about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Review: Two-Face gets a new vigilante nemesis in Alan Grant's "Janus" from SHADOW OF THE BAT #62-63

Note: This story includes spoilers for the episode "Judgement Day" from Batman: The Animated Series. If you haven't seen it, you can watch it here before it's taken down.

Alan Grant was one of THE major Batman writers, one of those who helped shape the character's entire era in the decade following Batman: Year One.

While his body of work speaks for itself, his greatest specific legacy may have been in the new characters he introduced. Like fellow Scotsman Grant Morrison, Alan Grant loaded his Bat-books with original villains. Most of whom instantly went onto the D-List, but a handful endured, especially Doctor Jeremiah Arkham, Mister Zsasz, and the Ventriloquist and Scarface. Also like Morrison, Alan Grant was a fan of introduced big ideas and themes into his work, but with varying degrees of success.

After a few years proving his mettle over in both Batman and Detective Comics, Grant was given his own ongoing Batman series with Batman: Shadow of the Bat. Save for the last year before the book's cancelation, when it was hijacked to join the excellent No Man's Land saga, Grant wrote over eighty issues of SotB over seven years. Yowza.

Like many, I just assumed that it was meant to be yet another Bat-Book, a playground for Grant to tell whatever stories he wanted. However, I recently learned that he had a specific purpose in mind for SotB, one which I find very interesting.

In Grant's own words from a Wizard interview back in 1998, he wanted SotB to "focus on whoever the villain of the piece was. It meant we were able to go more deeply into the psychology of the villain concerned. It gave me an angle to attack the story from. In Shadow, we continue to use more psychological stories than any of the other Bat-books. Instead of doing straight action stories, I like to probe what makes a killer. Why would somebody become a thief? What's the cause of the Riddler's madness?"

While I confess that I was never the biggest fan of his stories, I admire Grant for wanting to expressly focus on the villains. We need to see more of that in comics, especially with Batman, whose rogues gallery are the most psychologically-driven in any medium. That said, I fear that Grant's abilities rarely matched his ambitions, which is why we so often ended up with a mixed bag like Janus. In this story, Grant appropriately gets to have it both ways by utilizing both Two-Face and a "new" character, whose secret identity drives the story's central mystery:

I never said it was a hard mystery, mind you.

In Grant's own words from a Wizard interview back in 1998, he wanted SotB to "focus on whoever the villain of the piece was. It meant we were able to go more deeply into the psychology of the villain concerned. It gave me an angle to attack the story from. In Shadow, we continue to use more psychological stories than any of the other Bat-books. Instead of doing straight action stories, I like to probe what makes a killer. Why would somebody become a thief? What's the cause of the Riddler's madness?"

As someone who grew up reading Grant's work in the 90's, I must confess that I rarely cared much for Grant's work at the time. However, I've gained fondness for it in recent years, and Grant's quote above helps shed some light on why. I admire Grant for wanting SotB to be expressly focused on character, specifically the villains. We need to see more of that in comics, especially with Batman, whose rogues gallery are the most psychologically-driven in any medium. That said, I fear that Grant's abilities rarely matched his ambitions, which is why we so often ended up with a mixed bag like Janus:

When the coin comes up scarred, Two-Face gives the age-old retort of many psychiatric patients, "You're the doc, Arkham. You tell me." While most doctors (at least the ones I've seen in movies and heard about in stand-up routines) would simply respond with more questions, Jeremiah Arkham--one of Alan Grant's original Mary Sue creations--shows no compunction about delivering his theories at length.

He describes Harvey as having once been a heroic "unity" until the facial disfigurement sent him over the edge because of... well, Grant doesn't go into those reasons. In this case, he's less interested in what happened to Harvey psychologically, and more interested in what's happening now in his story. Arkham then proceeds to explicitly state the very obvious metaphor of the opening page, just in case anyone missed it:

More drugs! That's the answer! Well, I suppose I should be grateful that he won't break out the leeches and enemas.

