about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

Review: An in-depth look at the Dent twins' saga in “Batman: Earth One” vol 1 & 2

Back in 2011, when DC announced the graphic novel Batman: Earth One that would be set in an alternate continuity akin to Marvel's now-defunct Ultimate Universe, I asked myself the same question I always do in these kinda situations: “Oh god, what are they going to do to Harvey Dent this time?” As you may recall, Harvey's appearance barely amounted to more than a cameo, so the answer had to wait for the long-delayed second sequel to B:EO, which just dropped this week. And I was not looking forward to that answer.

After all, the track record for new Harvey Dent origin stories over the past few years has been mixed at best. Sure, The Dark Knight's Harvey was great pretty much right up until his face got burned off, but then we had the Harvey Dent of Beware the Batman, which was one of the worst takes on Harvey I'd ever seen, one that entirely missed the point of the character by turning him into a complete dickhole. Peter Tomasi's New 52 origin The Big Burn was flawed, but it had some fantastic ideas, none of which have been followed upon and may well be ignored entirely. And then, there's Fox's Gotham TV show, which has only just begun its version of Harvey's story. Considering how that show seems to be written by monkeys on crack (usually in a good way... sometimes...), god only knows where THAT one will go come season two!

Which brings us back to B:EO and its writer, Geoff Johns. Now, I like Geoff Johns an awful lot more than many of my contemporaries. I've followed him from the very start of his comics career at DC, and I can attest that he's always been a hit-and-miss writer whose hits are excellent and whose misses are, most times, at least charmingly well-intended, almost with a childlike “isn't this a neat idea?” enthusiasm. We need more of that from comic writers, ideally coupled with a little less “I grew up on Mortal Kombat”-influenced bloodlust and violence.

But while I can at least appreciate and to some degree enjoy Johns' lesser ideas, I dreaded rolling the dice to see what he'd do with Harvey Dent, even as I already had a pretty good idea where he was going to take the character back in B:EO volume 1. He was introduced in a flashback scene alongside a new character, his twin sister Jessica Dent, who was a childhood friend of Bruce. Right from the start, Harvey was depicted in both manner and appearance as being akin to head-injury-era Guy Gardner without any of his boorish charm.

First of all, I don't know if any of you are as nitpicky as me, but at the time, I was slightly annoyed when artist Gary Frank decided to make that cute Two-Face foreshadowing on the wrong side of the face, simply because so many people get that wrong!

Secondly, based on fan reaction I've seen, that punch was a crowd-pleaser. As a general rule, if your Harvey Dent is so hateful as to make you cheer when he gets punched, that right there is a bad take on Harvey Dent. Unless, of course, you don't want anyone to give a crap about his inevitable tragedy. In this instance, as you'll soon discover, that may have been exactly what Johns was intending.

The only thing we heard from either Harvey or Jessica after this in Vol. 1 was a cameo at the end, showing how the adult Dent twins had both achieved major positions of power in Gotham, setting them up to be crusading allies for the forces of law and order and/or jerks who don't like the way Batman operates and have to take him down.

So based on that teaser with Harvey and Jessica Dent standing side by side, I had a pretty good idea what Johns was going to do with the Dents, but I still wanted to see how it played out. Maybe was going to defy conventions and have Jessica be the evil twin, while Harvey would have grown up to be a decent, heroic human being! He certainly looks nicer and friendlier in that panel than he did as a sneering snot-nosed teenager, right? Maybe Johns wasn't going to have Jessica be a rehash of Rachel Dawes and make Harvey an asshole who hates Bruce Wayne for macking on his sister! Sure, anything was possible, right? … Right?

Before we begin, here's a quick synopsis for the first volume. Believing that his parents were murdered by their political rival, the evil and corrupt Mayor Oswald Cobblepot, Bruce Wayne undergoes training by his father's grizzled old war buddy, Alfred Pennyworth, to become the Batman. Meanwhile, Harvey Bullock, a former reality cop show star from Hollywood, Detective Harvey Bullock, becomes partner to Jim Gordon, who has become corrupt and complacent in order to keep his daughter Barbara safe.

