about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Review: The brilliant gimmick and noble failure of "Two-Face Strikes Twice!"

Even by 1992, Dick Sprang still had the chops. So no giggling at his name, now.

Batman: Two-Face Strikes Twice was a really, really great idea on several fronts.

In a general sense, the gimmick was perfect: a two-issue Two-Face mini-series telling two different stories at the same time: one in the style of late-period Golden Age, the other in painted "modern" style. The concept alone has so much potential for nostalgic fun (Outlandish deathtraps! Corny dialogue! Giant oversized Dick Sprang object set-pieces!) as well as commentary on how superhero storytelling has evolved over the years, for better or worse. More specifically, the story provided a rare showcase for Two-Face, a character who has evolved considerably between his first appearance in 1942 and TFST!'s publication in 1992.

... Hey, I wonder if it was meant to be a 50th anniversary celebration of the character? That hadn't even occurred to me until just now! If so, TFST! was more than just a gimmicky Two-Face caper through past and then-present: it was a love letter to Batman in general, and Harvey Dent specifically. Oh, how very... very bittersweet.

Unfortunately, it's far from perfect. While author and Batman stalwart Mike W. Barr pretty well nails the entire retro story down to a surprising detail, the "modern" counterpart falls short like wowzers, mainly because Barr pretty much writes in the exact same style. There's still cheesy dialogue, bad one-liners, and groaner "two" puns, only now everyone uses computers and half the cast rocks mullets.

Also, cape technology had apparently grown by leaps and bounds.

But before I trot out a summary judgment of "noble failure," let's take a look at the Harvey-centric parts of TFST!, which are all the more important for featuring the last canonical modern-day appearance of Gilda Dent before The Long Halloween came out and pretty much ruined the character forever. Why, no, I'm not bitter, why do you ask?

The first part of (the first part of) Two-Face Strikes Twice! hits all the right notes of a classic late-period Golden Age story, from the dramatic splash page opening to Batman, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon attending an "Anti-Crime Exhibition" of various gadgets, weapons, and deathtraps from past capers. If the setting sounds familiar, that's because it's probably a reference to the classic Golden Age story featuring the Impostor Two-Face #3, George Blake!

Furthermore, one of the items on display in the exhibition is the giant silver dollar that the real Harvey Dent flipped with Batman and Robin strapped on one side. Yep, their last encounter before this story is Two-Face Strikes Again, the story which kinda ruined the character forever! Hoo... ray?

After seeing the coin, Batman reminisces about Harvey's origin, including his scarring at the hands of Moroni, who is given the nickname of "Lucky," which in itself is yet ANOTHER reference to an obscure Golden Age Two-Face story!. So yeah, right away, Barr is throwing out the classic references, grounding this story perfectly within the Golden Age era as far as Harvey's concerned, even though several of the references are about the impostors. I guess if enough time passes, they all become Two-Face.

"Paul Janus... I knew you'd like that." Dear god, Gilda, why didn't you just send Harvey a cake with a file and wedding invitation baked inside? I know that you can't choose who you fall in love with, but yikes.

In case you couldn't tell, the assistant warden is an idiot, and puts Harvey to work in the medical ward, where he's able to use various medicines and chemicals to fashion a gas bomb and escape. While everyone else thinks, "Oh crap, the wedding!" Gilda's only concerns are for Harvey's well-being:

Why no, that completely random mention of Paul Janus' interest in fine art isn't going to be a plot point, why do you ask? I'm reminded of that line in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: "Okay, I apologize. That is a terrible scene. It’s like, why was that in the movie? Gee, do you think maybe it’ll come back later? Maybe? I hate that. It’s like the TV’s on, talking about the new power plant, hmm, wonder where the climax will happen? Or that shot of the cook in Hunt For Red October? So anyway, sorry."

I don't know if it was intentional or not that Bruce and Dick were apparently able to change into their costumes within the space of seconds (unless Harvey really took his sweet time ranting before throwing the vial), but either way, it's pretty hilarious. It gets me in the mood right away: And so, the Dynamic Duo duel with their dastardly Dual-Faced... um... *searches for thesaurus* dissident! Hmm, on second thought, perhaps I'd better hold off. My William Dozier sounds more like Stan Lee.

As Harvey's thugs get the drop on those unsuspecting sub-O'Haras outside, Batman demands that Fat-Suited Clergyman Two-Face (I love comics) drop his double-barreled shotgun:

Man, life is just a never-ending series of suck for Gilda.

