about_faces

The Grace of Gilda, Pt. 2: Her First Post-Crisis Years

Note: This is the second part of my retrospective of Gilda, a complete history of the oft-overlooked woman who loved and lost Harvey Dent. You can read Part 1 here, and subsequent installments will be released weekly. 

The reboot of DC Comics in the mid-80’s was a fresh start, at least that was the idea. Some writers took full advantage, taking risks with new takes on classic characters. Other writers, who grew up reading and loving the classic stories, preferred to keep writing the characters as they’d always been. Or at least, how they’d always remembered them. 

Major characters took priority, getting new origins that established the tone of the ongoing books. Supporting characters gradually caught up, with people like Two-Face not getting the overhaul treatment for years afterward. And even then, it was often by an incremental “one step forward, two steps back” method of development. Minor characters like Gilda were at the bottom of the food chain, some getting erased entirely by disinterested writers. 

But Gilda survived, although you might not have noticed at first if you didn’t squint.

In an all-new take on Bruce Wayne’s first year as Batman, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One (1987) featured a quick mention of Harvey Dent having a wife, who served as his alibi when Lieutenant Jim Gordon suspected the Assistant D.A. of being the mysterious vigilante. The wife, however, was not named, nor did she appear in any capacity. 

No reason why she should, as Harvey himself was a relatively minor character in Miller’s story. Still, it was enough for other writers to build upon, should they see fit. In its small way, Miller’s version of Harvey was remarkable, as it was the first time readers ever saw him in his pre-Two-Face days. It opened the door to more stories about Harvey as a crusading prosecutor, a friend and ally of the heroes, and perhaps even as a husband. But there was no telling what kind of character Gilda would become in this new upstart continuity, if she’d even be a character at all. 

Then came Secret Origins Special (1989), a giant-size issue of Post-Crisis spins on classic Batman villains. Surrounded by a framing sequence of a sleazy tabloid show doing an expose on Gotham rogues, the final story focused on the unseen side of Harvey Dent and his transformation into Two-Face, told by the only person who really knew him as he was. 

Her name was Grace.

We’re left to speculate as to why writer Mark Verheiden changed her name to Grace, possibly because he either didn’t know/care, or else he thought that “Gilda” was too old-fashioned, something that invoked memories of old Rita Hayworth movies. Verheiden has since gone on to a successful TV career, so no interviewer is going to ask him about some little comic he wrote thirty years ago, much less why he changed Gilda’s name. 

Regardless, Grace is Gilda in everything but name, the woman who loved and lost Harvey Dent. Grace is a clear throughline from the Gilda of Marv Wolfman’s 1980 story, with her willingness to call out the host’s bullshit and her disdain of how she’d been treated by the media. She’s only doing this for the chance to tell their story on her terms, even at the risk of it being edited to more “cute soundbites” all over again. 

She recounts being the target of a home invasion by Dalton Perry, a mobster who had been sent to jail by Harvey. As with Wolfman’s story, she became a target by her husband’s enemies, a pawn in these men’s games, only now it was her own life on the line. The traumatic memory causes her to choke up, leading the TV host to try a different tack. He shows her old photos of Harvey from better days, in case she has any comments. 

As before, we don’t learn anything about Grace herself. Even with her as the POV character, we don’t get her background, her interests, her hobbies, etc. But while it’s still Harvey’s story, it makes a difference that she--for the first time in the history of any Gilda--is the one telling it. 

Through her, we see the first psychological glimpses into who he was even before he became District Attorney, something no other writer thought to explore at this point. Even though she never directly speaks about herself, we can tell that she’s a person of both empathy and insight, someone who wasn’t at all surprised by what Harvey became and still loves him regardless. All of which just deepens the tragedy from her end. 

This wasn’t just a case of a man’s entire personality turning on a dime, or in this case, a silver dollar. No, she watched it all happen. She understood that his change didn’t occur just because of the acid, causing a sudden and jarring change in personality. There was something dark happening inside him all along, and for all her compassion, she was helpless to stop it from happening. All she could do was to deal with the fallout. 

