about_faces (about_faces) wrote,
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REVIEW: Bruce and Harvey's Big Adventure in ALL STAR BATMAN #1

After an inexplicable (yet appropriate) two-and-a-half year absence, Harvey Dent finally made his grand return to the mainstream DC Universe in what promises to be one of his highest-profile stories in his 74-year history!



Scott Snyder—DC's current architect of all things Batman—had teamed up with Marvel legend John Romita Jr to bring us My Own Worst Enemy, an arc which kicks off a year-long epic featuring the classic rogues! With Harvey at the center and two influential superstars at the helm, this story has the potential to define Two-Face for years to come, just as Snyder has already done for the Joker and Riddler! In fact, as of last week, this issue sold around 350,000 copies, making it the highest profile major Two-Face story since The Dark Knight! So yeah, there's a lot at stake here for those of us who care about a well-written Harvey.

First, here's the spoiler-and-scan free review, accompanied just some of the many, many variant covers.




Sadly, I've yet to find a decent-sized high quality version of this Jae Lee variant.



After receiving a desperate plea from the good side of Harvey Dent, Batman vows take his old friend across the country to a secret location that will supposedly cure Harvey and destroy Two-Face one and for all. However, Two-Face has other ideas, and kicks off a plan that pits Batman against everyone from hired assassins, ambitious D-list rogues, average people looking to get rich, and perhaps even members of the Bat-Family!




Nothing remotely like this happens in the issue. That's Neal Adams for you.



All in all, I found the debut issue of ASB to be a very promising start. While it's not quite worth the absolutely ridiculous $4.99 cover price, this story nonetheless has great potential despite some flaws. While Snyder does indulge in his penchant for having the villain monologue about biweekly BIG IDEAS THAT WILL SHAKE BATMAN AND HIS FAMILY TO THE CORE, the story is breezy, action-packed, and rather fun.







The art by JRJR and the daytime setting gives the story a tone and atmosphere that sets it apart from the average Batman story, particularly those by Snyder, who has always emphasized the “dark” part of “dark knight.” A potential downside, however, is that JRJR's distinctive art style is not everyone's cup of tea, as he's one of the few comic artists whose quality can vacillate between being gorgeousness and hideousness. While I didn't particularly like his work here (with inks by Danny Miki), the general fan consensus seems to be that JRJR is at the top of his game, so YMMV.





Yeah, this just... this just seems awkward to me. Especially Harvey's proportions.




The biggest problem with this issue is that the first half is told in a series of needlessly jumbled flashbacks, starting with modern day, then going back 22 minutes, then 2 hours ago, then 2 weeks ago, then 20 minutes ago, then modern day again. The cuteness of the gimmick isn't really enough justification to jump around like that, especially when the art briefly makes things even more confusing. Thankfully, this doesn't derail the story right out of the gate, and it picks up again once the it becomes linear and bloody well gets on with it.



Rodolfo Migliari's variant here might just be my favorite of the lot.




As for Harvey himself, I'm relieved to say that he's well-written, and that he's not the creature of pure ultimate evil that I was expecting/fearing from Snyder. Or at least, Harvey Dent isn't, but the same can't be said of Two-Face. Yes, Snyder is one of the rare writers to give Harvey full-blown Dissociative Identity Disorder, where he has two distinct personalities that can keep secrets from one another. This is not my platonic ideal for Two-Face's mental illness, and it doesn't fit The Big Burn, which will supposedly be addressed in a future issue. That said, the use of DID worked wonders for Harvey in Nightwing: The Great Leap, and Snyder seems to be playing with a similar internal struggle, to the story's great credit.

The other great pleasure of this story is the appearance of four classic villains (ranging from B to D list), as well as the promise of more obscure rogues to come. This is the first time I've ever seen Snyder not only go deep into Batman's classic rogues (as opposed to creating his own whole cloth), but also write them in a fun way that isn't dependent of trying so hard to make them inhumanly menacing. After being worn out by Snyder's villains like the Joker, James Gordon Jr, Thomas Wayne Jr, the Court of Owls, Mister Bloom, and Doctor Death, it's damn refreshing to see him just have fun with normal schmoes like Firefly and Killer Moth.

