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Ask Chris #26: Jimmy Olsen’s Bowtie and the Best of Two-Face

Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s why we’ve given Senior Writer Chris Sims the punishment pleasure of stepping into the grand tradition of the Answer Man as he responds to your reader questions!

Q: Jimmy Olsen: Bow-tie? No bow-tie? padnick

A: In last week’s column, someone asked me a simple question about one of my favorite characters’ clothing, and I spent four hours writing an answer. Clearly, you guys haven’t learned your lesson that I will drone on about anything if given half a chance, especially when it relates to my third-favorite character of all time.Believe it or not, this was actually something I’ve been thinking about this week. When I emailed a bunch of friends my recommendation of Nick Spencer and RB Silva’s Jimmy Olsen story, my pal Anna asked if he had the signal watch because she figured that was the most important part of his character, and I replied that it was actually tied with the bow tie. And yet, in the actual story, Jimmy’s swapped the red bow tie for a stylish necktie:

Is this a problem? Not at all. The fact of the matter is that while Jimmy’s bow-tie is an interesting signifier, it — and bits of clothing like it — don’t actually matter much. Some articles of clothing do matter. The Signal Watch, for instance, has a purpose within the story even when it’s not used, in that it’s a visual representation of his connection to Superman, a connection that’s right there at the core of his character as Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. The bow tie, on the other hand, is just there because in 1941, dudes wore bow ties.

Admittedly, the bow tie was considered part of his definitive look during the Silver Age, and was even considered to be mandatory attire for his fan club, even on other planets…

…but in and of itself, it has no more significance to who Jimmy Olsen really is than Lois Lane’s pillbox hat. And incidentally, he’s bald because the robot that looks just like him and lives in his closet isn’t a very good barber.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not sometimes nice to see the bow tie back. It is, after all, part of his “classic” look, and when an artist can make it work, it’s great. Just look at “All Star Superman,” where Frank Quitely draws Jimmy as a 21st century mod with a flair for retro clothes. The bow tie works great alongside his sweater-vest, argyle socks and artfully spiked hair, and it’s a good update of the classic look. But it’s hardly necessary, and Quitely even draws him without it several times throughout the series.

As much as I’ll fight tooth and nail for Batman’s yellow oval, insisting on the bow tie strikes me as gilding the lily to a completely unnecessary extreme. It’s like Barry Allen and his bow tie. There’s a scene in “Flash: Rebirth” where Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver add a layer of meaning to Barry’s tie…

…and the whole thing just falls flat to me. It gives a reason for him to wear one in the year 2010 even though they’re out of fashion — which doesn’t seem very necessary to me, as middle-aged police scientists aren’t exactly what I think of when I hear the word “fashionista” — but it ascribes a layer of necessary meaning to what is essentially set dressing that just doesn’t feel natural.

And for Jimmy, it’s the same way: It’s far less important for him to wear a bow tie than it is for him to look and feel like a cool guy from whatever era you’re reading stories from, whether it’s the bow-tie of the ’50s and ’60s, the sweet turtle neck of the ’70s, or the ’90s bowling shirt, as seen on the Mike Wieringo page I bought myself as an early birthday present:

I like Jimmy Olsen because of his character, and character isn’t about what you wear. It’s about what you do. And what Jimmy Olsen does is karate kick robot monsters in the face. If he does it while wearing a bow tie, great. If not? No big deal.

Q: My question is about Two-Face. He has a lot of great hooks (fallen hero, deformity, duality, the cruelty of chance, etc.) but every story of his I’ve seen gets stuck on the coin gimmick or just portrays him as a really eccentric gang boss. He’s popular enough to have been in two of the movies, only to be completely overshadowed by his co-villain in each. So, as the Internet’s Foremost Batmanologist, can you recommend any really great stories about Two-Face that explain why he’s lasted so long as an A-list Batman villain? fsandow, via email

A: Why yes I can! I actually agree with you quite a bit regarding your opinion of Two-Face; of the Major Batman Villains, he’s probably my least favorite, largely because all of those great hooks actually seem to limit him to a very defined character arc. I’ve often thought that, appropriately enough, there are really only two stories you can tell with Two-Face in a leading role.

The first is the Origin Story, which hits most of the high points that you mention, including the fact that he’s a fallen hero. The thing I like most about Two-Face as an idea is that he’s as much an opposite for Bruce Wayne as the Joker is for Batman. While Bruce felt he had to wear a mask and work outside the law in order to fight crime in a place as wretched and lost as Gotham City, Harvey Dent attempted to work within the law, and not only was he destroyed by the crime surrounding him, he had a “mask” forced on him that he can never take off.

For the best version of that story, it’s awfully hard to top “The Dark Knight,” which does it amazingly well, right down to the fact that Dent is the character that Bruce Wayne wants to be; the guy who doesn’t have to hide in the shadows to make a difference. But in comics, my favorite version of that story is easily “Eye of the Beholder,” from “Batman Annual” #14.

Writen by Andrew Helfer with art by Chris Sprouse and a cover by Neal Adams, this story is clearly meant to fit right in alongside “Batman: Year One” and it does so very well. If you’re even passingly familiar with Two-Face, you know the high points of the story (District Attorney, acid in the face, schizophrenic break, coin-flipping), but Helfer and Sprouse do a great job with the details, including the addition of an abusive father that prompts the formation of Harvey’s split personality.