Grace moves onto his criminal career, describing the coin as a way to express his madness, and even draws comparisons between him and Batman. Because this is Gilda/Grace telling his story, the readers are able to receive a far more empathic perspective on Two-Face than any other they’d have seen at the time. It was the first time anyone had directly considered that Harvey might be a dark mirror to his former ally. “You can see the similarities,” she says. Batman’s dark side is cloaked under a mask and the mantle of justice. Harvey lives with his twin demons simultaneously.” 

Returning to her ordeal with Dalton Perry, she recounts how the mobster doused the house with kerosene while keeping her prisoner. For much of that time, Harvey sat outside in the car, abandoning his henchmen but struggling with whether or not to rescue her. That kind of indecision might be a deal-breaker for some wives, but Grace doesn’t hold it against him, understanding the battle going on in his embattled mind. Day turns to night before he’s even able to do so much as flip the coin, and we don’t know how it came up. Whether by coin or by will, Harvey finally decided to act. 

Harvey bursts through their window to tackle Perry in badass action-movie-hero fashion… which would have been awesome except it causes Perry to drop his Zippo lighter. The men beat the crap out of each other while Gilda watches, tied to a chair as the flames rise. She’s the damsel in distress, with the twist that she needs one monster to save her from a greater monster. 

Except she firmly believes that Harvey isn’t just a monster, something which only she is able to prove. For herself, if not anyone else listening to her story. This moment is the reason why she went on this show in the first place, in the faint hope of getting someone to understand who Harvey Dent is, as she sees him.

Just when Two-Face is about to strangle Perry, it’s Grace who makes him change his mind. No coin, no leaving it up to chance. It even surprised Grace, implying that she’d accepted that the man she knew was dead and gone. Even then, she’s still not sure if she really saw “something almost alive” in him. There’s room for interpretation here, that maybe she’s just fooling herself, seeing something that’s not there. But maybe, even after all this time, she can still get through to him. She alone can bring out what’s left of his smothered humanity. 

Gilda/Grace being the only one to reach the man inside the monster can have troubling implications, depending on the writer. A depressing upside to her general obscurity as a character is that no one’s yet tried using Harvey/Gilda for an abusive-spouse narrative. Their roles could easily fit those tropes, just as Beauty and the Beast has led to countless “Stockholm Syndrome” and “But I can fix him!” think-pieces, critically reappraising our society’s ideals of romance with “monsters.” 

Make no mistake, abuse narratives stories which should be told, which need to be told. I cannot emphasize that enough, given how important they are with Harvey himself and his upbringing. But it’d be such a waste to tell them with Harvey and Gilda/Grace, given the complete dearth of stories about loving relationships with troubled people. They exist, they’re messy, and they’re complicated, which makes them all the more important to tell. Even when they end unhappily. 

She can make him change his mind on killing a man. She can make him drop the coin. But she can’t fix what’s inside him. Despite all her love and understanding, she turns him away and lets him go. Even then, she refuses to write him off, to “put him in the same boat as the Joker, the Riddler, and the rest of those lunatics,” because at the end of the day, even though it took him hours to overcome his own inner conflict, he was still there for her. 

It’s possible that some may be put off by her willingness to wait for him, even after all this. One would be entirely justified by wanting her to just move on with her life. There have been too many stories about bad men being forgiven over and over again by their endlessly-forgiving lovers. Again, having been on both sides of mental-illness relationships, I would totally understand this discomfort.

But as she says, “life’s not that simple, is it?” These are the kinds of stories that rarely get told, especially in superhero comics, which so often devalue even healthy, functional relationships as “boring.” The lack of better Harvey/Gilda content speaks to comics’ greater inability to appreciate the inherent value and drama of relationships beyond something to blow up for dramatic value. 

Depressingly, this might explain how we got to Gilda’s next appearance in the modern continuity. The writer was the fan-favorite Bat-scribe Mike W. Barr, who had previously written a Two-Face story in 1987 which is worth briefly revisiting. Gilda didn’t appear in this story, but there was a minor character who was modeled on her. Or at least, Barr’s understanding of Gilda as she was in the Golden Age. 

