Beer & Batman #11: Double Talk

This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond).

If you’re just joining now, be sure to check out my previous Beer & Batman pairings here.

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Few would dispute that the Joker would top any list of Batman’s adversaries, but one could make a strong argument to place Two-Face in second place. This would be appropriate, and not only due to the character’s obsession with the number “2” – given his origin as District Attorney Harvey Dent, few villains are as personal to Batman as he is. As The Long Halloween demonstrated, his origin a compelling story, rich with lots of thematic potential, contrasting Harvey’s Jekyll-and-Hyde duality against Batman’s own double life. Any comparison between the two characters, of course, is all the more poignant because the two men were working toward the same outcome. It is unsurprising, then, that this portion of Harvey Dent’s narrative (the origin) gets revisited as much as it does.

The most recent examination of Harvey Dent’s turn to Two-Face comes in Batman & Robin: The Big Burn, written by Peter J. Tomasi, with art by Patrick Gleason and inks by Mick Gray. This is the fifth collected volume of Tomasi, Gleason and Gray’s Batman & Robin run, and like Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Zero Year, the book was necessitated by the slapdash nature of DC’s New 52 reboot rendering seminal classics like Year One and The Long Halloween non-canonical. With Two-Face’s origin requiring a facelift (pun intended), a new creative team was given the daunting task of replacing one of the greatest Batman stories ever told.

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Batman & Robin: The Big Burn (Cover by Patrick Gleason & Mick Gray.)

Even prior to telling a story set under the long shadow of The Long Halloween, Tomasi & Co.’s Batman & Robin was already the other other Batman book, after Snyder and Capullo’s Batman and DC’s flagship Detective Comics. Lacking the superstar status of the former or the iconic status of the latter, Batman & Robin was something of a meat-and-potatoes Bat-book, and even when a major event took place in its pages (ie, the resurrection of Damian Wayne), it seemed to have very little impact upon any other Bat-book. Which is not to say it was bad; Tomasi writes a good, terse Batman, with Gleason and Gray turning in consistent, quality art that sits just far enough left of the Jim Lee-inspired DC house style to straddle the line between being distinct and familiar.

I’ve paired The Big Burn with Double Trouble Brewing Co.’s Fire In The Rye. I feel this matches The Big Burn in more than just name – given Two-Face’s obsession with pairs, I could think of no better brewery to pair with a sequence of Two-Face stories than Double Trouble Brewing Co. With Christmas mere weeks away, Double Trouble has handily released their Holiday Loot 6 Pack, showcasing a pair each of three of their brews. Even their aesthetic seems a good fit, with each can boasting a cheekily noir-inspired design – a fair homage to Two-Face’s pulp inspiration. I have little doubt that if the former Harvey Dent were ever to find himself in Guelph, ON, he couldn’t help but stage some sort of crime at their brewery.

The Fire In The Rye is a fire-roasted rye pale ale, and that descriptor carries a few expectations with it. But, just as it would be unfair to judge The Big Burn by comparing it to The Long Halloween, it would be unfair to judge this beer based on one’s expectations of a rye beer. True, I expected the spotlight to shine on the rye, and at first sip, I was expecting a more malt-forward ale, with some aromatic, roasted notes, more akin to a red ale than most pales. Those notes are present, but the folks at Double Trouble Brewing Co. are evidently hopheads, and wouldn’t let anyone’s expectations prevent them from adding a whole lot of centennial hops into to the mix. The result registers more like an IPA – a RyePA, if you will.

The Big Burn might not fair as well defying expectations as its fermented counterpart, but it does a sufficient job rejecting comparisons to The Long Halloween. Tomasi is less interested the relationship between Batman and Two-Face than he is between Two-Face and the gangster who maimed him. Further distancing itself from The Long Halloween, this gangster isn’t even Sal Maroni in this iteration, but is instead a new character, Erin McKillen. Tomasi isn’t oblivious to his story’s predecessor, however, as he does borrow a theme from Jeph Loeb’s book: the notion that Gotham’s more traditional mob families are getting squeezed out by the city’s more colourful criminal element. This is pretty well literalized, as the heads of the various crime families conspire to kill Gotham’s costumed criminals to take the city back for themselves. Thus, Erin McKillen is dispatched to kill the very villain she created: Two-Face.