When Bullock decides to dig around into Mayor Cobblepot's business practices under Gordon's name, which of course gets back to Ozzie, whose way of keeping people in line is to kidnap their children and send them to a gigantic sack-headed child murderer called the Birthday Boy. After Barbara's kidnapped, Gordon and Bullock head into the ruins of Arkham Asylum—the ancestral home of Martha Wayne, formerly Martha Arkham—to save Barbara, who manages to free herself and fight back. Oh, and Batman also arrives to save the day, but not before Bullock is traumatized after discovering the bodies of Birthday Boy's victims.

Batman confronts Cobblepot, who manages to defeat (!) and unmask (!!!) our hero, and the Mayor confesses that he hadn't killed the Waynes. He wanted to and was planning to kill them on the same night, but by sheer coincidence, they got killed by someone else entirely! Before Cobblepot can kill Bruce, he's blown away by a shotgun blast from Alfred, who has no problem with using firearms. By the end, Batman is ready to truly begin, Jim Gordon has reformed and become a crime-busting crusader, Harvey Bullock is an alcoholic wreck, Jessica Dent has become the new Mayor, and the Riddler prepares to make his first move.

So with Cobblepot dead, the task for reforming Gotham City and dismantling the remnants of the former Mayor's criminal network fall to the likes of Harvey Dent, to whom we are sorta-introduced as he asks the rhetorical question, “Who are you?”

I notice that Harvey has somehow turned mysteriously blond between graphic novels. Apparently colorist Brad Anderson had forgotten that the Dents both had brown-reddish hair. Was he subconsciously trying to channel Aaron Eckhart? Either way, it's a change that's mildly annoying in its pointlessness, but at least it further sets this Harvey apart from the usual canon depiction.

In case it wasn't clear, this Harvey Dent has a reputation for cutting plea bargains with crooks like Moroni, who is notably here depicted not as a dapper mob boss but rather a low level thug akin to “Mad Dog” Pike from Eye of the Beholder. Also, he's apparently being played by an extra who wandered off the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. While Maroni refuses to deal, he's exactly the kind of criminal who has offered up information to Harvey Dent in exchange for freedom, something which doesn't sit well with the likes of Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock.

Side note: man, it does my heart good to see someone finally give Jim Gordon gray hair again considering that colorists have given him red hair ever since the New 52 started four years ago. I know they're trying to capitalize on Gary Oldman's performance, but Christ, guys, Jim Gordon doesn't need to look like Walter White right down to the pathetically nonexistent mustache.

After Bullock picks a fight and nearly gets his ass kicked, Gordon reluctantly backs him up and the two proceed to beat the crap out of Druse and his goons, handcuffing their unconscious bodies to the bar. Afterwards, Gordon (not without sympathy) chews Bullock out for being a drunken miserable wreck at ten o'clock in the morning, three hours into his shift. Bullock's arc is unquestionably the most interesting part of the B:EO universe, and despite my reservations and apathy towards most everything else, I'm genuinely worried about him and hope he'll be okay. In the meantime, Bullock's righteous scrappery gets him and his partner into hot water when they arrive at the station, only to find the sneering face of a beefy, Aryan Harvey Dent.

Oooh, foreshadowing! Kinda literally! Man, I'm going to need to refine that attempt at a joke if I'm ever going to review The Long Halloween, where Harvey's face is in shadow in, like, every other panel.

So yeah, as I feared, Harvey (Dent) is here depicted as a complete and utter asshole, more in keeping with the utter prick who appeared in Beware the Batman than proper canon Harvey Dent. The only redeeming factor is that this Harvey is, at least, honestly interested in fighting crime and seeing justice done in the long term. As such, while the narrative certainly supports that Harvey is being an aggressive asshole to our two heroes, the D.A. isn't really wrong here. As we learn later, the Dents are playing a long game, and every informant—no matter how loathsome—gets them closer to the big fish, and Bullock and Gordon may well have just screwed with months of progress.

