Twenty-two pages fills up fast. There’s no denying that. Action sequences often eat up huge chunks of a book, and you can only fit so much dialogue on the page before it becomes cluttered, not to mention how much of the probably excellent art you’ll be covering up by doing so. So, understandably, most writers will have their stories run in arcs, often using well over 100 pages to let it unfold. It’s not hard to see why, but the tendency to keep expanding the story is part of what makes it so rewarding when you come across a single issue that manages to not only exemplify what it is you so love about that particular book, or even comics in general, but that manages to do so with an impressive economy of storytelling. One Shot is meant to take a close look at why those issues work as well as they do, the way they do.
I have a confession to make: I have never read another issue of The Batman Chronicles. I’ve never really cared to hunt any down. I have no idea whether of not “Two Down”, the series’ 16th issue, is a good example of the kind of output I could expect from the series, but, for some reason, it wasn’t until I started writing this article that I even really considered “Two Down” to be a part of The Batman Chronicles. No, “Two Down” is and always has been, at least to me, a part of the Ed Brubaker/Greg Rucka/Michael Lark DC masterpiece, Gotham Central. It’s packaged with the second Gotham Central trade – “Half A Life” – and it neatly sets up that storyline, one of the best of an already excellent series.
Two-Face isn’t exactly one of the hardest villains in the world to write. It doesn’t require macabre humor, or require terribly suave or intelligent dialogue. He’s a classic baddie with a well-conceived twist – the flip of a coin. And yet, despite that, how many genuinely classic Two-Face stories can most of you think of? And when was the last time his coin flip gimmick has been used well – used, really, at all? He’s a solid also-ran in the Batverse, extraordinarily well-known, but rarely the focus of any particularly compelling stories.
Set during the not-terribly-fascinating Batfamily story arc “No Man’s Land”, “Two Down” follows police officer Renee Montoya as she struggles to maintain order in a universe gone utterly mad. With only a single bullet, Renee’s been on her feet for hours, for days, rushing from place to place and trying to help as many people as she can. On the street, she meets Two-Face, and she has a perfectly understandable reaction: she tries to shoot him. But here’s where Two-Face’s gimmick kicks in, and in the best way possible.
Two-Face is a savior. Inexplicably, extraordinarily, every time he flips his coin – will he save this person or let him die? will he betray his companions or move on to the next street? – it comes up heads. Two-Face’s coin flip is rarely used for much besides a dramatic reversal, a surprise alliance and inevitable betrayal all in one tidy package, but there’s never really a sense of randomness to it. It serves the story. Interestingly enough, “Two Down”, when every flip is heads every time, is one of the few stories in which the toss truly manages to seem random.
The most common Two-Face story seems to be one of redemption. It’s understandable. As crusading Gotham DA Harvey Dent, he cut a fine heroic figure, and his dual-nature means ‘tortured’ is pretty much the only mode some writers know for him (the other mode is ‘sociopathic’, with a few duality-based puns thrown in for good measure). Rucka sidesteps this particular cliche almost entirely. Two-Face isn’t rehabilitated or cured. Harvey Dent isn’t the hero. It’s just… luck.
This is almost a perfect example of the kinds of stories this column is meant to look at. The issue’s gimmick, that Two-Face’s coin and a twist of fate makes him a hero to the underprivileged, is one that couldn’t really feasibly be the focus of an entire arc, as it would quickly grow too contrived. Likewise, because the reader knows that Two-Face ISN’T a hero, that this isn’t going to last beyond this issue, it creates a great deal of tension, almost like a horror movie. Renee Montoya was not a big character at the time, and she was hanging out with a murderous madman who would surely snap sooner or later. Would she survive?
I’ve read the issue a number of times, and I’m still not sure if it’s to Rucka’s credit or if it’s a flaw of the story that he doesn’t play that aspect of the story up. Rucka purposely glosses over the issue’s most suspenseful moments in an attempt to jam as much story in as possible, and to get to the issue’s ‘redemptive’ moment, in which Renee and Two-Face connect.
I’m of two minds (pun so intended – just give me a Two-Face story now, DC) about the issue’s conclusion. On the one hand, it’s really quite anti-climactic, and it leans a little too heavily on a relationship that’s been extremely condensed, particularly in these final pages. On the other hand, it’s full of nice, genuine character beats that are so damnably rare in superhero comics that I can’t really fault Rucka for aiming high and coming up just a little low instead of taking the easy way out.
“Two Down” is a simple, well-constructed story that only occasionally feels cramped. While it’s far from flawless, it was a good indicator of what we could expect of both Greg Rucka in general and Gotham Central in particular: dramatic, occasionally intense, character-driven crime stories that treated the cops and the criminals like human beings. Batman has an impossibly rich mythos. It’s a credit to Greg Rucka and issue collaborators Jason Pearson and Cam Smith that they managed, in a single issue, to add substantial depth to an aspect of it.
– Cal Cleary
One Shot 5: Planetary #10, “Magic and Loss”
One Shot 4: Fantastic Four #60, “Inside Out”
Coming Up October 17th: Detective Comics #826, “Slayride”
Coming Up October 31st: The Immortal Iron Fist #7, “The Pirate Queen of Pinghai Bay”