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“Make sure to get my good side.” (Art by Patrick Gleason & Mick Gray, from Batman & Robin: The Big Burn)

In this regard (and only this regard), The Big Burn is designed after The Killing Joke’s model: revealing a character’s origin story through flashback while also advancing a “present day” narrative. (As I will supposedly one day reach the position of the “present day” narrative in continuity, I will try to concern myself primarily with the parts of The Big Burn concerned with Two-Face’s origin.) This narrative structure allows Tomasi to indulge in the first of the book’s many Christopher Nolan homages – the flashbacks are revealed, Memento-style, in reverse order to how they occurred. Thus, the first flashback details how Erin McKillen broke into Harvey Dent’s home, murdered his wife, strapped him to a table and poured acid on one half of his face. Only in subsequent flashbacks is it revealed that Harvey used to represent McKillen and her twin sister Shannon as a defense attorney, before he secured his position as DA.

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Harvey Dent swears a solemn vow over the body of his dead wife, as one does. (Art by Patrick Gleason & Mick Gray, from Batman & Robin: The Big Burn.)

Even barring Gilda Dent’s complex role in The Long Halloween from my mind, I have to take umbrage with The Big Burn’s glib fridging of the character. By hinging his turn to Two-Face upon the murder of his wife, it almost cheapens the impact of his own disfigurement – and, I suppose, vice versa. It’s the first and largest of many cliches which cumulatively weaken the entire narrative. It even employs that most tired of tropes, shoehorning in a childhood friendship between Bruce Wayne and the McKillen sisters. Then, for good measure, Bruce illustrates a point by relating a supposed Cherokee folktale, for anyone who likes to be reminded of X-Men Origins: Wolverine while reading their Batman comics. The frequent Nolan homages are somewhat distracting as well, and contribute toward the narrative feeling a little played out. It is not limited to Memento: Nolan’s own Batman movies are saluted, when Bruce tells Harvey, “Remember, for evil to flourish, good men have to do nothing,” or again, when Batman tells Gordon that he need not thank him. Most overt, though, is the Inception reference toward the end of the book, when Two-Face flips his coin in order to determine if he will shoot himself or not: Patrick Gleason cuts to black before the coin settles on heads and tales, same as how Inception cut to black before revealing whether the top would fall or keep spinning. (The Big Burn does suggest the outcome of this coin toss through use of a sound effect, however.)

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Two sides to every story. (Left: Patrick Gleason & Mick Gray, from Batman & Robin: The Big Burn. Right: Jesus Saiz & Jimmy Palmiotti, from Two-Face: Year One.)

While The Big Burn treads a lot of familiar ground, it doesn’t cover much of the same ground tread upon by The Long Halloween, which, as it turns out, may well be a very good thing. Two-Face: Year One, written by Mark Sable, with art by Jesus Saiz and Jeremy Haun, leans heavily upon the Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale classic, but, in all fairness, it has little choice: it exists in the same continuity. It’s a little puzzling as to why DC would feel it necessary to release a new telling of the same story, but a cursory glance at the publication date (2007), reveals the answer: poised just ahead of the 2008 release of The Dark Knight, a film which also relates the origin of Two-Face, the reasons were purely commerce. Under these circumstances, then, Mark Sable did a respectable job, finding spaces between panels and between issues of The Long Halloween to tell a wholly apocryphal, though not wholly unenjoyable, story of Harvey Dent and Two-Face.

As this is something of a cops-and-robbers story, I’m pairing Two-Face: Year One with Double Trouble’s Hops & Robbers Sessionable IPA. Sessionable is a somewhat vague term indicating that a particular beer can withstand more than one serving, which usually suggests a lower alcohol content. At 5.7%, Hops & Robbers is not a particularly strong beer, but it is maybe not so low as to warrant the “sessionable” tag. It is nevertheless a very drinkable beer, which is probably why Double Trouble feels comfortable calling it “Canada’s most sessionable IPA,” and while the claim pretty well can’t be qualified, it’s a hell of an IPA. I first tried this beer the same day that I first tried Sierra Nevada’s legendary pale ale, which, in craft brewing circles, is pretty much considered the gold standard of IPAs, and frankly, I preferred Double Trouble’s version. It skews more towards the hops than the meticulously balanced Sierra Nevada offering, but hops are what I want when I drink an IPA. Hops & Robbers deliver, without ever getting too aggressive to become unpalatable.