Between the unusual setting, the classic rogues, the fun action, and an intriguingly fresh take on Two-Face, My Own Worst Enemy has a lot of potential to not suck. Naturally, I'm going to remain anxious for the next year, as I await to see where this Harvey will fit into Snyder's overall All Star Batman epic. But for now, it's a good start, and I'm itchin' to delve into spoilers and scans already!









The issue opens with a group of perfectly normal truck stop diner patrons and workers on a perfectly normal day in the perfectly normal farmland countryside somewhere just outside of Gotham's city limits. Then, the normalcy is shattered along with the windows as Batman, Killer Moth, and Firefly come crashing in all at once.






The complimentary uniforms suggests that Mothy and Flamey have become a double act, building off their team-up in Batgirl: Year One. This seems like a great use of both characters, neither of whom have really had much to do in recent years. Like, do we even know who the Killer Moth IS anymore? Is anybody there? Does anybody care?

In any case, their brief appearance as the two-man Glass Joes of this story has only made me want to see more of the Fluttery Flying Felons, if only to watch them get their armored asses handed to them in hilariously awful ways.





With the Antenna'ed Antagonists (Antennagonists? Hey, you think of a better name) having been thoroughly squashed, Batman then has to deal with the hostility of the diner patrons, who are blame Batman for bringing this destruction to their doorstep. Geez, did Batman end up in the Marvel Universe or something?

So okay, let's backtrack through the flashbacks. What exactly kicked off this current Bat-fiasco? Why, nothing more than a request from an old friend for help to finally vanquish Two-Face, once and for all. In a flashback within a flashback, we learn that Harvey (the good Harvey, that is) somehow managed to get a message across to Bruce. Not Batman, but Bruce, which seems to suggest that one of the most crucial parts of The Big Burn is still canon and that Harvey knows Bruce's secret ID. Yay, if true!

Here is what we learn via the various jumbled flashbacks: Harvey urged Bruce to take him to a secret location known only to them where Two-Face can finally be “burned” out of Harvey once and for all. Two weeks later, Two-Face tried to douse Gotham City with acid rain (it's amazing that no one's written that before), for reasons that are left unexplained. Apparently Harvey has become such a menace that it took the combined efforts of Batman, his new protege Duke Thomas, the GCPD, the Penguin, Black Mask, and the Great White Shark to bring down Two-Face.





I'm digging Jim Gordon's beard here. Since he still has a mustache in all the other current Batman comics, I'm going to assume that this was either an error or artistic liberty on the part of JRJR, which suits me just fine. If we're still going to be ageist enough to keep both Jim Gordon and Leslie Thompkins (!) young and free from gray hairs, then at least the beard is a much better look than the “Season 1 Walter White” look he's been sporting since the New 52.

Secondly, as much as I love seeing someone finally treat Harvey like the A-list rogue he's always supposed to be, I have to wonder if it's in character for Batman to agree to work with utter bastards like Black Mask and White Shark. Penguin, sure, there's a history to them having shaky partnerships based on mutual benefit. But Roman and Warren? Well, maybe Bruce is willing to make strange, murderous bedfellows when the stakes are the chance to finally save Harvey Dent once and for all.





Putting aside the odd choice to literally put the “back” in flashback with Harvey's doing his best impression of Charles Xavier's floating head, I absolutely love this reveal.

When I learned about Snyder's plans for Two-Face, I was terrified that we'd be treated to Two-Face as an irredeemable monster who only wants to bring out the worst in everyone, basically a retread of Batman: Jekyll and Hyde on a larger scale. *shudder* I knew that the story involved Batman intending to cure Harvey once and for all, but that could have just meant that Batman was fooling himself with the notion that there was anything left of Harvey to save.

