I wanted to give the subject line to the actual title, because it deserves more attention than simply as the focus on an "impostor Two-Face" story.
In early 2003, while "Hush" was well underway in BATMAN, DETECTIVE COMICS writer Ed Brubaker penned his own six-part murder mystery that tied together all of Batman's rogues in a secret conspiracy to kill the caped crusader. And unlike "Hush," which brought in a brand-new character to fulfill the double-cliches of being "long lost childhood best friend" and "totally obvious red herring," Brubaker dusted off the concept of Paul Sloane for "Dead Reckoning," but with a modern twist.
In doing so, he created a far more interesting original villain than Hush himself, one with tons of potential who, of course, hasn't been seen nor mentioned since. For that and many other reasons, I lament that this story was utterly ignored in favor of "Hush." Not that this story isn't without its flaws--oh my, it has them--but we'll get to those inside.
The flaws begin before the scans even do, as the issue introduces a subplot that goes nowhere. I'll get to that in a second. For now, all you need to know is that the cops find the dead body of a man dressed as Killer Moth (the real Killer Moth having been turned into a far more "cool" and "extreme" man-eating moth monster thing; oh, the 90's, how I do not look forward to your revival in ten years).
Mustache Guy is a nobody, a two-bit hood who figured that becoming the new Killer Moth would be his ticket to the big time. Thinking about it now, I think about how his story could have actually tied into the larger storyline here, foreshadowing (spoiler hint ahead) the idea of an outsider trying to join the big leagues of the Rogues Gallery, and the consequences that follow. That would have been awesome.
If that was the intent, it wasn't handled very well. After the first issue, Mustache Guy's subplot (which takes up a very good chunk of the issue) is promptly forgotten and brushed aside. Sloppy storytelling, IMO.
Anyhoo, next thing you now, our old buddies Eddie and Ozzie have a private sit-down to discuss the murder:
So Batman tracks down Mustache Guy's ex-partner, who spills the beans:
In the next issue, former Commissioner Jim Gordon is giving a lecture at a law school. This is in the post-Officer Down era, where Gordon was retired after being shot. It's a great story, but it resulted in a Gotham City without a Jim Gordon, which felt increasingly pointless and empty as time went on. So when this story came out, seeing Jim's return here was like seeing the return of your favorite grandpa.
During the lecture, a mysterious long-haired freaky dude approaches Jimbo, with questions about Harvey Dent. The man shoots at Gordon, who attacks back with his awesome cane-fu skills. He bashes the man in the face, only to watch as the make-up flesh peels off. The attacker escapes, of course.
Batman visits Harvey in Arkham, finding him in the isolation cage "again," because our favorite bisected antivillain has driven his latest shrink to a nervous breakdown. Oh Harvey, you scamp!
Aww. I'm a sucker for moments like that, when Harvey still shows a soft spot for old friends (even/especially those he's tried to kill in the past). Particularly Jimbo, a character who--unlike Batman--has pretty well given up any hope for redemption for Harvey.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the cliffhanger of the previous issue was that Penguin received a double-sided coin in the mail, both sides scarred. Knowing that might be kind of important, as this happens next:
(Obviously, he isn't really dead: you later find out in pages I don't include that they just reported him dead until they can catch the killer. Until then, the news reaches Eddie, who is not pleased at all...)
Tangent rant. Feel free to skip if you just wanna get through the story.
Time for one of my major complains, for those who've been waiting with bated breath.
I love Brubaker. I really do. SLEEPER and CRIMINAL are two of the very best comics to come out all decade, and how CAPTAIN AMERICA work made me finally fall in love with Steve Rogers. He's a brilliant writer of crime and espionage.
He's also tone-deaf when it comes to writing dialogue, at least for the Bat-Rogues. It's Bendis-itis, where characters who have distinctive voices elsewhere now all sound like the exact same guy. Put it this way: if this guy wasn't wearing the Riddler costume, would you have any reason whatsoever to suppose that this character was Eddie Nigma? Would you have any reason to suppose that character above is Jonathan Crane? Do they sound at all different?
Brubaker has a fine ear for criminal dialogue, which works best for Two-Face. The same voice doesn't work for characters like Riddler, Penguin, Scarecrow, nor Mad Hatter (who, as you'll see soon enough, sounds off with only saying one line). Joker is an exception, but problematic for his own reasons. More on that later.