Of course, Harvey's faking the heart attack so his henchmen can hijack him from the ambulance en route to the hospital, but this raises three big questions:

1.) How the hell do you fake a heart attack?

2.) Arkham doesn't have a medic on staff? Not even someone to call BS on the "heart attack"?

3.) Is he even AWARE that he's faking? From his muddled and conflicted manner, he seems to be against the idea, which would indicate that he was at least half aware. And yet, when his men rescue him from the ambulance, Harvey still seems very confused:

To everyone but apparently Harvey, this seems to be a routine Arkham escape, which results in Alfred--of all characters--being put in the awkward position of playing mouthpiece of a very old meme in Batman fandom:

Does anybody else think that there's something off about Alfred delivering these lines? If there's any character who should understand the dangers of Bruce going off and playing Judge, Jury, and Executioner, it's the father figure who has always had an eye out for Bruce's soul. Really, this scene serves no other purpose than to make Alfred a red herring for... well, you'll see soon enough.

Bruce then gives the standard "that's a line I can never cross" response, but deep down he finds himself wondering if maybe he SHOULD kill, blah blah blah, angst angst angst. Man, I kinda wish I could do a whole compilation of the dozens of times that Batman's justified his no-kill policy. Thankfully, Tim shows up to pull Bruce out of his funk and put him back in Detective Mode, albeit with a theory that sounds flimsy at best:

HMMMMMM... suspicious shopping is suspicious...

Poor considerate thug. Also, dig the black and red yin-yang symbol right out Batman Forever. Really, I blame Matt Wagner in Faces for starting the whole thing.

Is the pay really that good? I suppose it would have to be, since people like Two-Face are notorious for killing off their hired help, but it makes me wonder where the hell Harvey would have the cash to employ his men. It's not like he ever gets away with any of his crimes in the long run, nor are they even big jobs. I mean, a diner robbery? Isn't that a little beneath him? Hell, even people with greater knowledge of economics than I have been asking the same question!

Well, maybe times are hard, considering their current quality of hideout. Either way, Harvey's hardly looking like a big figure in the crime world right about now. But I'm sure that'll all change once they get the cash from the diner robbery, right?

Now, astute Bat-fans will probably be wondering, "Oh, is that supposed to be the return of or reference to Paul Janus, Gilda's second husband from Two-Face Strikes Twice, who wore a similar mask after being scarred and driven crazy by Harvey even though it wasn't actually the real Paul Janus but an impostor pretending to be Janus so that Harvey could ruin Gilda's marriage as a twisted sign of his love for, that Janus?"

Well, if you're wondering that, then the answer is "Nope." Neither Batman nor Harvey show any recognition of the Janus debacle when they learn about this similarly gold-helmeted vigilante. In fact, Harvey seems less concerned about the deaths of his men or the fact that there's a vigilante who dared to disrupt his robbery, and more worried about how this might make him look like a laughing stock in the criminal community. Why, twill be a scandal! Appearances must be kept up! Something simply must be done! *sips tea, plots destruction of Gotham*

... Y'know, I wouldn't mind the "look at how insane my twisted logic is!" if this were established as a deviation of the norm for Harvey. It'd be fine if he never usually did things like this, so this moment could signify how badly his condition is deteriorating. Unfortunately, too many writers depict him as being this kind of maniac anyway, so this moment rings less as "Harvey going totally off the rails" and more "a typical badly-written Two-Face, only now on a Bond-villain scale." Did I mention that he kills his henchman in the next page for no reason whatsoever? Because he totally kills his henchman in the next page for no reason whatsoever. Sigh.

Meanwhile, Alfred continues to be secretive about his whereabouts during the Janus killings, claiming that he "forgot" to go to the store. Hmmmm. HMMMMMMM. ... Not buying it? Yeah, obviously it's BS. Hell, even the editor's next-issue-blurb in the back of the comic seems to regard this mystery as silly: "Will Two-Face go all the way? Does anyone believe that Alfred is Janus?"

