about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Review: "Batman: Jekyll & Hyde" (1/2)

There is no Two-Face story quite so nobly ambitious, so frustratingly misguided, so fleetingly moving, and so goddamn gloriously ridiculous as Batman: Jekyll & Hyde.

Years before the book's release in 2005, I read an interview with writer Paul Jenkins where he discussed his intentions to tell--I clearly remember--"The Killing Joke of Two-Face stories." While other writers have made me realize that such a goal is doomed to fail, I was damn excited. I mean, sure, Harvey already had not one but two Killing Joke-worthy tales, but while both were brilliant, neither have earned the kind of esteem for the character that TKJ did for the Joker. He needs that kind of story! And hey, more Two-Face! Always a good thing, right?


Here's the thing: I love stories which peel the villains apart and show what makes them tick. I think most long-running villains--especially in the Batman rogues gallery--could benefit from that kind of treatment, and few more so than Two-Face. As such, I appreciate that Jenkins shoots high with bold ideas and revelations about the true nature of Harvey Dent's madness.

However, to say that Jenkins missed his mark would severely undersell the fascinatingly frustrating and frustratingly fascinating mess that is Batman: Jekyll & Hyde. In trying to give the character a new tragic poignancy, Jenkins instead oversimplifies Harvey's origin in a manner that's both cartoonish and offensive, all while simultaneously having Two-Face commit the single most irredeemably monstrous thing he has ever done.

Note: scans are from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #99 and Batman: Jekyll & Hyde #1-6. As always, no more than 1/3rd of each issue has been scanned and posted.

Thing is, I suspect that Batman: Jekyll & Hyde was a labor of love for Paul Jenkins, considering he laid the foundation for his Two-Face plans several years earlier. In 1997, Jenkins wrote a two-part story (with the great Sean Phillips on art duties) for a Legends of the Dark Knight two-parter called "Steps," about Batman trying to communicate with an autistic boy who witnessed a murder.

What does this plot have to do with Two-Face? Absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, Jenkins dedicated four pages to a random Harvey cameo which, in retrospect, solely served as a "pilot" of sorts for the ideas and concepts which could reach fruition in B:J&H. Here's the scene in its entirety, with commentary to follow:

This scene--especially the opening--always struck me as being moody, atmospheric, and faintly scented of bullshit. Thankfully, the intrepid wo_meimei has a keener nose than I, and proceeded to eloquently tear the preceding pages apart in this excellent post over at her blog. She has an uncommon passion for both Harvey Dent and anti-ablism, and has great insights into the many "liberties" that fiction takes with both mental illness and how it's treated, which will be very much relevant to this post as a whole. I greatly look forward to her comments, as well as when she composes her own epic review of this story, as that's far more her area of expertise than mine.

Me, I'm gonna focus expressly on Harvey's character. Right away, Jenkins wants us to see that Harvey is reaching some kind of breaking point in his personalities, although it's very vague and ill-defined. For one thing, why does the "good" side refer to the bad one as "Harvey?" Do they both identify as Harvey? Furthermore, what's with Batman implying that Harvey's dark side was born out of fear and superstition? I mean, using the coin is one thing, as it has specific meaning. But Harvey Dent has never fit the bill of "superstitious and cowardly lot" to a greater degree than any of Batman's other enemies.

As Jenkins makes explicitly clear, we're not getting any answers. Not yet, anyway, and certainly not in this story. If you'd like to read more of Steps, you can do so here, but don't expect to see any more of Harvey. While this scene did serve as a flimsy pretense for Batman to consider "asking the right questions," I believe that its main purpose was to lay the foundation for Big Ideas that Jenkins had for Harvey, with the hope that maybe, somehow, he's be able to explore them fully.

In late 2005, after several years in production, Jenkins finally got that chance.

Personally, I suspect that most fans were interested in Batman: Jekyll & Hyde less for Harvey and more for the artwork of Jenkins' Inhumans collaborator, Jae Lee. I have very mixed feelings about Lee's work, especially after reading his adaptation of my favorite book of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. His characters are etherial and haunting, but not much beyond that, with little in the way of character and expression. Still, at his best, Lee's work is darkly, beautifully atmospheric like few others, and that can go a long way to sweetening a flawed story. With that in mind, here's how Jenkins and Lee introduce their take on Harvey:

Hoo boy.

