about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

REVIEW: "The Big Burn," Part 2 (2014): Erin McKillen returns to Gotham City

Note: Due to the size of this post, I shall be splitting it in two parts. Click the link at the bottom to read the rest! Needless to say, I have a lot of thoughts on this particular story. Also, I should probably slap a trigger warning on here for suicide, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.

Now, finally, let’s take a look at the first true major Two-Face storyline in the New 52 continuity: The Big Burn, from Batman and Robin Two-Face #24-28 (2013-14). This is the third and final review in my trilogy quartet of posts examining TBB, starting with my examination of the original abandoned version of the story followed by my review of Harvey Dent's new origin. Please be sure to read both if you haven't yet, as they'll be vital to understanding this... very interesting finale.

Despite the tagline, this never actually happens in this issue

As with the last post, I should warn you that this review won’t do justice Peter Tomasi’s full story, which I’ve hacked in two pieces and Frankensteined the hell out of the first piece in order to review the new origin on its own merits rather than its place in the context of the complete work. While I stand by that decision, I nonetheless urge everyone to read The Big Burn on its own first so that you can get the full impact rather than relying on my butchered version of events. Much of The Big Burn’s full impact—when read in order—is how the backwards-running flashbacks play off the unreliable information we get from the likes of Erin McKillen.

As you’ve already seen from my review of the new origin (which is literally half the story right there), this is a rich and fascinating new take on Harvey with much for us to chew on and discuss, but nothing there compares what Tomasi has in store for us in the finale.

As you’ll recall, the issues of Batman and Robin that preceded The Big Burn featured a pair of moody teasers of Harvey Dent flipping the coin, getting good heads up, saying “no,” and then doing nothing. At least, nothing *yet*, or so it was implied. What was he flipping for, and what was going to happen when the coin came up scarred? Here they are again, just to refresh everyone's memories, including my own:

As I said before, I'd assumed that he was flipping to decide whether or not to unleash his latest plot against Batman and/or Gotham City, and that when the coin came up scarred, all hell would break loose. It wasn’t the most imaginative scenario, but I’ve been reading Two-Face comics for long enough to know that most writers aren’t too imaginative when it comes to Harvey. And remember, the writer in question is Peter J. Tomasi, a guy whose last Two-Face story involved a scene where Harvey rained both acid and pennies (of DOOM!) down onto the people of New York City for nebulous crazy villain reasons. Personal experience has taught me to keep my expectations low.

In any case, we were presumably going to learn the meaning behind these coin tosses in Harvey’s next big story, The Big Burn, if not in his featured solo issue for the Forever Evil event. But of course, as we know, the Forever Evil issue turned out to be one great big waste, one which in no way seemed to correspond to the two teaser "No" pages.

It seemed as though we had to wait another month to get answers with the first issue of The Big Burn, the story which Tomasi had been building up to for months. The first issue opened with a sequence so striking that I honestly don't think anything else in the storyline tops it for sheer effectiveness.

That's a pretty goddamn heavy way to open your story, isn't it? But it does raise quite a few questions, especially for those of us who already know his new origin and what happened to Gilda.

First off, is this what Harvey was doing in the “No” teaser pages? It must be, because he does nothing else in this story to indicate that he had plans of any sort before Erin McKillen came back into his life. Oh sure, there’s a panel of him robbing a bank later, but that’s just Tuesday for Harvey, it’s hardly an event. Thus, the “No” teasers must be related to this scene, even if they don’t quite fit.

Was he flipping the coin to decide whether or not to play Russian Roulette? It would be striking if, this whole time, Harvey was never planning on unleashing violence on the whole city, just himself. If so, then I’m not sure why the hell he wandered into a restaurant of terrified people to do that, but then again, I’m not really certain how he normally goes about this little ritual, nor how long he’s been playing the game to decide whether or not to play another game.