It's certainly a realistic depiction of the judicial system, since I understand that the vast majority of cases nowadays end in plea bargains rather than in the courtroom. The problem is how that's actually considered of the American judicial system, as you can see if you just google opinion pieces on plea bargaining. Forgive me for being too lazy to link to a bunch.

Does it fit the spirit of Harvey Dent's character to depict him as this kind of prosecutor? Perhaps it's a legitimate take, but it certainly doesn't fit my preferred Harvey, the one who appeared in the likes of Eye of the Beholder, who would be furious right alongside Bullock that scum like Druse gets to walk back on the streets. That's exactly the kind of inner conflict that Harvey should be experiencing which would lead to his internal schism and disillusionment with the system.

But that's not the story that Geoff Johns is telling here, so fidelity to that otherwise-crucial aspect of Harvey isn't required. For better or for worse, this is a wholly different take on the character, a Lawful Neutral asshole (isn't that an oxymoron?) who opts for pragmatism over idealism. But since he's not the kind of person who feels that he needs to explain or justify his actions, that role falls to his sister (who is now also mysteriously blond), who decides to pay a visit to her childhood friend and flame, Bruce Wayne:

As I'd suspected, Jessica Dent is pretty much a rehash of Rachel Dawes while also taking on the White Knight role more effectively than Harvey himself. But despite her entreaty for Bruce's help, he turns her down, preferring instead of remain a hermit who cuts checks rather than involve himself in the affairs of people. Dejected, Jessica says that “Money isn't going to save Gotham. People are,” and that she intends to carry out the Waynes' legacy of justice and rehabilitation even if Bruce himself isn't interested. Yeah, this Dent is the real White Knight all the way.

Bruce, of course, eventually comes around and sets up a meeting with Mayor Dent, claiming that his change of heart stems from a concern that one of Cobblepot's five successors may be on the board at Wayne Enterprises. Jessica denies this, revealing the extent of her investigations of one person who never wanted to see Bruce Wayne again, and likely vice versa.

First off, I like Harvey's tie, which may be a nod specifically to Tim Sale's Two-Face, as that's the only one to ever split the knot sideways like that.

Over at my Tumblr, I recently cobbled together a collage of panels to celebrate the friendship between Bruce and Harvey over the years, as I think that it's one of the most poignant and tragic friendships in comics. As such, it was bad enough to see teenage Harvey being an asshole to Bruce, but it's even worse to see how cold and disdainful the two are to each other now as adults. It looks like Johns is taking the resentment of Harvey towards Bruce from The Long Halloween and ramping it up while giving all the Dent friendship aspects to Jessica.

That above panel is pretty much the only time you'll see this Harvey Dent express something that isn't a sneer, snarl, or some degree of distress. I wish there had been more instances of Harvey showing some degree of human dimension and complexity, something to indicate that he's more than just a raging prick for great justice, but sadly, even that aspect is pretty much buried under the main role he plays: that over the overprotective big brother and bully. In case it wasn't obvious, Harvey still has no love for Bruce, especially after the latter mysteriously vanishes from their meeting after an art gallery explodes. This is just affirmation to Harvey that Bruce Wayne is not to be trusted, that he's unreliable at best, and at worst... something much worse...

Oh right, did I mention that the Riddler is in this? Because he totally is. More on that in a moment.

Harvey's sense of something being “off” with Bruce isn't necessarily wrong, given that this is Batman we're talking about here, so his cruelty is somewhat understandable given that he genuinely does care for his twin sister and wants to protect her. That, I understand, is what big brothers tend to do with their sisters, although I wouldn't know. I would have liked to have seen a deeper exploration of Harvey's perception of Bruce, but I'm afraid this is as far as it goes. From here on out, Harvey doesn't get to be much more than just an overprotective, hostile, suspicious asshole.

