about_faces

The Grace of Gilda: The Complete History of Gilda Dent, Part 1

What must it be like, to be a villain’s love interest? 

To be a supporting player of a supporting player, vanishing into comic book limbo and emerging once every ten or thirty years to again play your role on the sidelines of someone else’s tragedy? What happens when writers think that your love isn’t enough, and that you need to be something else? That your role is better served as a suffering victim? As a killer? As dead and gone?

Her name is Gilda Gold, but that’s not how she’s best known. She’s gone by other first names, and she didn’t even get her surname until thirty-eight years after her first appearance in 1942. Even now, she’s still known only as Gilda Dent, the former (and future?) wife of Two-Face.

Since that first appearance, she’s been inextricably tied to Two-Face. But Two-Face is not inextricably tied to her, according to generations of writers. As of June 2021, Two-Face has appeared in 1,361 comics, while Gilda--who has been around exactly as long--has only appeared in 64 issues (source: comicvine.com). Many of those are reprints, or technicalities where her character has been renamed and may arguably (if not effectively) be a separate character.

Her absence has been a loss for Two-Face himself, removing a crucial element of tragic love--and possible redemption--that was baked into the character from the very start. Theirs was a love story that married Beauty and the Beast with The Phantom of the Opera, where she saw the man behind the disfigurement, and he believed himself too hideous to be loved. It was only through her love and perseverance that he was pulled back from the brink, and the two were married and supposed to live happily ever after. 

But when DC decided they wanted Two-Face back as an ongoing villain, Gilda wasn’t even considered as a factor in the tragedy. She was omitted entirely, vanishing for decades. We can only speculate as to why, but the reasons seem apparent. Gilda’s very presence and the promise of emotional healing was an existential threat to Two-Face as a villain, and DC wanted him to be evil, period. 

She didn’t appear again until the 80’s, and even then, she’s only appeared in a handful of stories. Each story changed her, tweaked her personality, her motivations, and her relationship with Harvey, almost making her a different person each time. Sometimes literally, as she’s been renamed “Grace” and “Alice.” And yet, they’re all fundamentally the same Gilda: the love of Harvey Dent’s life, who has to cope with her husband’s physical and psychological trauma. 

Which, of course, is part of the problem. 

Gilda has never been allowed to become a fully fleshed-out character in her own right. Harvey’s trauma, while necessarily central to their arc as a couple, is never reflected by an equally important trauma of her own. Over her few appearances, there are only occasional glimpses of her internal life, and all too often they’re tossed aside in favor of a familiar, one-dimensional stereotype: the grieving, fretful wife. 

She had a career in 1942--quite a rarity for wives and girlfriends of secondary characters then--but you’d never know that now. Most writers don’t even bother to include one of her few established defining characteristics: that she’s an artist, a sculptor specifically. As far as Jeph Loeb was concerned in Batman: The Long Halloween--arguably Gilda’s biggest impact on pop culture--she had literally no life or interests of her own outside of having a family with her husband. In fact, she was willing to kill for it. Maybe. 

Since then, Gilda’s become a character who is either deadly or dead, having been murdered outright in 2013’s “New 52” origin of Two-Face. But all these changes haven’t made her a stronger character. She’s never had an internal life, or any life at all outside of Harvey Dent. Even the recent Gilda story by Mariko Tamaki in Batman: Black and White (2021), which served as a feminist deconstruction for her sidelined role, failed to address who she actually was as a person. She wasn't a three-dimensional character in her own right so much as as a stand-in for “neglected wife” characters everywhere. Important commentary to be sure, but in context unfortunately feeding the reductive archetype that swallowed Gilda rather than freeing her from it. 

Instead of building on the rough sketch that Bill Finger created in 1942, Gilda has actually regressed as a character over the decades, a depressingly common symptom of how wives and girlfriends in fiction exist only as accessories to the men in their lives. As such, her absence (coupled with her mismanaged return appearances) is not only a major loss for Two-Face, but also has led to her never truly coming into her own. 

Well, in honor of her impending eightieth anniversary, let’s examine the strange, troubled history of Gilda in all her iterations, personalities, and identities. Let’s see if we can find the fundamental truth in all these different takes, to see who she was, is, could be, and perhaps should become in the future.  

Possibly named after Gilda Finger, sister of Batman co-creator Bill Finger, Gilda was introduced as the fiancé of District Attorney Harvey Kent. She was a “sculptress” who, according to Harvey, “worships beauty,” but it’s unclear if he was speaking of Gilda personally or about sculptors in general. It’s possible Gilda may have been attracted to Harvey--at least in part--due to his literally godlike handsomeness, a popular subject among classical sculptors. 

Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that this is the USA in 1942. Rights for and acceptance of disabled people was all but nonexistent, and people like Harvey were figures to either be pitied, scorned, or euthanized. A couple decades earlier, soldiers returned home from World War I with disabilities and disfigurements. There are supposedly examples of wives leaving their husbands, unable to look at them. If Gilda reacted the same with Harvey, it wouldn’t simply be a case of superficiality. She would have likely been excused within the social mores of America in 1942.

Certainly, Harvey himself feared that his looks were crucial to their relationship. After being scarred by acid, he was devastated to learn he couldn’t undergo plastic surgery. The only doctor capable of the job was sent to a Nazi concentration camp. It’s a prescient reminder to readers that Jewish people half a world away were important and that a life lost to the Nazis was the world’s loss. While these comics may seem simplistic by today’s standards, it’s important to remember the context in which they were created. Both Finger and Kane, the creators of this story, were Jewish, and these books held messages meant to be internalized by the children and teens of the era--some of whom would go on to be GIs fighting the axis threat.

Now hopeless, Harvey was so certain that Gilda would leave him that he preemptively lashed out, maniacally defacing (pun intended) her sculpture of him with her own tools. 

Since Harvey barely gives her a chance to speak, we are left to wonder how Gilda herself really feels in this moment. She might indeed be recoiling because of his appearance, but it’s just as likely she’s scared of him grabbing her, screaming in her face and breaking her stuff. Valid!

Moments like this are perfect examples of scenes that could have been unpacked by writers of later generations. A story more focused on Gilda could explore what was going through her mind, seeing not just Harvey’s appearance but also his explosive change in personality. And then there’s the fact that he destroys her artwork, and with her own equipment no less. She surely must have some opinions on seeing the love of her life, disfigured and unstable, destroying her hard work--work created out of love for her partner. There are unexamined layers to unpack for Gilda as both an artist and as a lover. But alas, this isn’t her story to tell. It rarely is. 

Thus Gilda vanishes for a time. Harvey goes off to pursue a life of crime, embracing his ousting from society. However, she returns in the next issue, where she’s surprised by a visit from Harvey, who claims to have undergone plastic surgery. Of course, it’s all an ill-conceived ploy on his part, fated to go horribly awry. But what makes it interesting is Gilda’s reaction.

So it’s not Harvey’s face that horrifies her. For lack of a better word, it’s his soul. It’s the fact that he lied to her, that he truly didn’t seek treatment, that causes her to recoil in fear. It reinforces the idea that her love for him was about more than looks, despite Harvey’s own fears and paranoia, as well as the accepted attitudes of the period. 

It’s clear, then, that their love was mutual and genuine. Which is why she grieves over how Harvey seems to be losing himself, swallowed up by his darker drives. It’s akin to the struggle of loving an alcoholic or any other kind of addict who tries to cover up their addiction rather than seek treatment. This comparison becomes even more powerful when combined with the alcoholism introduced in Harvey’s own backstory decades later. 

Like an addict, Harvey lashes out at Gilda, convinced that she’d been turned against him, and so she seems to fall into despair. But she was more proactive than she appeared, and in the third Two-Face story, she made a desperate ploy of her own to save Harvey from himself. 

Tracking Harvey down to his lair, Gilda throws herself in front of a bullet meant for Batman. She nearly dies as a result, but not from her injury. No, as eye-rolling as this is to write, she nearly dies... from a broken heart. 

Yes, it’s a hoary old trope that’s plagued women in fiction for ages, most infamously Padme Amadala in Star Wars. And yet, this scene is more progressive than even recent takes on Gilda in some key ways. She doesn’t just passively stay home, crying and longing for Harvey, quietly suffering in his absence. No, she puts on a boss-ass cloak and goes out into the dangerous city, hunting him down, and even saves Batman’s life in the process so Harvey doesn’t make a terrible mistake. Because she loves the poor crazy bastard. 

It’s Gilda, not Batman, who truly defeats Two-Face. Her gutsiness and compassion are what lead to Harvey not just turning himself in, but also risking his own life to save Batman, which gets him a reduced sentence of one year in jail. By a happy coincidence, Dr. Ekhart escapes the concentration camp and returns to the US, meaning Harvey is able to undergo plastic surgery. It’s a very rare case of a happy ending for a villain, but then, none of those villains had Gilda to make it all possible.

This could have been the end of Gilda’s history, and in fact, that was originally the plan. 

Bill Finger wrote the Two-Face trilogy as a complete arc with a definite conclusion, bringing in a couple one-off impostors to take the Two-Face mantle while letting Harvey and Gilda keep their happy ending. Which they did, at least in the alternate universe of Earth-Two, where the Golden Age versions of DC’s characters existed.  