Then again, it should be noted that, in all of their published history in comics, this is the SOLE occasion where Two-Face has ever disrupted Gilda's life. In all previous instances, Harvey stayed away from Gilda unless it meant trying to reconcile with her and have a normal life. She was his one little corner of hope, and he longed for that corner as fiercely as he protected it, killing anyone who dared attack her. For me, having Harvey actively try to ruin Gilda's life is the first false note that Barr strikes. But I can excuse it, since, y'know, the obvious "Janus" connection would probably be too good to resist for Golden Age Two-Face.

Back to the comic, since I'm interrupting one of my very favorite touches in the whole story:

Go back to those first couple of panels! Look at that! Mike W. Barr is literally the ONLY writer since Bill Finger to remember that Harvey donates his ill-gotten gains to charity! That makes me happy like you wouldn't believe. Two-Face lost so much complexity the moment that they brought him back in the Sprang classic Two-Face Strikes Again and reduced him to being just another Golden/Silver Age gimmick villain. If only this touch were canon again, rather than a mere retro throwback reference.

Speaking of retro throwback references, HELL YES, GIANT OVERSIZED DICK SPRANG OBJECTS. Unfortunately, the awesomeness is quickly ruined by Robin, who uses the giant book to crush some thugs while quipping, "Here's a way to nab lots of thugs at once: turn down the volume!" God, how I hate Robin.

Also, if both books are signed by the original authors, then I like to imagine that Ralph Ellison's inscription includes a complaint against the publisher for including a "The" in the title of his Invisible Man.

Back to the story: as predicted, Two-Face shows up to steal the books, bringing along a brand-new accomplice: Paul Janus! Egad! Mr. Valenti, if you would, please? Thank you!

Oh, classic comics: where all burn victims have green skin. Janus resembles a lumpier version of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera, which I imagine is absolutely intentional. I also like to think that this Two-Face trains in any weaponry even vaguely related to the number two, just in case the occasion should arise.

Two-Face and Janus escape, but the heroes succeed in capturing one of the henchmen, who seems to treat the coin as if it were its own sentient entity, ala the Ventriloquist and Scarface:

"Figure it out for yourself, Robin!" That's telling him, Batman! Shut him up good!

Aaaaaaand Gilda's crying again. Combined with her self-pitying "Why meeeee?" attitude, Barr is (sadly) faithfully capturing the Gilda of not just the Golden Age, but also the great Bronze Age story by Marv Wolfman about her (first) second husband, which I can't help but suspect was a great influence to TFST! That said, even that story made it a point to have Gilda move PAST this "weeping suffering saint" trope and made her a stronger character by the end. That story, coupled with the Grace Dent story from Secret Origins Special, really proved to me just how important a character she should be. But I can't fault Barr for writing Gilda as she actually was, for the most part.

After analyzing the mud on the shoe, Batman and Robin deduce where Two-Face is hiding with "Janus," even as they wonder if it really IS Janus. It could be a frame-up by Two-Face, but then again, they learn that Paul Janus was deeply in debt (all them damn paintings, I betcha!), which would theoretically explain why he turned to crime.

Next thing we know, the heroes have fallen into Harvey's clutches, which can mean only one thing: an overly elaborate death trap with an oversized coin!

I'd agree with Batman's skepticism if this weren't set in an era where acid scarring was enough to drive Harvey himself so insane in such a short period of time.

Hell, Janus even has a ready-made motivation for trying to supplement his clearly out-of-control art-buying habit! I can just picture the whole sordid scenario: "Hey, curator! Gimme anudder Matisse." "Mr. Janus, I think you've had enough." "I'll TELL you when I've had enough!" Okay, so maybe that's just how I imagine it, but still, I now like to think that Janus was only marrying Gilda for her art. "You don't love me, you just love my SCULPTING! *sobs*"

... Man, all this is way more interesting to me than the actual story I'm reviewing! Fine, fine, let's get back to the silly comic already! So the heroes escape the deathtrap, but fail to capture Harvey and Janus:

Aheh heh heh, well, I couldn't possibly solve this mystery! Can YOUUU? /DrHibbert

Batman and Robin clash with Two-Face at an art museum, presumably to ply Janus with another fix of sweet, sweet painting. Harvey and the thugs all come dressed in full suits of armor that totally (kinda) makes sense in context, except that, strangely, Janus himself isn't among the gang this time! Hmmmmmmm.