Has he been doing it every morning since Gilda's murder, however long ago that was in this continuity? If he's been doing it for a while, especially if this is a daily routine, then geez, he has the best (or worst) luck in the world considering that he hasn't blown his brains out already. Maybe he just does it whenever a certain suicidal mood comes over him, as represented by the fly. I mean, I'm assuming that the fly is a metaphor for death, in that it wakes him up on the first place, lingers on Gilda's portrait, and flies off once the gun clicks. Heck, maybe it’s just another instance of Tomasi possibly being inspired by Breaking Bad after the cell phone bit in the origin flashback.

Of course, there may be another reason why those “No” pages don’t fit with this scene. In all three instances, the good heads came up. So if these scenes are related, then why did they result in different reactions from Harvey?

From Batman and Robin #20, #22, and #24

Why did “good heads” mean inaction the first two times before it became “Yes, play Russian Roullette?” Once again, I’m left to wonder if this all might’ve been more clear in the original plans for The Big Burn, which were scrapped at the last minute to remove every last trace of Carrie Kelley’s aborted origin story. Were the “No” scene always intended to foreshadow the Russian Roullette, and if so, then what would have happened in either of those scenes if the coin had come up scarred? Unless I’m missing something, this story provides no answers.

I also notice that he's apparently kept the bottle of acid, which makes me wonder where the hell he'd been hiding that all of these years while he was going in and out of Arkham. I understand why he'd keep it, as he'd want it handy just in case Erin McKillen ever came out of hiding so he could get he revenge. Still, all it does is just remind me that this is a Two-Face who has no reason to be a super-criminal at all, since his only focus should be on killing one specific person. This is a guy whose whole life and motivation now revolves around waiting for Erin McKillen to return so that he can exact revenge and/or maybe be reunited with Gilda. It makes no sense that he'd becoming a bank-robbing super-criminal whose life revolves around the flip of a coin. There should be only one thing that this Two-Face cares about, and that’s Erin McKillen.

As such, the events of this story truly kick off with Erin’s return to Gotham. Ever since killing Gilda and scarring Harvey, she’s been laying low in Ireland, running the McKillen family from abroad. After meeting up with her cousin Kieron, we learn that she has no intention of staying long in a city with Batman, the police, and Harvey Dent all out of a piece of her. But before she can leave, she has to attend a meeting of the united crime families as they discuss their common problems and interests, just like in that scene from The Dark Knight. Man, Tomasi’s really getting a lot of milage out of that movie, isn’t he?

Wait, "Vincent?" The character is never named, so is that supposed to just be a generic mobster, or is it meant to be Vincent Moroni? Has Tomasi actually found a way to bring Moroni into this, and give him back his original name to boot? If this truly is a stealth Moroni appearance, then neato! If not, then hi there, random generic gangster!

What's interesting about Harvey being Erin's "Frankenstein Monster" is that it runs so much deeper than just turning him into Two-Face. Without Erin and Shannon pushing him into it, Harvey wouldn’t even have become District Attorney and would therefore have never become the bane of criminals even before he became a criminal himself. These mobsters should have damn good reason to resent McKillen, just as Joe Chill’s thugs had reason to hate their boss for creating Batman in that great Pre-Crisis story, but there’s no indication that the mobsters see Erin McKillen as anything other than a means to an end.

No matter what, Gotham City is pretty much the worst place for Erin McKillen to be, and I would have thought that she’d have enough sense to stay hidden rather than jeopardize herself. Hell, if we're going to do the TDK meeting bit, there's no reason why she couldn't just have done like the Chinese mobster guy did and telecommute. Then again, given that the duplicitous mobsters had their own reasons to want to bring her out of hiding, maybe they insisted that she be there in person, and Erin probably agreed given that her years in exile have done little to cool her fiery temper.

I'm not sure if this is intentional on Tomasi's part, but the choice to have Erin using a (presumably) rapey creep as a punching bag seems to speak to her twisted sense of morality and justice. What's more, it serves to make her seem almost admirable, like she's one of the good mobsters who has some sense of honor. Bear in mind, for anyone reading this story in proper order, this would be one of the earliest impressions we'd get of Erin as a character, which is them immediately followed by her a full display of her hardcore super-awesomeness.

