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TBU Flashback Review: Batman: Faces


Originally released in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #28-30 (Feb-April 1992)

 

Matt Wagner is the mind and hands behind FACES. For this story arc, he got nominated to three Eisner Awards in 1993: best cover artist, best penciler/inker and best writer/artist. Wagner is also the responsible for Batman and the Monster Men (2005), the tale which has inspired the one of the latest crossovers in the Batman titles, Night of the Monster Men.

 

Summary: Two-Face has escaped from Arkham. After two years remaining in the shadows, he comes back to perform a series of crimes involving his mania for dualities. This time, though, those crimes are nothing but a facade for what he is actually planning.

 

In this tale, Batman has to play his part as World’s Greatest Detective to unveil Two-Face’s second intentions and find out why he is targeting plastic surgeons.

 

Synopsis (with spoilers): The first issue opens with Two-Face, aka Harvey Dent, inside his prison cell, tossing his infamous coin. Later that night, Batman is informed by Commissioner Gordon that, once again, Harvey Dent has escaped from Arkham.

 

Two years after, Bruce Wayne finds himself in a masquerade. Living up to the eccentric billionaire standard, he sets out to buy an island (Isle D’Urberville) from Paul D’Urberville.

 

Nelson Wren, D’Urberville’s realtor, is caught up in the middle of their exchange, but soon gets entranced by a woman dressed as a Space Vixen. They go out of the mansion and into the gardens. The woman, Manon Barbe, is a French woman whose cousin is a real estate investor working in the US. Just as they are about to kiss, a scream is heard coming from the party. They rush inside and watch as a man dressed as a devil falls to the ground, grasping his mask. A doctor dressed as Donald Duck comes forward and removes said mask, only for the skin of the face of the man to come together with the mask, leaving his skull exposed. The man is Donald Tremaine, a plastic surgeon.

 

Bruce flies from the party and, on the next page, a Batman in full regalia concludes that the mask was only a diversion from Two-Face’s actual objective: stealing a Yin-Yang sculpture from Gotham’s Museum. I can’t help but point out how beautifully done the motorcycle panel is, with thick black lines contouring the flat grayness of the Batman suit. Batman runs to the Gotham Museum to try stopping Harvey’s plans, but Two-Face manages to get away with the sculpture.

 

Back in the masquerade, the party is over after the commotion. Nelson Wren and Manon Barbe plan on a date. Later, in his home, Wren is approached by a masked man with a French accent. This man has information on the sale of Isle D’urberville and offers to top Bruce Wayne’s offer by 10 million dollars. He assures Wren that there is to be a reward if he settles the deal. Wren believes that Manon was the one to give this man information about the island sale.

 

Wren goes to Bruce personally to inform him about the newest bid made on the island. They arrange a meeting with Paul D’Urberville on the racing track for the morning following.

 

The actual meeting gifts us with the most interesting paneling in the comic. The O shape of the racetrack surrounds inner panels laid in a rectangular grid of 3 x 3 and the reading sequence goes from the racetrack to the rectangular panels and back to the racetrack. It sounds confusing, but it is so masterfully done that the reading sequence is as fluid as in a traditional layout.

 

Nelson Wren is barely keeping up with the jogging pace of the billionaires. The deal is once again settled between Bruce and D’Urberville.

 

We go from a very exhausted to an absolutely gleeful Nelson Wren meeting Manon Barbe. Later in the evening, after their date, she gets picked up by her cousin. As the car leaves, we see that Hervé, said cousin, doesn’t have legs.

 

Two nights later, we find Batman crouched in the corner of a theater. He is keeping an eye on the likely next victim of Two-Face, a plastic surgeon who is celebrating his 22nd anniversary. The doctor gets shot, and Batman goes after the killer. He manages to capture the man and delivers him to the police.

 

Nelson Wren arrives home from his date with Manon and the masked man is once again in his living room. Wren demands 25% of the value of the deal to proceed with the negotiations on Isle D’Urberville, to what the masked man concedes.

 

Back to Batman, he is interrogating the shooter in the precinct. After using all of his effect phrases and theatricals on the criminal, Batman gets an answer for where he met Two-Face, a strangled “F-France”.