Either way, it's another great setting for a fight on oversized novelty objects, until Dick ruins it all after falling out of a building, holding onto a giant paintbrush for safety, and quipping, "Whew! Now that's what I call a brush with death!" God, shut UP, Dick! I mean, sure, Henchgirl and I use those kinds of terrible puns in real life anyway, but still, shut up!

Yep, the charity stuff still makes me happy. DO THIS STUFF AGAIN, BATMAN WRITERS.

I like to imagine that Harvey uses a rigorous screening process when it comes to hiring underlings. Sure, potential thugs could have tons of experience as working criminals, but if they don't have something, ANYTHING related to two going on, they're out of luck.

A fight breaks out, in which Janus escapes in a bus (a double-decker, naturally), which goes perfectly well until Batman manages to blow a tire, sending the bus careening into some trees.

"In fact, you might even say my coin has a SECONDARY use! Because it's TWO, you see! TWO USES! HA HA!" You might not think that getting a coin thrown in your face is enough to effect an escape, but take it from me, old silver dollars are heavy, man. And besides, it shut Robin up, so I'm not complaining. "Don't tread on me" indeed!

Ugh, Robin. Lousy no-good little smarty-britches.

Cute reading selection there, Harv. What other novels do you think are on Golden Age Two-Face's bookshelf? The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, naturally, but what else? My votes are for The Double by Dostoevsky and The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino. Any other suggestions?

So wait, Janus' work involves research into the fertilization of twins? Good lord, Gilda, you really know how to pick 'em!

Batman and Robin show up, at which point Two-Face declares, "A trap! We've been double-crossed!" which marks yet another instance where Harvey has no idea what a "double-cross" actually means. Well, at least Barr is carrying on a storied tradition for Two-Face writers! Oh wait, wasn't Barr himself one of the writers to have Two-Face improperly using the term "double-cross?" Yup, he totally was.

Anyhoo, this results in the story's sixth (!) and final fight scene:

Shouldn't that be, "Don't say TWO words," Harvey? Wait, why am I encouraging that silliness now? I think I have some kind of Stockholm Syndrome after reading all these corny old Two-Face stories.

The reunion panel of Gilda and Paul is the most ironic reference yet, since it pretty well recreates the final panel of the first Impostor Two-Face story, after a then-healed Harvey was framed for new Two-Face crimes and reunited with Gilda after his exoneration:

So, y'know, "ouch" in retrospect.

Awwwww. Poor crazy-pants Harvey. Y'know, I suppose that this fits the kind of Two-Face that Greg Rucka would later use in Gotham Central: Half a Life, as well as of Tomasi's Nightwing: The Great Leap: this Harvey's a character who will, one way or another, eventually try to ruin the lives of the women he loves, and the people close to him.

On the other hand, I personally don't like that at all. Maybe that's more "realistic," but I far prefer a Harvey Dent who protects the very few people he cares about. That level of humanity doesn't make him any less of a menace, just so long as writers make sure to remember that he will use all manner of violence and evil in the name of that protection. But then, there will always be those who cannot resist the idea that Two-Face is there to tear down everything good in Harvey Dent's life. But that's a whole other discussion waiting to happen.

For now, let's continue with the second, "modern" half of TFST! Anybody else think that it feels weird to start with a whole new part after we've already come to the "end?" Well get ready for some whiplash, because it's about to get a whole lot more jarring:

Ughhh, my eyes...! *rubs them* This is gonna take a bit of adjustment.

Hmmmm, that last panel... *looks over at infant son, contemplates next Halloween* No, no, stop it, self. Y'know, there was a time when Henchgirl seriously thought that she might be carrying twins. If she were, I think she would have been within every right to have killed me. And even if she weren't, that wouldn't have stopped her.

"... plump and beautiful as their mother." "Are you calling me fat, Paul?"

Oy, the artwork of Daerick Gross. Maybe it's just because I associate him most with his comic adaptation of Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat, but his work from this period so reminds me of bad romance novels. It's hardly what I'd associate with being as indicative of "modern comics" in the same way that Sprang style is of "classic comics." Ironically, it dates the story without actually representing comics of the era. The worst part is, that's better than the writing, which feels like it hasn't even been updated at all, as you'll see for yourself.