Y'know, I've wanted to draw up a likely psychological profile for Harvey as he appears in the comics, which is hard considering how inconsistently he'd been written over the years. This is a problem for pretty much all of the rogues, really: But here, it's hard to tell if what we're getting is just what the Arkham doctor thinks, or if it's Jenkins' own diagnoses. In either case, I'm sadly not well-versed-enough in the ways of real-life mental illness to comment of the veracity of this scene. Thankfully, wo_meimei is, and has proceeded to tear this (and the rest of B:J&H #1 apart) over at her blog, which I'll link to at the end. She goes way more in depth, and her post deserves to be read on its own merits. In the meantime, I found ANOTHER thorough tear-down of this "diagnoses" over here, just to give you some idea that the Arkham doctor (and by extension Paul Jenkins) has no idea what the hell he's talking about.

What I notice right away is that there's no mention of Harvey's father whatsoever, nor of any abuse. Y'know, the abuse which actually WAS the "root cause" that this story is now ignoring to come up with a brand-new one on its own. Granted, we're only hearing how much as the doctor knows, which I suspect is what Jenkins thinks the average reader knows too, but Eye of the Beholder made it clear that Arkham doctors by the end were fully aware of Harvey's family history. Here, there's no mention of Harvey's father, nor of the twisted game with the coin:

And lest you think that I'm harping too much on one story, even the incredibly-popular Long Halloween directly referenced Harvey's father, and hinted at what the coin actually meant. As I've said before, that "game" is VITAL to Harvey's origin, even if no writers have ever discussed it. It's one of the very few cases of parental abuse in fiction that rings powerfully true, especially for those who have experienced similar abuse and manipulation.

But at the same time, I'm painfully aware that it's not the sort of thing that I'd trust everyone to grasp, especially not many comic writers. Perhaps that's why the abuse is ignored entirely by most stories, or at most, it's modified to just being physical abuse without the psychological manipulation of the "game." While I see this as more simplistic, the flip side is that it's more universal to understand, and it's even been used to powerful effect in at least one story.

But in B:J&H, no mention is made of ANY abuse at the start. Now, it WILL be fleetingly mentioned later, but very much in an off-handed manner, because the abuse isn't the point of what Jenkins is going for here. Right away, we can see that Jenkins is about to give you clues as to what really created Two-Face in Harvey's mind. For one thing, it involves ice cream.

Yes, there's a brother. Yes, the ice cream is foreshadowing (and also a metaphor). Yes, both will be beaten into your head by the time the story's finished.

The idea of Harvey's family going to the seaside for vacation seems so out of left field that I wonder if it's a reference to the wonderful Grace Dent story from 1989's Secret Origins Special:

I assume "parent" was a typo, and that both parents were meant to be killed in the boating accident. Incidentally, thank god that no writer has since tried to pick up on this panel to "reveal" that OH MY GOD IT WAS CRAZY LITTLE HARVEY WHO KILLED THEM ALL ALOOOOONG!

This detail of Harvey's past was ignored by 1990's Eye of the Beholder, which showed that Harvey's father was still alive. If Jenkins is drawing from Secret Origins Special, then he's jumping over Eye of the Beholder and even The Long Halloween to do it. But considering the above is fishing at the docks, which isn't the same as going to the beach, I'm guessing that it's just a coincidence as Jenkins weaves his all-new original backstory for Harvey. Lucky us!

BACK TO THE PLOT: So while all this has been going on, Batman's been investigating a series of bizarre, horrifying, and seemingly-unconnected murders committed by decent, average people with no history of violence. Or cannibalism. I should mention that there was cannibalism, because HEY KIDS, COMICS!

Batman's investigation leads him to Dr. Rousse, a chemist developing a formula based on what he calls "The Jekyll and Hyde Principle." Much like Jekyll, Rousse believes that all men are composed of two separate personalities (such weak and strong, fight and flight, and good and evil, because those all easily fit into one of two categories, sure they do), and his goal is to unify the two selves. But unlike the real Jekyll, Rousse has actually READ Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which gives him no excuse for doing something this obviously stupid.

But then, Batman here isn't so smart either. You'd assume that he would have figured out right away that Harvey would be involved, but he still seems clueless even when agreeing to meet with his former friend at Arkham:

Ugh. "Raving lunatic?" When it comes to Harvey, that's the kind of thing that Dick would say, but not Bruce. Never, ever Bruce. Moving on...