When Two-Face returns in “Double Image” from Detective Comics #580-581, Batman suspects that he’s not the real Harvey Dent, but rather an impostor. Specifically, Paul Sloane, the second and most notable fake Two-Face from the Golden Age. Sloane’s whole deal was that he was an actor cast to play Harvey Dent in a biopic and really get into the role. Then he got scarred for real, causing him to snap and believe that he was the real Two-Face. See, this is why I don’t trust the Stanislavski method. 

The unnamed Mrs. Sloane is an indication of how Gilda was likely viewed by those who remembered her. She plays the same basic role as the woman left behind to worry and cry over her husband while he’s off doin’ crime stuff. She doesn’t even get a name, because she doesn’t matter beyond the role she plays for her husband. 

Barr clearly wanted to superficially retell Bill Finger’s original Two-Face story beat for beat, but with the added twist that Harvey Dent is the villain behind it all. He kidnapped Sloane and ruined the plastic surgery purely out of jealousy and spite. “He had everything I desired-- a home, a family, friends why should he be any happier than I am? I had hoped the undoing of his plastic surgery would send him on a spree of two crimes… but I had no idea it would be this successful!” 

Just as in the original Two-Face story, it’s up to the woman to help save her deranged, wayward lover. It culminates in a scene reminiscent of several Gilda scenarios we’ve seen so far between a fake Two-Face and his unnamed Gilda stand-in. 

Mike W. Barr seemed to like this story and his “jealous asshole” version of Two-Face that he decided to do it again in 1993 for Two-Face Strikes Twice! And this time, he brought back the real Gilda Dent, retaining her original name and entirely ignoring Mark Verheiden’s Grace story. 

This prestige two-parter featured a novel gimmick, the first half told in a Golden Age flashback style and the other half set in the modern era with fully-painted artwork. It was the most prestigious and ambitious project Gilda was in to date, and it threw her under the bus along with her relationship with Harvey. And just as with Barr’s previous Two-Face story, it centered around a man named Paul. 

In the first part, we learn that Gilda is marrying a forebodingly named Paul Janus. Yes, like the Roman god with two faces. Only in comics would Gilda not see that as a huge red flag. In addition to being rich and handsome, Paul Janus is also a brilliant fertility doctor, although this fact won’t become important until later. And when it does, hoo boy.

The scenario is a repeat of the Wolfman story, with the crucial difference being that it’s written by Mike W. Barr. As such, this isn’t a Harvey who’s going to respect Gilda’s wishes and hope only for her happiness. No, he’s gonna be a big ol’ dick about it. After a flip of the coin, Two-Face decides to put on a fat suit, dress as a priest, crash the wedding, ruin her life, and kidnap her fiancé. So much for the tragic romance of Harvey accepting that she’s moved on with her life. 

Harvey pretends to douse Janus with acid, swapping the real doctor with one of his henchmen to make it seem like the now-scarred Janus has gone mad and joined Two-Face. So yeah, it’s fundamentally a more elaborate repeat of the Paul Sloane story, where Barr’s Harvey can’t stand someone else being happy. Especially now that it’s Gilda’s happiness he’s ruining. Take that, Marv Wolfman! 

Just as with Sloane, Barr has Two-Face make it look like he’s created another version of himself through Paul Janus. He has a henchman wear green makeup and pretend to be the newly-villainous Janus, much to Gilda’s bewilderment and sorrow. She sits on the sidelines for this story, staying at home and crying miserably in a repeat of Mrs. Sloane. She takes no action in this story, doesn’t try to intervene, and instead just waits for Batman to save the day. She’s given less to do here than even Mrs. Sloane, who was herself a flat copy of Gilda. It’s like Barr just read the first halves of the Finger and Wolfman stories and stopped there. 

Ultimately, the false “Janus” is exposed and Paul is exonerated, returning safely to Gilda. It’s a pretty awful thing for Harvey to have put Gilda through, but Barr intended for Two-Face to be somewhat sympathetic. As Batman explains to Robin at the end, “I think a part of him loves her very much, and always will! Trying to destroy her remarriage is his twisted way of expressing that love!” 

