about_faces

The Grace of Gilda, Part 3: Alice Dent of the 1990 Newspaper Comics

Note: This is the third 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 and Part 2 here, and subsequent installments will be released weekly. 

Gilda was created to serve one role, which was to save Harvey from himself, or at least to try. As far as DC was concerned, their decision to keep Harvey as Two-Face effectively rendered her obsolete. Instead of being developed and finding a place in the Post-Crisis era, she was a casualty of the status quo, seemingly fated to play bystander and/or victim. The reboot didn’t matter, since she was essentially remade and scrapped with each appearance. 

For Gilda, it wasn’t Crisis that opened the door to a fresh start. It was Tim Burton’s Batman movie in 1989. The film’s success opened the door to a new wave of Batman multimedia, the most beloved of which being Batman: The Animated Series. Original stories could now be told outside of the comics, unburdened by DC’s decades of baggage. As an added plus, these stories could reach a mainstream audience who didn’t read comics at all. At least, not comic books

On the heels of Burton’s movie, DC teamed up with Comics Syndicate to bring Batman back to the place where comics were born: the daily newspapers. The Batman strip retold the Dark Knight’s early career as a single, long-form narrative which largely focused on Harvey Dent. As an unintentional side effect, this resulted in one of the longest and most intriguing takes on Gilda ever written. 

Except again, she was Gilda in all but name. Here, she was Alice Dent.

The strip was originally written by comics (both book and strip) vet Max Allan Collins, who made the jerkass D.A. a minor nuisance for Batman. When writing duties were taken over by William Messner-Loebs, Harvey became a more complex character, due in no small part to the introduction of Alice to the main cast. 

The initial strips give the impression that Alice’s role would just be a housewife, providing sitcom-like comic relief to Harvey’s angst. This alone would have been an intriguing contribution to Gilda, allowing her to gently spar with Harvey rather than just swoon and worry. They were allowed to feel more like a real married couple, not just tragic lovers, and that would have been progressive enough. 

Instead, Messner-Loebs makes Alice one of the strip’s central characters by tying her to Bruce Wayne as well as Harvey. To ironically contrast with his antipathy towards Batman, Harvey is established as being best friends with Bruce. Yes, the same man Harvey referred to as a “spineless twit,” because that’s who Bruce pretends to be even with his bestie. Both he and Alice regularly drag Bruce to his face, as only one’s closest friends are wont to do. 

In fact, Bruce plays the himbo-billionaire role so convincingly that Alice becomes his friend as well, determined to make the spoiled man-child take care of himself. While Bruce is recovering from “polo injuries” (after a disastrous clash with the Penguin), Alice shows up at Wayne Manor with a pile of books, determined to help the sulky billionaire get back on his feet. Literally.

She serves as a pinch-hitter for Alfred, who could always use the break. But unlike Alfred, she doesn’t know that Bruce is Batman, which means that he has to adopt a different persona around her. As a result, his interactions with Alice provide Bruce with a sense of normalcy that he’s never had. As a regular civilian-type not directly involved in law or crime, Alice both allows and forces Bruce to show a side of himself that is largely playacting, but not entirely. 

Their relationship reads like a budding romance, something that is bound to explode into a soap-operatic love triangle, and even violence as Harvey becomes unhinged. Miraculously, Messner-Loebs avoids this cheap dramatic ploy. Alice and Bruce remain platonic throughout, and Harvey never objects to her being alone with his best friend. 

Of course, it could be that Harvey’s just oblivious, too focused on his job to notice what’s going on around him. In most other stories, this would lead to paranoia and betrayal that would throw a wedge into their relationships, and further embitter Harvey on his path to Two-Face. But that doesn’t happen here. As the strip goes on and Alice continues to visit Bruce, Harvey never once displays a trace of jealousy nor suspicion, no matter how far he falls. At no point are we given any reason to believe that Harvey doesn’t trust them. He loves them, just as they both love him.

In a sense, they are a love triangle, except that the love is mutual on all three ends. With the slightest of nudges, one can almost see them as a polyamorus trio, a “thruple” as the saying goes. It’s a remarkable dynamic to see in any comics of this era, much less from Batman. What’s more, it proves to be the heart of Messner-Loebs’ overarching storyline. And it’s also complicated by Harvey’s resentment and Bruce hiding behind his socialite persona.