The police storm her hideout, having been tipped off that McKillen's finally returned, and she proceeds to make an escape through one of her preplanned routes, all while commanding her goons to “PROTECT YOUR QUEEN!” Which, I think, gives some insight as to how McKillen views herself. She slips past the police barricade by swimming through underwater pipes that let her out into the harbor, whereupon she continues to evade police in a thrilling jet-ski chase. From her very first appearance, Erin McKillen is depicted as a ruthless, fearless badass and super-mobster who is one of the most wanted and dangerous criminals in Gotham. Just look at her confontation with Batman, who of course is the only one capable of bringing her down:

Yes, she's hateful, both as a character and in terms of her own personality, but it's hard for me not to feel like Tomasi kinda loves his character here. For god's sake, she's so feisty and spirited that she outright spat in Batman's face! Hell if she weren't so completely evil, this entire sequence would probably have been her accidental sidekick audition!

She's sent to a holding cell at police HQ, which incidentally features the only appearance of Harvey Bullock, who just has one line in the whole story--"Shut up"--despite the fact that he was on the cover of the first issue for some reason. Gee, it's almost like he wasn't even supposed to be a character in this story! Okay, okay, I'll stop. Erin demands her one phone call (which, as I understand, is a myth that the movies and cop shows have made up, and not something is required to happen in real life), as she intends to call up Bruce Wayne, of all people.

Before Gordon can ask why, he notices a stream of acid dripping down through the ceiling, all the way through every floor of the building. "Guess he didn't waste any time," Erin deadpans. When Gordon and his men race to the rooftop, what they find there is another instance that made me smile, even if it is a bit silly in ways that all classic Two-Face stories can be silly.

"Who the hell--" Who do you THINK, Officer? Sheesh, Gotham's finest, everyone.

Man, it's a good thing that Harvey didn't storm police headquarters. Heaven forbid that we have some action that actually moves the plot ahead! Seriously, though, this scene serves no purpose other than to give Harvey a bit of obligatory screen time in a comic where he's ostensibly the main co-star.

Also, hi there, Arkham City Two-Face! Well, AC by way of his TAS black and white costume, in that it's not half-burned but it still has the solid white tie against a solid black shirt, of which I approve. Nice balance of both costumes all-around. Of course, the suit isn't so much black and white as much as… um… gray and white, maybe? It's hard to tell with the filters that the colorist employs whenever Harvey’s on panel.

Also also, "I just believe in me, Batman. There is nothing else." A reference to "I believe in Harvey Dent," or perhaps the Rainbow Raider? You be the judge. Also, he clearly doesn't just believe in himself, given than he launches into a whole speech about chance, which is pretty much his religion at this point. For some reason.

Is it just me, or is Tomasi repeating himself by pretty much writing the same damn scenario that he used for Harvey and Dick at the start of Nightwing: The Great Leap? Both scenes feature Harvey using a hero-related signal to get the hero's attention, they have rooftop chat concerning a woman who is important to Harvey’s past with Gilda, and then Harvey makes his escape by distracting the hero with imperiled hostages that he'd set up in advance.

Really, the only difference between these two scenes is that Harvey didn't have anything of importance to say or do this time around. He didn't even provide exposition or reveal any details of note to the plot! On top of that, his actions here don't really make a lick of sense.

Why on earth did he go through all this trouble just to make a statement, as if there was anybody on earth who doesn't know that he has it in for McKillen? Why did he want to get Batman's attention if all he was going to essentially do is just ignore anything Batman says and then run away? Why is this scene here, other than to give Harvey something to do while effectively having him do nothing to actually advance the plot?!