Instead, we learn that this whole cure was planned by Bruce and Harvey together, and that it's Harvey who asked for this (presumably drastic) step to finally be taken. Now, as both Alfred and Jim pointed out, this could just be one big trap, and there really is nothing left of the real Harvey Dent, which I really really really really really hope isn't the case because that would be cynical and boring. I mean, obviously, Harvey isn't going to be saved, right? That is, unless Snyder is bolder than I suspect, and he actually has plans for a Two-Face who might actually be more than a monster with a good man trapped inside.

That said, the art in this sequence isn't working for me. Not only is there the floating head on Batman's back, but Harvey's facial expressions don't really sell the desperation of the words. Most annoyingly of all, JRJR and colorist Dean White botched the transition between the panel with Alfred and the transition back to the rooftop with Gordon and Duke with “it was my idea, Jim” and the throwing of the coin. The hazy, cloudy watercolor look helped differentiate the clear, solid black lined artwork of the rooftop sequence, and it's like the artistic team forgot to go back to that. It's sloppy, and I'm disappointed that editor Mark Doyle didn't catch that. Unless there's some creative choice here that I'm not getting. Always possible, that.

Also worth noting: this appears to be a rare case where Two-Face actually has Dissociative Identity Disorder, something which we don't normally see. Unlike DID cases like the Ventriloquist, Harvey isn't always depicted as having two separate personalities. When he is, they're usually shown to coexist at the same time, whereas real DID cases have personalities that can keep secrets from the others. There are a couple exceptions, such as Big Bad Harv in BTAS and Nightwing: The Great Leap, but generally it's not how Harvey's (admittedly ill-defined) mental illness works. More to the point, it doesn't really jive with The Big Burn, which this story is meant to follow.

Oh well, it's not like anyone really gives a crap about giving the Batman villains consistent personalities, much less consistent depictions of mental illness. Sighhh.

Fast-forward to twenty-two-minutes before the diner sequence with Firefly and Killer Moth (see, it's totally easy to follow!), and we have Batman and Harvey on board the Bat-Plane, flying to their mysterious destination. Inexplicably, Harvey wears a shroud over his head with only a single eyehole, as if he were cosplaying as a very snazzily dressed version of Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th, Part 2.


Why is Harvey wearing a shroud? I'd like to imagine that Batman put it on so that he could remind himself that he's dealing with Two-Face here, not his old friend Harvey. That could be powerful and poignant, assuming that Snyder will continue to include their friendship as a factor in this journey.

As far as I can tell, however, the pillowcase hood serves no purpose, and is just a contrivance so Snyder can call attention to his big, original idea about Two-Face. Namely, that red, scary eye of his, which isn't just a creative choice by the colorist but actually a plot point. We get out first hint that something's up when we see from Harvey's cyclopian perspective, which happens to be in black and white.


asb5.png


This is the first part of Snyder's big twist: Harvey is colorblind in his bad eye. Was it from the acid, or was it a result of his suicide attempt in The Big Burn (which Snyder intends to address)? In any case, he shouldn't be seeing in black and white, because that's not what colorblindness actually looks like, but given that there may actually be a supernatural element to this eye, reality isn't really a consideration here.

The colorblindness isn't just a gimmick, but rather a gimmick which serves a narrative purpose at the very crux of Snyder's tale here. This is where we get to the rest of Snyder's redefining take on Two-Face's methods and abilities. For one thing, Snyder is the first writer to fully embrace the idea that Two-Face has exploited all of the dirty information and underworld connections that he'd gathered as District Attorney.

This is an obvious idea—one brought up even in Eye of the Beholder—that almost no writers ever consider when it comes to exploring the transition of the Harvey who was to the Two-Face that is. Normally it's just “he was District Attorney and now he's a mobster for some reason.” Much in the same way that the newspaper comics strips did with Harvey, this Two-Face exploits those connections, further betraying all that Harvey Dent stood for. It's both sensible and depressing, so I approve!



Yes, this is Snyder's big twist: Harvey's evil is colorblind, and what's more it can “see” into everyone's hidden dark side. Hoo boy, really? That's what we're doing here? Okay.