***RANT OVER, BACK TO STORY***
So Batman finds out that Penguin was on his way to someone with connections to a dead actor named Paul Sloan (bum-bum-BUUUUUUUM). Bruce and Babs to a play starring Veronica Bella, the ex-girlfriend of Paul Sloan. Under the pretense that Babs is working on her graduate thesis, Bella fills in the story about Sloan, who vanished eight years ago.
Maybe it's just the fact that I am an actor/performer myself--not to mention movie geek with a fondness for classic horror--but damn do I love the idea of a character who's a twisted method actor. If you've ever known a method actor (or worse, someone who claims to be some kind of method), you know they're at least a little unhinged.
During the play, Bruce looks into the wings and sees
At this point, I would like to mention that I really dislike the art. Tommy Castillo has proven himself a capable artist elsewhere, but here, I find it seriously detracts from the story. His proportions are awkward, his facial expressions all over the place, and it all generally reminds me of doodles I used to make when I was a teenager: passable, yes, but nothing that would get me into the Kubert School.
See what I mean about Brubaker's inability to write the Rogues? Jervis only has one line, but come on, "What the hell?" That's not Jervis. It's too common. He'd say something like, "What bandersnatchery is this...?... Oh dear..." Tell me you can't hear Roddy McDowell say those lines. Now imagine him saying, "What the hell...? ... no..." It just doesn't work, does it?
Rule of thumb for Batman character dialogue: if you can't imagine the voice actors from B:TAS saying those lines, then they're being written incorrectly.
Jervis survives, but ends up in a coma on life support. Batman decides to interrogate someone who might just know what's going on... before Sloan gets to him next:
Batman shows up in the garden of Jim Gordon, where the two had talked during that wonderful scene in No Man's Land.
The favor is that he wants to talk with the Joker, who at this point is incarcerated in the Slab (the metahuman super-prison in Antarctica where the Joker ended up in JOKER: LAST LAUGH).
To Brubaker's credit, his Joker actually sounds somewhat like the Joker. Furthermore, it's a marked improvement over the cliched, unfunny Joker of Brubaker's Batman: The Man Who Laughs. I know many people love that story, but I honestly found it contrived, and his Joker to be painfully trite.
Joker asks Batman to think back eight years, "Any Two-Face job seem a little... off to you?"
Batman remembers a Two-Face gold heist at Binary Airlines, a job that--Joker notes--Sloan-Face was never supposed to pull. "But he just couldn't help himself. He had to know the thrill of the crime... know how Dent really felt inside." Which, as you can imagine, is just a great idea.
Batman shows up, and Sloan-Face tries to escape, but gets shot at by a security guard. Sloan-Face shoots the guard, but what really tooks Batman's notice was that "He hesitated..."
Now that's the Joker: playing all angles for his own amusement, and utterly destroying a man just for the sheer fun of it. I've said it a thousand times: any great writer knows that there are far, far worse things you can do than just kill a man.
And frankly, this monster-conversion you're about to see? I find it far more compelling and believable than the sudden flip of Harvey Dent in THE DARK KNIGHT. I always hated the line, "Madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push." No, it bloody well does not. No one thing drives a sane person crazy... at least, not as crazy and Two-Face and Sloan get driven.
Take a look at what Sloan goes through. He was already unhinged (as most method actors are a bit) before the Rogues approached him. Then think about what he goes through next. You've already seen him inhabiting the soul of Harvey Dent, which is risk enough, since many actors can't quite shake the demons they channel in certain dark roles. On top of that, he shot and presumably killed a man, clearly something he wasn't quite prepared to do. That's a hell of a thing to go through.
But that's not even half of Sloan's ordeal:
"YOU WANNA KNOW WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE ME?!" "It... it sucks..."
But even that isn't what pushes Sloan over the edge. You see, being the resident medical expert of the gang, Scarecrow pronounced Sloan dead, and graciously offered to dispose of the body. Which is to say, Sloan was still alive, which really, really sucks for him. I'll let the only "unscathed" Bat-Rogue finish telling the nasty origin of the Charlatan:
(I can't shake the feeling that the art really, really wants to be Bernie Wrightson's FRANKENSTEIN)
And there we have another similarity to Darkman: Peyton Westlake's injuries resulted in him being unable to feel any pain, whereas Sloane is unable to feel any fear. That said, while he rips off Darkman in a lot of respects, these attributes seem more logical for a crazy method actor than... well, what the hell kind of scientist was Peyton Westlake anyway?? Even if he could make the faces, there's no doubt that someone like Paul Sloan would be better at impersonations.
