"Vanity keeps persons in favor with themselves who are out of favor with all others." --William Shakespeare[N.B. I can in no way replace or supercede what Scipio of the Absorbascon has written about the character Two-Face. It is superior to any other analysis of the character I've ever read, and it is what made me think harder about the character. I had started writing this before the Absorbascon came back to the land of the living, so I was hesitant to post this at first. However, I think there's something I can add, albeit small, to an analysis of who Two-Face is, is why he became that way.]
Here goes nothing...
What prompted this was a posting on Scans Daily about Batman Annual #14, which many Two-Face fans consider an important story (and which Scans Daily considered the "definitive Two-Face story,") as it revealed his psychosis came about because of an abusive childhood, and that he probably would've become Two-Face without getting acid thrown in his face becuase his mind was already fractured. To which I cry foul.
That story portrayed Harvey Dent as a victim. By being "acted upon" rather than acting, Harvey Dent becomes not a villain but simply a man in need of help. It puts him down to the level of The Ventriloquist, who suffers from a true split personality. One thing that I've noticed about older comic book stories is that characters actively chose to become who are, be it hero or villain. Batman swore an oath on his parents' grave to fight crime. It's an aspect of comics that seems to be eroding today, as more heroes are conscripted into service (like the Jaime Reyes version of the Blue Beetle), rather than having this choice be the product of deliberation and soul-searching, and I believe that current trend has seeped into comic book villainy as well.
Judging by the comments on Scans Daily, it's a lot easier to accept a man becoming a villain after suffering an abusive childhood rather than just being a regular guy who suffered and accident and snapped.
One commenter asked: "what do you think of the idea of Harvey having a sort of vanity to him? That he has this drive in him to look perfect and handsome. This could go along with the abusive father idea that his getting his perfect physique getting ruined was just one first domino that got knocked back and eventually lead to his break down and becoming Two Face."
To which the original poster answered:
"I think it's the sort of thing that has to be handled with a delicate hand, if it's handled at all. People won't feel too bad for Harvey is he's a vain guy who goes crazy because he's no longer pretty.
I like the idea that he, say, uses his good looks and charisma to get ahead politically as a way of actually doing his job better. But no matter what, it's a very tricky attribute to use if you want a Harvey Dent that people will actually care about." (All emphasis mine.)
To which I say: you're not supposed to care about Harvey Dent.
In a small way, the author proved my point. You are not supposed to care about Harvey Dent. You may be able to empathize with his rotten luck, you might still hope for his redemption, but you are not supposed to sympathize with him to the point of losing sight of his evilness. If you do cross that line, then Harvey Dent isn't a villain any more, but at best a vague and ill-defined anti-hero. The sad thing is that many readers consider the original version of the character simplistic, and the modern split personality version full of depth.
Let's go back to the Golden Age, to Harvey Dent's first ever story, to see what I mean.
Harvey Dent choose to become Two-Face. Now, can you care about someone who chose to become a villain? Perhaps. But not in the same way as you do a victim of abuse and a psychological condition.
In his origin story, Two-Face choose to become a villain. He was not a victim. Not only that, but he likes being Two-Face. Why? Because it liberates him. On the first page of his first story, Harvey Dent (called Harvey "Kent" back then, which was later changed) is seen reading a copy of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it's obvious to see inspiration was drawn from Robert Louis Stevenson's novella. By operating under the persona of Two-Face, Harvey Dent is liberated to act on his darker impulses, just like Dr. Jekyll was. Because he was free to act out his impulses against society, even his "good" side had darkened:
The problem with the current incarnation is this: modern Harvey Dent doesn't like being Two-Face. By relegating him to multiple personalities, he's trapped inside of the same body as "Two-Face" while the two absolute-good and absolute-evil personalities constantly vie for dominance. It's not liberating. He has no control, he can't make his own moral code. In the Golden Age incarnation, he was empowered, he was freed by his accident to adopt an arbitrary moral code that put him in a position of power. Harvey Dent choose to become Two-Face. Sure, he did it in a roundabout way--by letting the coin decide--but he chose to flip it, knowing full well it could come up bad heads.
