Thursday, September 9, 2010

Why I Don't Care About Harvey Dent, and Neither Should You

"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.

Here's why:

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.


Eyz said...

I remember also a story that showed Harvey having a brother...and letting him die (or kinda killing him by "accident")..
Where his split personality came as a form of replacement of that brother...
I guess it wasn't "canon". Or it was ignored and forgotten forever... :(
Though I liked this one..It showed Harvey as crazy as ever and responsible for some very awful crimes at a young age..

Face the Face was pretty cool though~

SallyP said...

Heck, I like Harvey, but I like him as a villain. A certain amount of empathy is allowable of course, because it keeps him from being a cypher, but he's NOT a hero...or even an anti-hero.

And a rotten childhood can turn someone into a villain? Guy Gardner had a terrible childhood, and he's just as heroic as can be! In his own inimitable fashion of course.

And...and Scipio is back at the Absorbascon? Oh frabjous day!

Aaron said...

Nicely done! This opened up a lot of ideas about him I had not considered before. I always tend to think of him as a guy who in a way does not have a personality or any kind of moral basis, and that's why he lets the coin decide, and of course he feels that it's the best decision maker because it's as arbitrary as the universe that scarred him. What usually bothers me is if his coin is treated as a mere gimmick or affectation, like he flips it as a formality but all along wants to be evil, as in a lot of comic stories and most of Batman Forever. Frankly, Anton Chigurh's coin flips in No Country For Old Men were more along the lines of how I see this character, he truly does not want to make some moral decisions, he lets chance decide. I don't sympathize with Two-Face much though, because I think of guys like the Thing or Metamorpho that also lose their looks but become heroes.

Thanks for all the thoughts!

LissBirds said...

Eyz, ironically, the name of the story with Harvey's brother is Batman: Jekyll and Hyde. I'm not sure if DC forgot or ignored the details of it. I wasn't too keen on it because it was just way too gory for my tastes. Face the Face I did like, though, for the most part.

"And a rotten childhood can turn someone into a villain? Guy Gardner had a terrible childhood, and he's just as heroic as can be! In his own inimitable fashion of course." Excellent point, Sally!! I didn't think of that! And, yes, Scipio is back!!

Thanks, Aaron! I'll try to get into how the coin was used in the Golden Age in my next post. I don't like it as a gimmick, either, and even the "crimes based on two's" pushed my limits of credulity just a bit. But I love the two-toned suit, go figure. I don't know Metamorpho's origins well enough, but the fact that he became a hero rather than a villain shows deep down, he's a different kind of guy than Harvey Dent was to begin with, and that's the difference that I think writers are forgetting about.

Eyz said...

There was a pretty fun retelling of Metamorpho done recently... It was simply called "Metamorpho Year One" I think.. a fun golden age-ysh story, light hearted. Give it a try if you like the character ;)

Batman: Jekyll and Hyde! Yeah! It was that!
I just re-checked this book. It showed Harvey having a meaner older brother... and one time, the "innocent" Harvey let him die in a fire, in a room next to him.. This story shows the "fracture" in his mind, happened at that time..

I wouldn't say it was completly made not-cannon. Just not referenced anymore. It still works with the other post-crisis Batman stories..
(the story was better than the artwork in my eyes.. a bit messy and "trash"-y)

Diabolu Frank said...

I had been thinking in recent months that if I ever wrote Harvey Dent, I'd use another traumatic event to turn him into an anti-heroic Bizarro. Enforce the duality by having him do really wrong things with humanity, or right things in a horrifically inhuman manner. However, you have swayed me. Two-Face makes a lot more sense as an egotistic turned id monster, and I really hate neurotic/reluctant types working off a compulsion. Be what you are, and what Dent seems to be is a bastard let loose. Far more interesting than some namby-pamby "it's society's fault" b.s.

LissBirds said...

Thanks, Frank! I'm glad my post had some influence on your opinions...I'm grateful that I could contribute some meaningful analysis of the character.