Still, even if Janus is who we all know he has to be, don't get too excited at the prospect of seeing Harvey as a vigilante. As you'll see here, Janus is only as "good" as Clint Eastwood's character in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Which is to say, he's just not AS evil or ugly as the others. See for yourself:

"Sinners?" So he has a religious bent? OH WHO THE HELL KNOWS?

In case you're wondering who's narrating, it's excerpts from Numbers? Symbols! by "Swami Max," a book which Harvey is later seen reading. Where did Harvey find it? Does it have a greater significance other than a theme delivery system? Who the hell knows?

So Janus kills the henchmen, thwarts the robbery, and... takes the money for himself. I mean, sure, he asked beforehand if the money was insured, so I guess it wasn't totally evil since the clerk would be taken care of, but still... that pretty much shows that Janus is hardly a hero.

Harvey, meanwhile, sets his plan into action by hijacking a nuclear-arms Destroyer in Gotham Harbor. He proceeds to interrogate the captain for the launch codes, slaughter the entire code, and look pretty damn spiffy in the process:

When Batman and Commissioner Gordon get wind of Harvey's plans, they're as puzzled as they are concerned. Batman knows that this isn't Harvey's usual style, since he's normally just a "gang-boss." Gordon agrees, describing Harvey as merely being a "guns-and-fists man!" Man, I wonder how they felt when Harvey later went on to hijack a row of blimps to rain acid and death pennies down upon New York City just to piss off Nightwing.

Commissioner Gordon goes off to figure out how to scrounge up two billion dollars. If you think that this plan on Harvey's part isn't very well thought-out, you're right:

In another story, I'd see this tactic as a kind of desperate kamikaze tactic by Harvey to destroy as many things as he can along with himself in the process. The money, clearly, is irrelevant, so what's really driving him here? As it is, I'm not sure even Grant knows. Instead, this just seems to be Two-Face at his most evil and reckless, a monster without a plan who needs to be put down.

Batman makes it onto the ship, takes out the henchmen, and sneaks inside, only to find the bodies of the ship's crew. It's a gruesome reminder that, yes, much as we love Harvey Dent, he can be a merciless killer who's been responsible for the deaths of dozens.

Again, this would mean more if writers actually did have Harvey say "we" rather than speak in first-person singular on a regular basis. It's one of those things that only some writers do, depending on how they see the character. Similarly, I know that there are some who hate that, thinking that Harvey's ripping on Venom's gimmick or something (ugh, Venom), but that's a whole other rant.

Batman realizes too late that he's literally falling into a trap, as Two-Face is waiting below with the floor wired to trigger the cruise missiles at Gotham once pressure is applied by Batman's landing. Batman grabs hold of a pipe, but it's greased and his grip is slipping. Two-Face proceeds to gloat that soon half of Gotham will be dead, with all credit going to Batman (he really hasn't thought this through, has he?) and that he's certain Gotham will pay up before the other half blows.

Wait, when did Two-Face come to this epiphany? You'd think he would have made a much bigger deal about the "death" of Harvey. This story should have been more like the time the Riddler tried to quit riddling, where we see the villain thinking that they've finally unshackled themselves of the thing that's held them back. There was no such moment in this story, not even in the scans that I didn't include. There was just Harvey being all confused, and then suddenly he was back to being as maniacal as he was in stories such as Prodigal.

Flip a coin to choose your snarky response:

1.) GASP! Whattatweest! /mnightshyamalan


... Where the hell was he hiding the helmet?

So yes, for those who've seen Judgment Day, this comic did the whole "Two-Face creates a new identity as a murderous vigilante, goes after himself" idea two years earlier! And just like that episode, I'm incredibly conflicted about how that idea is handled in the execution.