The Supervillain-Who-Was-Abused-As-A-Child plot has become such a cliche that I’ve grown to hate it, but it works well here, and makes another interesting contast to Batman: Both characters are, on one level, avenging their parents, but while Batman is motivated by what was done to them, Two-Face is motivated by what his father himself did. It reinforces the funhouse mirror reflection aspect that I think is so appealing about the character, but unfortunately it does it so well that exploring it further seems like a moot point. And the same goes for “The Dark Knight”; I think there’s a good reason why Harvey was killed off at the end, because the character had served every storyline purpose he could.

Unfortunately, the story has only been reprinted once to my knowledge, in a Two-Face and Riddler trade that came out along with the abominable “Batman Forever.” It’s a shame, too, because as you can see from the panel above, Sprouse’s art — while awesome — has not been treated well by the passage of time on that newsprint. Yikes.

The other type of Two-Face story is the one where he’s healed, and we explore whether repairing the physical can also put a broken mind back together (SPOILER WARNING: No). It’s a pretty grim, but again, it highlights a difference that sets Bruce Wayne apart from other characters: Whatever is done to him, Batman always recovers, while Harvey is broken beyond repair.

This is an aspect of the character that was famously dealt with in Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” but another excellent story along the same lines is a “Batman: Black and White” story called “Two of a Kind” by Bruce Timm, of “Batman: The Animated Series” fame.

The story’s actually available to read for free on comiXology, both the website and the iPad/iPhone app, and it’s well worth it. It’s a great, grim read, and Timm’s art is, of course, phenomenal:

I think it’s interesting that both of these stories involve an element of choice in Harvey becoming Two-Face, which is another element that reflects on Batman: A man that chooses to be something bigger than himself. And really, those two stories tell you pretty much everything you need to know about him. But the other stuff — the coin, the obsession with duality, the legal background, the rule of random chance — makes him a great supporting character to have around to bolster other peoples’ stories. This is something that “Batman: The Animated Series” did phenomenally well, building Harvey Dent up as a character in his own right and firmly establishing him as a friend of Bruce Wayne’s before they made the shift to Two-Face.

Also, given how tailor-made for it that the coin and the gimmick crimes seem, I’m continually amazed that he never made it onto “Batman” ’66. He would’ve been a perfect fit, although the idea of a guy horribly scarred by acid was probably deemed both too frightening and too prohibitively expensive to accomplish with make-up for the show.

Which brings me to another aspect of his enduring popularity: He’s a great visual. The symmetry and the fact that you can tell exactly what his deal is just by looking at him make him one of those characters that had to happen. It’s such an obvious gimmick for a villain that if Bob Kane and Bill Finger hadn’t created him, someone would’ve — heck, DC even used the exact same visual a second time when they created Tharrok for the Legion of Super-Heroes — and the scarred coin is a touch that puts him over the top in having memorable, interesting quirks.

And despite my reductionist thinking, there are good Two-Face stories that don’t fit into the two molds I’ve presented, and that could only have been done with a character obsessed with duality. If you can find it, check out the excellent (and sadly unreprinted) “Dead Reckoning” storyline by Ed Brubaker and Tommy Castillo that ran in “Detective Comics” #777 to #782. I don’t want to spoil it, but it involves both Two-Face and the return of a character from the ’40s with a very close tie to the character, as well as almost every other major Batman villain, and it’s pulled off very well. It’s seriously the story “Hush” wanted to be.

And now, a few quick answers:

Q: I’m on the fence about New York Comic-Con. Since you’re going to be there in a Professional capacity, how would you pitch going to it?blueneurosis

A: Not only am I going to be there, but my partner in crime Eugene Ahn, a.k.a Adam Warrock is going to be there performing onstage with Kirby Krackle during the weekend his album drops. You do not want to miss this one, folks.

Q: Where should I start with Silver Age Jimmy Olsen stories?erkalbeleo

A: Considering how much I talked about Jimmy in this column, it’s probably a good place to answer it. You should start at the beginning, and DC’s got the excellent “Showcase Presents Superman Family” volumes to let you do just that. The first volume looks to be temporarily out of print, but Volume 2 features both Jimmy and Lois Lane, whose stories are equally crazy and highly enjoyable. It’s how I read most of ‘em for the first time.

Q: What’s the best indie comic currently running? StoopidTallKid

A: “Weird World of Jack Staff” or “Chew,” hands down.

Q: A Simonson Thor omnibus is solicited for later this year. A required purchase for comic fans, yes?phillyradiogeek

A: A required purchase for comic fans, no! As much as I love those stories and as great as those massive Omnibus editions look on the bookshelf, I find them to actually be kind of a chore to read. They’re crazy heavy and very awkward to hold. For my money, you’re better off picking up the softcovers, all five of which look to be in print. Same great stories, but much easier to actually cart around and read, which is the most important thing you can do with a comic.

Q: Where the heck did I put my pants? chris_roberson

A: Have you checked the refrigerator?

That’s all for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like answered, put it on Twitter with the tag #AskChris or send an email to comicsalliance@gmail.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!

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