So why did Harvey Dent become Two-Face?
Well, first off, Harvey Dent was vain. He was called "Apollo" by the press. His girlfriend, Gilda, was a sculptress who sculpted a bust of him on more than one occasion. Though his girlfriend doted over him in the hospital while he recovered from his acid attack, she didn't react too well when the bandages came off, and neither did he:
Not only that, but Gotham's citizens didn't react too well, either:
Having defined himself by his looks and having a girlfriend who "worshipped beauty" was enough to cut Harvey Dent down to his core. He feels as though society has completely shunned him. He was being treated like a criminal, a monster, so why not play the hand Fate dealt him and act like one? If that's how the world sees me, then that's who I am. That is the very definition of defining one's self by appearance. True Vanity, with a capital V. (Interestingly enough, he was portrayed as an occasional bit-part actor in the Batman Sunday strips.)
His faith society was so broken down that he believed that without his looks, there is essentially no difference between a good man and a crook, and so arbitrary was Fate and society's rules, that he consigned his future to a simple coin toss. And why not throw your fate away? If the world is such a rotten place that all your good deeds and hard work wind up getting you punished in the end, why not just be bad, and enjoy a life of crime and give in to your darker side?
However, not only was he vain, but untrusting and quick to judge. He was so quick to believe that his girlfriend rejected him that he never gave her a chance to explain herself. Harvey Dent is superficial, and you can't argue otherwise. He was a flawed man to begin with, but not in the sense of being abused as a child or developing a psychological condition, but simply just being a superficial, vain, self-centered man. He wasn't a victim. The modern multiple personalities version doesn't work because "good" Harvey isn't flawed at all, and what's the point of having a character be a living example of Jekyll and Hyde if Dr. Jekyll has no dark inner impulses? Having a split personality just victimized Harvey Dent, and "reforming" him would simply take the form of jettisoning "bad" Harvey, not making "good" Harvey realize his mistakes in judgment and shortcomings as a person, as true reform should.
Not only that, but in the modern version, how can good Harvey be absolute good and the Two-Face persona be absolute evil, when he was never "all good" to begin with? Who among us has that simple a personality that it is drawn in absolutes? The human mind is complex beyond comprehension. Harvey Dent is a man battling his own shortcomings, and to say otherwise is simplistic. If there are no flaws to acknowlege, no weaknesses to overcome in the "good" side of his personality, then true reform is not possible. How is this characterization of a flawed man considered simplistic? Or is it a product of our current times, where we are afraid to consider ourselves flawed human beings, but instead have a tendency to relegate our vices to forces beyond our control?
Reform of a psychological condition requires therapy and treatment. Reform of a shallow, vain, selfish, flawed personality takes the ability to admit you were wrong about life, that you chose to do bad things, that your decisions were your fault, and that if you hope to redeem yourself, you better be willing to humble yourself, admit your mistakes, and grow as a person. That's why in every story where Harvey Dent "reforms," the reformation always takes place off-panel, and always takes the form of an instant quasi-magical cure, because otherwise it would take years of soul-searching. Curing a disease has no redemptive value for a flawed character. "Two-Face" is not a disease. Two-Face is not a separate being. Two-Face is Harvey Dent; the dark, nasty, weak side of Harvey Dent that he wasn't mature enough to keep in check when his life hit a speedbump. To victimize him into an object of pity does no justice to the character, takes away all his redemptive value and the ability to empathize with him, all of which I shall explain more in Part 2.
One modern panel did get the vanity aspect right, though:
Batman: Face the Face
It's a shame the rest of the story didn't expand on this, but by having Harvey acknowledge his vanity as the "sin I keep paying for" shows not only that "good" Harvey had his flaws, but that he was willing to confront them.