 

Next, Harvey is in an industrial plant, proclaiming to have secured his “in” man. His audience is revealed to be a congregation of people with malformations and congenital diseases, his very own “freak show”. This is the point in which it is made clear to the reader that this is not your typical Two-Face story, based solely on a play with dualities. This tale explores the fact that Harvey Dent is seen and sees himself as an aberration. It aims at exploring the importance of beauty in our society.

 

As we come to the next issue, Batman has apparently realized that Two-Face has been putting together his own side show. Meanwhile, Harvey is giving a very Messiah-like speech, saying that his people will soon have “a refuge from the staring eyes of a society obsessed with beauty and perfection”.

 

The next probable victim of Two-Face is being monitored by Batman and by the police, another plastic surgeon. There is a nice sequence of panels showing Batman going through the house, searching for potential traps, a nice nod to the detective side of the caped crusader. The doctor gets home and goes for a cigar before sleeping, which blows up in his face, killing him.

 

In the crime scene, Gordon and Batman are discussing the circumstances of the doctor’s death. Jim tells Batman that the man died from internal combustion, made possible by a slow acting poison. Batman is nonetheless blaming himself for letting another victim get killed.

 

In D’Urberville apartment, he is being secretly watched by two of Two-Face’s men. They go back to Two-Face to inform him about what they have found out. We don’t get to know what it is, but Harvey is pleased with the information.

 

Next day, in the Gotham Bank building, Bruce, D’Urberville, and Wren finally settle the deal for the sale of the island. Later in the cave, Bruce is mulling over the deaths caused by Two-Face. He is becoming hesitant to guess who would be the next victim but Alfred encourages him to follow his instincts.

 

Batman then goes undercover and follows every move of the likely next victim. Two days after the previous killing, he gasses out both the doctor and his lover in the middle of their date to prevent any attempts on his life from happening.

 

In D’Uberville’s apartment, he is in his room when he is approached by the same masked French man that has been in contact with Nelson Wren. D’Urberville is under gunpoint, clutching his chest, leading us to believe that he might be having a heart attack. The masked insinuates that he knows what D’Urberville is hiding under his hand. Under the threat of having whatever it is that is his secret revealed, D’Urberville agrees to cancel his deal with Bruce and sell the island to the Comte de la Enance instead for the sum of one dollar.

 

On the next morning, Bruce goes to Wren’s office to inquire him why his down payment for the Isle D’Urberville had been refused. Wren suggests that maybe there had been a better offer made by the other buyer. Bruce leaves the office saying that he will try to find D’Urberville.

 

Later that day, Wren receives a call from the Comte, who tells him he is to get his reward on the day following. Manon then appears in his office, and they spend the night together. She is wearing a jade Yin-Yang earring.

 

In the night following, Wren is traveling through the city when he spots Manon. He approaches her, telling her to stop the charade, that he has verified and there is no Comte de la Enance. She shoots him.

 

In another area of the city, Batman deduces that Two-Face is in the zeppelin hangar. Batman goes after Two-Face and falls into a trap, being knocked unconscious by his henchman.

 

The issue ends with a splash page of Batman tied to the tip of the zeppelin while Two-Face proclaims “the birth of ‘Deformity Nation’ and the end of Gotham’s most notoriously hidden face!” holding Batman’s utility belt in his hand.

 

The final issue starts with Batman still tied to the zeppelin while Two-Face is making his villainous speech. Batman acts as his usual self when it comes to Harvey Dent and tries to reason with him, to no avail.

 

We then find out that Nelson Wren was not killed, but instead was shot with a tranquilizer. He wakes up in the middle of Harvey’s so-called freak show. Manon is amidst them and reveals herself to be a bearded lady. (Fun fact: Barbe is beard in french, so her alias was Man on Beard the whole time). She goes on to give a speech about how she was forced from her early life to shave and do treatments to remove her beard, “all for zee lecherous approval of men such as you…”. Meanwhile, in the hangar, Batman has managed to escape from his shackles.

 

Wren runs from the gathering. In this page, Matt Wagner goes for a playful paneling again. The background is a top view of the place, showing Nelson Wren’s path by use of a beeline and splattered over it are angular panels showing his encounters with Two-Face’s troupe. His despaired attempts to escape lead him to a room full of people and two of Harvey’s henchmen come from behind him and knock him out. He wakes up to find himself in a cell with D’Urberville, who accuses him of being Two-Face “in man”. Wren apologizes and questions D’Urberville why he had cooperated with Two-Face. D’Urberville, not believing Two-Face has any reason to keep Wren alive, reveals his secret: he has two hands growing from his belly.

