Batman Annual 14

Andrew Helfer is an editor and writer who’s done most of his work in the industry at DC. He’s probably most famous for overseeing the relaunch of the Justice League of America and Superman, respectively, into the JLI and The Man of Steel (not to be confused with the recent film) and for founding DC’s Paradox imprint. Despite having more than one Eisner award to his name, Helfer doesn’t seem to have the same recognition as fellow editors like Mike Carlin, Dennis O’Neill, or Julius Schwartz. He’s not really a celebrity the way some of his colleges are, he’s just an accomplished editor.

Oh, and he also wrote one of the most important Batman stories of all time.

Batman has enjoyed a myriad of interpretations over his nearly seventy-five years of existence, with fans for every one. Still, there are certain stand outs. There are the big stories. There are the beloved stories. And then there are the classic stories, those that, for one reason or another, were canonized. This group includes names like Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth, Batman: The Long Halloween, Hush, and even “The Dark Knight”. These are some of the most memorable titles in Batman’s Library, but I tell you that none of them can match this little issue from 1990 when it comes to Two-Face stories. In fact, most people don’t know just how thoroughly unoriginal The Long Halloween really is, for most of its Two-Face story was lifted directly out of this book. That’s not to deny The Long Halloween its due (it’ll take at least another three or four reads before I’m willing to have a firm opinion about that story), but to those who think of it as the essential Two-Face tale, know that Helfer did it first, and did it better.

So what makes this comic so great? Character. Helfer paints an exquisite character portrait of a man losing his hard-earned grip on reality. That would be enough for some, but Helfer also gives us strong renditions of Batman and Commisioner Gordon, playing up the strong bond between the three men. Helfer also has the added benefit of writing these characters early in their development. Set in “Year One”, Eye of the Beholder sees Batman, Gordon, and Dent all considering how far they’re willing to go to see justice done. It’s strange to see Batman even considering taking a life, especially for a ‘normal’ criminal, but instead of feeling out of character, it shows a Dark Knight Detective who’s still testing his limits. Batman’s musings on morality and Gordon’s inner turmoil about his working relationship with Batman, propel the story through its first half, its weaker half, until Harvey is ready to reveal the full extent of the damage done to him. Once we hit the meat of Harvey’s issues, though, it’s pure gold.

Helfer treats the annual much like a small graphic novel. The book makes frequent use of simple but powerful literary devices, such as foreshadowing and (appropriately) mirroring. Helfer even plays to a weakness of mine and makes great use of repetition. In short there’s a definite narrative language established for this story that helps give every scene a sense of importance and relevance.

Admittedly the court case that consumes the first third of the story, is a little weak. Our initial villain is appropriately slimy, but, while Helfer imbues him with a legitimate cleverness, he feels more than a bit hollow. The story clearly needed someone to fill his role, but ultimately I feel that this plot thread was much more interesting in its effects on Batman and Gordon than in its own right.

Another important note is that, while this is my favorite Harvey Dent story, those looking for a tale of the Gotham triumvirate will have to turn elsewhere. Indeed, the book entirely skips over the period when Dent and Batman are working together. It’s a shame that we couldn’t see the camaraderie between them before things begin to go wrong, but, given the length of the story, we can’t blame it for failing in that regard, at least not compared to maxi-series and television programs. Dent is clearly the least stable of the three from the beginning; he doesn’t quite manage that white knight persona that Aaron Eckhart managed to capture in “The Dark Knight”. Indeed the greatest weakness of the story is a certain sense of inevitability. There are some great tragic ideas in play here and all of them would be stronger if we could see the extent of Harvey’s struggles. However it seems that that’s not quite what Helfer was aiming for.

Still, Helfer essentially redefined Two-Face with all the force and pathos that Paul Dini brought to Mr. Freeze in “Heart of Ice”. You’ll find none of Two-Face’s gimmickry here. This Harvey’s story is that of a man who never realized that he was a bomb, waiting for a match. Over the course of the issue, as we discover the details of Harvey’s life, it becomes clear that while the acid in his face and the failures of Gotham’s legal system took their toll on Harvey Dent, Two-Face was born long ago. It’s a startlingly honest story and one that neither condemns nor absolves, not unlike its ‘impartial’ antagonist. For Two-Face, and for his father, the truth is much more complicated than simple abuse or disease, it’s about the way they look at the world and how Two-Face is ultimately all about choice.

While I’m not old enough to remember it myself, I have to imagine that this was pretty cutting edge in 1990. While The Dark Knight Returns had clearly paved the way for more serious treatment of Batman, and the Bronze Age had long since begun to reinterpret Silver Age concepts through a lens of noir and realism, this is the oldest Big Two comic I know of that explicitly includes parental abuse. While the acts in question might seem slightly cheesy to some, readers sensitive to such topics might want to take a moment to think before they pick this up and those who’ve known of such situations might be surprised at how accurate the events of Harvey’s childhood can be.

