about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Two-Face's triumphant return in the Bronze Age classic, "Half an Evil," by O'Neil, Adams, & Giordano

The Bronze Age of comics is considered by many to be the Golden Age for Batman. I can certainly understand why, as it may be my very favorite Batman era.

That's not to say the stories then were necessarily any BETTER than the ones in other eras (since every era has its ups and downs, with the ratio heavily tipped towards the mediocre and the crap), but I absolutely adore the sensibilities of Bronze Age Batman. Moody without being excessively dark, gritty without being grimy, simultaneously more realistic and more ambitiously fantastic, grounded in character without too much soap opera, Bronze Age Batman was the raw, uneven template for Batman storytelling that would be polished, surpassed, and perfected by Batman: The Animated Series.

Is it fair to say that we pretty much owe it all to Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams? If nothing else, that legendary writer/artist team popularized the dramatic shift away from Adam West Silver Age into a new era for the Dark Knight. Again, that's not to say that their stories were always good--sacrilege as it may be to admit such a thought--but while I personally prefer the art of Jim Aparo to Adams, and while I think Bronze Age Batman reached its epitome with the Strange Apparitions run by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, O'Neil and Adams delivered a few genuine, timeless classics.

One of their most famous stories appeared two months after the introduction of the Ra's al Ghul and two years before the brilliant The Joker's Five-Way Revenge (which redefined the Joker, although not enough to surpass Ra's as the decade's Greatest Batman Villain ZOMG, apparently). In August 1971, O'Neil and editor Julius Schwartz decided to bring back Two-Face after seventeen years since his last appearance:

But while this was one of the most important Two-Face stories ever published, not to mention supposedly one of The Greatest Batman Stories of All Time (see links at the bottom), it's ultimately a very standard Batman detective story. There's a crime, there's a fight, there's a villain, there's another fight, there's detective work, there's Batman out-thinking the villain, and there's Batman winning. Yadda yadda, yay. But what it DID have was atmosphere and mood out the metaphorical wazoo:

First, revisit that page up above. Sometimes I think that this story is only considered a classic for that opener, between O'Neil's narration (like Stan Lee by way of EC with a dash of Hardy Boys) and Adams's halftone techniques, with the pencils in the background of the inked foreground. It's was a common technique for commercial art, but one so alien to comics that some virtually thought that Neal invented the process! Cap that off with the inks of Dick Giordando (one of the greatest in the biz, whose inks ALWAYS tightened and improved Adams' pencils) and the coloring of Batman's solid blue against the murky swamp, and boom: that's what I mean by atmosphere and mood. The plot and character stuff itself is featherweight, but god damn if that doesn't set the scene.

The story concerns a bizarre theft of a giant parade balloon for Janus Hot Dogs (slogan: "Doubly Delicious." Oh, comics), but Batman's suspcions about the incredibly-obvious culprit are only confirmed once he thwarts an attempted heist at the Gotham Nautical Museum:

Whew! Through the awkward device of ostensibly asking Alfred if he remembers every aspect of Harvey's backstory, readers instantly get a powerful introduction to Two-Face in just three pages. While the rest of his role in the story is pretty simple, based more on his newest 2-based crime rather anything about his character or history, the impact of these pages on the character's place in history cannot be underestimated. Two-Face may be a thief and crime boss for the rest of the story, but O'Neil made it a point to emphasize the character's tragic nature right from the start, thus instantly making Harvey far more interesting than the average villain.

That said, the history we get leans far more toward Two-Face Strikes Again and the George Blake Impostor story than the original Harvey Kent trilogy, which is pretty much reduced to one panel with Moroni (a TWO-bit gangster) and the acid. The implication seems to be that the real tragedy of Harvey Dent wasn't that he was scarred and went insane, but that it happened a SECOND time, and this time for keeps! Interesting, then, that no other story after this brought up the explosion and rescarring, sticking to the acid origin. I guess maybe the double-scarring was just--god help me--too much?

"Trees to toothpicks?" I can easily accept when O'Neil writes Ollie Queen that way, but not Bruce Wayne. Also, is that not the most boring Batmobile of all time or what? Here, if you have the time, feel free to compare it with ALL the others for yourself.