 

After escaping from the hangar, Batman follows some leads and heads to the industrial district. His first move is to free Wren and D’Urberville. When Batman manages to break the bars on the window, the door to the cell is opened. Batman rushes out, punching Two-Face’s henchmen in the face in the process. He stumbles upon the full troupe and is injected with a tranquilizer. The people in the background go from realistic to verging on abstract to mere symbols as Batman stumbles to the ground, unconscious.

 

As Batman wakes up, he is back in the hangar. Harvey has everyone from his “deformity nation” boarded inside the zeppelin, D’Urberville included, and “thanks to the blissfully ignorant Bruce Wayne, twelve and a half million to build upon”. Harvey tosses his coin to decide whether he will kill Batman or Nelson Wren. Wren is chosen and taken to the zeppelin.

 

As the zeppelin takes flight, Nelson Wren is tossed from it, falling to his death. Batman snaps out of his binds. He goes to see Wren’s body, musing on how Wren was “a hapless victim of vanity, envy and a world that operated beyond his grasp”.

 

In the Batmobile, Batman races the zeppelin to Gotham’s center and manages to shoot a hook from the top of a tower to it. Batman climbs onboard and confronts Harvey, who justifies his actions by saying that they were all “beauty merchants”, made rich in a society from which he is protecting “his people”. Most of the people gathered in Two-Face’s freak show proceed to tell Harvey that they don’t need to be protected from said society, that they actually enjoy their lives. Their arguments bring Two-Face’s personality to begin to split and Batman seizes the opportunity to try to take him down. A shot is misfired from Two-Face’s gun, hitting the control panels, and the zeppelin plunges.

 

Two-Face runs from the crashed zeppelin, going to a circus that happened to be nearby, Batman on his pursuit. Inside, there is a poster that says “See the man with 2-faces!”, illustrated with a face that is half man half devil. The man himself is inside the tent, and his face is half swollen. He recognizes Two-Face, calling him a criminal, telling him that his actions condemn all of those who are different. Two-Face’s personality is once again splitting. Batman comes to the scene and subdues Two-Face, who crumples to the ground, holding his head. He is taken to Arkham.

 

Back in the manor, Bruce is talking to Alfred, saying that “in his own twisted way, Harvey was looking for justice, much like myself”, to what Alfred points out that Bruce hasn’t committed murder to achieve his justice. Bruce accepts Alfred’s reasoning and goes to the cave. The last panel shows Harvey back in his dark cell, as the black background engulfs his deformed side.

 

Impressions: This is much more of a detective tale than it is a punchy-punchy one. Considering Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective, there are not many of those being published recently. Not only is Batman doing his investigative work, but some clues are left throughout the comic that, if the reader pays close attention, it is possible to realize what is happening behind the scenes. The panels of Batman searching for clues and traps are amazing, showing his actions instead of simply stating in text that he has searched through the place (Batman smelling milk from the fridge is priceless).

 

Two-Face is well explored. His usual quirks are there, such as using two henchmen, plotting two crimes at the same time, stealing a Yin-Yang sculpture. But Matt Wagner goes beyond and explores the fact that this used to be a regular man who was transformed to a freak in the eyes of society.

 

Matt Wagner’s art appeals to those who like their comics with a slightly cartoonish look. The expression in the characters face is often exaggerated, with exclamation marks in their eyes to show surprise, wobbly mouths to show rage, spiral eyes to show confusion and so on. His art is not realistic, the coloring is flat and the lines are usually thick and marked. It is beautiful on its own accord and conveys meaning in a much deeper way than simply having thought and dialogue balloons. The coloring of the comic is toned down, a contrast with the full black shadows.

 

Speaking of his art, the title page of the first issue wouldn’t look bad on a wall. It is reminiscent of poster art from the Art Decó period, beautifully done in shadow art, showing Arkham at night. There is a single window lit, Two-Face’s window. Wagner goes back to this image in the last panel, inverting the light scheme, this time the light coming from the outside and the cell being shown from the inside. Two halves of the same situation.

 

Overall, this is a very interesting tale to read, with good character development and enough mysteries to keep you going until the end. The art and the storytelling are pleasant, with some unexpected explorations of paneling. A must read if you are a fan of Batman’s detective tales or Two-Face.

 

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