In 1982, DC revealed that Harvey Kent never became Two-Face again, and stayed married to Gilda for the rest of their lives. Which may have both ended when the Earth-Two universe was destroyed in Crisis on Infinite Earths, but still! That’s a better ending than they’ve gotten anywhere else! 

The Earth-One Harvey (now renamed Dent) and Gilda were also happy for a while, despite the impostor Two-Faces making life difficult. In Batman #50 (1948), Gilda made her only other appearance during this era, which was just a tiny cameo at the very end. However, her work became a major centerpiece for the final battle, which involved Gilda’s ruined bust of Harvey. 

Except now, this was now the era of Batman stories with wacky oversized props, so the bust was retconned as being hilariously massive in order to provide a battle set piece. Where better to fight a fake Two-Face than on the oversized noggin of the real Harvey, sculpted by his wife?

Shortly thereafter, DC decided to turn Harvey back into the one true Two-Face, but Gilda was nowhere to be seen. She was entirely removed from the equation, ensuring that no meddling women would hold back one of Batman’s greatest foes. 

But then, right thereafter, Two-Face himself vanished, presumably a casualty of the newly-established Comics Code Authority which forbade elements of crime and horror, as well as depictions of corrupt authority figures. Any slim chance of Gilda’s return was dashed, since no Two-Face meant no Gilda. With Harvey, she vanished into comic book limbo for years. 

By 1957, Gilda’s bust of Harvey briefly served as a legacy item for them both, even popping up as a trophy in the Batcave. At least, it seems to have been intended to be the same bust. Now resembling an intentional sculpture of Two-Face rather than a defaced Harvey, the bust had changed sizes again and was now made of glass, despite explicitly being stone in the previous appearances. The change was for plot purposes, allowing writer Sheldon Moldoff to use it in a stunt which led to its destruction. 

As such, the bust never got to have the staying power of other iconic trophies, such as the robot T-Rex or the giant penny. In a different time and place, Gilda’s work might have been a permanent fixture in Batman’s world for decades to come. Instead, it was a victim of the era’s wonderful obsession with oversized props, and with it went Gilda’s only legacy. Assuming it even was her bust in the first place. 

Two-Face eventually returned in 1971, but Gilda did not, possibly because her role as “wife of a monster, trying to help him regain his humanity” had already been usurped by characters like Francine Langstrom, wife of the popular new antivillain Man-Bat. However, in 1977, Gilda did return--if only in memories--with the introduction of her and Harvey’s long-lost child: Duela Dent, AKA Joker’s Daughter, AKA Harlequin. Through Duela, we learn that she was born during the period between the plastic surgery and his second disfigurement, and his untreated mental illness led to him abandoning them.

The creator of Duela, Bob Rozakis, was the only writer to consider how Gilda might have felt from losing Harvey twice, now with the added pain of having to raise their child alone. In a cancelled story, we would have seen flashbacks of Gilda sadly waiting for the day when Harvey would finally return to them. 

Panel 3: [FLASHBACK! Gilda Dent is sitting in a chair with eight-year-old Duela on her lap. There is a photo of an unscarred Harvey Dent on the table next to them. Duela is pointing at the picture.]

CAPTION: “But Momma always loved him and kept his secret from me for years – praying for the day when he would be cured…”

DUELA: Momma – when is Daddy coming home?

GILDA: Someday, Duela… someday soon!

Perhaps Rozakis might have had another chance to bring back Gilda, to explore the life of a single mother of a resentful daughter, dealing with the conflict of still loving a man who Duela hates. But it was not meant to be. Duela’s existence didn’t fit into canon, given that she was supposed to be the same age as the then-teenage Robin, who was active before she was even born. Duela was retconned as a liar, and with her went the first inklings of Gilda’s life after Harvey.

However, the same man who retconned Duela also ended up being the first to truly bring back Gilda. Her true return occurred in Batman #328 (1980), in a two-part story by Marv Wolfman. We learn that she’d remarried, having fallen in love with Harvey’s old friend and colleague Dave Stevens, who had himself become District Attorney. 

In an intriguing development, Harvey was aware of the marriage and even supported her. He only wanted Gilda to be happy, and thus he stayed out of her life. It would have been lovely and bittersweet, except that Stevens ended up being murdered, leaving Gilda widowed and alone. 

Fresh in her grief, Gilda learned that Dave’s killer was a man named Anton Karoselle, a man she’d never heard of before. Then, another stranger named Carl Ternion showed up to tell Gilda that he’d confronted Karoselle with evidence of his crime, and ended up killing the killer in self-defense. 

When we see Gilda, she’s still processing her grief along with the bizarre circumstances of these two murders. She needs support and comfort, finding them both in Carl, who is happy to provide a sympathetic ear. Before too long, they start dating as Gilda sifts through the pieces of her again-shattered life. 