Remember, it was established earlier that Harvey “has something on everyone,” including his rival crime bosses. Is Snyder implying that Harvey has a (possibly supernatural) talent for reading into people's souls? If he covers one eye and then the other while looking at someone, is it basically like putting on the sunglasses in They Live?

If you think I'm being too literal here, I actually do vaguely recall Snyder saying something about how this red eye actually does see people's dark sides or something. So does Two-Face have to squint like Popeye in order to use Soul-O-Vision? When he uses both eyes, is it like trying to wear old-fashioned 3D glasses? Is poor Harvey constantly seeing the world as both Kansas and Oz? These are very unimportant questions, and I want answers! And pictures of Spider-Man! *pounds desk*

“But wait,” you may be wondering, “how the hell did we get from this to the countryside diner battle with Killer Moth and Firefly?” Well, it seems that Two-Face was prepared for Batman and Harvey's cross-country road trip, and issued a press release for a massive reward of stolen mobster cash to anyone who can bring him back to Gotham!





Wait, “everyone?”











Ah, so we're essentially doing the plot of 3:10 to Yuma, only on a grander, Mad Max sized scale? But hold on, is this really such a good plan for anyone who wants to collect the fortunes of the “three biggest crime lords”? I mean, you have to figure that anyone who wins is going to spend the rest of their very short lives wearing a great big target sign, as Penguin, Black Mask, and/or the Great White Shark are gonna want their cash back.

I mean, yes, the money is going into a “secret, untraceable” account, but c'mon, do you really think anyone who collects all that money is going to be able to lay low? Especially after they theoretically kill Batman, which would instantly bestow the victor with god-like fame and infamy? I feel like chances are high that the victor would prefer not (or be unable) to law low after such a windfall and/or succeeding to kill the freakin' Batman.

After the aforementioned freakin' Batman receives a warning from Alfred that someone is about to attack the Bat-Plane (despite Batman seeing no one incoming, hmmm), we finally fast-forward back to where we started, with a third ambitious criminal trying to bring in Harvey's reward. And this time, it's a wonderfully obscure reference on Snyder's part!


Black Spider! Awesome! Now that's a character who has been entirely neglected over the past thirty-plus years, much to my surprise! Unfortunately, much like with Firefly and Killer Moth, the Spider here is given a rather generic voice and personality, so it's not like this issue is going to launch a spin-off series of D-list rogues, much as I'd buy the HELL out of that.

Still, who knows? Now that the Black Spider's gotten an upgrade here, making him akin to a gun-toting Doctor Octopus, maybe he'll finally be treated as a formidable opponent! Assuming, of course, that Batman doesn't chop off his robot arms with a chainsaw or something. Hahaha that would be


Huh.

If you're wondering why Batman even has a chainsaw, that would be become he and Black Spider were fighting in the work area of a wood sculptor. Specifically, a chainsaw sculptor, an example of American folk art which fills your humble reviewer with such road trip nostalgia. Hopefully Snyder will be able to include a few more little North American Road Trip touches like that as Bats and Harvey continue their journey.

Also, I liked how the sculptures were foreshadowed on the very first page, which included a panel with the diner's cook was mentioned as being a sculptor. That was another nice little touch on Snyder's part. Because of that, we can plausibly get to the image of Batman wielding a chainsaw without it being ridiculous!

Thing is, I had just taken that little detail about the artistic cook to be a bit of storytelling flavor, something to indicate that these diner patrons were normal, everyday people living normal, everyday lives. Which, as it turns out, was exactly the point that Snyder was making, so that they could be the first examples of Harvey's plans to unleash the inner evil inside everyone.



Oh wow here's the grand reveal of JRJR's new design for… wait, where the hell did he get that coin? The issue gives us absolutely no indication where he got it from, unless Batman was carrying extras in the plane, or he's just really bad at frisking, or… well, they could always go back to this explanation:


But seriously, let's talk about our grand reveal of JRJR's Two-Face design. First of all, do Harvey's proportions look at bit off? Henchgirl pointed out of that arm catching the coin looks too big and awkward on that body, and now I can't unsee it.

there's the head. Harvey's good side is really scruffy and shaggy, and while I can expect that from a Harvey who has spent at least a few hours inside a pillowcase of evil, he kinda already looked like that in the floating head flashback. Well, Harvey can be as scruffy as he wants so long as Snyder makes him a bit more expressive from here on out.