But let's get back to the plot of the actual graphic novel, since I've been focused entirely on the Dents' subplot. Yes, the Riddler has been wreaking havoc, blowing up groups of people who are unable to answer his riddles, and while Batman decides to follow the Riddler's trail into the sewer, Jessica takes the mysterious box to Wayne Manor:

“Blimey, Jess?” Maybe it's just because I know that Geoff Johns is American, but dialogue like this strikes me as some of the worst attempts at Britishisms since Golden Age Alfred: “Beggin' your pawdon, Mawster Wayne,” and all that. But before Jessica can address Alfred's suspicions, Harvey calls to tell Jessica that there's been another explosion thanks to the Riddler. Quick catchup: Batman went into the sewers, ran afoul of misunderstood “monster” Killer Croc, who was easily single best part of the story.

I love this so, so much. This is exactly how I like to see Croc written, as an actual human being who only acts monstrous because he's treated like a monster. Giant mutant cannibal Croc holds no appeal for me, because that's just another one-dimensional monster, whereas this Croc embraces the character's oft-neglected tragic canon.

Distressingly, Croc shows up in the climax to seemingly die heroically when he's shot by the Riddler after saving Batman's life at the last minute, but thankfully, we learn that Waylon pulled a Bud White from the L.A. Confidential movie and miraculously managed to survive his seemingly-lethal injuries! By the end of the book, he's been taken in by Batman and Alfred, who doesn't quite know how to feed his new guest. Does this mean that Waylon will be Batman's new partner? I would really, really love that to be the case!

But back to the plot in the middle of the book. After encountering Croc, Batman found the Riddler's abandoned hideout, only for it to be a trap (of course), one that lead directly to the Riddler's next target: a subway train packed full of innocents. Even after Batman answers the riddle correctly, the Riddler frowns and blows up the train anyway, because Geoff Johns' Riddler is nothing more than a sadistic, mass-murdering terrorist and cheater. As if that weren't bad enough, he's also drawn as being kinda gross and skeezy without any of Eddie's proper fashion sense or flamboyant flair, unless you count a question mark tattoo over his eye as being stylish. Which I don't, since a tattoo sure didn't help Eddie last time around.

Beaten, injured, and furious at the senseless murders of men, women, and children, Batman realizes that the Riddler has been putting on an act as a terrorist gamester and supervillain to cover up his real goals. In every group of the Riddler's victims, one person each has connections to the five organizations that the Dents were looking into. Batman therefore deduces that the Riddler himself is one of the five Cobblepot successors, and these attacks have just been violent distractions to cover up his real motive: killing the other four.

So yeah, this Riddler is just a fraud and a greedy killer, which is certainly in keeping with how many writers have seen the character over the years. But speaking as someone who actually LIKES the Riddler as someone who plays fair while dressing snazzily, I honestly think I'd go with Scott Snyder's version over this. This guy is just cruel and boring.

Right on the heels of Jessica's departure, Bruce stumbles back into Wayne Manor to get patched up by Alfred, who tells her that Jessica at least suspects the truth before delivering a speech about how Bruce can't be involved with her if he wants to be Batman. Afterwards, we get treated to Bruce and Alfred hashing out the classic superhero dilemma of whether or not to share your secret identity with others and forge relationships outside of superherodom.

This... kinda goes against everything that Alfred has stood for over the decades, isn't it? How many times have we read comics or seen a show or a movie or even a game where Alfred is all but begging for Bruce to slow down with his obsessive campaigns and try to forge human connections with somebody else? For this Alfred, however, loved ones are a distraction, a liability. That's kinda... fucked up, isn't it?

After getting a call from Gordon on the “Bat-Signal” (which is now just a cell phone, because god forbid that this super-realistic and grounded universe have anything so whimsical as a fucking spotlight with a bat on it), Bruce decides to pay the Mayor a more personal visit, where she admits that she's know that Bruce was Batman ever since he called the vigilante a symbol of hope for the city. “Only he would think that.”

Putting aside my mild annoyance that Johns inadvertently took my idea of the Waynes being better parent figures to the Dent child than their own, I have to wonder what Jessica exactly means with the implication that her and Harvey's parents were bad somehow. Was the father abusive in this universe too? They certainly were close enough to attend his retirement party and invite Bruce, as off-handedly mentioned back in the first page with Bruce and Jessica. Maybe this will be something to explore in the next sequel.