Following the announcement of the twins' birth, Harvey escapes from Arkham. Notice that he doesn't escape from Gotham Penitentiary, since we're in the modern era. This indicates the rather fuzzy way that details have changed around even if the story is a direct sequel with (essentially) the same events. If you ask me, it's kind of wishy-washy, but it might have worked better if the story examined these differences more explicitly. Do the characters in the 1992 story remember the era of giant novelty objects? If so, that just raises further questions about Batman's own history, and how Gotham evolved, which could itself door to Grant Morrison's "everything is canon" bullshit, so it's best not to dwell too hard on these questions.

Instead, let's focus on Paul and Gilda Janus, who are packing their bags after the news of Harvey's escape, only to find that it's TWO little TWO late (damn it, me, stop that!):

Double-UGH. Another bad first: Harvey hitting Gilda. That has never happened in any story before or since, and I hate it even more that Gilda's 90's mom-mullet.

That said, I approve of Harvey's trench coat, mainly because I always approve of trench coats. Still, I pity the poor couch that died to make the bad half.

Oh, 90's Batman. His real superpower must be his uncanny ability to not get constantly tanged up in that massive bed sheet he calls a cape. Even still, those Kelley Jones Bat-ears must be a real pain for going through doorways.

"... And I'll redouble my efforts to do" what, exactly? This issue has several lettering errors, and this seems to be a case of an entirely dropped line of dialogue from Harvey.

Fun detail: I love Harvey's phones, but once again, the attempt at modernity just comes off as hilariously dated in retrospect.

Oh Dr. Moon, you sick bastard you. I'm still sad that you were offered up at the sacrificial altar of making Manhunter Kate Spencer seem more like a badass. Live by the D.A., die by the D.A., I guess. Moon's a sorely missed character, especially now that Tony Daniel's essentially turned Hugo Strange into a poor man's Dr. Moon.

Without telling the police or Batman, Janus secretly agrees to meet with Harvey and then try to betray the insane and violent criminal mastermind who has his sons. Because, you see, Janus is a schmuck.

"Double-sided disks." I wanna roll my eyes, but between that, the Nelson-esque beefcake henchmen, and the chunky old computers, I can't help but find this quaintly charming. "Dude."

Also, what the hell is going on in that last panel? I mean, I can tell that it's probably meant to be Batman and Robin crashing dramatically through a window, but it instead looks like they're rolling down a mountainside together in a blizzard.

I should mention, as a plot point, that Robin's belt can actually hook up with the computer and download information. This will come up later, so just file it away. Preferably on a double-sided disk. Snerk.

Since Janus failed to produce the fertility drug, Harvey goes for Plan B: kidnap more twin babies! He deduces from birth announcements in the paper a wealthy high society figure who must have been a recipient of the drug, and plots to kidnap the twins for Moon to study. This leads to another deathtrap reminiscent of the giant coin trap from Part One, and yadda yadda yadda, Batman gets free but Robin ends up getting kidnapped like a good Boy Hostage.

I'm not sure how I feel about Harvey's "logic" there. As I've previously said, I strongly dislike the idea of Harvey actively hurting Gilda, even if it comes from a place of twisted love. On the other hand, I've lived with mentally ill people who possess the same kind of "logic." It's the kind that almost makes sense, in that you can see how they'd reach that conclusion as long as they had a great big blind spot or two.

So you may be wondering, what exactly does Harvey plan to DO with the fertility drug? Why, sell it to the highest bidder, of course! In fact, he already has a couple of clients lined up, namely a pair of cartoonishly snobby upper crust British tourists. At least, I think they're British. For all I know, they could just be pompous Americans in the grand tradition of Jim Backus.

Harvey's weary exasperation from dealing with the couple is one of my favorite little touches. It's always nice to see the "villain" in a different context, dealing in business outside of his comfort zone. Furthermore, it's good to see him express disappointment in the coin's verdict, rather than just blindly going along with whatever comes up. It gives him personality rather than making him a cipher, even if I'm not fond of the personality of this particular take on Two-Face.

While Paul and Gordon scramble to figure out Harvey's next target, Gilda takes Batman aside for a private confession that no one could have possibly seen coming:

I know some people raise eyebrows at the mere idea of Harvey Dent's frozen semen, but the reasoning works for me. I think that glimpse of Harvey and Gilda's past relationship is almost poignant, to show just how aware they were that one or both of them might be killed at any point, so they made preparations in case the unthinkable happened. How sad it is that, in some ways, what happened instead was even worse?