The scarring is pretty good, not my favorite but not bad. When JRJR mentioned in interviews that he wanted to understate Harvey's scars in contrast to the way some other artists overdo the freakiness, I had been expecting something more more minimalist. It's interesting how he downplays the curled lip, not sure if I'm digging it just yet. Also, most strikingly, it looks like the scarring actually stops around the forehead, and that Harvey shaves the hair off that side! If so, that's a very cool idea!

The like the colors on his scarred side, but they really don't work with that suit and the red eye, which doesn't stand out like it should. And that suit! Man, I am not feeling that color. At least, not with it being the ONLY color. I love the design, especially the solid colors and that snazzy vest, but that cranberry color… I dunno, there's just too much of it. Honestly, I was more interested in the coloring on this variant cover, where the coat looked more like a stylish white dinner jacket.












Maybe make the vest or tie that cranberry color, or else color the shirt and add a black tie, and you'd get a nice combination of the two versions. I dunno, what colors would you folks go with? Extra points if you can work purple and orange (or brown) into the design!

Ultimately, though, I just don't know enough about fashion either way to judge whether or not this works, or how it could work better. Quick, someone call Tim Gunn!

And speaking of “gun”...



All right, let's talk about Harvey's methodology here. While io9.com praises this as a “brilliant twist on a classic Bat-Villain,” the fact is that we've seen this sort of thing before in several stories. The scheme is very reminiscent of Heath Ledger's Joker from Nolan's The Dark Knight, where all it takes is the right circumstances for “decent, normal” people to reveal themselves as greedy, selfish animals. The difference is that the Joker saw himself as the embodiment of the chaos that led to the unleashing of their inner evil, whereas this Harvey sees himself as the embodiment of that evil itself.

In that regard, this story shares an unfortunate similarity to Batman: Jekyll and Hyde, which is perhaps the worst Two-Face story ever written. Harvey's goal there was to unleash the inner “Edward Hyde” within everyone using his own kind of Jekyll formula, all of which resulted in hundreds of Gothamites being irrevocably turned into insane murderers. Incidentally, this was also the main scheme of Scott Snyder's very first Batman story, The Black Mirror, and while I'm sure that this is all pure coincidence, it's a little distressing that this is the second time I've gotten a sense of deja vu from Snyder when it comes to the awful, awful Jekyll and Hyde mini.

So like J&H!Harvey, Snyder's Harvey believes that everyone has a hidden evil side, and like Nolan's Joker, he believes that all he has to do is give them an opportunity (or even the permission) for them to let it out. The more I think about the way this Harvey works and how he sees people, the more I'm reminded of The Beautiful Ugly, and how it played with similar ideas in a more complicated and disturbing way. Instead of the Nolanesque intention to bring out people's inner evil selves, Harvey was more interested in giving wronged Gothamites a sense of justice, even if it meant letting them get their hands bloody.

I love that version because it retains Harvey Dent's core desire for justice (something that Snyder's Two-Face couldn't give two shits about), only the ideal has now been twisted and corrupted. Snyder's Two-Face, however, has no ideals or noble intentions, unless you count his belief that everyone will be happier once they accept their dark inner selves. He sees the worst in people, and believes that they can and should come to terms with their darkest thoughts and desires.

Presumably, hopefully, Harvey is basically being the Joker in The Killing Joke (y'know, the story that Jekyll and Hyde explicitly wanted to be okay okay I'll shut up), in that he wants to corrupt others as proof to himself that his own corrupt could have happened to anyone. Not that I intend to equate mental illness to corruption, but you hopefully know what I mean. Essentially, I'm just hoping this will be something along the lines of J. Michael Straczynski's Face to Face to Face to Face, where Harvey just wants to corrupt others in order to validate himself.