Ehh… I suppose it’s kinda romantic in a creepy, stalkerish Phantom of the Opera kind of way, but it came at the expense of what Finger, Wolfman, and Verhiden had written before. Barr seems to be treating this as the only other Gilda story since Bill Finger’s, even as he makes Gilda more passive than she was in 1943. He’s a writer with old-fashioned sensibilities, which certainly made him stand out in the grim ‘n gritty 80’s. Given the nature of this story, one might hope that he was making a statement about the reductive roles of characters like Gilda back then, which he will then update and subvert in the second half of this story. 

Which brings us to Part 2, in the modern era. Now the mother of infant twins (uh oh!), Gilda is beset by nightmares of Harvey kidnapping and mutilating the babies. Sounds like she’s finally started looking out for red flags in numerology, and/or she’s traumatized from the previous story. Harvey has become Gilda’s boogeyman, and because this is still Barr’s asshole version of Harvey, he decides to act in kind and try ruining her life again. Now with imperiled babies! 

This is so far removed from the previous Gilda stories, it’s ridiculous. Not only has Gilda had to endure Paul being kidnapped, but now she has her home invaded, her babies threatened at gunpoint, and Harvey assaulting her. Surely there’s no possible way to still read this as a “twisted” expression of his love. Barr’s Harvey is a full-on monster, whose only plan is to hold the babies hostage in order to coerce Janus into cooperation. It’s a whole scheme involving selling the miracle fertility treatment to rich jerks who can’t conceive, and it’s not worth going into here. 

But despite the utter awfulness of the above, Barr still tries playing that twisted-love card, having Two-Face say that he has no qualms about stealing Gilda’s twins because “they’re also the children of Paul Janus, the man who took Gilda away from me! Hurting the children will hurt him as well!” All this might be pitiful in a classic monster-movie way if Barr hadn’t had Harvey cross the moral threshold into outright assault.

Gilda, meanwhile, is given nothing to do but cry and wait for Batman to save the day. Oh, and work on her art. All credit to Barr, he’s literally the only writer in seventy-nine years to remember Gilda’s only personal detail was that she was a sculptor. Too bad for her it happens in a scene where Batman accuses her of helping Harvey kidnap another couple’s babies. 

No disrespect to the artist, whose adaptation of The Vampire Lestat I enjoyed quite a bit, but… yeah, the art isn’t really helping the story’s quality, between facial expressions like the above and Gilda’s killer Mom Mullet. Not her finest hour all around, although that well-deserved slap is a nice glimpse of the stronger Gilda we saw in the 80’s. At her best, Gilda is someone who can both talk down one of Gotham’s most terrifying rogues and slap the goddamn Batman with equal fearlessness. 

However, this Gilda has been hiding a secret. It turns out Paul, the miracle fertility doctor, was ironically infertile, while Harvey had his sperm frozen back when he was D.A. Yes, unbeknownst to both Paul and Harvey, the latter is the biological father of the twins. I guess even his semen’s got a fixation on the number two. 

It’s unclear why she kept this secret from Paul. Of all people, he should have known that he was infertile. Barr could have easily established that as the reason why he advanced fertility techniques, perhaps even believing that his twins were his greatest success. I could accept that she couldn’t stand to tell him that he’d failed, and she instead used Harvey’s frozen sperm. Which is still weird, given her relationship to him under Barr, but I could believe she still loved the man he was. And hey, it’s free sperm, just sitting there taking up valuable freezer space! 

But it’s never explained, just thrown in to cause contrived drama to make Paul walk out on her. While all superhero comics are soap operas, some writers really lean into it more than others. 

Ultimately, Harvey learns that the twins are his in a very awkward moment, given that he’s threatening to blast them to baby bits with his double-barreled (oy) shotgun. Apparently, he hadn’t remembered or considered the frozen sperm from years back, and when he realizes the truth, he suddenly decides to save the babies from the murderous surgeon who was hired by… (checks notes)... Two-Face. 