So anyway, Crane decides to keep Sloan as a plaything in his hideout until Sloan escape. He left a note, promising Crane that they'd meet again when it's time for the whole ordeal to come "full circle," and thanking him for "giving his life new meaning."
Time to backtrack for a sec, to fill in details on stuff I couldn't include:
At the end of their meeting, the Joker revealed that he learned all about Sloan's ordeal with Harvey because Sloan already told the Joker himself. Joker was being uncharacteristically cooperative because Sloan wanted him to keep Batman busy while he kidnapped Two-Face from Arkham. Kidnapped... or maybe helped to escape?
Sloan's lines above put me in mind of something I've wondered about Two-Face. If Harvey ever did stop using the coin, what would take mean for his evil side? After all, the coin is something of a coping mechanism for Harvey's warring sides. Before Two-Face was unleashed, the "good" side was mostly in control, with the "evil" bubbling underneath.
So without the coin keeping them in check, what's to keep the bad side from doing the same thing, utterly taking over and obliterating Harvey's conscience, insecurity, doubt, and humanity? He'd be a complete and utter monster, and far more of a threat than he even if now.
But now, thanks to the Rogues's actions (direct and indirect), on top of his own instability, Paul Sloan has a freedom of evil that Harvey cannot or will not experience (and that half-humanity is also what leads to his own suffering, thus why it sucks to be Harvey Dent). In this respect, I have to wonder if Sloan's a greater monster than even Two-Face.
Unfortunately, I can't show the final epic battle because I'm pretty much reached my page limit. Suffice it to say, an epic fiery battle ensues with Harvey and Sloan trying to kill Batman. Eventually, it gets to the point where Batman has to save Sloan's life, which gives Harvey the chance to shoot Batman, when he flips the coin. It comes up clean. Harvey sighs and leaves, "Another day, I guess..."
Sloan falls from a great height, and Batman gives a classic "NOOOO!" Sloan survives his fall, and tells Batman, "You're... you're so afraid... just like... like everyone else... pathetic..."
Two days later at Wayne Manor, Bruce takes the time to angst upon the possibility that Gotham does nothing but breed monsters. Alfred counter than it's bred its fair share of good as well, and calms Bruce with a sensible cup of tea.
The story ends at Arkham Asylum, where a recovering Sloan receives a visitor.
... Where the heck did he get that mask? He never had a mask anywhere in the story. For that matter, why are they calling him "Charlatan?" When did he ever refer to himself as "the Charlatan"?
What, when he showed up, did Jeremiah Arkham say, "What, he doesn't have a costume? But it's important for my inmates to wear their costumes! What else will they take off when they're sane? Orderly, dig through the bargain bin and get this man a mask! Something with a drama theme! And think up a spiffy villain name, stat!"
Kind of makes you wonder what the Charlatan would have looked like in full costume. Would he have kept the hooded Darkman costume, but wear the drama mask instead of the bandages?
It kind of boggles my mind that no one's done anything with the Charlatan since this story, back in July 2003. He hasn't even gotten so much as a cameo in an Arkham cell! Such a shame. Just think of the potential for an insane method actor and master of disguise with the inability to feel fear!
Plus, just imagine: he could have an in-Arkham romance with Jane Doe... assuming the two could find one another. And maybe since he's a lover of Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, perhaps Sloan's an admirer of Basil Karlo! I could totally see the Charlatan and Clayface putting on a grand theatrical production of crime and horror. But then, maybe that's just the ham actor in me.
Alas, it's not to be until this story gets better recognized for the Bat-Classic it is, and deservedly collected in trade. You'd think they would, now that Brubaker is Ed Fucking Brubaker, and they've been mining pretty much all the rest of his Bat-stuff, but they've still ignored his best story.
If this story had a more appropriate artist (ohhh, could you imagine Sean Phillips drawing this?), or a superstar on par with Tim Sale or Jim Lee, I can't help but wonder if it might have gotten far more attention. For all its flaws, it's still one of the very best Batman stories of the aughts