Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born.
I’m going to try as hard as I can not to use the word “two” too often in this column. That may be tricky, since it’s about a two-part story where there are two Two-Faces running around, and it features the version of Two-Face who is so obsessed with the number two that all his crimes are themed around it and most of his dialogue is chock full of two-based puns. But I will genuinely try. Because easily the most aggravating part of reading these issues of Detective Comics is how often the word “two” is used, along with “double” and “couple” and anything else that can be turned into a forced bit of not-so-clever wordplay. It’s lightweight comedy at best, and repetitive, uninspired filler at worst. And while this ineffective humor may be a low point, it’s not all that’s wrong with these comics.
There’s a decent nugget of a story concept underneath everything. The narrative is built around Paul Sloane, the man who was once hired to star in a Two-Face biopic, then had his own face burned in much that same way Harvey Dent did, went crazy, and tried to become Two-Face himself. Eventually he was defeated, his face was fixed, and he returned to a sane, normal life. This is all old hat, the events of a much older Batman tale, but it gets recapped in these issues of Detective, too, since Sloane is once again at the center of things. This time around, Two-Face has Sloane’s face disfigured by the Crime Doctor, intentionally re-breaking Sloane’s psyche and making him believe once again that he is the genuine, original Two-Face. So Sloane begins committing violent robberies, because that’s what you do when you’re Two-Face, and it’s up to Batman and Robin to first figure out who Sloane really is, then stop him, and then bring him back to sanity while also thwarting whatever new schemes the actual Two-Face is cooking up.
It’s a little on the goofy side, and certainly a bit contrived, but all in all it’s not a terrible idea for a Batman story. Two-Face creating a decoy of himself makes perfect sense, because he has such a recognizable look that it’d be easy to get distracted by the facial scarring and mismatched suit and not notice the smaller details that distinguish Sloane from the real thing. And since Two-Face is super into the number two, duplicating himself fits right into the rest of his profile. I even like the fact that Batman figures out what’s up because Sloane is left-handed and Two-Face isn’t. It’s a pretty simple way to solve that puzzle, but it’s also just the sort of thing Batman should be noticing while the rest of the world might not, so it works for me.
Most of this story works for me on that most basic, plot-summary level. The ideas aren’t bad, but the delivery of them is lazy and therefore a little sloppy. Too many interesting things are ignored so there can be more slapstick violence and stilted comedy. The inner workings of a mind as damaged and confused as Sloane’s aren’t shown or even properly discussed, in spite of the whole story being founded on his very fragile, fractured psychology. His madness is sort of taken for granted, which might be alright except that the ultimate solution is to have his wife show up and beg him back to sanity, and that scene lacks oomph when the reader doesn’t have any real insight into what Sloane is or going through in the moment. What is life like when you think you’re Two-Face but you really aren’t? Do you have false memories of life as Harvey Dent? Are they blended somehow with Sloane’s own memories? And when he remembers his true identity, what does that look like, mentally? These feel like key questions to appreciate and invest in the character, but they’re never asked, let alone answered.
Sloane’s return to himself also comes across as too easy and quick because of this lack of character building. Both of his transitions do, actually, though when he first “becomes” Two-Face it’s a little different because the reader hasn’t been let in on who he really is yet. Still, he accepts himself as Two-Face quite readily when he discovers his disfigurement, and then changes back into Sloane almost immediately when his wife arrives. It’s unclear why his mind is so malleable, and it makes Sloane into an empty character, which in turn makes the story feel empty. If I was let in on his reasoning, however illogical or hard to follow it might be, then I would at least have a handle on who he is and why I should care about him. As it stands, he’s a cipher, a could-be-anybody character whose only truly important attribute is that he looks a lot like Harvey Dent.
Sloane’s psyche is the worst-handled detail, but there are other odds and ends that don’t get the development they need to be compelling. Robin (Jason Todd variety) has a lot of understandably unresolved rage over the fact that Two-Face killed his father, but his anger only comes in fits and starts, instead of being a consistent part of his behavior throughout the story. Once in a while he will act or speak rashly because his rage flares up, at which point either he, Batman, or both pay quick lip service to his father’s death. Then Robin gets briefly scolded for letting his emotions take control, apologizes halfheartedly, and the topic is dropped until the next time it randomly arises. I know that Robin is meant to be struggling with keeping his anger in check, but that inner conflict isn’t visible, only its consequences. He’s a pretty cheery, quippy, earnest young crime fighter most of the time, then all of a sudden a switch flips and he becomes pissed off and out of control for like a minute. There’s a disconnect between those contrasting characterizations, and the story makes no attempt to bridge that gap. When Robin is happy, he’s super happy, and when he’s mad he’s furious, and there is nothing in between nor any pattern to his mood swings.
Then there’s Mrs. Sloane, who doesn’t even get a first name, and whose personality is clear and consistent but also frustratingly one-dimensional. She’s the hysterical sobbing woman and nothing more, bent out of shape over her husband’s disappearance, passive and desperate and lost on her own. It’s the weakest of stereotypes, and a particularly weak example of it, too, with Mrs. Sloane getting only a couple of scenes, both of which amount to her pleading between tears for her husband to come back. We never see why they love each other or what their love is like, never understand who she is outside of being married to Sloane. She’s not a character so much as a plot device, not a person in her own right but merely a missing piece Sloane needs to be whole again. She could have humanized him, raised the narrative stakes, and been a legitimately useful and effective ally for Batman in this story had she been given more to do, more agency and identity. Instead she’s reduced to crying and wailing until Batman steps in to save the day for her, rather than with her.
In place of all the characterization I would’ve liked to see, Mike Barr and Jim Baikie fill these pages with one dumb heist after another, each culminating in an easily-won fight for Batman and Robin. None of the crimes nor their resulting battles are particularly inventive or visually interesting. Baikie is a decent artist, and everything is clear, but there’s nothing original or entertaining in any of the numerous fight sequences. Henchmen get punched out quickly, and the Two-Faces escape over and over until, in the very end, they’re inevitably caught. It all feels by-the-numbers, a predictable and fluffy tale where nothing of import goes down and the good guys are pretty much always on top.
Perhaps the tone is intentionally airy; maybe Detective Comics #580-581 are supposed to be a snack instead of a meal, so Barr purposefully kept things light and avoided digging too deep into anyone or tackling any of the more challenging details. Many of the interactions between Batman and Robin certainly indicate that this wants to be on the brighter side of the Dark Knight’s narrative spectrum. Batman calls Robin “chum” and “buddy” and “Jay,” all informal terms of endearment that don’t quite fit with the Batman I know best, but would probably be right at home in, say, the 1960’s Batman TV series. So Barr could well have been shooting for something inconsequential and fun with these issues, targeting a younger audience and constructing a simpler story by design. If that’s the case, though, this still isn’t all that strong a showing. The forced puns saturate the script, and both it and the art grow repetitious early on so that there’s no reason for the reader to pay attention. Even if you were seeking a less filling than usual Batman dish, this would be too flavorless to satisfy.
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