July 29th, 2021

Two-Face... FOREVER!!!

The Grace of Gilda: The Complete History of Gilda Dent, Part 1

What must it be like, to be a villain’s love interest? 

To be a supporting player of a supporting player, vanishing into comic book limbo and emerging once every ten or thirty years to again play your role on the sidelines of someone else’s tragedy? What happens when writers think that your love isn’t enough, and that you need to be something else? That your role is better served as a suffering victim? As a killer? As dead and gone?

Her name is Gilda Gold, but that’s not how she’s best known. She’s gone by other first names, and she didn’t even get her surname until thirty-eight years after her first appearance in 1942. Even now, she’s still known only as Gilda Dent, the former (and future?) wife of Two-Face.

Since that first appearance, she’s been inextricably tied to Two-Face. But Two-Face is not inextricably tied to her, according to generations of writers. As of June 2021, Two-Face has appeared in 1,361 comics, while Gilda--who has been around exactly as long--has only appeared in 64 issues (source: comicvine.com). Many of those are reprints, or technicalities where her character has been renamed and may arguably (if not effectively) be a separate character.

Her absence has been a loss for Two-Face himself, removing a crucial element of tragic love--and possible redemption--that was baked into the character from the very start. Theirs was a love story that married Beauty and the Beast with The Phantom of the Opera, where she saw the man behind the disfigurement, and he believed himself too hideous to be loved. It was only through her love and perseverance that he was pulled back from the brink, and the two were married and supposed to live happily ever after. 

But when DC decided they wanted Two-Face back as an ongoing villain, Gilda wasn’t even considered as a factor in the tragedy. She was omitted entirely, vanishing for decades. We can only speculate as to why, but the reasons seem apparent. Gilda’s very presence and the promise of emotional healing was an existential threat to Two-Face as a villain, and DC wanted him to be evil, period. 

She didn’t appear again until the 80’s, and even then, she’s only appeared in a handful of stories. Each story changed her, tweaked her personality, her motivations, and her relationship with Harvey, almost making her a different person each time. Sometimes literally, as she’s been renamed “Grace” and “Alice.” And yet, they’re all fundamentally the same Gilda: the love of Harvey Dent’s life, who has to cope with her husband’s physical and psychological trauma. 

Which, of course, is part of the problem. 

Gilda has never been allowed to become a fully fleshed-out character in her own right. Harvey’s trauma, while necessarily central to their arc as a couple, is never reflected by an equally important trauma of her own. Over her few appearances, there are only occasional glimpses of her internal life, and all too often they’re tossed aside in favor of a familiar, one-dimensional stereotype: the grieving, fretful wife. 

She had a career in 1942--quite a rarity for wives and girlfriends of secondary characters then--but you’d never know that now. Most writers don’t even bother to include one of her few established defining characteristics: that she’s an artist, a sculptor specifically. As far as Jeph Loeb was concerned in Batman: The Long Halloween--arguably Gilda’s biggest impact on pop culture--she had literally no life or interests of her own outside of having a family with her husband. In fact, she was willing to kill for it. Maybe. 

Since then, Gilda’s become a character who is either deadly or dead, having been murdered outright in 2013’s “New 52” origin of Two-Face. But all these changes haven’t made her a stronger character. She’s never had an internal life, or any life at all outside of Harvey Dent. Even the recent Gilda story by Mariko Tamaki in Batman: Black and White (2021), which served as a feminist deconstruction for her sidelined role, failed to address who she actually was as a person. She wasn't a three-dimensional character in her own right so much as as a stand-in for “neglected wife” characters everywhere. Important commentary to be sure, but in context unfortunately feeding the reductive archetype that swallowed Gilda rather than freeing her from it. 

Instead of building on the rough sketch that Bill Finger created in 1942, Gilda has actually regressed as a character over the decades, a depressingly common symptom of how wives and girlfriends in fiction exist only as accessories to the men in their lives. As such, her absence (coupled with her mismanaged return appearances) is not only a major loss for Two-Face, but also has led to her never truly coming into her own. 

Well, in honor of her impending eightieth anniversary, let’s examine the strange, troubled history of Gilda in all her iterations, personalities, and identities. Let’s see if we can find the fundamental truth in all these different takes, to see who she was, is, could be, and perhaps should become in the future.  

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Coming up in Part 2: The first Post-Crisis years, in which Gilda changes her name, changes it back again, remarries, has kids, and just generally has a bad time all around.