Something's really off with Harvey's depiction here. Does this truly sound like any Harvey Dent we've ever known? It sounds more like Jenkins is writing Harvey as the Everyman who wants to be that generalized "productive member of society," but is hampered by the devil on his shoulder. Look, I'll be the first to point out that Two-Face beautifully embodies the internal conflict of good and evil in all people, but that's not ALL he is. He's an actual person in his own right, someone who has his own goals and dreams, something more specific than the vague ideal of being "a productive member of society." Does anyone actually aspire to be that, specifically? No, this Harvey seems to be nothing more than a living metaphor for the human condition, with the story being about how "evil" seems to be winning. Not that this story's Batman really cares, not when there's still a case to be solved:

Before Batman can react, an explosion rips through the asylum, and Two-Face makes his escape.

At this point, I want to talk a bit about the way Jae Lee draws Harvey's scarring. Putting aside the retro/throwback decision to make it green, it's certainly more "realistic" than what we usually get for Two-Face. By which I mean, it's what more people would commonly associate with realistic burn scarring. Not only is Harvey now blind in that eye--which seems to glow like a sickly pale moon--but he still has his lips fully intact, which would allow him to speak as well as he does.

Lee often makes it work in the sense that this Two-Face is almost darkly beautiful, but at the same time, it's hardly an ideal Two-Face. The scarring isn't nearly horrific enough, sometimes looking more like he just smeared thick pea soup on his face. To make matters worse, the artwork combined with the coloring makes Harvey look an awful lot like Jae Lee's take on the Hulk by way of Morty, the evil wooden monster from the failed horror franchise, The Fear.

Before we catch up with the escaped Two-Face, we get another flashback:

Okay, I'm not sure what exactly is going on between the Brothers Dent and their mangled "kid" dialogue.

Are they setting a bonfire or something? Are they burning something more than twigs? Why does Murray Dent sound like a hillbilly, talking about burning down a barn to watch "all them ducks and chickens" before sounding like a British child who says "brilliant" when he probably means "cool"? Also, if Murray wants Harvey to look into the flames, why are they looking up at the sky, away from the fire? And finally, why does little Harvey answer his own question about "fings"?

I think we can chalk this up to Jae Lee being a beautiful artist who is also a muddled storyteller. Based on the dialogue, however, I'm not sure that Jenkins' script was doing him any favors. I should also mention that the above scan is from the trade paperback, which has apparently been recolored from the original issues, where the scene was awash with gray. Clearly, even the editor of the collected edition thought that this page was incomprehensible.

Ah, I see that Harvey is rocking the "disheveled Chris Isaak nightclub singer in a David Lynch movie" look. I'm going to warn you right now, he never does get around to buttoning up his shirt. Also, I just noticed that he's wearing a split scarf. Have we officially achieved Hipster Harvey? "Pfft, I was Batman's ally before it was cool." Ah, hipster jokes, you're a tired old meme. In all seriousness, I do like that they're making an effort to give Harvey a new look to go with this story's mood, and I appreciate the fact that the black coat is not split in any way. See, I can totally find something positive to say!

But seriously, why is Gotham an apocalyptic wasteland?

At first, I assumed that Harvey gave Maurice the silver dollar, especially since I couldn't actually remember if he ever used the coin throughout this story. If not, then that alone is damn significant. But upon rereading the whole story, I saw that Harvey did still have the coin, even if he only uses it once later on, which meant that he probably gave Maurice a regular silver dollar. I kinda wish it actually was the actual scarred coin. Harvey giving that away without ever flipping it would have poignantly marked a powerful change in Harvey's mental state, saying much more in a single gesture than any amount of pseudo psychobabble. Which we're about to get a LOT of very soon.

After a Catholic priest poisons his entire congregation, Batman decides to investigate Dr. Rousse's lab, only to discover a sinister torture chamber (as opposed to a pleasant torture chamber, Hef?) of cybernetically-enhanced lab baboons and zombies. Like you do. Apparently. What, like you don't have zombies in your laboratory?

The zombies and baboons roundly trounce Batman, because, y'know, comics. Seriously, I can't believe that I just wrote that sentence, and yet, it happened. It's so random and insane that I'm already questioning why I don't love this story already. Even better, once Batman's knocked out, the zombies and baboons vanish! Where'd they go? Who knows! Maybe Harvey politely asked them to leave. Maybe he enticed them with ice cream. BECAUSE THERE WILL BE ICE CREAM, OH YES, THERE WILL BE ICE CREAM.

Either way, when Batman wakes up, he finds himself at the mercy of Two-Face:

Wait, Harvey's "good" side is tempted to kill Batman? I can't tell whether or not this story is purposely jumbling around Harvey's personality/personalities, or if he's just being written out of character across the board.