"what Dent seems to be is a bastard let loose" Wait till I get a chance to do a post on Two-Face's stint as "Janus." What you said sums it up perfectly. :)

I really have come to dislike the abusive childhood angle, despite the fact that J.M. DeMatteis wrote a Two-Face story centering around that. It's hard for me to disagree with anything he wrote. But now that my understanding of the character has changed, I absolutely cannot accept Harvey Dent as a victim of any sort. Only he should be responsible for his villainy, no one else.

Diabolu Frank said...

It's a cyclical argument. Criminals are pure evil. No wait, they're feeling human beings with bad childhoods. But then again, who doesn't have some traumatic experiences growing up, and yet they don't turn that into an excuse to commit heinous acts. History matters, and intentions matter, but ultimately, adults are accountable for the choices they make. Making Dent conflicted may be "deep," but after decades of ambiguity, pure evil is more fun to read. Sympathy for the devil has become such a cliche.

JesseBaker said...

This article is full of crap. Pure crap.

For let's be frank; unless he's being written sympathetically, Two-Face is pretty much a forgettable and utterly nonsensical Bat-Villain. Why would an ace District Attorney turn to crime after getting his face disfigured if he didn't have a traumatic backstory to explain how he could snap like that and suddenly develop an obsession with the number two? Why not become a super-hero or vigilante?

And without the sympathy angle, what the fuck is the point of his feuding with Batman? He's just another freakshow villain with no depth.

The sympathy angle MADE Two-Face a compelling character and one of Batman's top villains. The idea that Harvey Dent was a damaged man who endured a hellish childhood and who made something of himself and sought to do good, makes his fall from grace all the more tragic as well as gives him a considerable amount of depth.

I'll ignore the Batman annual and challenge you with the Batman The Animated Series, which for me was my first real introduction to Two-Face. Two-Face as Bruce Wayne's best friend, someone who was good but driven to evil when an evil mob boss tried to exploit his personal demons and ended up disfiguring him, made him a compelling tragic villain.

Jeph Loeb furthered this by exploring the ties between Bruce and Harvey (which were initially established by Frank Miller in Year One BTW) and explored WHY Harvey turned evil: having watched his wife nearly be killed, the mob "getting" to Bruce Wayne, and culminating in the acid to the face, led to Harvey snapping like a twig as he became a monster, someone who became like the men he fought in the courtrooms as they systematically destroyed everything he believed in before destroying his face out of pure "hurt him any way possible".

And that doesn't touch "The Dark Knight", which portrayed Harvey's descent into darkness as the end result of Joker (after Harvey was disfigured) essentially coming to him in his darkest hour and basically telling him that hope is meaningless and for him to embrace chaos and all the dark horrific things chaos embodies.

As for your "examples", I should note that the old Golden Age Two-Face stories, are pure crap and explain why Two-Face was never used for about a decade or two after they were first published.

Characters change and evolved and in the case of Harvey Dent, these changes made for a better character by way of giving him depth and pathos. If not, we'd be getting a character who might as well be like Madame Veil from "GI Joe", going around stealing so he can build a face stealing/erasing machine so he can fix his face, only for Batman to come up with a way to save his victim and get Two-Face rendered "No Face" via screwing with the machine so that Harvey's face gets erased instead.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I can't even get through the whole post. I had to skim. The spelling errors, not to mention the logic errors and actual comics-related continuity errors, offend my very sensibilities. But I would like to point out a couple of things:

"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." DO know that in his first story he WAS an anti-hero, thus negating pretty much your entire post, right?


Maybe you should educate yourself about Two-Face beyond two essays by one guy, his golden age motivations, his modern age motivations, and buy a clue about what makes an actual compelling character, rather than a throwaway villain like, say, the penny plunderer, or any one of a hundred others. There's NOTHING interesting about someone who chooses evil Just Because; that's not a human motivation for a grown-up, that's a THIS IS HAPPENING NOW BECAUSE I SAY SO motivation for a child.