Behind the friendship, Bruce has a mercenary reason for these visits with Alice, which is to keep tabs on Harvey’s criminal investigations. This strip takes Mark Verheiden’s aspect of feeling “uneasy… dirty” about Batman’s activities, that “the law wasn’t enough to deal with crime in Gotham,” and takes it further, with Harvey resenting Batman while introspectively worrying that he’s not good enough. 

As his partner, Alice responds to Harvey’s existential crisis by providing counterpoints, validation, and gentle snark as necessary. She doesn’t share her husband’s misgivings about the Batman, but she also believes in Harvey and his work. She’s a booster for his conscience, the cheerleader for the angel on his shoulder, with the tragedy being that she’s doomed to fail.  

Granted, it’s not ideal for her character to be focused on what she brings to the men in her life. As with other Gildas, she has no internal life, no hobbies, no interests other than being a full-time partner/mom/therapist for Harvey and Bruce. She’s not a progressive character, but she is a progressive Gilda. 

This becomes especially apparent in the climax of the first arc, when she gets taken hostage by the Penguin. At first, it seems like she’s going to just be a damsel in distress, a helpless pawn for the drama and Batman/Dent rivalry. But then Messner-Loebs does something unexpected: he builds on Alice’s connection with Bruce in a way that allows her to be an active participant in her own rescue and the Penguin’s defeat. 

It’s an excellent moment, subverting the damsel trope by having her get to save herself with Batman’s help. Hell, she even saves Batman in the process, allowing him an opening to wallop the Penguin good! It truly involves her in the story as more than a passive pawn, someone who actually does stuff in the plot! And this is only at the end of Messner-Loebs’ first story arc!

However, over the following arcs, Alice becomes a participant in a far darker context, as she and Bruce both play active roles in Harvey’s eventual transformation. For example, during one of her visits to Wayne Manor, Alice tells Bruce that she’s struggling to find a good birthday present for Harvey. Bruce tells her that he has just the thing.

Granted, it’s not really clear why Alice or Bruce thought a two-headed coin would be a good idea for a gift, although perhaps it was a rare misprinted coin worth a small fortune. 

Harvey seems to be delighted by it, and that’s really what matters. In this version, the coin isn’t tied to a vicious gangster or his abusive father, but instead, it’s a gift from the two most important people in Harvey’s life. It’s what he clings to as his mental state gradually deteriorates over the next few arcs. 

From here to the inevitable acid attack, Alice starts drifting perilously close to the background. She isn’t given much to do, other than play witness to Harvey's moral crisis, depicting what Mark Verheiden only described through Grace.

After the Penguin debacle and Batman’s continued existence, he becomes consumed with doubt and self-loathing, which he externalizes as disdain for his political colleagues. In his vulnerability, he’s approached by a businessman named Jason Whilby, who wants to endorse Harvey for Mayor on a “tough on crime” ticket. And just in time, given that Gotham is being overrun by a suspiciously-well-organized army of criminals!

Alice has serious reservations, and tries expressing them to Harvey. She starts to say, “[Whilby is] right-wing? Harvey, Barry Goldwater’s right-wing… Jason Whilby is…” and then she stops just short of presumably saying “fascist.” Which is what how strip explicitly describes Whilby's political leanings. Whilby claims to represent “a combine of the right kind of men” who “know what has to be done!” 

Alice sees the red flags, but Harvey is too excited to listen to her warnings. He’s too elated by the prospect of becoming Mayor, so Alice understandably doesn’t want to burst his bubble. When Harvey asks, “Aren’t you happy for me, Alice,” what can she say but yes? Instead, she takes her concerns to Bruce, not knowing that he’ll do some digging on Whilby’s shadowy “combine” for himself. 

Alice is in a deeply tough situation, wanting to support her husband but disdainful of men like Whilby. Thankfully for her, Harvey isn’t so far gone just yet. When she returns home, she finds that he’s come down from his elation, wrestling with the gravity of Whilby’s proposal.

Given how vocal Alice was about Whilby’s fascistic leanings, it’s interesting that she isn’t pushing Harvey while he’s on this moral precipice. She’s being rather hands-off, which can be troubling given the stakes involved. 

Perhaps she just knows that Harvey requires a delicate touch while he figures out things for himself. She knows that he’s a man who tends to struggle with himself, flirting with the “dark side” of his own nature. Even if he stumbles along the way, he always lands on the right decision. At least that’s how it’s worked out this far. A lot of people need the space and gentle guidance to sort through shit themselves, rather than be pushed in one direction or another. 