That said, I'm not quite sure I understand Gilda's reasoning for thawing out Harvey's li'l guys when Paul was shooting blanks. I mean, not to go all GATTACA on you, but is Dent DNA really the kind of genetic material that you wanna pass on?

Pharez and Zarah Cromwell? Oh, those poor kids. In the ensuing scuffle, Harvey knocks Batman out and escapes with the Cromwell twins. Who says that villains never win?

Another touch that makes me happy: Barr remembered that Gilda is a sculptor! I hate how The Long Halloween completely left that out, since it was pretty much the ONLY detail from her original Golden Age appearances that made her something of an individual character rather than just an adjunct to Harvey. I mean, even if the only sculpture of hers that we ever saw was a bust of Harvey. Because, y'know, HARVEY POOR HARVEY LIVE FOR HARVEY DIE FOR HARVEY SOB.

It's be a great scene if it weren't for the OH GOD WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH HER FACE. I mean, I shouldn't judge, as I'm told that I look absolutely hilarious when I cry (or at least, so says my mother... and my wife... geez, just because my nostrils flare in a comical fashion when I'm upset is no reason to laugh!), but yikes. On the plus side: Gilda slapped Batman! Awesome! THAT'S the Gilda I want to see more of!

Still, her face. Honestly, I wish I could post the whole story, because Daerick Gross gives these characters some seriously screwed-up facial expressions:

Yarr, that'll replace the whale in me nightmares.

Big finale time! What Batman's realized is that Two-Face has hacked into Robin's belt, which has all the info about the drug recipients from Janus' computer and YAWWWWWWWWWN let's just skip the fight scene straight to the climax.

I'm no expert on firearms, but a close-range blast from a shotgun? Should that have, I dunno, done considerably more damage to Moon's shoulder, if not blasted his arm apart? Either way, poor Dr. Moon. He only wanted to dissect living babies. I ask you, was that so wrong?!

I like that Harvey seems compelled to save the twins not because they're his, but--I believe--more because the removal of Janus from the equation means that his love for Gilda completely takes over. It almost makes up for the whole, y'know, trying-to-ruin-her-life-twice-over thing.

Man, even as a day-old newborn, my massive hulk of a son could have eaten Gilda's. Both of them.

Unfortunately, we never saw this Gilda nor her twins ever again. Up until last year, this was the final appearance of Gilda in modern continuity, but I'm not sure that storyline will count in the long run any more than this one. It's a shame. Poor Gilda, she was better off in comic book limbo. It was much better for her to be there, as a distant figment of hope, than to have her be what Loeb did to her in TLH.

Even still, while the Gilda in this story is a throwback (at first purposely and then inadvertently) to a lesser characterization of her, it at least gave her a happy ending. Or at least, about as happy an ending as you could hope for when it comes to a Two-Face story. It's nice to at least be able to say that much, regardless of all this story's flaws both as a narrative and as a gimmick.

But man, I so wish someone would give this concept a second try, since there's so much one could do with the gimmick. For one thing, I think this version really missed the the boat in terms of showing how different Batman comics were Post-Crisis and Post-Miller. For all intents and purposes, Barr's Batman feels no different than the Batman stuff he did with Alan Davis right before Year One. It's still very Bronze Age. I wish we could have seen a more psychologically complex Harvey against a more sober, stripped-down storyline, something around the likes of David Mazzucchelli, Michael Lark, Sean Phillips, or Christopher Nolan, with more of the post-Eye of the Beholder background fueling his character.

Of course, then the question would be how one would reconcile the two wildly different styles of stories. Perhaps, better, would be if the whole shebang would be done by a single creative team or writer/artist, such as Darwyn Cooke, who could balance both wildly different styles. Of course, it'll never happen, but it sure is nice to dream, ain't it?

As it is, we're left with a perfectly-told homage to the Golden Age, and a so-so "Modern Age" story, with the best things about this noble failure of a comic being the dual covers by Gross and original Silver Age artist Dick Sprang:

If I have any complaints about these covers, it's the last one. I love the image, but Gross doesn't seem to know how to recreate Sprang's movement. For years as a kid, I thought that Batman had ripped Harvey's arm out of his socket, and that Harvey was bleeding blue goo like Russell Crowe in Virtuosity. Otherwise, I do like that piece of Gross.


Ohhhh, I can't resist. One more time!

Can't. Look. Away.
Tags: dick grayson, gilda dent, golden age, jim gordon, mike w barr, overly elaborate deathtraps, reading list: gilda/grace dent

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