about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

A really, really in-depth, thinking-too-much critique of "Joker's Asylum: Two-Face"

I’ve been putting off reviewing Joker's Asylum: Two-Face--by David Hine and Andy Clarke--for almost three years now. The story is just that maddeningly frustrating to me, as is the fact that many people love the ending.

I was cautiously optimistic a few months before the issue’s release, when I read an interview with Hine (the same one wherein he compared Harvey to The Dice Man, which I’ve written about earlier), in which he mentioned that the story would involve Harvey meeting Holman Hunt, a man with similar facial scarring, thus creating a sort of “man in the mirror” effect.

Quoth Hine: "Essentially, Two-Face sets out to prove, that given the right circumstances, Holman could be converted to Two-Face’s way of thinking. Namely that the universe is a chaotic place where any values we attempt to impose are transient and ultimately meaningless. Take that, Alan Moore!"

Heh. Okay, so he's pretty much saying that he'd pulling a Killing Joke scenario here. We agree on that, yes? Putting aside the fact that it's kinda been done to death, there already HAS been a story like that with Two-Face. But sadly, that amazing story is completely forgotten, so I can't blame Hine for wanting to tell his own tale. Besides, who’s to say there isn’t more potential for that premise?

After all, many people *did* respond to JA:TF, especially thanks to the ending. Hine had high aspirations there, "hoping that this will turn out to be a good old-fashioned twist-in-the-tail type of story that Uncle Creepy would have been proud of." A fine goal, one with horror-geek cred.

So how did he do? You’ll certainly hear my thoughts, but in the end, you must be the judge. I mean that more literally than you might suspect.

Note: Scans are from Joker’s Asylum: Two-Face #1, The Killing Joke, and Teen Titans Spotlight #12.

Playing Crypt-Keeper as he does throughout all of the Joker’s Asylum issues, the Clown Prince of Crime narrates about a story once related to him by Two-Face (presumably during one of the rare moments when the Joker wasn’t trying to give Harvey a psychological wedgie):

Okay, first off: "Not me, I love myself." Does anyone think this can truly apply to Harvey? If any villain embodies "self-loathing," it's him.

Holman (“Whole Man,” har har har), a former firefighter, recounts how he was burned by a pool of gasoline, in a manner strikingly similar to Harvey in The Dark Knight. It’s also probably not a coincidence that Holman’s a floppy-haired blond man. Bear in mind, this was released just a couple months shy of TDK’s release.

Holman survived, of course, but only because he was saved by Batman.

I’ve mentioned in the past how much I hate it when artists draw Two-Face with a clean, straight dividing line in the middle, and while I know it’s now canon thanks to Face the Face (which I’m *finally* working up the nerve to review, five years later), I think it’s interesting that , here, it’s purposely used to contrast with Holman’s uneven scarring. Is Hine trying to say something here? I’m genuinely asking.

Furthermore, note the eyes. Holman has two blue ones (the color Harvey’s usually are in most comics), whereas Harvey’s “bad” eye is red, and his “good” eye is black. The result really gives Harvey a demonic appearance, and indicates that there’s absolutely no humanity left in this monster. I wonder if Hine wrote it this way, or if was a choice on the part(s) of the artists and/or colorist.

Harvey’s reply to Holman interests/bothers me, though. Hine is either creating his own canon where Gilda was shallow and fickle, or depicting Harvey as someone who lies to himself:

What’s with Harvey’s aggressive response? Why is he so disdainful of Holman’s offer, to the extent that he’s ready to do what he’ll do next?

It’d make more sense if this story had given even a glimpse into Harvey’s background and origins, something to indicate that it took far more than scarring to turn Harvey Dent into Two-Face. If Hine had done that, then Holman would have come off as naive at best, condescending at worst (to Harvey, if not to the reader as well). Harvey would then at least feel justified in trying to bring the “smug, self-righteous” Holman down to his level.

But that’s not what’s happening here. This story just used the classic origin for Two-Face: guy got acid in the face, went insane and evil. Done! There’s nothing wrong with that take, per se. After all, that’s all Straczynski used for his amazing Two-Face/Cyborg Killing Joke story. So there’s potential for this take, even if it’s basis is literally in superficiality.

So, what happens next? Harvey escapes Arkham, but not before killing the Administrator who set up the meeting with Holman in the first place. So then, he--

HEYYYYYY THERE, FOLKS! IT'S YOUR OLD PAL, THE SMILEY/FROWNY FACE OF CONTINUITY! If you're like me, you're wondering when this story takes place! Welp, notice that this Arkham Administrator an unnamed character, not Jeremiah Arkham. In continuity, Jeremiah took over shortly after Tim Drake because the third Robin, and he’s been present through the current day. Thus, this story must take place sometime way in the past, before Tim Drake, and--more importantly--before Face the Face.