And then there's that little speech of his about chance. The problem isn't just that what he says is a poor man's version of his introductory scene from Batman Forever--a standard, uninspired, rote take on Two-Face from a writer who has handled the character much better in the past--but what's worse is that it in no way corresponds with the Harvey Dent we've seen in the flashbacks. Why the hell should this Harvey Dent care about chance, much less rework his entire life philosophy around the concept? Was it because it was just by chance that his face-drippings happened to land on the sole two-headed coin in his collection which was itself never explained? Doesn’t quite work, does it?

Again, there's absolutely nothing in this Harvey Dent's background that would explain why he would turn into this Two-Face. It's like they're two totally different characters, and before you defend that as being appropriate to Two-Face, I would also point out that he also shows no signs of being mentally ill! At least, not in a split/multiple-personality, schizophrenic, or any other typical Two-Face-ian way. At most, he just seemed to have become a hardened killer with a callous disregard for human life and a death wish for himself. He may not be entirely sane, but he isn't insane in any way that works for Two-Face, a character who is largely defined by his madness. Just as with Tomasi's Forever Evil issue, much of The Big Burn features a bland, by-the-numbers Two-Face whose actions here are decidedly secondary when it comes to Erin McKillen, who seems to be the story’s true star.

Oh for the love of... is it just me, or is EVERYBODY childhood friends with Bruce Wayne now? Or if not friends, then everyone seems to be connected to Bruce in some way, just as the origins of Mister Freeze, Poison Ivy, the Riddler, and the Joker are now directly tied to Bruce (or Thomas Wayne, or Martha, on very few occasions)? Now we have Erin and Shannon McKillen, who are basically like twin evil Rachel Daweses by way of a Falcone-esque connection between Thomas Wayne and a mob family. What, did they also pal around with li'l Tommy Elliot, Roman Sionis, and Zatanna? Good gravy, at this rate, we could start an in-canon Gotham Babies prequel series.

Erin asks for Bruce's help to get her own personal Batman bodyguard on loan from Batman Incorporated, but Bruce refuses to help her in any way. As this is Erin McKillen we're talking about here, she doesn't take the rejection so well. As she kicks him in the skull while his back was turned (dick move, btw), she shouts about how Bruce once asked her for help, wanting her “big, bad Irish Daddy to help him find your parents’ killer!”

This detail is never expanded upon, but it’s seems like this is another instance of how young Bruce had little faith in the forces of law and order, and that he and Harvey alike both got involved with organized crime at one point in their lives. Too bad that this doesn’t get acknowledged, as Bruce continues to act like the paragon of righteousness.

I saw some review online where the reviewer singled out this panel as an example of Tomasi's talent for writing snappy dialogue, but all I get out of this is an overwhelming sense of eye-rolling disgust. While I'm all for people calling Bruce out on his bullshit, I'd generally prefer it to come from someone other than Erin “Queen of Bullshit Mountain” McKillen. Team Nobody, here.

Bruce soon reconsiders his stance once Erin is sent to Blackgate Penitentiary, where she is targeted by several prisoners and guards whose families are being threatened if they don't kill Erin. It’s interesting how the mobsters in this story all use family members as incentive to make others to their dirty work, considering how Erin herself escaped from jail the first time thanks to a guard whose son needed surgery. Family is such a central issue for characters like Erin, who treats her clan as the all-purpose excuse for everything bad she does while she and other mobsters use the families of others as weapons and tools to suit their own ends.

Erin puts up a good scrappy fight against her semi-reluctant would-be assassins, but she's soon overwhelmed about about to be shanked when she's saved by the intervention of another prisoner, one who conveniently got himself locked up just that day.

"Screw you! Being liked is overrated!" Those two sentences seem to sum up Erin McKillen's entire defiant, contentious, obnoxious personality rather nicely. Once she and "Matches" slip away, he knocks her out with a tranq and jumps into the harbor, where they're both picked up in the Bat-boat by Alfred at his snarky best.

