March 2nd, 2014

Two-Face... FOREVER!!!

REVIEW: "The Big Burn," Part 1: The All-New (52) Origin of Harvey Dent (2014)

Right off the bat upfront, I'll say this much for Harvey Dent's new origin The Big Burn from Batman and RobinTwo-Face #24-28: it sure as hell is not what I had expected. Even as I was reading it and kept thinking that I knew where it was going, the damn story kept subverting my expectations and surprising me. Which, as it turns out, was probably by design.

Batman and Robin writer Peter J. Tomasi made the unusual choice to reveal Harvey's new backstory through flashbacks that run backwards scene by scene, ala Christopher Nolan's arguably best movie, Memento. As such, the first issue showed how Harvey got scarred and gave some clues about what led to that moment, and then the next issue showed what happened right BEFORE the previous scene, with information that fleshed out what we'd already learned. In this way, Tomasi was able to set up expectations and toy with the readers' assumptions.

Frankly, I resented this kind of open manipulation. At least in Memento, it served a very specific purpose that was directly relevant to the main character's affliction. Here, it serves only to screw with the reader. I'm not saying that this choice wasn't effective on a certain level, as it kept me on my toes and I was genuinely surprised a couple times there. I suppose that garnering an emotional response should be the basic goal of every storyteller, but I can't shake the suspicion that those reactions were empty, and that there was no depth behind the twists. A twist for twist's sake is one of the cheapest forms of writing, with little more worth than a "BOO!" scare in a horror movie. 

Thus, at the risk of betraying the integrity of Tomasi's story, I want to review this one a little differently. Rather than examine the origin as presented, via backwards flashbacks in between the modern day stuff, I'm going to do like I did with my review of Two-Face: Year One and examine the origin's events in chronological order.

You’re going to begin at the beginning? How pedestrian!

This is not the way that Tomasi intended you to read this story, and the truth is that, yes, it's more emotionally effective to read it in context. However, the real test of this origin's worth is if it can still hold up when read chronologically, without any of the twists and misdirects. My goal is to examine how TBB works as a character piece for Harvey Dent and as an origin for Two-Face (NOT as a story as a whole), and if it doesn't hold up when told as a linear narrative, then it's a failure. So let's tear into it together, shall we? 

Note: All that said, if you are able to read The Big Burn yourself, I highly recommend that you do so first. Just start here and read on. Seriously. It's worth reading for much the same reasons that Tomasi's Nightwing: The Great Leap is recommended: it's flawed as hell but filled with so much great stuff for Two-Face fans that I'm tempted to put it high on my list of recommended stories despite some huge reservations. Don't just rely on my reviews here if you can help it, as I'm going to tear this story apart and piece in back together in a way that will fundamentally alter the intended reading experience. Again, I'm reviewing the ORIGIN more than the STORY, so please try to approach this review with that in mind as much as possible.

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This concludes the first half of my Big Burn review, and the look at Harvey’s new origin. Keep in mind that there are one or two important wrinkles to this which we won’t learn until the modern-day plot, but I’ll save that for the second half. For now, I think we already have enough to make an assessment about whether or not this new backstory works.

Personally, I think it all serves as more evidence that Tomasi is greatly influenced by The Dark Knight. Just as with Christopher Nolan’s film, The Big Burn’s origin is a lousy story for Two-Face while also being a rather powerful one for Harvey Dent.

Next time: Part 2 of my Big Burn review, wherein Harvey confronts Erin, Erin confronts Bruce Wayne, everyone confronts the mob, and it all ends with a stunning one-two punch that I can’t even begin to describe here but just trust me on this OMG holy crap.