The fact that Harvey is purposely depicted as having clean-division scarring now annoys me way more, because it’s not even canon for him at this point. But this is only important if you give two shits about continuity. So whatever. Back to you, Hef! *flies off*

AHEM. Thank you, Smiley/Frowny. I need to think of a better name for you.

So anyway...! Harvey kidnaps Holman and his wife, both of whom awaken to the words of "Lights, camera..."

Harvey explains away the camera as that he likes "to keep a back-up of everything,” which serves no purpose to this story nor does it have any basis in canon for Two-Face. Whatever.

Filming Holman's wife, Harvey tells Castor to release a single drop of acid from the Bond-villain device, forcing Holman to watch in horror. The drop falls, rolling down her face like a teardrop and sizzling into her flesh. While Holman screams, Harvey taunts them both.

God, I hate how petty and sadistic Harvey’s being here to people who plainly don’t deserve it. Holman’s worst “crime” is well-intentioned naiveté, making Harvey a manipulative bully. But maybe he and Hine are going somewhere with this. Let’s see what happens when Harvey reveals the star of his show:

... Harvey, why do you own a ball gag? On second though, don’t answer that.

Holman hesitates at the act of murder, especially if it means killing the man who saved his life. Harvey says that if Holman doesn't, then Castor is gonna release all of the acid over his wife. "Two choices, Holman. That's all you get." He even assures Harvey that heroes love to sacrifice himself, so Batman would be totally okay with getting killed if it meant saving Dana’s life. Not that Harvey nor Holman thinks to ask Batman, who could theoretically at least nod.

And to top if off, Batman wasn't Batman himself, but Harvey's other henchman (named Pollux, naturally). Holman realizes, to his horror, that the whole scenario was rigged.

Yes, Harvey, Holman could have pulled the trigger... and then would have had to live with the knowledge that he was willing to kill the hero who saved his life, even if Holman never actually killed anybody. Bullshit, that's not really a choice. What’s more, Two-Face knows it’s not really a choice!

"You're so predictable, Holman."

It makes perfect sense. After all, that's exactly what Two-Face is about: acting like a low-rent Jigsaw Killer, forcing people into impossible situations with a choice that is, quite simply, no choice at all. As we all know, Two-Face is nothing more than a cruel, unfair sadist who likes to stage grand, rigged deathtrap "games" like a horror version of a 60's Adam West villain. Yes, that's exactly who the character is!


In fairness to Hine, this version has occasionally been canon, thanks to writers like Chuck Dixon. This totally fits the cheating, gloating, pure-evil Two-Face of Prodigal and Robin: Year One. But most times, Harvey is depicted as playing fair with the coin, giving people a real chance, even if they don't have any more choice than he gives himself.

If you, like myself, take the excellent Eye of the Beholder origin as canon, then this Two-Face is committing the greatest of personal sins: he's become every bit as corrupt and unfair as his abusive father. I hate that. I far prefer Harvey as someone who was broken by the unfairness of the world, finding true justice in the coin's rulings. This Two-Face here is far more like Mr. Freeze: someone who lost everything, and now wants to make others suffer, until the world is as cold and miserable as he is.

Again: "You're so predictible, Holman."

Harvey set the whole thing up to go only one way. No matter what Holman did, there was no "right choice" or "wrong choice" in Two-Face's rigged game. There was only a cruel lesson that Harvey wanted to teach Holman, based around a shallow, college-freshman-level philosophy.

Batman saves the day with a heroic, "No, Harvey. I CHOOSE!" *WALLOP!*

Yeah yeah, ignore that for a second. Let's pause the story here to figure out why Harvey’s actually doing all this. Because I don’t think he actually answered Holman’s question in the above scan. Why? What motivation does Harvey truly have for tearing down Holman Hunt, possibly to the point of “conversion”?

Well, since Hine invoked The Killing Joke, consider the Joker’s motivations for trying to drive Gordon insane. Was he doing it out of sadistic cruelty? Revenge? To hurt Batman? No, he wanted to prove that anybody--no matter how pure or decent--would go insane due to "one bad day"... just as the Joker himself had gone insane. But look what happened when he discovered that his efforts failed, and that his theory was disproven:

Yeah, he doesn't take it very well, does he? Of course, he's the Joker. He'll shrug off that defeat without a second thought once this story's over. But what happens when Harvey tries the same thing?