If it comes down to Alice’s trust in Harvey’s better nature, then she’s soon validated. Thanks to Batman, Harvey learns that Whilby is even worse than Alice had feared. He’s fronting a terrorist organization led by the Joker, in a scheme to spread chaos and force Gotham into becoming a police state. Horrified and ashamed, Harvey teams up with Batman to stop Whilby and the Joker. 

The crisis was averted, but for Harvey, it was too close for his conscience to stand. He goes to Alice and Bruce, telling them that he wants to take responsibility for briefly throwing in with fascists. 

This is markedly different from most recent Harvey/Gilda dynamics, where he becomes consumed by his job and shuts her out. Here, he actually realizes that the job is eating him alive, and that he’s unfit for the position. He wants to be held accountable for what he did, almost did, and what he knows he’s capable of doing. He’s at a crossroads, and is fully prepared to take the path that will save him from his dark fate.

And it’s Alice who holds him back. She scoffs at the idea of Harvey doing anything else, teasing him for even thinking of finding a job outside of legal practice. 

In any other circumstances, this would be a standard example of someone telling their loved one to not give up, to keep pursuing their dreams, and to not let the bastards (or Batmen) get them down. But for us who know where this is going, this moment of support takes on a whole new tragic dimension. 

It adds a fresh aspect to Harvey’s downfall, one which directly involves Alice all the way through to his transformation and beyond. She’s already seen the way this job is eating Harvey alive from the inside to the point that he’s ready to quit, and it’s only going to get worse. But she believes in him, possibly because she’s seen him wrestle with himself several times by now, and he’s always come out on the right side.

Until now. Still feeling guilty and looking to atone, Harvey throws himself into the job of prosecuting the Joker at all costs. He becomes increasingly unstable and even unethical, whipping the public into a frenzy, wiretapping his opposing counsel, and telling Alice that the ends justify the means. Only too late does Alice become concerned about Harvey and his sudden ruthlessness, particularly when an elderly juror suffers a heart attack after receiving a threatening phone call. 

It’s an intriguing application of Mark Verheiden’s Grace story: “It bothered him that the law wasn’t enough to deal with crime in Gotham. Something inside him began to change.” And like Grace, Alice is there to witness it unfold, helpless to stop it from happening. It would have been nice to have seen Alice confront Harvey with his sins, forcing him to come to his senses. But she hadn’t needed to before, and events are happening too fast for her to keep up. 

It all builds up to the fateful acid attack, but with a unique twist. This time, the acid isn’t thrown by a mobster, nor is he scarred by some ploy of the Joker. No, the acid-thrower is just a normal guy who got caught up in Harvey’s inflammatory rhetoric, and it’s only by accident that it scars Harvey instead. Alfred spells it out later that Harvey “provoked the sick man, played on the fears of other sick men. He abused his power as D.A. and now that abuse has marked him.” 

It sounds like a neat and tidy comeuppance on Harvey’s part, except for one twist: the acid wasn’t going to hit Harvey at all. It was going to hit Alice

There are layers here that most Harvey and Gildas don’t get in other stories. Both play active parts in building to this fateful conclusion, but there’s no easy blame to go around. Despite how shitty Harvey had become during the Joker trial, he still saved Alice by pushing her out of the way and taking the acid instead. The act that sealed his transformation to Two-Face was a sacrifice he made to protect Alice. 

While it was Harvey’s fault that this happened in the first place, that all those bad choices he made were his own, one can imagine that she feels more than her fair share of guilt. She encouraged him to keep a job for which he wasn’t suited, and which was already causing him considerable strain. She and Bruce gave him the coin, which he scars and begins to see as the answer to all his problems. Before too long, he becomes more erratic than ever, vacillating between a born-again sense of wonderment and sudden bursts of rage. 

In all other Two-Face stories, this is the point where he ditches his Gilda to go off on a life of crime. This is where Alice would sit at home waiting and worrying, hoping that the man she loves would defeat the monster inside him and return to her. And just like in those stories, yes, Harvey becomes a crime lord, wearing split suits, taking over the city’s disparate gangs, and committing crimes themed around the number two. But in a rare twist, he also stays on as District Attorney, corrupting the office from within and living a double-life as D.A. and overlord of crime. 

Most remarkably, he never leaves Alice. He stays at home, just as any Gilda would have wanted. She can’t save him from the monster, because the monster is living with her right now, carrying on a facade of normal domestication just as Bruce pretends to be a dilettante playboy. 