Also, even though we're just two issues in, does this story already qualify as the most monstrous thing that Two-Face has ever done? Generally speaking, he kills other criminals, drug dealers, mobsters, as well as cops, lawyers, and the occasional innocent civilian. But so far in Batman: Jekyll & Hyde, he's driven two people irrevocably insane, who then went on to kill (and in at least one case, eat) a couple dozen men, women, and children. Sure, in Batman/Two-Face: Crime and Punishment, he blew up dozens of civilians and terrorized an entire city, but at least Harvey's good side was still there trapped inside, every bit as much a victim and those Two-Face was killing. Here, the good side is endorsing the killing, or at most excusing it.

Jenkins' Two-Face is already too far gone, and the worst part is, he's still going.

As Harvey's two sides continue to rant and rave, the drugs start having their effect on Batman, causing him to hallucinate about when he was a sullen, withdrawn little boy, refusing the company of other children in favor of his own sulking. Also, the drug seems to cause intense physical pain along with the psychological torment, so it just generally sucks to be Bruce right about now.

I appreciate that the story mentions the stigma attached to mental illness, a stigma which--let's face it--Batman comics haven't exactly helped by showing Arkham as a house loaded with freaks and monsters. But again, I just can't buy that Harvey--the good side of Harvey--would ever argue that the "Hyde" side is something that is desirable to release. Let's assume that it was Jekyll's "desire liberated." In that case, then Jekyll's desire was a murderous (and in some cases, also rapey) psychopath. Unleashing that side is a good idea WHY now? I can understand Two-Face advocating that idea, but Harvey Dent of ALL people should NEVER advocate that, especially not at the cost of dozens of innocent lives, with more to come.

"Fat pig." "Moron." "Little pansy." I realize that, at the risk of spoilers, there's a reason why Two-Face is speaking like an overgrown child, but I nonetheless find it irritating when I should find it threatening. This Two-Face is hardly a frightening master villain. He's a bully and a pissant, resorting to name-calling because that's all he has to offer. Yawn.

The story then takes a more interesting turn, contrasting Harvey's words with Bruce's own memories/visions, offering the potential of actually playing with the parallels of Harvey and Bruce's own dual lives:

Like a poor man's Hugo Strange, Harvey pushes Batman through hallucinations of guilt and memory, of the hero's failures, including Barbara and Jason (but oddly, not Harvey himself, which you'd think would be kind of meaningful), all to show how every effort that Bruce makes is torn apart by Batman. YOU'RE LIVING A LIE, BATMAN!

As Harvey urges Batman to let go of his humanity and fully embrace the dark, lonesome, loveless Bat, Bruce remembers all the times that he shunned the company of others following his parents' deaths (regardless of Alfred's best efforts to bring him out into the metaphorical light), preferring his own dark solitude, to brood brood brooooooooood with his own empty hollowness. Harvey can't see what's going on in Batman's head, but he gets the gist nonetheless.

And thus, we get the first mere mention of Harvey's father, and thus the vaguest allusion to the abuse! But again, it's mere secondary element compared to what Harvey's REALLY alluding to here. If you haven't figured it out yet, you will soon enough.

Batman finally breaks down in a big show of overwrought angst where he hallucinates that his parents' blood is literally on his hands (subtle, Jenkins!), followed by visions of Batgirl and Jason Todd, to which he cries out like a petulant child, "GO AWAY! I HATE YOU!" before he collapses and seems to die. With nothing left to do, Harvey embraces Batman in what is, I must admit, a damn pretty page:

A Hamlet quote? Really? How bloody cliché, not to mention kinda slashy. Still, misguided and wonky as this is handled, I do like that Harvey seems to display genuine regret here, even if his previous actions render his moment here kinda hollow. It'd be meaningful if the "good" side really were good, but as we've already seen, that's not the case.

Since this post is already long as hell and we're only halfway through, I'll stop here and post the rest a few days from now. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out wo_meimei's own critiques of Steps and the first two chapters of B:J&H here and here. She goes way more in depth than I do, and her insights (especially into this story's treatment of mental illness) are invaluable. She also fills in the gaps of the story in more detail that I cared to, which is great for those of you who haven't read the story and are unable to obtain a copy.

EDIT: Part Two is up! Go go go!
Tags: alfred pennyworth, christopher dent, jae lee, jim gordon, origins, paul jenkins, sean phillips, the coin
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