Remember that, in Straczynski’s Teen Titans Spotlight issue with Cyborg, Harvey wanted to prove that only public perception of a deformed person can turn that person into a hero or a monster. By making people think that Vic’s a monster, Harvey thinks that he can bring Vic down to his level. But see what happens when he really thinks about what might happen:

See the connection? In failing to prove their theories that anybody could have turned into them, Harvey and the Joker are forced to face the reality that they were responsible for their own choices. For Joker, that’s a momentary setback, one he can slough off and move on. But for Harvey, that's the bitterest pill to swallow. Thus, it’s powerful.

In this story, Two-Face has nothing at stake. Nothing to gain or lose by what happens with Holman. Thus, it’s empty.

He’s doing all this just for the sheer pleasure of destroying a man who dares to be happy. This Two-Face--this monster who “loves” himself--has nothing to prove to himself that he doesn't already fervently believe, and takes that fanatical delusion as a free ticket to be a petty, cruel, sadistic asshole who wants to destroy innocent lives in more ways than one.

Yes, Batman saves the Hunts, but Dana ends up resenting Holman! You see, Harvey was right, she really did want Holman to shoot “Batman!” In not doing so, he “gambled” for her life, so she ends up leaving him! How dare he not be willing to kill the man who saved his life, all at the behest of a murderous psycho! HOLMAN HUNT: WORST HUSBAND EVER, CLEARLY. Seriously, WTF, Dana?

But wait, wait, here comes the BESTEST part:


And here’s where I may be accused of being too exacting/nit-picky/snobbish/whatever.

Look, I suppose I can understand why people love this. “Oh, oh, how cool, it’s interactive AND it plays with the idea of chance!” Really, if you’re the type of reader who likes gimmicks and doesn’t want to actually think about things, then yeah, have fun. Really, if you don't mind that this Two-Face is shallow, you shouldn't mind that this whole story follows suit.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind it so much if the coin toss actually represented an unpredictable variable. But these two outcomes are dependent on choice, not chance. The decision is entirely in Holman’s hands, with nothing else to influence his choice. Now, if Holman had decided to put his own fate in the coin toss, THEN the reader could have flipped the coin for him, because both would have been entirely dependent on chance. That would have been better.

But even still, that’s not a story. That’s a gimmick. It's the same reason why Choose Your Own Adventure books are never actually good.

It's a non-ending that means nothing, not for Holman, not for Harvey, not for anyone. It's as shallow as Harvey's motivations. Put it this way: do either of the endings--”happy” or “sad”-- result in an overall story that’s actually GOOD?

... Well, maybe. Now that I think about it, maybe they could have made for great stories... but only if we could have seen what happened next!

This story is so interested in the balance of good and evil between the men in the mirror, it could easily have gone somewhere with those ideas, and either of the endings would have had greater implications than simply the life of Holman.

Consider this: if the good side came up and Holman reconciled with Dana, then Harvey failed. That failure suggests that, conversely, Holman himself would have failed in trying to save Harvey, no matter what. The message: it takes a lot more to corrupt a person than “one bad day” of trauma, just as it takes more than a single helping hand to save another person. Furthermore, this Harvey would have been faced with the bitter reality that, for all his cruelty and self-love, he still has no one left who loves him, no happy life to call his own. All he has is his cynical philosophy and his coin.

However! If the bad side came up, then Harvey *won*, yes... but at the cost of destroying a man who, we're therefore led to believe, actually could have helped him! Harvey destroyed his own chance at redemption! And if Hine's Two-Face has any humanity left inside him, that realization would have Harvey's "victory" a bitter and powerfully tragic one.

Boom! There you go. Two endings, each of which would have made this premise result in two very different stories, each complete, each actually having something to say about life and the characters themselves, and each vastly superior to the gimmicky non-ending of the actual comic.Instead, you have a mildly interactive trifle that’s about a deep and memorable as a Batman coloring/activity book.

What’s worse, you have a terrible take on Two-Face. It’s a take supported by all the worst canon, the few high-profile stories which reduced this great character into a shallow maniac with a gimmick.

There’s a reason why so many people, even hardcore Batman fans, don’t like Harvey Dent. Because he’s too often written like this.


Whew, after all that ranting, my brain's exhausted. I'm going to end this post on a nit-picky fanboy complaint, devoid of substance or merit.


Two-Face's silver dollar is now GOLD?! What’s up with that?! That's STUPID.

*bows* Thankyew.

Oh, and if you’d like to own and read the issue in full, it’s included in the first trade paperback collection of Joker’s Asylum, which can be purchased here, and at your local comic shop. The collection’s worth buying for the Penguin and Scarecrow stories alone.
Tags: andy clarke, david hine, joker, the coin

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