Wait, the first victim/successor was an old woman named Clarissa Crane? Interesting, especially with the mention of the “Crane Psychiatric Institute” from the end of the first volume. Is Johns laying the groundwork for whatever he has in store for the Scarecrow? Whatever it is, I just hope it's better than the bullshit from Blackest Night, where he turned the Scarecrow into a fear junkie who can only get his fix from Batman.

Secondly, the next victim was Jack Drake? As in Tim Drake's father? Because that sure as hell doesn't look or sound anything like Jack Drake! He actually looks more like the brother of this universe's Oswald Cobblepot, nose and all! Assuming that Johns cares enough about Tim to bring him in down the line (and while Tim's my favorite Robin, I'm well aware that he comes in fourth behind Dick, Jason, and Damian as everyone's favorites, possibly behind Steph as well), I imagine that we'll see a very different take on the character if such a corrupt snob was his father in this reality.

While Bruce and Jessica are talking, Gordon investigates Answers, Inc, unaware that the Riddler is feeding him false information in order to make it look like the person behind AI and the murders is none other than Bruce Wayne himself. Rushing to arrest Bruce, Gordon stirs Bullock out his his drunkenness and then calls up Harvey Dent to obtain a search warrant. Yeah, you can see where this is going, and it's getting worse.

Oh dear. Also, it looks like Harvey isn't the only Dent here who can make references to the number two, as we first saw way back in Volume 1. Although it seems a bit strange to change it from “two sides of the same coin” to “two sides of the same thing,” because I don't think the latter is something that people actually say.

Incidentally, I also notice that there's no mention of a coin anywhere. I guess that's not going to be a factor in this Two-Face origin this time around. Well, if Johns can't find a way to make it work, better that he exclude it entirely rather than try to force it in.

While all this is happening, Bullock and Gordon bring a few cops along to Wayne Manor, ready to arrest Bruce only to find Alfred alone. Instead of trying to distract and shoo them away, Alfred decides that the most pragmatic thing to do is to try beating the crap out of five cops at once, all while ranting “I TOLD HIM NOT TO TRUST THESE BLOODY COPS!” Man, it's disappointing to see another classic friendship from the comics—Alfred and Gordon—turned into rivalry and disdain here, but I suppose that's what happens when you reimagine Alfred as someone who actively encourages Batman to be a deranged loner.

Alfred manages to give the cops a right proper thrashing until Jim Gordon responds with a right proper tazering, which finally brings the old coot down. Meanwhile, Bruce and Jessica's kissy-face session comes to an abrupt end when guess who shows up...?

Not to continue playing apologist for this assholish Harvey, but I can understand his furious defensiveness in this one case, considering that he thinks that Bruce is a mass murderer. On the other hand, we've seen him act horribly towards Bruce for absolutely no reason other than “he's vaguely unsettling and he likes my sister, so I guess I'll mock his dead mother to his face.” Now he just has an excuse and validation for his hatred. Ugh.

Alfred is arrested for assaulting police officers and is taken to the holding cells at GCPD headquarters, while Bruce remains free for the time being, and he intends to free Alfred while also dealing with Dent's insistence on an interrogation. But before anyone can get what they want, the lights get shut down, the cell doors open, the other prisoners are released (including Maroni), and the Riddler's final attack commences with Bruce, Alfred, Gordon, Bullock, and the Dents stuck in the middle.

In case you were wondering, yep, we're finally at the big moment. Have YOU figured out where all this is going?

Jesus fuck. So again, we're going with something that feels more influenced by Nolan's The Dark Knight series than the canon Two-Face origin. In this instance, I now wish that Johns had went with the alcoholic father origin, just for the cheap symbolism of Harvey being destroyed by booze. In any case, god, that is a gruesome and horrifying scarring sequence, one that's really going to strain credulity when Harvey survives this attack! I mean, it was impossible for Harvey to have functioned, much less survived, from his burns in TDK, so of course Johns is also going to wait no he dies. Oh.

In case you couldn't read Harvey's last words, they were "Don't let me die." That'll be kinda important.

