Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Detective Comics #66 (August 1942)

Even though this cover has nothing to do with this month's story (aside from the caption), the image of Robin hanging off the face of a clock tower is one that, while not iconic in this iteration, will become a recurring image in Batman comics, eventually even becoming associated with Two-Face.

Oh, by the way, this is the first appearance of Two-Face.

"The Crimes of Two-Face!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: We begin our tale by meeting Harvey Kent (yes, Kent), the new D.A. of Gotham City. He has it all. He's handsome (the press nicknames him "Apollo"), he's popular, and he has a beautiful fianceé, Gilda the sculptress. 
Flash forward and Kent is prosecuting mob boss Moroni, for the murder of "Bookie" Benson. Harvey calls the Batman to the stand (because the costumed vigilante with no legal identity can totally testify, after all -- he's an honorary policeman!), and the Dark Knight testifies that he did indeed see Moroni shoot Benson. And the clincher? Moroni's lucky two-headed silver dollar was left at the scene with Moroni's fingerprints on it. Moroni freaks and hurls a vial at Harvey Kent. Batman leaps to the defense and tries to deflect it, and so it only strikes Kent on his left side.
It was a vial of vitriol (sulphuric acid), and so Kent is rushed to a doctor and pandemonium breaks out in the courthouse. A month later the bandages come off, but Harvey is horribly scarred along the left side of his face (for the curious, such burns would probably really look something like this -- not for the feint of heart obviously). Kent is quite broken up about this, and the doctors admit it would take a miracle of plastic surgery to repair. Unfortunately, the greatest plastic surgeon in Gotham is Dr. Ekhart (who previously appeared in Batman #3!) -- who went to visit his brother in Germany before the war started and is now in a concentration camp! 
So with things gone from bad to worse, Harvey returns home to his fianceé (while getting stares from every passerby the on street, of course), and when he arrives he's pretty much already convinced himself she'll reject him. With one side of his face hideously scarred (the colourist has decided it's green, although a more realistic colour would be red), his hair burnt, his mouth twisted in a snarl, and based on Kane's art I'd guess he's blind in the left eye as well -- Harvey is no longer the paragon of beauty that Gilda once sculpted busts of.
Harvey goes on a bit of a tear and smashes up all her sculptures, before settling down later that night into a villainous monologue at his mirror.
See if YOU can follow Crazy Harvey's train of thought: Since his face is divided into beauty and ugliness, Harvey himself must be divided into good and evil! Jekyll and Hyde at the same time! Moroni's lucky silver dollar was the cause of all of this (was it, Harvey?) so Harvey takes a scalpel to one side so that it too shall have one scarred side just like him! Since Harvey is shunned now by everyone (I'd argue he shunned Gilda rather than the other way around) he's like a criminal (okay...) and it would only take a twist of fate to make him one. Harvey decides therefore to place his fate in a flip of the coin -- the coin responsible for all the trouble! If it comes up scarred, he'll become a criminal, if it comes up good, he'll wait until Dr. Ekhart is freed!