While Two-Face: Year One is not as extraordinary as the Hops & Robbers IPA, it is a comic book that I would describe as sessionable, if that were a descriptor that could ever be applied to a comic book. A lean two issues, Two-Face: Year One is less interesting for any attempts at expanding upon The Long Halloween’s near-perfect narrative, and is more entertaining for extending beyond The Long Halloween’s conclusion. Mark Sable might not be a bad writer, but he definitely lacks the sophistication of Jeph Loeb, and unlike Tomasi’s work on The Big Burn, he can’t sidestep the comparison. Sable takes such care to remain faithful to his source material, that, if the art were in lesser hands, the comic would read more as fan-fiction than as canon. But the art is in very good hands, particularly in the noir-ish flashback portions, which deserve recognition as some early work from the always-great Jeremy Haun. The main story art is handled by Jesus Saiz and inked by Jimmy Palmiotti. They’re a team whose art is maybe a little more workmanlike, but the storytelling is clear and effective, the characters realistic and distinct.

For his part, Mark Sable has fun with the script, peppering it with references and first-appearances of a lot of characters who play a significant role further on in continuity, like Harvey Bullock, Maggie Sawyer and Crispus Allen. None of these characters do much to serve the story he’s telling here – each of these characters are enlisted by Gordon and Dent to act as a special task force to gather enough evidence to indict Sal Maroni. Which never transpires, because, as we know from reading The Long Halloween, Sal Maroni is not arrested – he turns himself in, striking a deal to testify against Carmine Falcone. Thus, the first third of this story amounts to little more than a forced Gotham Central: Year One fanfic. It recovers a little after it focuses on the rivalry between Harvey and lawyer named Mort Weinstein, who is the incumbent candidate for district attorney. This at least places Harvey under pressure, and gives him an adversary who knows just how to push his buttons. Throughout, we’re treated to flashbacks of Harvey receiving some truly terrible advice from his therapist. All of this is designed to demonstrate that the dark half of Harvey’s personality was always present, even prior to his disfigurement.

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It wasn’t just the acid to the face that turned Harvey Dent to Two-Face, but also some bad advice from his therapist. (Art by Jeremy Haun, from Two-Face: Year One.)

Regrettably, the script has all the subtlety of an episode of Gotham. Which is to say, none. Whereas The Long Halloween left reasonable doubt as to whether Harvey Dent was responsible for any of the Holiday murders, Two-Face: Year One is pretty on the nose about the fact that Harvey Dent was murdering gangsters before he ever became Two-Face. Other attempts to link this narrative to that of The Long Halloween are similarly clumsy and serve to rob some nuance from how the events played out in Jeph Loeb’s book. This heavy hand is also used when making references to characters of some future importance, broadcasting outright what might work better as Easter eggs – no one was wondering if gangster Frank Bertinelli had a beautiful daughter, but it comes up, because if it didn’t, we might never recall that Helena Bertinelli will one day become the Huntress, despite it being a detail not real relevant to this story. Even that tired trope of just about everyone having some past friendship with Bruce Wayne gets played out, as the flashbacks insert a friendship between Bruce and Harvey which was certainly never mentioned in The Long Halloween.

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Old friends for the first time. (Art by Jeremy Haun, from Two-Face: Year One.)

The lack of subtlety does match the tone of the last third of the book, which take place after Harvey’s disfigurement. This is where Two-Face: Year One finds a voice separate from The Long Halloween, and that voice is delightfully ridiculous: Harvey, as Two-Face, insists that his name is still on the ballot for District Attorney, and continues to campaign against Weinstein, employing the most cliched versions of his fellow “freaks” (Joker, Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Riddler, et. al) to canvas voters. This culminates in him outright abducting Weinstein, and placing him on “trial” in Arkham, with those same villains acting as a hilarious jury. Here is some dialogue from this scene, after Two-Face asks the jury to render their verdict:

Poison Ivy: He’s a man, so by definition… guilty.

Killer Croc: Normally, I like my meat rare, but what the hell, fry him.

Maxie Zeus: If you don’t zap him, I’ll call a bolt down from Olympus and do it myself.

Riddler: Question… what’s the opposite of innocent? Answer…

Mr. Freeze: Let him experience loss… like the rest of us.

