that this moment is meant to be a Twilight Zone-like cruel twist ("Finally, I have all the time in the world to read!" *smash!* "... *cries*"), but I'm not sure if that's we're to get out of it. I'd imagine that Harvey's inability to speak is small price to pay for the freedom of actually being in control of his own body and having the dark side of him vanquished from his own head. I mean, I think Harvey is smiling even with the tear rof his brain (or, say, undergo one-time brain surgery, *meaningful look*) and he'd at least be able to keep Two-Face at bay. Keep that in mind (hurr) for when we get to the end, because that will just raise further questions.
So okay, the bad half of Harvey's brain is numb and he's finally free, but he cannot actually speak. I'm assuming that this moment olling down his face. Or is he crying in silent suffering? If the significance of this moment weren't muddled enough, the art makes the narrative so much harder to discern.
A story with a speechless, temporarily-sane Harvey Dent... that deserves an artist who can convey volumes through facial expression and body language. Tan Eng Huat's forte, however, seems more to be in gritty atmosphere and kinetic action, most of which I'm not including in this review anyway. It also doesn't help that the scarred and unscarred si mean, I think Harvey is smiling even with the tear rof his brain (or, say, undergo one-time brain surgery, *meaningful look*) and he'd at least be able to keep Two-Face at bay. Keep that in mind (hurr) for when we get to the end, because that will just raise further questions.
So okay, the des of Harvey's face just look like the same face, only with one side looking slightly demonic, right down to a pointy, almost goblin-like ear. We see that in the next page, after Harvey helps Batman save the kids from the fire (!), and they all head outside.
But before they do, Batman leaves Harvey alone with the kids (also "!", but for different reasons), the doctor quickly makes a confession to Batman about the surgery. And it's something that he needs to tell Harvey while he's e significance of this moment weren't muddled enough, the art makes the narrative so much harder to discern.
A story with a speechless, temporarily-sane Harvey Dent... that deserves an artist who can convey volumes through facial expression and body language. Tan Eng Huat's forte, however, seems more to be istill in control, before the short-term anesthetic wears off. Well, this one-shot story is almost over, so we gotta speed things up! *clap clap!* But seriously, this is kind of important, seeing as how Harvey still has a gun and all.
God. Harvey has a window of complete freedom, and his main goal is to finally just kill himself. And of course, because Batman can't let him do it, he wallops Harvey, who falls back with a "NO!" As Batman slips thet completing the procedure, and that Harvey isn't separated after all. To this, Two-Face snarls, "Liar! Harvey's gone! He's buried in my skull!"
Wait, what? At this point, with four panels left to rush towards its conclusion and tie up all loose ends, the story awkwardly explains what's really been going on all along. It's ostensibly a twist, but I'm not sure how many Two-Face fans will be surprised.
Wait, that's the end? That's the big reveal, and poof, it's over?
Figured it was about time that I finally just got a screencap of this.
Man, where to start? Okay, first thing: when I read this, I thought it was plainly obvious that both the surgery and the suicide attempt were "all Harvey," yet the narrative (punctuated by Batman's crazy "GYUAHHH?!" reaction) seem to treat this as a big revelation. I think my selective use of scans, cropping, and description all helped streamline this story a bit, but I had to read the actual comic a couple times to figure it out. Even then, I'm still a bit confused as to what Batman thought was going to happen, what Harvey wanted to happen, and what actually did happen.
Was Harvey's main goal to isolate Two-Face from his own brain, or just to pull a Jekyll & Hyde and "kill" himself? Two-Face's own word for Harvey's goal was "escape," and the second attempt was going to be by self-inflicted gunshot wound. So was Harvey's goal here simply self-obliteration, one way or another, or was it liberation? And since it failed, does that mean Harvey is now a powerless observer inside Two-Face, kinda like the ending of Being John Malkovich? God, what a horrible prospect!
But maybe it's not that bad. Maybe this just means that Harvey's right back to where he started, and that nothing's changed even despite his best efforts. If that's the case, then he could still have the surgery, or at least undergo regular brain-numbing treatments to keep Two-Face at bay. Either the doctors at Arkham could prescribe that, or Bruce himself could pay for the procedure, but then again, I'm not sure what the legality of that would be if Two-Face resisted. Either way, I'm not sure what to make of this because the story itself is just kinda convoluted.
What I see here is a really great story hindered by a few possible factors. One I've already mentioned is the artwork, but your own mileage may vary on that count. One reviewer found that it really captured "the gritty and realistic tone of the tale, selling you on its seriousness," but I personally would have preferred a cleaner, more expressive art style with an emphasis on characters. I don't mean full-on Bruce Timm style, but maybe more like Chris Samnee, who can balance both character and atmosphere.
Another possible problem is the length. While I treasure any story that can tell a lot in a very limited space of time, I think this particular story--and Harvey's arc in particular, with all the psychology it entails--needed way more room to breathe. Much like that Spectre issue which also dealt with the problems of "separating" the Harveys, the ideas here simply cannot be explored in such a short period of time before going right back to the status quo.
Related to that, yet another possible problem could be that Jonathan Larsen--unless I'm mistaken--is new to writing comics, and thus hasn't yet gotten comfortable with telling a story through that medium. This certainly does read like a writer's early work, but I'd argue that it's still very promising for all that. The actual Batman segments which I didn't include showed that Larsen is plenty adept at writing a good Batman mystery, especially one that has a touch of the personal for Bruce. If Larsen is indeed still new to comics, then I hope he sticks with it, because I'd love to see how he grows as a writer. Hell, I'd love to see him take a longer crack at Two-Face down the line, since he already seems to treat Harvey with more empathy than most writers, even the ones who write the character in starring roles!
Ultimately, I think the highest praise I can give this issue is that--with a different style of art and a bit of cleaning up--it would have been a solid story that could have fit right in with the wonderful DCAU Batman comics. But then, maybe I'm just thinking that because the issue reads like it was partially inspired by the great B:TAS episode Second Chance (review forthcoming soon, I swear!). As it is, it's flawed and rushed, but also promising and encouraging. As a Two-Face fan who so rarely gets to see stories where the character gets the respect he deserves, I really love what this story set out to accomplish, and that ambition alone makes it more interesting to me than most other comics out there now.
This standalone digital issue is on sale right now for just 99¢, so it's definitely worth picking up and supporting. And if you're interesting in reading any more of the new LotDK, do let me know what you think!