But even if Two-Face sees the worst in people, we are reminded that Batman still has faith in them, despite the fact that a group of average people did just kinda willingly form a mob to help save an insane, murderous crime boss. After shrugging that bullet off his back, Batman gives the locals the slip in the cornfield, dragging an unconscious Harvey along with him. Stealing the fat bearded trucker's big rig, Batman chains Harvey up in a position which probably counts as literal, actual torture and we finally get to the moment when Batman asserts his intentions to challenge Harvey's views in the only form he'll respect: a wager.



We don't yet find out just how Batman plans to up the ante, but I'm guessing that this bet will serve as the crux of the entire story arc. Underneath all of the action, I suspect that this story will ultimately be about whether Batman or Harvey is correct in their assessment of people.

Undoubtedly, there will be a moment like the two boats in The Dark Knight where the inherent decency of humanity will be displayed and Batman's view will be vindicated, but what will that mean for Harvey? Will a blow to Two-Face's worldview be a victory for Harvey Dent? I'm just hoping that there will be something hopeful for Harvey at the end of all this, because let's be honest, there's no way that Snyder is actually going to have Harvey be cured, right? … Right?

Back to the issue itself, I had to roll my eyes when Harvey gloated about the secrets that Batman's loved ones are keeping from him. Like, didn't Snyder already visit this well with Death of the Family? Do we really need more dark secrets that threaten to tear the Bat-Family apart, Lisa? Well, Snyder seems to think we do, given the twist that the Bat-Plane was shot down by none other than Alfred himself, presumably in a desperate effort to force Batman to abandon his plans to help Harvey and instead save himself.


I honestly don't know if this is in character or not for Alfred. Or rather, I'm not sure that I buy that the stakes are so high that Alfred would be willing to go to such lengths. I mean, I should: it's supposedly “Batman versus the World” here, and I know that Alfred is worried about Bruce's well-being, but this is Batman here. He faces odds like this every other Tuesday! Unless… hmm, does Harvey actually have something on Alfred? Or someone close to Alfred, like his recently-reintroduced-to-continuity daughter? Egad, I hope not. That's some serious “is this trip really necessary?” territory.

And if Killer Moth and Firefly didn't shoot down the Bat-Plane, then it's kind of a weird coincidence that they just happened to be waiting right where the plane landed within the course of literally twenty minutes, as the panels explicitly stated. Now I'm imagining a Killer Moth, Firefly, and Black Spider all loaded into a pickup truck, heading to the country to buy some fresh corn and apple butter, when the Bat-Plane just suddenly crashes out of nowhere.

Well, even if those three were deprived fresh produce and piles of money alike, there are several more challengers coming up, including Killer Croc, KGBeast (!), and even Gentleman Ghost! … Who looks really odd wielding a machine gun and missing his monocle. He does look off, right, it's not just me?


All teasing and complaining aside (for the moment), this was a very promising start, though not without its flaws, and not without several questions which may well go unanswered. Oh, and there's also a backup story by Snyder and artist Declan Shalvey, featuring Batman and Duke Thomas working to solve a bizarre series of murders while Thomas tries to find his role as Batman's new sidekick or partner or whatever he is. Even they don't seem too certain.


Someone else? Not Jason? Dare I hope that Batman means Harvey, and that Snyder is once again tying his backup story to the main storyline? Eh, I won't get my hopes up. As for this story itself, I found the backup tale a bit too abstract in its approach to symbolism and psychology, but perhaps it will make more sense to me with future installments. I also need to actually read up on Duke Thomas himself, as he seems interesting, and I mustn't be out of touch with the young'uns.

Welp, for better or worse, this is the start of a defining event in the history of Two-Face. If you want to check it out for yourself, All Star Batman is available at finer retailers everywhere under a number of variant covers, as well as digitally on Comixology.com!
Tags: black spider, firefly/firebug, john romita jr, killer moth, new comic reviews, scott snyder
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