But it’s not just the set up. Helfer also writes Harvey’s present with sophistication and force. You can practically hear him swinging from calm to rage and back at the flip of a coin. He manages to bring together the gangster, the supervillain, the lawyer, and the frightened child in Two-Face to the fore. Best of all, he gives a simple and perfect explanation of how Two-Face operates, one I think more than one more recent writer should have a look at. He does have Harvey refer to himself in the first person plural, but, as the man would say, himself, you can’t win ’em all.

One other thing I have to applaud is the presence of a very human Batman. Not so much in character, though that is certainly the case too, but in his skills. Batman started off as a somewhat hardboiled character, drawing from the mystery men of the 1930s, it’s nice to see him make a mistake, or be taken by surprise, or even knocked out (that classic of the hardboiled genre).

Helfer is joined by Chris Sprouse. Sprouse was a newcomer to the comics world when he penciled these pages, but you might not know it looking at them. Sprouse gives us a very classic looking Batman story, clearly influenced by the art of the late 70s and 80s. He even works in some of David Mazzucchelli’s style into his own for a few scenes meant to evoke the spirit of Batman: Year One.

Though he apparently looks back on this story as a folly of youth, Sprouse’s talent is plain to see. He draws a strong version of the entire script, regardless of its shifts in tone and lighting, with a good eye for angles. Perhaps his greatest strength is his ability to draw faces. Though Sprouse’s work is hardly photorealistic, he manages to convey a great deal through his characters’ design and expressions. It doesn’t feel impossible that the Harvey Dent in Eye of the Beholder could go by his nickname of Apollo Dent, but he’s hardly got the look of a standard comic book leading man. Now, to be fair, he’s not a leading man, but what I mean is that the very design of his face does a lot to express his character. Something in the way Sprouse draws Harvey just feels right as a lawyer, as a gangster, as a desperate family man. Sure, he tweaks it for each panel, but right there he’s already done half his work. This goes for all his characters, each one given specific attention and thought. And then there’s the expressions.

Sprouse gives each panel a life of its own. Even mundane images come alive through the subtleties in each character’s face. Love, fear, and desperation play in the eyes of Sprouse’s characters. There are definitely some wonky moments, including a panel where Batman looks less intimidating and more like he’s been dosed with Joker venom, but it’s actually disheartening to look at this story and know that this is the exception rather than the norm. He even manages to bring out the real horror of Two-Face’s disfigurement, giving us a version of the bisected gangster that acknowledges the awful reality of his plight while staying true to the original design.

The book also has a fine letterer in the form of John Costanza. Costanza’s distinct choices for fonts, a simple but overlooked part of the comic book endeavor, really shine in this story as they serve to define Bruce, Jim, Harvey, and Two-Face. One problem does arise, however. At least in my copy, it’s sometimes hard to read Batman’s narration. I’m not sure if this is a natural fact of the book, or a random defect in the way my copy’s ink has aged, but it did slow me down a bit.

Together Helfer, Sprouse, and Costanza craft an excellent piece of visual storytelling. The coin-flip sequences are particularly haunting, with their minimal visuals and creepy captions. The whole book utilizes darkness extremely well, a fact made all the clearer by seeing the inked and penciled pages. My favorite example is a pair of pages towards the middle of the issue that begin in the Dents’ apartment and ends with a beautifully one-sided action sequence. The combination of words and visuals is exceptionally strong, and, if anything, the book reminds of J.M. DeMattheis’ classic Kraven’s Last Hunt.

Batman Annual #14 is a wonderful addition to any fan’s collection. The story has been largely eclipsed by The Long Halloween, and, accordingly, has only been reprinted once, in the mid-nineties. Hunting down Batman featuring Two-Face and The Riddler is quite unnecessary, however, as the original story is often found in back issue bins for around what you’d pay for a modern comic.

Eye of the Beholder is an underappreciated gem in Batman’s massive fortune. It affected nearly every portrayal of Two-Face afterwards, notably the excellent Batman: TAS episodes that introduced the character, and remains a beautiful fusion of modern age realism and bronze age style (Take a look at the clever way that Helfer and Sprouse explain the change to Two-Face’s modern age look, if you need an example of what I mean). I honestly feel that this issue does a far better job of handling Harvey’s story than The Long Halloween. If you ever happen to come across it, take the opportunity to meet one of Batman’s most frightening and enduring adversaries and the man who fought the good fight and lost.