Of course it comes up bad, otherwise we'd be at the end of the story. And so Harvey Kent becomes Two-Face, and decides to base all his decisions on the flip of a coin.
One month later and Two-Face has become a known figure in the Gotham crime world. He's found a tailor willing to make him crazy split suits (right side, orange, left side, purple plaid!) and he's even got a hideout whose interior decorating is split into 'good' and 'evil' sides! His crime spree is determined by the coin: bad side, his gang robs a bank; good side, they steal from a rival mobster and give the money to charity! The public is split in their opinion -- is he a gangster or a Robin Hood?
Their next "bad" job is robbing a bonds company messenger while he's on the bus. The job would have gone fine but Batman and Robin spot it on a patrol. Swinging onto the double-decker bus, the fight breaks out. Batman tries to convince Harvey to give up the life of crime, return to his fianceé, his job. Two-Face threatens to shoot him, but Batman can't believe Harvey would ever kill his friend. In the commotion of the fight, the bus driver is killed. Two-Face's goons bail from the runaway bus, which Robin manages to stop just before it crashes.
Back at his lair, Two-Face is agonizing over betraying his friends and loved ones. He gazes at himself in a mirror, before remembering that he ordered no mirrors be placed in his room! He freaks out, smashes the mirror, and yells at one of his henchmen. Turns out it's the same guy who accidentally shot the bus driver. Two-Face flips his coin to decide his fate -- it comes up bad and so he kills the guy, stating that when he was the D.A. he would've sent the crook to the chair anyway, so justice still prevails. 
Their next job is planned to be a robbery of a double feature movie theatre. Two-Face realizes he just robbed a double-decker and decides to start basing all his crimes around the number two. Meanwhile, back at the bus, Batman and Robin find a clue -- a map of the theatre Two-Face plans to rob. It's the Bijou Theatre on Park Avenure, frequented by the very rich. 
That evening, an episode of the Fleischer Studios Superman animated series (perhaps "The Magnetic Telescope"?) is interrupted by a new film -- Two-Face! His hideous visage in close-up on the screen commanding the patrons to give over their money and valuables to his men in the aisles. But the Dynamic Duo show up! Robin captures the projection booth and shines a spotlight on the Batman as he swings from a box seat and onto the stage to battle Two-Face, while the film plays on and holy cats is this dramatic!
Two-Face makes his getaway, but Batman manages to follow him to his hide-out. Two-Face threatens to kill Batman, while the Dark Knight once again pleads with Harvey to turn himself in. With his record as DA, Batman argues, the courts will be lenient and judge this an episode of temporary insanity. Batman promises to speak in his friend's favour, guaranteeing Harvey a light sentence, and perhaps once it's complete Dr. Ekhart will be freed? (Keep dreaming on that one). As with all things, Harvey decides to make his choice by the coin! He flips it, and...
It lands in the crack in the floor between the good and bad side, standing on its edge!! Batman asks Harvey to flip again, but he refuses -- Two-Face never flips twice on the same decision! Fate must decide -- where shall the coin fall?? We'll find out... in October's issue of Detective Comics!
My Thoughts: October's issue! I gotta wait two months for the second part?? Crazy enough that Two-Face's first appearance is a two-partner, given how rare multi-part stories were in the Golden Age, but it's a two-part story with a filler issue in between? That's nuts -- especially since the filler issue is still a Finger/Kane issue. Bizarre. 
Anyways, this issue is amazing for several remarkable reasons. I mean, it's the debut of Two-Face, one of the greatest villains in the Batman rogues gallery and certainly the most tragic. I mean, he's pretty much the definitive "tragic Batman anti-villain" character type. And as depicted by Finger and Kane he's got a lot of interesting aspects that have been lost in modern stories. First and foremost there's the idea that when the coin comes up clean he commits an act of good. He donates to charity, for example. This original Two-Face truly is Jekyll and Hyde at the same time, rather than a Jekyll who became a Hyde. When the modern Two-Face's coin comes up clean, all it usually means is avoiding an act of evil. It's "I'll rob the bank or I won't", instead of "I'll rob a bank or attack a gangster!" Even though this is a Golden Age comic, I actually find this version of Two-Face more interesting and complex.
As I said earlier, multi-part stories were very rare in Golden Age comics. We had seen the first one ourselves in Detective #31-32, and the first multi-issue arc in comics wouldn't begin until March 1943's Captain Marvel Adventures #22. So the unconcluded cliffhanger ending seen here is fantastically suspenseful.
And finally, I must remark on how dark and adult this story is. Harvey Kent is horribly scarred, his life ruined. This is a tale of a good man gone horribly wrong. Yet Two-Face isn't a cackling monster either. He has regrets over his actions, he feels bad about what he's done. But he can't stop. There's psychology in this story, primitive as it may be. And what with references to Nazi concentration camps, well, the whole thing comes off very mature, in the best way possible.
Finally, I must remark on Two-Face's name. Yes, it was originally Harvey Kent -- it would eventually be changed to the more familiar Harvey Dent to avoid association with DC's other famous Kent. Personally, I prefer the change -- the name "Dent" works on a great thematic level with the character.
The Art: Kane is really firing away on all cylinders here. Apparently the artist came up with the idea for Two-Face from the visual from the poster for the 1941 Jekyll & Hyde movie starring Spencer Tracy. Of course from there it's a short leap to the idea of a character who is Jekyll and Hide simultaneously. This continues the Kane/Finger tradition of getting their villain ideas from popular horror movies. Two-Face even flips a coin like George Raft famously did in the original 1931 Scarface, the difference is that Two-Face has a reason to do so.
Kane draws the acid scars well -- they're ragged and gruesome but not as over the top as many modern artists tend to go with the character. Although one thing I've never understood is why his left hand is coloured green like the left side of his face. I mean, Harvey lifted up a hand to shield himself when the acid hit, but that was his right hand, shielding the right side of his face. Maybe it's just a colouring goof, assuming that he's scarred all along that side of his body, but it's something that I see over and over in comics and has never made sense to me. That being said, this story also has a lot of great dramatic flourishes in the art, especially the fight in the cinema. I mean, this is just great stuff all around.

The Story: What's amazing to me here is how much Bill Finger gets into one 13 page story without things feeling rushed. The pacing is just really handled well, with ample time to develop the villain's character. Granted, making it a two-part story must have helped. In terms of story structure, this feels like a far more successful version of what Finger was trying to do in the Professor Radium story from Batman #8. Two-Face really is a remarkable, original character, and immediately feels like he belongs with Joker, Catwoman, and the Penguin as a new top-tier member of Batman's rogues gallery.
What strikes me is how much effective symbolism Finger works into the tale. Harvey's fianceé is a sculptress, she works to create works of beautiful art, so Harvey feels rejected by her when he becomes hideous. Moroni throws sulphuric acid at Harvey, aka vitriol, and another use of the word vitriol is for a kind of burning hatred. The double-headed "lucky" coin is of course the most obvious bit of symbolism, but even that has another ("second") layer -- anyone reading the comic would know that Moroni's 1922 silver dollar would be what is called a "Peace" Dollar, minted after WWII, and so peace is defaced into something evil, much as the Harvey's good has been defaced and much as the Peace of WWI lead to the evil of WWII, which directly impacts the story in a unique way by taking away Harvey's hope of salvation, Dr. Ekhart. And Holy Continuity, Batman! Ekhart had already appeared in these comics, established by Finger as a great plastic surgeon way back in "The Ugliest Man in the World" in Batman #3!
To have a character who begins as Batman's friend, and becomes his enemy, and who even as a villain Batman is sympathetic towards, is trying desperately to redeem, is fantastic. Two-Face is just a great tragic figure, rife with storytelling possibilities. If I had to have a caveat about the tale, it would only be that it would have been more powerful if Harvey had been a pre-existing recurring character before this story, like Gordon, as opposed to the other DA's we've seen before now (one of whom was corrupt, and another of whom resigned to run for governor right before this story). But that would probably be asking too much of Golden Age comics storytelling.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Harvey 'Kent'/Two-Face, Gilda 'Kent', Mob Boss 'Moroni', storyline to be concluded in Detective Comics #68. Special thanks to "About Faces", a fantastic LiveJournal blog run by John Hefner. It's the number one place for fans of Two-Face! 
Two-Face Body Count: 2 (hee hee!)

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