And sure, you can say "Oh, but his vanity was his motivation!" except, you know, if you actually read the story, it isn't.

If anyone is treating the golden age version of the character as simplistic, YOU are, as the hopeless "Oh God, I'm shunned by society, I feel so alone, empty inside, nobody loves me, my girlfriend can't stand to look at me, oh God my career is ruined! How can I possibly make the best of this trauma? I know! I'll be an ANTI-HERO and let the coin decide when I do bad things like rob banks and good things like give the profits to the widows and orphans!" reaction that actually occurs has more depth than "MY FAAAAACE I AM NO LONGER A VERY PRETTY MAN!"

Storytelling--yes, even comics storytelling--deserves better than that, and it often IS better than that, even in the golden age.

And let's get one thing straight:

"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."

Oh. I see. So if someone tells me I'm pretty, that automatically makes me vain. If a whole BUNCH of people tell me I'm pretty, I'm so vain I'll go crazy if my face is ruined!

Did you know that vanity can't be IMPOSED on someone? It comes from WITHIN? Which we never see with Golden Age Harvey? He never looks at himself admiringly in a mirror, never talks about how handsome he is, never so much as THINKS about his looks...until HALF HIS FACE IS MISSING and people are whispering about how monstrous he is.

(cont. next comment)

Anonymous said...

He didn't *invent* the fact that he'd be shunned, it was reinforced by the people around him. Tell me, if you lost half your face, how would YOU react if ALL OF SOCIETY BRANDED YOU A MONSTER? Would you feel outcast? Alone? Shunned? Would you obsess over the fact that half your face was missing and if only the disfiguring accident hadn't happened, you wouldn't be stared at everywhere you go, and whispered about, and the person you love wouldn't look at you in horror?

When this kind of thing happens in reality, it turns ugly pretty often. Are you familiar with the case of the disfigured marine who married his high school sweetheart, only to separate a year later? And the fact that he's SUICIDAL in his interviews over his disfigurement? And joking about killing his wife? Do you REALLY think that even an AVERAGE looking person wouldn't react to the kind of trauma Harvey faced negatively unless they were "Vain with a Capital V"?

SERIOUSLY? How little credit do you give humanity?

Also: who ever said that Harvey Dent DIDN'T have flaws? Seriously? The fact that he was emotionally damaged enough to be harboring a secondary personality like Two-Face should be evidence enough that he's got a lot of scars. Just because the flawed, broken parts of Harvey Dent aren't as pure evil as Two-Face is, doesn't make him perfect, it just makes him less bad than the HOMICIDAL MANIAC SECONDARY PERSONALITY. If everyone who's less horrible than a homicidal maniac is perfect in your eyes, I think maybe you should re-evaluate what you consider perfection to be.

Oh, and scans_daily: not a hive mind. But thanks for thinking we are. We all appreciate that.

If I'm harsh with you, it's because you really have no right to tell anyone that they SHOULDN'T care about a character with such poorly researched, flimsy logical reasoning as you've presented here. If you're going to point out the flaws in something and demand that people listen to you about it, make it thorough. Both Jesse Baker and I shouldn't have had ANY openings to point out the holes in your logic. Go big, or go home.

For lovers of rational, logical comic book debate everywhere, I'm Dr. Von Fangirl. Now this.

LissBirds said...

Thanks for your comments, Dr. Von Fangirl. I was being facetious with the title of this post: I want more people to care about Harvey Dent, as he is one of my favorite characters.

"that's a THIS IS HAPPENING NOW BECAUSE I SAY SO motivation for a child." Yes, that's what I had originally meant in my post: Harvey Dent is childish in his reactions. If he had been a more mature and well-balanced character, he could easily have become a hero, as you mentioned. The fact that there was a deficiency in his character before he was scarred is why he became a villain.

dr-von-fangirl said...

You're...really falling back on the 'I was being sarcastic' defense? Huh. Yeah, no. Especially not in light of the comments on this post from when you made it.