Scarecrow: Well, if we could keep him on death row… with the perpetual fear of death hanging over him, that would be ideal, but this will have to do…

I could harp on about the fact that characters like Killer Croc, Maxie Zeus, The Ventriloquist and Man-Bat have no precedence to exist at this point in continuity, but these are such wonderfully silly caricatures of Batman villains that I can’t even grumble about that. The scene, and really Two-Face’s entire plot, is a whole lot of completely nonsensical fun. It is, like the rest of the book, completely inconsequential to the overall Batman narrative or any richer understanding of the Two-Face character, but like the Hops & Robbers IPA, it’s very easy to enjoy.

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Batman: Faces (cover by Matt Wagner.)

Two-Face: Year One ends, like The Long Halloween, with Two-Face confined to a cell in Arkham Asylum. Batman: Faces, written and drawn by Matt Wagner, with colours by Steve Oliff, opens with him breaking out. Which is precisely why I’m pairing it with the last offering from Double Trouble’s Holiday Loot 6 Pack, the Prison Break Pilsner. The book and beer are both a little unusual. Faces was written as an arc of Legends of the Dark Knight in 1992, before The Long Halloween was even written, and as such, it is  a little difficult to position in continuity. I’ve placed it here because this position works as well as any, and I am talking Two-Face right now, after all. It isn’t a bad book, but not one that I feel I could dedicate an entire column to, so while it isn’t a take on Two-Face’s origins, like the other two books I’ve discussed, this seemed my best opportunity to mention it. Because it’s worth mentioning, and I did need a comic to pair with the Prison Break Pilsner.

Pilsners aren’t often my beer of choice; it’s a style I respect – they’re hard to brew, and all the components need to be balanced, because the simplicity of a pilsner’s flavour profile means that any off-flavours have absolutely nothing to hide behind. But just as with their Fire in the Rye, Double Trouble seems to delight in subverting expectations, and what I’m learning to expect from Double Trouble is a healthy helping of hops. For their Prison Break Pilsner, they didn’t just add hops during the boil, they dry hopped it while it was fermenting. If pilsner is the prison, then the hops are the escapees.

Matt Wagner also subverts expectations in Faces, and it isn’t a role that entirely suits him as well as it does Double Trouble Brewing Co. This is the man who, more than a decade after Faces, would write and draw Batman & The Monster Men and Batman & The Mad Monk, both of which had such a classic, iconic feel – rather than defy expectations, those books were not just everything one expects from a Batman book, but pretty well everything one might want, too. It isn’t that Faces is a really bold or bizarre book – the story is largely straightforward: Two-Face recruits a variety of people with physical deformities, and through blackmail and coercion, obtains an island upon which he intends to found a nation for these so-called freaks.

Okay, maybe that is a little weird.  But premise aside, I feel that how it really sidesteps the obvious is that it identifies Two-Face less as a man with a split-personality, and more as a man with a physical disfigurement. Of course, in it’s denouement, Two-Face is confronted by the realization that it isn’t his appearance that keeps him ostracized from society, but rather his tendency toward murder, blackmail and coercion, which separates him even from the “freaks” he purported to align himself with. Duality, then, is definitely a theme of the narrative, but it is less prevalent than the theme of vanity. It’s an interesting angle to take, for sure, but I don’t feel it ever gains a great deal of as resonance as a Batman vs. Two-Face story.

As a story about real estate agent Nelson Wren, it’s pretty good. An unwitting accomplice in Two-Face’s plot, Nelson is an ordinary, if unhandsome, man who craves approval and affection so much that he can easily be manipulated by any appeal to his vanity. He fails to learn anything from his mistakes, and the story doesn’t end well for poor Nelson, but nevertheless, he is such an ordinary guy, a bit of a loser, that it is hard not have some sympathy for him. Matt Wagner definitely imbues his book with a little more than the usual thematic meatiness, but in this book, it seems almost misplaced, as though he had the themes in mind first, and then shoehorned Batman and Two-Face into it in order to obtain the venue to tell the story.

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I’m not sure why, but this appears to be an homage to Purple Rain. (Art by Matt Wagner, from Batman: Faces.)

Of course, many might consider a lot of hops to be misplaced in a pilsner, as well. Really, it’s a matter of taste. But sometimes, it’s all right to be of two minds.

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2 thoughts on “Beer & Batman #11: Double Talk

  1. Pingback: Beer & Batman #17: Bad Men Begin | Gutterball Special

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