I wasn't sure I'd ever own a copy of this issue. As it featured the first appearance of Arkham Asylum, copies were out of my price range (unless I'm buying rare back issues for my girlfriend--because I'm clearly the most awesome boyfriend ever, zomg--my limit is five bucks), but I managed to find a ratty-ass copy that was good enough to read and scan. Huzzah!
I'm glad I did, because while the story is dated and rough, it was surprisingly ahead of its time with how sympathetically it treated Two-Face. Sure, he was sympathetic in his original appearance, but that was only up to the point that he was redeemed and had his face fixed. After it got rescarred again, his very few appearances between 1954 and 1971 treated him more like a tragic character who's now just a villain to be stopped, and all sympathy for him died long ago. It's how many still write him.
It's also how Denny O'Neil himself treated the character in his first Two-Face story, Half a Life. I should post that here, both the original version and the recent recoloring, just to compare. But today's post is O'Neil's *second* Two-Face story: Threat of the Two-Headed Coin! from Batman #258 (1974). And this time, O'Neil takes a slightly different approach with the character, one which undoubtedly influenced the writers on Batman: The Animated Series in how they handled villains.
That said, it's still very early Bronze Age, right down to the cracky intro image, where Harvey resembles Wile E. Coyote to an oblivious Dynamic Duo:
A renegade US General breaks Two-Face out of Arkham, proposing an elaborate scheme against the US Government. Displaying the keen tactical sense of a man in his position, the General wants to use Harvey's criminal expertise to help carry this plan out. Because really, General Harris, when you want an employee you can absolutely trust to do what you want, it's Harvey frickin' Dent.
"Your decision, sir?" Harris asks Harvey, which should be your first indication that the General didn't really know what the hell he was getting into.
How, Jim Gordon? Well, see for yourself
Wait, he's giving them twelve hours? What is Harvey planning on doing in the meantime? Did he bring a book? A bag lunch? How will bathroom breaks work? CLEARLY THESE ARE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS THAT NEED TO BE ADDRESSED OR I WILL NEVER BE HAPPY AGAIN.
Asbestos? Well, that costuming decision won't be awkward in a couple years.
Note the next two panels, as I believe this is the first time we've ever seen such an explicit comparison between Batman and Two-Face:
In both this and Denny O'Neil's first Two-Face story, Batman has to remind Harvey to flip his coin, lest he be admit that he's now fully evil. I find this interesting. Theoretically, Harvey shouldn't have to be reminded to do what he supposedly does compulsively. But O'Neil implies that, while Harvey isn't actually ruled by the coin, he also doesn't want to believe--or admit--that he's entirely evil, and that he is still fair. Well, "fair" in his own way.
It's stuff like this which lends a subtle distinction to O'Neil's take on Two-Face. So subtle, in fact, that it's ignored by most other writers and fans. Everyone seems to have their own take on the character, and of course I'm not one to talk. But it also doesn't help the ongoing problem of Harvey having little to no distinct characterization of his own.
Personally, I kind of like this. It forced Harvey to make an independent decision (thus revealing character), even if his decision is to flip the coin and thus rob himself of free will. Choosing not to choose is still a choice, especially if there's a reason why he flips the coin against his own impulses. See for yourself:
It's that last panel which makes this story, reflecting both Batman's own sense of kinship with Harvey and the unnamed Congressman's pity.
Yes, Harvey was a maniac who had to be taken down, since he was fully ready to commit nuclear holocaust on Washington DC... but as with last week's story by Bob Haney, Harvey's motivation wasn't money or power, but acceptance. In that story, he wanted a fixed face and a normal life. In this, he'd rather have the lie of acceptance than live in the reality (his perceived reality) of being shunned and hated for his hideousness.
While I think the character has evolved far past mere issues of superficial beauty, both these stories make Harvey feel less like a gangster or Bond villain and more like a classic Lon Chaney monster. It's an approach that Dini/Timm and Company utilized in their villains on Batman: The Animated Series. Yes, they're monstrous and fearsome, but they're also to be pitied and understood. They're demons of the human condition, and we can see ourselves in these monsters, which can make them all the more sympathetic and/or frightening.