The worst part is that she still doesn’t realize just how far he’s fallen, telling Bruce that she’s “afraid for him… he’s made a suit which emphasizes his injuries, and when he talks… I’m afraid this crime wave is obsessing him.” Assuming that Bruce will be of no help, Alice decides to do the proper Gilda thing and take matters into her own hands. 

Hiding in a closet, Alice finally learns the truth about Harvey, but she’s soon found by goons and brought before her husband. Unlike Bill Finger’s Gilda, Alice’s risky adventure fails to save Harvey from himself. He’s too far gone, refusing to listen to her pleas. “Harvey Dent is dead! Dent was weak because the law is weak! But Two-Face has the strength of evil!” 

Yes, it’s a bit goofy, and it gets even goofier after he flips the coin for her and it comes up scarred. “Ha! And evil wins! he declares, planning to feed her to a two-headed tiger at the circus. It’s silly, it’s absurd, and yet it’s also the darkest and bleakest their marriage has been depicted by this point. 

Naturally, the two-headed tiger was a ploy by Batman, a trap to finally catch his wayward friend and save Alice, who is now just a straight-up damsel in distress again. She doesn’t play a part in her rescue this time, and can only stand by and watch miserably as Harvey is defeated by his own trauma. 

Alice is saved, but from her end, it’s hardly a happy ending. She was the first Gilda who couldn’t save Harvey from himself, who still loves him no matter what he did to the city and almost did to her. 

When Batman defeats Two-Face by tossing a duplicate coin, causing Harvey to break down in helpless indecision, Alice holds him and weeps. When he’s sent to Arkham Asylum, she hopes for his recovery while worrying about him being locked up with the likes of the Joker. The story could have ended there, with Harvey forever lost and the Gilda-type left alone, opening up the door to a romance with Bruce. 

And for many readers, that’d probably have been for the best. After all, “I’m gonna feed you to tigers” does seem like a deal-breaker. Turns out, Harvey thinks so too! As he regains his senses in Arkham, he tries to push both Bruce and Alice away, knowing that he’s one flip away from killing them. He urges Alice to agree to a divorce, and she finally, miserably relents.

Their relationship is saved by Bruce, who is in Arkham while disguised as Two-Face for plot reasons. He decides to intervene and save their marriage the only way he knows how: by passionately kissing his best friend's wife! 

There’s so much to unpack here. Kissing under false pretenses! Bruce’s feelings for Alice and Harvey alike! Harvey’s discomfort at Batman (not Bruce) macking on his wife! The fact that Alice can’t tell that she’s kissing a rubber mask! The reasoning that Batman is doing it to save their marriage! It’s stupid! It's stupendous! It's comics!

For Alice, however, this is the last we see of her save for one single panel. Beyond this moment, her role in the story becomes nonexistent, as it becomes Bruce trying to save Harvey once and for all. In any other story, this would be doomed to fail, not just because of the status quo but also because Bruce Wayne isn’t exactly the most... “emotionally available” person in comics. 

As some of you have already discussed in the comments, what sets Bruce apart from Gilda is how differently they approach Harvey. They both want to save him, but only Gilda does so with a combination of emotional understanding and fortitude that Batman lacks, in both respects. Messner-Loebs makes the surprising decision to take those key aspects of Gilda and give them to Bruce instead of Alice.

It’s an incredibly powerful moment, with a boldness that likely stemmed from the strip’s imminent cancelation. It wasn’t possible in the comics, which would never have allowed Batman to do something so drastic with one of his arch-enemies. 

Only Gilda was capable of creating moments like this with Two-Face, which of course never shook the status quo and were promptly ignored. How bittersweet it is to think that Batman is only allowed to save Harvey by acting like Gilda in a story that’s days away from cancelation. That finality leads to an extremely rare case of Harvey and the Gilda counterpart having a happy ending, reunited at home surrounded by friends. 

And on top of it all, it’s their mutual love for Alice and each other that drives this story to this remarkable conclusion. 

The strip remains out of print and has largely been forgotten. However, I strongly suspect it was read by a certain group of writers who would go on to tell another mass-media Batman saga, one which would become far more famous and beloved than the poor comic strip. I speak, of course, about Batman: The Animated Series.

Orrrrrr at least this is where I would start talking about BTAS, but it turns out I wrote past LJ’s word limit. Whoops! I’ll be doing that part later in its own dedicated post. 

Next time: BTAS and Grace Lamont, the woman who might have become the most famous take on Gilda.

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