It’s a very dramatic turnaround for Two-Face, ignoring the fact that he’s the cause of all these problems. And also, a point-blank shotgun blast would probably have done more damage, but that’s beside the point. As is the fact that Harvey would have been injured by the gun’s kickback, or the proportions of the gun and his arm, and… never mind, let’s move on or we’ll be here all day. It’s a very big moment. Very dramatic and serious. 

In the end, Harvey begs Batman to tell Gilda how he saved the babies from the horrible situation he himself put them in. Batman says he will (and then doesn’t) and thanks Harvey for “giving me hope.” The narrative really wants us to see this as a bittersweet moment, but the fact is, it hinged on Harvey finally being able to do the right thing only when it directly affected him. There’s definitely a powerful story to be told about Gilda and another man raising Harvey’s biological children, but unable to be their real father. Sadly, this ain’t it. 

Meanwhile, the babies are returned to Gilda, joined by Paul Janus who had apparently decided he was a-okay with the situation after all. It’s nice that Barr tried to show some trace of love in this ruined relationship. That Harvey still cares for Gilda deep down, and that she might feel love for him too after all this. But given the crap he puts her through, that rings hollow and preemptively dashes any sympathy on his part, while arguably making Gilda less sympathetic in the process! 

So in this one instance, perhaps it’s just as well that Gilda vanished again, along with Paul and the twins. For the second time in DC history, Harvey’s children were quietly swept out of continuity. This would be her final modern-era appearance in DC Comics for eighteen years. Someone could have been born and graduated high school in the time between Gilda’s stories.  

Of course, that’s not counting her appearances in Year One era stories, including the big one from 1996 which changed her forever. But before we address that particular elephant, there are a few other Gildas worth examining in the next installment, starting with an issue which served as a major (and unsung) basis for Batman: The Long Halloween

Released the year after Secret Origins Special, “Eye of the Beholder,” from Batman Annual #14 (1990) endures as perhaps the single greatest Two-Face story of all time. As the first major overhaul of Harvey’s origin in the Post-Crisis continuity, EotB gave readers the chance to witness his married life, albeit briefly. Writer Andrew Helfer reimagined Harvey as the child of abuse, the victim of his alcoholic father’s manipulative “game” and beatings, a dark secret of his past he kept hidden from everyone, save Gilda. 

Her protectiveness of Harvey--and her hostility towards his father--is refreshing, given how many media narratives about bad parents focus on forgiveness and reconciliation. In Harvey’s case, however, it’s what leads directly to his downfall. If he’d just listened to her from the start, perhaps Two-Face might have been avoided altogether. Or maybe not, since no one at DC ever goes to therapy. 

Despite my love of this story, I can’t deny that she’s again a helpless bystander. Adding to the sense of this story’s disinterest in her, she’s alternately called “Gilda” and “Grace.” It was presumably a minor error on Helfer’s part, something that should have been caught by editor Denny O’Neil. 

The “Grace” flub occurs in the scene where she visits him in the hospital, looking rather blase about the traumatic suffering Harvey endured. Likely the idea was that she was trying to stay positive, but it’s not well-conveyed in the otherwise-great art by Chris Sprouce. The fact that she gave him a key item of his traumatic childhood “luck” is also jarring, given that she knows exactly what it means and she’s been trying to protect Harvey from his father’s influence. Again, I adore this story deeply, but Gilda is such an inconsistent sketch that it can’t even keep her name straight. 

Which is fitting, given that the next two big Gilda appearances didn’t even use that name at all. But as with Mark Verheiden’s story about Grace, they are still Gildas in everything but name. It’s just the details around them that are different, as neither of these Gilda-types appeared in the actual DC Universe. 

The first of these is among the best takes she’s ever had, which few have read. The second is far more popular, and also one of the saddest. Together, they comprise two of the longest sustained arcs that Gilda has ever gotten, a final pair of last gasps before everything about her was changed forever. 

Next time: Alice Dent of the 1989 Batman newspaper comic strip, and how her story sets the stage for “Batman: The Animated Series.”

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