However, Carl soon becomes erratic and upset out of nowhere. He runs out on her, clutching his face in despair. Just when it seems like things were finally settling down, now there’s something horribly wrong with the nice, strange man she barely knows. 

Then Batman shows up to explain everything. Carl is Harvey, who had his entire face reconstructed into a new identity in order to avenge Dave’s murder. And what’s more, “Anton Karoselle” was really Boss Maroni, who killed Stevens just to hurt Harvey through Gilda. So Harvey murdered Maroni to avenge Gilda, and then decided to take advantage of his new face in order to have a second chance with her. 

In keeping with the monster movie influences of their relationship, it’s romantic in its own murderous way. However, Harvey isn’t ready to let the past go. He becomes paranoid that Batman’s going to learn the truth of the murder, so he spends his non-Gilda hours trying to kill the Dark Knight. He’s willing to kill again to maintain the fantasy and keep her, but all hope of that is lost when his plastic surgery fails (don’t think about it too hard) and he’s revealed as Two-Face again. 

Once again, it’s up to Batman and Gilda to stop Harvey, because Bruce knows he can’t do it without her help. However, this is not the same Gilda as before. She’s older, she’s been through a lot, and she’s finally had enough. 

It all culminates in the courtroom where Harvey was scarred, with Two-Face about to kill Batman and Gilda finally confronting Harvey, while forcing him to confront himself. She even calls out Harvey’s reliance on the coin, refusing to entertain the delusions which are exacerbating his mental illness. 

It combines two key aspects of Finger’s Gilda--her horror at his evil side, and her willingness to  act in order to stop him--and it made her a stronger, formidable character. No other person had ever been able to make Harvey abandon the coin and beg for help. 

Again, it’s much like an addict, but now there’s a clearer parallel to another real-life struggle: loving someone who is mentally ill. 

Speaking personally, I’ve been on both sides of that, being mentally ill myself and the child of mentally ill people. I have deep empathy for both Harvey and Gilda in this scenario, and I know there are no easy answers when it comes to maintaining relationships with someone who is not fully in control of themselves, but who also won’t take steps to get the help they need. 

Despite her love for Harvey, she’s no longer willing to sacrifice herself for him, nor is she content to let him lurk in the shadows like some self-appointed guardian angel. She never asked him to stay away any more than she asked him to play avenger and insert himself back in her life under a false identity. It’s the melting-wax-makeup fiasco all over again, and she’d finally had enough. She’s setting boundaries, and now the rest is up to Harvey.

It ends with a note of hope, with the chance that Gilda will still be there for Harvey in some capacity… but only if he finally gets the help he needs and atones for his crimes. Even now, after all this, she’s willing to wait for him and work on some kind of relationship, even if it’s friendship. But not at the expense of her own well-being. 

In a different world, this could have been the groundwork for a bold new take on Two-Face and Gilda alike, a couple working together through a long road of recovery. In fact, the letters page of Batman showed that many readers were enthusiastic about seeing a Harvey reform, which could have continued the development of this Gilda. 

However, DC still had no interest in losing Two-Face as a major Batman rogue. In fact, they seemed surprised that people cared so much about him. Here’s the response from Paul Levitz, editor and VP of DC Comics, who was upfront about the company’s disinterest in a redeemed Two-Face.

This tepid response is revealing. For one thing, it suggests that there can’t be more than one redemption story at a time without it feeling repetitive, even with Catwoman and Two-Face being fundamentally different in key ways. For another, it shows how people like Levitz didn’t even regard Wolfman’s story as something worth remembering. They didn’t care about Gilda because they didn’t care about Harvey as anything other than Two-Face, the villain who pops up to cause trouble. 

Two years later, Two-Face returned with no mention of the previous story, with Gilda receiving neither an acknowledgement nor appearance. In fact, Harvey even got a new love interest in the form of a brand now, one-off henchgirl named Gloria. Gilda had been replaced by a woman who actually encouraged Harvey to be Two-Face, just as DC preferred. 

It’s honestly mind-boggling that they were so dead-set against Harvey’s redemption, and therefore Gilda’s likely involvement. Without her, he was just another gimmick villain, going through the same old tired motions of schemes, deathtraps, and defeat. It was stodgy thinking like this that helped lead DC to reboot their entire continuity in 1986, with Marv Wolfman’s Crisis on Infinite Earths

It was the start of a new era, and with it came a fresh start for Gilda. But for a supporting character’s supporting character, an obscure adjunct to a relatively-popular villain who was himself bogged down by decades of baggage, her troubles were only just beginning. 


Coming up in Part 2: The first Post-Crisis years, in which Gilda changes her name, changes it back again, remarries, has kids, and just generally has a bad time all around.

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