Batman defeats Two-Face's thugs at the marina, seemingly saving the ship until...

Well, have you? HAVE YOU?!

Y'know, I recall reading somewhere about people who hated this kind of narration as being too corny, namely that they looked down at the fact that is directly addressed the reader. You know what, screw them, I like the Stan Lee school of narration that acknowledges the reader as a kind of participant audience member. It's very theatrical, and carries a certain flair that is lost on stories today, not just in comics. And if anyone doesn't like it, well, then all I can do is affect my best Oswald Cobblepot and dub them "mundane miscreants" who have no DRAMA in their souls. *flourish of cape, exeunt*

I don't know about you, but while this is very clever and all, I find this kind of detective work by Batman to be boring as hell if it's not used as dressing around a character-based plot. In this way, it was still true to the plot-over-character nature of Batman stories of earlier years, no matter how innovative and progressive it was elsewhere. The only stakes in this story are based around solving the crime, and figuring out what Two-Face is up to. It's clever, yes, but too hollow for my tastes.

Ahhh, wetsuit Harvey. "It feels like I'm wearing nothin' at all! Nothin' at all! Nothin' at ALL!"

O'Neil was so fond of that "You'll die ugly" line that he used it a second time, and quite awkwardly too, in a story with the Penguin and Talia. O'Neil never liked the Penguin as a character, and boy, it showed there, where he was a loathesome shit prone to threats like, "You'll die! You'll die UGLY!"

I love that O'Neil's Harvey is true to the morality of his coin. What's more, I love that Harvey's morality is ultimately his undoing. If you really wanted to, one could see that as the small way that Harvey Dent helps to defeat Two-Face. But that's an entirely optional interpretation.

Either way, is this why the story was titled Half an Evil: the fact that Harvey is undone by his own inability to vanquish his good side? I just wish he didn't have to be reminded to flip the coin by Batman, suggesting that he wouldn't have done it otherwise. If so, this could indicate that Harvey's use of the coin is less of a compulsion and, ironically, more out of pride for his self-professed personal code. If so, I'm not sure I like that, but it's much better than him being a duplicitous cheater.


Also, "Perhaps?" Perhaps what? Why perhaps? What's lingering? I guess that Harvey will be back to scheme again or the war on crime never ends or something like that, but it's just such an abrupt and lazy ending.

All in all, though, I like this story much more now than I did when I sat down to write this post. I love how I can find little things to appreciate in these comics by writing about them than I did just reading them. Nonetheless, when it comes to O'Neil and Two-Face, I greatly prefer his wonderful story with Irv Novick from three years later, Threat of the Two-Headed Coin. Then ending is very similar, with Batman using Harvey's coin (and "pride?") against himself, but it featured a wonderfully melancholic touch which I adore. Definitely check that one out if you already haven't. It's a fave.

Scans from this story were generously provided by Joe Bloke at Grantbridge Street, the best goddamn blog for comic scans out there. If you'd like, check out his blog to read all of Half an Evil. Either way, put aside an hour or two to scour through his great blog for all sorts of treasures.

If you'd like to own this great story, well, you have two options. I greatly recommend going the first route and buying the old The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, which is where these scans came from. It's a great collection anyway, and it's the best-colored version I've read. Otherwise, you can pick up Batman VS Two-Face, a frustratingly crappy collection which reprints Neal Adams remastered and recolored version of the story that originally ran in this hardcover collection. Squint and you can see a tiny comparison between the original published page and the touched-up version by Adams:

Image source.

Yeah, the new coloring isn't bad, but it feels a lot like a Lucas-ization of something that was already fine in the first place. The extra softness and dimensions of the computer coloring are just unnecessary, in my opinion. When it comes to older comics, give me gritty newsprint or solid, muted colors any day. But then, I'm the kind of guy who utterly loathes all the CGI additions in the remastered Star Trek: The Original Series, so what do I know?
Tags: bronze age, denny o'neil, dick giordano, neal adams

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