Look, I absolutely LOVE the idea of Harvey Dent's good side becoming so proactive as to become a vigilante to bring his internal conflict to the outside. After all, we've seen over and over again that Two-Face is Harvey's worst enemy, so I'd love the reverse to be true too. The conflict would not only show Harvey's good side being truly heroic, but it'd also be a sign of Harvey's worsening condition as his conflicting sides continue to separate. What's more, if the collateral damage in their war is bad enough, then the writer could have a prime opportunity to comment on the destructive relationships between superheroes and their arch-villains. For all the talk of Batman and the Joker being two sides of the same coin, what happens when you get the hero and villain in one person?

Unfortunately, Grant doesn't explore any of that. In fact, he never even examines what it means that Harvey and Two-Face have finally split apart to the point that one side is unaware of what the other is doing! That is a MAJOR change, one which affects the entire character from this point onward! And yet, it's treated as little more than a twist, the result of the opening scene establishing that Harvey is getting increasingly split apart between his two sides. I suppose the main reason this isn't explored in more detail is because Grant wanted to keep the pretense of mystery about Janus' identity.

Which reminds me... what has Alfred been hiding all this time?

I know that I don't exactly hold the highest opinions of the Robins, but even if we accept that Tim "Smartyhair" Drake was ignorant about ballroom dancing's virtues, I don't think he'd ever call it or anything else "for sissies." Tim's never been the type for a jock/bro mentality. That's way more Jason's style.

Granted, Tim's line was almost certainly used to not just allow Alfred debunk myths about ballroom dancing, but also to give Alfred a chance to be awesome, but he hardly needs any help in that regard. Especially with a thinly-veiled threat to punch a teenage boy in the teeth. Granted, if the kid was Damian, I doubt I'd have the same problem, but still...

Aw, Alfred is lonely. That's actually kinda sweet. It reminds me of the recent story where Alfred took a hooker out for a night on the town. I like to imagine that Alfred has a secret side life he keeps hidden even from his family. Nothing lurid or dark, just private, as befitting a man of his dignity.

Poor Harvey, however, would probably love a bit of solitude himself. At least, I'm guessing that's what the transition here is meant to be, setting up Alfred's line as ironic when turned onto Two-Face. Except it's not really clear just WHAT has happened to Harvey. He's apparently been reduced to a rambling, broken state, (which seemed to happen quite often during this period), but how and when did this happen? Is he traumatized by the realization that he's (apparently) split off into two personalities? Is Janus still in Harvey's head, condemning himself ala the Judge in Judgment Day, or has the other personality vanished?

Well, for all intents and purposes, it has. While the Janus debacle recieves a brief shout-out in Harvey's next appearance in Catwoman written by Doug Moench, this little development is quickly swept under the rug by the time Harvey made his next major appearances throughout the No Man's Land event, where he was usually written by Greg Rucka. Janus, and all memory of Harvey's foray into vigilantism, have been wiped away by later, better stories.

Should we be happy or sad that Janus has been entirely forgotten? After all, this wasn't a great story, but it had great potential. Like Judgment Day, it's on the right path. I've been noticing how there's a recurring idea among some fans that Harvey SHOULD be a vigilante, but there's little agreement about what kind of vigilante he should be, and little speculation as to what would be going on in his head.

Would Harvey be a mob-killing Punisher type? A part-time Robin Hood donating to charity? Which side would be committing the acts of vigilantism? The good, the bad, both together, or a brand-new third one? There are so many ways that one could approach the idea of Harvey Dent as a vigilante, each raising different implications and ramifications.

Maybe that's one reason why most writers leave Harvey stuck in the ill-fitting role as a gang boss. Harvey as a vigilante is a great story waiting to be told if done right, but there are so many ways that it can be done wrong. Nevertheless, if we're gonna be saddled with so many mediocre Two-Face stories anyway, I'd rather see someone dare that creative minefield rather than leaving poor Harvey mired in the status quo. In cases like the above, at least you can say it led to an interesting story. And while you're at it, maybe you'll also get a great cover or two out of the deal:

Tags: alan grant, alfred pennyworth, arkham, tim drake

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