When Erin wakes up, she finds herself in Wayne Manor, tied to a chair and looking up at Bruce in an image which directly parallels the "*Spit!*" "Welcome to Gotham, McKillen" page. At first, I thought that this would be a running theme, with the pose being recreated at the end of every issue and with some variation of the dialogue, like Harvey saying, "Welcome to Hell, McKillen," or maybe a flashback with Erin looking down at Harvey after she just hired him as a mob lawyer, "Welcome to the family, Dent," something like that, but nope, the pattern stops here. Another abandoned idea from the original Big Burn with Carrie Kelley?

After Bruce spins a little tale about how "Matches" came to him and offered his services to protect her for a hefty fee, Erin expresses about as much gratitude as one would expect from her. When Bruce says that he needs to protect her since the police obviously can't, she says, "Well, all that warms the cockles of me heart, but if you're not going to hand me over to Gordon anyway, I'D APPRECIATE IT IF YOU WOULD CUT ME LOOSE FROM THIS DAMN CHAIR!" Do I espy a reference to John Carpenter's The Thing, perchance?

Bruce cuts her free, after which she promptly belts him one (in fairness to Erin, Bruce did kinda have it coming by first saying, "I suppose you'll be a good girl if I cut you free?" I’d probably wanna punch his smug face too) and proceeds to storm out.

Alfred, as always, is the best. While I still suspect that Tomasi has some affection for McKillen from the way he writes her throughout, I like to take Alfred's line there as an indication of the narrative's moral compass. In which case, yeah, Erin is truly an awful person, no matter how much she tries to justify her actions.

One of the biggest flaws of this story, I think, is that we don't get to see much of Shannon McKillen ourselves, aside from that one moment of self-sacrifice that led to her suicide. To hear Erin, Bruce, and even Harvey tell it, Shannon was the nice, kind, even-tempered, and wise McKillen sister, hardly the sort of person you'd expect to run a mob and put a hit out on Jim Gordon's whole family. It's easy to see how Erin became who she was based on the kind of person she is, but I feel like it was a huge missed opportunity that we never got any insight into how Shannon reconciled her gentler personality with having to also be a ruthless mob boss.

Even without seeing that, though, the message is clear that she truly was Erin's better half, the one who balanced her out and presumably kept her worst impulses in check. I have to wonder if Shannon wouldn't have been so reckless as to kill Gilda and scar Harvey, but then again, considering that she—again—put out a hit on an innocent family with two kids, maybe she wasn't as good as everyone makes her out to be. Maybe the best that can be said of her was that she was bad, but at least she wasn't as hot-headed as Erin.

Despite her awfulness, though, it's hard not to feel some empathy for Erin's loss, especially if you read this in first run before he Gordon hit was revealed. At this point, it seemed as though Tomasi was painting Erin as a tragic figure who may not have been so bad if she hadn't lost her kinder, gentler sister, and that the blame for everything went to the ambitious, back-stabbing, two-faced lawyer who looked like this in the very next panel:

As it is, I'm still not sure how I feel about the way Tomasi played with this kind of misdirection, which struck me as both manipulative and effective, at least on some level. Then again, I might not mind as much if it weren't for the holes in Harvey's character arc which remain unexplained.

Like, we all know that Erin is an unreliable narrator and that Harvey's motivations were far more complex, possibly even driven by idealism and a sense of wanting to see justice done, but that still doesn't explain why the hell he showed up at the prison for no other reason than to gloat over the misfortunes of the McKillens. All it did was serve to make the McKillens look even more sympathetic when Erin loses her "better half" to self-sacrifice.

Which brings me to something else I've been wondering about, which is to what degree that Erin serves as a mirror to Harvey. Since Gilda was Harvey's own better half, does this mean that he—like Erin—has lost his emotional and psychological anchor ever since? Were Gilda and Shannon the only ones who were keeping everything bad about Harvey and Erin in check? The main difference between the two, I guess, is that Harvey wasn't a monster before then, whereas Erin has been a monster ever since Bruce's "little girl" of memory grew up.

