Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... Batman #234


Hasslein Blog

Friday, December 20, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... Batman #234

By Matthew Sunrich

Batman's famous rogues' gallery was noticeably absent from the pages of his comics for the first year or so of the Bronze Age. The reasons for this are outlined in Batman #217 (1969); essentially, Bruce felt that he needed to focus his attention on the criminals behind the scenes, viz. the corrupt businessmen and politicians whose indiscretions and greed had profound effects on the lives of innocent people, more so than the crimes of supervillains.

In a real-world sense, though, I think it was an editorial decision. The campy Batman of the Silver Age, the offspring of avarice and the embarrassing zeitgeist of the 1960s (you heard me), needed to be put to rest forever, and by temporarily ignoring the "bad guys" associated with him, the creators gave the readers (and hopefully the public at large) an opportunity to see the character in a new light.

It also provided an opportunity for the members of the rogues' gallery to be reinterpreted, which was a beneficial thing, indeed.

The first of Batman's classic foes to be introduced into the Bronze Age was Two-Face.

Believe it or not, he had not appeared in either of Batman's titles since 1953, which could be the reason he was chosen to be the flagship villain. (You may have noticed that he never showed up in the television series.) He had been retired because the Comics Code, enacted around that time, had forced publishers to make comic stories more innocuous (in other words, boring), and Harvey Dent's alter-ego was one of the most terrifying and dangerous enemies the Dark Knight had ever faced. By 1971, most readers were unfamiliar with him, giving writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams a clean slate.

Batman #234's lead story, "Half an Evil," opens with a peculiar crime: someone in a helicopter's stealing a parade balloon. What possible use could such a thing be? Commissioner Gordon, recognizing the strangeness of it, contacts Batman, for whom the unusual is a stock in trade. As the two men discuss the crime, an officer informs Gordon that a robbery is taking place at the Nautical Museum.

Batman rushes to the scene and swings through an open window, confronting the perpetrators. He manages to dispatch one, but the other escapes, thanks to a smokescreen. When the Dark Knight questions his captive, he discovers that the hood's employer is Two-Face and that his partner absconded with the diary of one "Captain Bye."

Batman returns to his penthouse to discuss the matter with Alfred. After revisiting Two-Face's origin for the benefit of readers, he consults his copy of the Marine Encyclopedia (of course he'd have one), learns that Bye's ship is docked at a nearby marina, and knows he will find his foe there. He arrives to find the boat already cut free of its moorings and floating down the river. He takes out two of the criminal's henchmen who are guarding the pier just in time to see the schooner explode and sink.

Remembering the earlier crime, Batman consults the tide charts and determines where an object partially sunk close to the pier would surface. He makes his way there and, sure enough, the ship rises from the river, thanks to the balloon. The Dark Knight climbs aboard and finds that an unfortunate hobo in an inner tube has gotten snagged in the mast. As he climbs up to rescue him, Two-Face emerges from the cargo hold and knocks Batman out. Lashing him to the mast, the villain punctures the balloon and breaks open a hidden vault in the wall of the forecastle, unleashing a fortune in gold coins.

As the ship begins to sink again and the madman climbs into the lifeboat to escape with the treasure, Batman reminds him of the hobo and urges him to flip his coin to determine the innocent victim's fate, as is his wont. Two-Face initially ignores him, but his compulsion gets the better of him. The resulting coin-flip comes up on the unscarred side, evoking the "good" half of his nature. He returns to the schooner only to find that Batman, having tensed his muscles prior to being bound (an old Houdini trick), has freed himself.

Batman then proceeds to clean Two-Face's clock and carries him and the unconscious hobo into the lifeboat.

This story effectively sets the stage for the direction in which writers and illustrators of the Bronze Age are going to take Batman's villains within the framework of the Caped Crusader's return to his dark roots. Comic books, of course, do not have to reflect the way things work in the real world (and, indeed, the Comics Code, though it had relaxed some of its standards by this point, still would not allow some things to be shown), but it's counterintuitive, even absurd, to believe that hardened criminals are not willing to kill people in order to achieve their goals.

During the Silver Age, villains were frequently depicted as having limits. They didn't necessarily want to commit evil acts; they just wanted to reap the benefits, and if a superhero chose to interfere with their plans, they'd usually try to eliminate him in some manner other than outright murder. While Two-Face does not allow Batman and the hobo to die, he would have been perfectly willing to do so had the coin's scarred side turned up. As a result of his disfigurement, Harvey Dent is truly insane, and while there is a method to his madness (he likes things that involve duality), he has no compunction about wiping out those who oppose him.

This seminal tale has been reprinted in various places, but your best bet is probably Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams Vol. 3 (now in paperback). 

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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