"I absolutely cannot accept Harvey Dent as a victim of any sort. Only he should be responsible for his villainy, no one else"

Yeeeeah. I'm actually gonna need you to not blow smoke at me, mmmkaaaay?

Is it really so hard to just say, "Oops, my arguments were far from airtight"? Or "Oops, I trivialized serious emotional and physical trauma as a 'speedbump'?"

And please don't make me quote every. single. line. about how modern Harvey Dent's motivations/lack of flaws make him a crappy character without empowerment and that he's a person you're just flat out not supposed to care about.


"If he had been a more mature and well-balanced character, he could easily have become a hero, as you mentioned. The fact that there was a deficiency in his character before he was scarred is why he became a villain."

You might want to stop contradicting yourself if you want to actually win the argument. In the original golden age story, he became an anti-hero, you follow? This ain't rhetoric on my part, it's what actually happened. Even with the golden age 'deficiency' in his character--the supposed vanity, which I already pointed out is something that you actually imposed on him and of which there is no canonical evidence in the story cited--he became an anti-hero rather than an all out villain.

Also, again: modern age Harvey Dent IS flawed, in the sense that he isn't a whole, perfect individual because of the emotional scars he carries. This is not to suggest that there's something automatically wrong with you if you're the survivor of abuse (hi, I am one myself) but 'abused' isn't supposed to be your default setting. It's not meant to be your natural state of being, because abuse is wrong. If you choose not to see the trauma of Harvey's childhood abuse as being just as realistic for a turn towards villainy with a coin as his moral code as the trauma of losing his looks is, I'm...really not sure how your view of the world works.

I really do recommend you spend a lot of time over at if you like Two-Face so much, because I think you're bringing an entirely too two (ha) dimensional viewpoint to the character in light of his incredibly rich history. That's not only an injustice to him, but to you as well.

LissBirds said...

Yes, the title of the post is facetious.

I thought it would be refreshing to see a villain who didn't have a troubled childhood--it would be interesting to see a villain who is not so easy to sympathize with. I think the split personality interpretation affords Harvey Dent too much sympathy. If he had a sterling childhood and just grew up to be a vain, superficial jerk, wouldn't it make sense if he fell apart when one bad thing happened to him? Wouldn't it make him seem less a victim and more a villain?

I understand Harvey Dent in my own way. We all bring our own experiences and tastes to fictional stories, and we all come away with our own interpretations. I'm sorry if mine doesn't line up with your interpretation. I'm sorry if there's flaws in my logic. I never claimed that there isn't any room for an interpretation besides mine--we're all entitled to our opinions. I'm open to several different interpretations of Two-Face, from TDK to the Golden Age to TLH. A character's change through time and different interpretations by authors and fans are the fun of being a comics fandom.

Sophie said...

I care about Harvey Dent.

Let’s say it’s true, abusive childhood or not, he could well have chosen to be a hero and to continue to fight crime and maybe become another Jim Gordon, but we both know that it’s impossible in a world dominated by superhero philosphy. He’s not the hero of the story. So he loses, that’s as simple as that.

For me, split personality or not, abusive childhood or not, Harvey Dent reprensents the efforts of human, with its multiple weaknesses and defects(some vainity too, maybe), someone who fights and fails against the superhero franchise, and that’s very important for me. Because I have more admiration for people “who finally, bravely lose rather those who gibly succeed.”

I acknowledge the depth and insight of the comic book writers and their wisdom, and I don’t dislike the philosophy, but I really think Harvey Dent is, to some extent, the Don Quixote of the whole franchise. His existence as the crusading District Attorney was brief enough, but without the protection of a mask, without fortune, wealth, physical training, he was just simply being himself, a human, but he could have accomplished what Bruce Wayne hadn’t been able to during 70 years, if only the writers had allowed so, and that’s why I really care about Harvey Dent.

sorry about spelling mistakes if there are any :)