In a way, it may have been better if Tomasi had depicted Erin/Shannon as a mirror for just Harvey himself rather than Harvey/Gilda. Imagine, if Shannon were truly the better of the two sisters, then instead of dying, perhaps the better story would have involved her turning against against Erin, the two deadlocked in constant conflict just as Harvey's own two sides are in better versions. Perhaps such a scenario wouldn't have been feasible with the McKillens being as fanatically devoted to one another as they were, but that version may have fit in better with Bruce's parting words to Erin before she left Wayne Manor with Kieron:

Ah yes, the “Two Wolves” story, which has recently been making the rounds on Facebook and Tumblr as a webcomic by Zen Pencils. Funny thing about that “Cherokee” story: it's phony. It was made up by American evangelist minister Billy Graham in 1978, who originally wrote it about Eskimos. Somewhere along the way, someone apparently decided that Eskimos weren't romantically spiritual enough, so the story became about Native Americans instead (with the tribe varying, just as it does here), and thus the myth that persists today with the help of a webcomic that pops up on the Facebook wall of your Aunt Bernice in Topeka.

Look, I’m not gonna lie: when I first heard this “folklore,” I thought it’d be rather fitting for a Two-Face story. I suppose it still is, regardless of its origins. Nonetheless, the inaccuracy is jarring, especially since both Bruce and Alfred are both smart enough to know better. What's worse, delivering it via a speech stops the action cold in a comic. Look at that wall of text! This is sequential art, not a dramatic monologue for an actor to breathe life into with his performance. I appreciate that Tomasi wants to draw some comparison of Two-Face (or rather, Erin) to the Two Wolves, but stopping all the action to deliver a moral is the lazy way to deliver The Big Message Of The Story. Or at least, one of them.

Not knowing that there's a bat-tracer affixed to her shoulder, Erin prepares to hop on a plane and just hire an assassin to kill Harvey (which would garner a hefty fee given that Harvey is "unpredictable and high-profile"), but first she demands to stop over by Shannon's grave one last time. When Kieron rightly points out that this is an incredibly stupid move, she starts to get violent and loud in typical Erin McKillen fashion before she passes out from the drugged whiskey that Kieron gave her. When she wakes up, she is indeed in the cemetery as she'd wanted, although not in the circumstances she would have preferred.

So yes, Kieron has worked with Harvey (again, there’s a mobster using family as a weapon) and betrayed Erin, whom he describes as a "bipolar loose canon" who is "destroying the family." He also claims that "Shannon would've been ashamed of you, Erin," and I have to wonder if he'd be right on that count, or if Shannon would have backed up and stuck with Erin to the bitter end, no matter what.

When Erin explains that Kieron will just kill Harvey once she's dead and then collect the hit for himself, Harvey pretty much just shrugs and--without even flipping the coin to decide, mind you--kills Kieron himself. Oh, that wacky, inconsistently-written Two-Face! Well, maybe he doesn't have to flip the coin when it comes to matters of certain doom and betrayal, or something like that. Hell, for all we know, maybe this Two-Face treats his coin flips less as sacred rulings and more like guidelines. Whatever.

In any case, Harvey's foolish plan of firing on a dozen armed mobsters is salvaged when Batman sweeps in to the rescue on his bike and tries to take out the surviving thugs whilst simultaneously subduing Erin and Harvey. Unfortunately, he tries accomplishing the latter by strapping Harvey to Gilda's massive angel headstone, and when Harvey blasts himself free, he ends up dislodging the statue right in Batman's direction.

Man, good thing that there was a convenient open grave right there for Batman to reenact Ed Harris in Creepshow. Was the grave meant to be for Erin back when Harvey and Kieron had a plan before it--and Kieron himself--were both all shot to hell? Sure, why not.

This seems like as good a place as any to cut this post in half. Click here to continue to the next part!
Tags: alfred pennyworth, dcau, dcnu, erin mckillen, gilda dent, jim gordon, new comic reviews, patrick gleason, peter tomasi

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