So okay, show of hands, how many people saw this coming a mile away? I read a review of this where the reviewer was totally shocked and surprised by this twist, whereas I was all like, “C'mon, I guessed this back in 2012 when Volume 1 came out! Here's what I said:

So, who wants to bet that she's going to get killed and it'll cause Harvey to go insane? Maybe Johns will be more creative than that and instead do it the other way around and make her Two-Face! I'd love to see that, especially since I'm not looking forward to seeing what kind of dickhole Harvey's grown into. Besides, it wouldn't be the first time that Gary Frank has drawn a female Two-Face:

From the graphic novel Dark Knight Dynasty, which featured a bizarre female hybrid of Scarecrow and Two-Face! Coincidentally, this blond Two-Face was named Jenna.

So yeah, I was definitely prepared to see Jennifer become Two-Face, given how it fits in perfectly with Johns' pattern of subverting expectations by taking the characters in the opposite direction. To Johns' credit, though, he did add one extra twist which I wasn't expecting, one which clarifies the motivation of this universe's future Two-Face:

Yyyyyyyyyep, looks like Jessica—who never displayed any signs of psychological instability before this moment, mind you—now has a second personality, that of her dead murdered brother! Yes, we're doing Murray Dent “dead evil brother manifesting as a secondary personality” all-fuckin'-over again, complete with a dash of Norman Bates-ian “Jessica, you listen to your brother, you stay away from that filthy, filthy Bruce Wayne boy” controlling head-voice.

As if this weren't silly enough, what really gets me is that this almost exact same twist happened in the Superman: Earth One graphic novels written by J. Michael Straczynski, who introduced Lex Luthor (who eerily resembled Dr. Krieger from Archer) alongside his wife, Alexandra, the two of whom were so closely bonded that they operated like... well, two sides of the same coin thing. And guess how that one turned out? Here's a hint: the exact same way.

So in both the Batman: Earth One books and the Superman: Earth One books, an original female character is introduced to be the closest partner of a canon male villain who ends up dying, thereby causing the female character to swear vengeance against the hero (because of, um, reasons) who they tell to get the hell away from them, and finally they are reborn in the roles of the male canon villains after absorbing their male counterparts' very identities. The details are different here and there (like Lex being conflicted and noble while Harvey was an asshat), but for the women, it's the same fucking thing.

Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, all ribbing and eyerolling aside. I suppose that it's kinda refreshing to see the man get fridged for once in order to motivate the female character rather than the other way around. In Jessica's case, becoming Two-Face can only make her more interesting, given that she was by far the most bland of the major characters, mainly because she wasn't much of a character at all. As is sadly typical of superhero stories written by dudes, Jessica was little more than the good-hearted Love Interest, someone without any discernible interests or traits other than some vague interests in crime-fighting and Bruce Wayne.

It will be interesting to see how much she's allowed to grow as a character in the next volume, now that she's taking the Harvey Dent role of “fallen best friend” with an added Rachel Dawes romantic twist thrown in. The last we hear of Jess is Bruce telling Alfred that “Without her brother... Jessica is going to need me. She is right. I can be a symbol. Both as Bruce Wayne and as Batman.” Poor sucker: not even that first glimpse of Big Bad Harv is enough to tip him off that it's only going to get worse from here on out.

And to top it off, the final twist of this story introduces the woman who will likely be ready to take Jessica's place as Bruce's love interest. With Selina now in the picture and Big Bad Harv in Jessica's head, it looks like poor, innocent Ms. Dent's days are numbered.

Despite all my complaints, I imagine that the second volume of Batman: Earth One, just like the first, will be a massive success. It's a very well-told story, one that would be perfectly fun and thrilling to those who are less discriminating (i.e. picky and opinionated about Batman lore) than people like me. Even with all my reservations, I'm interested to see where Johns and Frank take this saga into the third volume, which will hopefully be out before another three years rolls by.

Batman: Earth One Volume 2 is available at comic stories and major bookstores for $24.99 retail price US, and available digitally online at Comixology, iTunes, and Kindle for about $17.
Tags: catwoman, croc, elseworlds, gary frank, geoff johns, harvey bullock, jim gordon, riddler

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