Click on a list of Batman comics recommendations and you’re almost guaranteed to find a few, if not all, of these names: The Killing Joke. Batman: Year One. The Dark Knight Returns. The Long Halloween. Aside from being iconic pieces of the Batman mythos, what do all these comics have in common? They were published in the 1980s and 90s, which are possibly the two most important decades in Batman’s history. After the cancellation of the famously campy Batman TV show in the 60s and declining comics sales throughout the 70s, these stories revamped Batman’s image into the darker, bleaker version we all know today. Comics sales surged, Tim Burton kicked off a new film franchise, and the universally beloved animated series hit the airwaves — clearly, Batman was back in a big way.
The story takes place early in Batman’s career. A serial killer is on the loose in Gotham, one who brutalizes senior citizens without leaving a trace of evidence. Batman apprehends the murderer, a high-society doctor named Rudolph Klemper who casually confesses to the crimes, but maintains his innocence when the police arrive. Batman’s ally, Captain Jim Gordon, can tell Klemper is guilty, as can the driven, principled District Attorney Harvey Dent — but it’s not enough to convince a jury, who sets Klemper free. Both Jim and Batman feel tempted to take care of Klemper themselves, though Batman holds fast to his promise never to kill and convinces Jim to do the same.
Unbeknownst to both of them, Harvey is struggling with the same temptation…and a lot more.
In an effort to make Batman’s catches translate into convictions, Jim introduces the vigilante to the DA, and the three of them form an alliance that would be replicated a few years later in the better-known The Long Halloween, which would in turn inspire Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. At first, the partnership works and the criminals Batman goes after actually get put away. The law itself wasn’t enough to make a difference in a city as infested with corruption as Gotham, but vigilantism wasn’t enough, either. The bond between Harvey and Batman looks like it might be the key to bringing Gotham into brighter days.
But all is not well with Harvey. As he told the Caped Crusader at their first meeting, “The law is my life. It keeps me whole. Maybe even keeps me sane.” It’s a phrase that could just as easily apply to Bruce Wayne, who fights crime as Batman in order to grapple with his childhood trauma. Of course, Bruce feels that he has to step outside the law to achieve justice, but there are still lines he won’t cross — lines that an increasingly disillusioned Harvey wants to. Batman begins to doubt Harvey’s mental stability and decides he must end their working relationship, although deep down he wonders whether Harvey is really that wrong: “Maybe he’s not the unbalanced one…maybe he sees reality more clearly than I do.”
But Batman’s first instinct was right. Harvey is far more unbalanced than anyone knows, and when he prosecutes a vicious crime boss, he sets off the chain of events that will lead to the birth of Two-Face. To say much else would give away this comic’s most brilliant moments, but it’s a powerful, psychologically complex take that treats Harvey Dent as a tragic figure instead of just a villain. Andrew Helfer adds a new layer to Harvey’s origin story by cleverly connecting his own childhood trauma to the man he would become, instilling a crucial sense of internal logic to a character who’s often reduced to a checklist of gimmicks.
The Eye of the Beholder tackles some of the most resonant themes of the Batman mythos — what does justice really mean? How far should we go to achieve it? Is free will really possible when so much of your present is shaped by your past? What gets lost when you try to balance separate identities? The story is all the stronger for the parallels it draws between Two-Face and Batman — both men whose identities were forged by suffering. Both men who try to direct that suffering into doing good. Both men who struggle to hold back their darker impulses. Unfortunately, Harvey is pushed over the edge, but in many ways he shows readers a twisted mirror of who Bruce Wayne could be.
Although The Eye of the Beholder isn’t very well-known today, its influence can be felt in some of Batman’s most iconic stories, from the aforementioned The Long Halloween and The Dark Knight to The Animated Series. For decades, this comic wasn’t reprinted anywhere, but it’s been reintroduced in recent years through collections like Two-Face: A Celebration of 75 Years and Batman: The Caped Crusader Vol. 3. On its thirtieth anniversary, now is as good a time as ever to appreciate one of Batman’s most overlooked tales.