What’s with all the supernatural stuff in my Batman comics lately? At first the ghostly business was confined to the last 2 month’s worth of Legends of the Dark Knight but today we will see not only DC’s version of a classic movie monster and a Will-o-the-Wisp, but apparently Clayface is now made from a mystical clay. Of course, Batman’s had good stories with aliens, ghosts, and other bizarre things in the past (they are never the best stories, but some good examples do exist) but the question is: does the supernatural Batman #19 work?
Batman #19 is the start of a short 2-part story that features, you guessed it, Clayface. He’s a character I’ve wanted to see get a really good story for some time now. Other than the Penguin and the Joker, we really haven’t seen a Batman rogue get as much facetime as Clayface. Granted, his face is usually getting bashed in during some brawl happening in the background and he’s rarely given a line but he’s always there. A recent Detective Comics arc gave him more to do and actually showed him as a more sympathetic villain but he was still just shown as a mudman who turned his fists into hammers. Scott Snyder’s story appears to ignore the developments of Layman’s Detective Comics, however and we see a Basil Karlo who is downright nasty. More importantly, we see a Basil Karlo who is more than a mudman! This is something I love. Shape shifters are scary as hell. Just read Stephen King’s IT. Why we’ve been wasting potentially one of Batman’s most dangerous enemies as a dumb monster who lifts heavy things is beyond me.
Now, this book does start off kind of silly with Clayface choosing to rob a bank as Bruce Wayne SHOW SPOILER ▼. Gordon even name-drops “Zero Year” which seemed less natural and more like it was there to promote the upcoming arc (people in Gotham will actually refer to it as “the Zero Year”?) but I’ll reserve judgment on all of those elements until we see what this moment was really all about in next month’s issue. Why’s that? Because issue #19 is a non-linear narrative that begins beyond the final page cliffhanger and there are still many questions to be answered. I’m not sure what Clayface is up to just yet so I can’t really judge. From there we flash back 6 days and that’s were the story really pulled me in. I won’t give away the cameo but it definitely took me by surprise. Not only was this a great action scene, but it had a nice emotional punch at the end and was really well drawn by Greg Capullo, who is now being inked by Danny Miki. The new inks do look subtly different, but I can’t quite put my finger on how (I’ve never been that great at describing art techniques). The only bad thing about this otherwise awesome scene was some overwritten villain dialogue, a problem that’s plagued each of Snyder’s stories.
The bulk of the comic is a really enthralling mystery with some of the best detective work I’ve seen in some time. Watching Batman figure this puzzle out step by step is what reading a Batman comic is all about. Yes, it’s quite obvious that it’s all going to lead to Clayface but it’s a fascinating journey. What I could have done without, however, was the 2 pages worth of Bruce’s inner monologue detailing the history of shapeshifters in folklore. I found these prose to grind the detective story to a halt and this idea of Clayface being made from mystical clay doesn’t sit right with me. I suppose I always liked to think of it more as a sci-fi thing. Think of the memory cloth from Batman Begins but far more advanced and in goop form that could be instantly changed into the shape and color of an object with a small electrical charge. It has a bizarre reaction with Basil Karlo’s unique physiology (cheap way of explaining why everybody didn’t turn into a Clayface who handled the stuff) and he’s able to manipulate it into any shape or color he likes. That’s just a quick example of what I would have preferred the clay be. I like the sciency explanations more than hocus pocus. There’s much more to the story than that, but as always I don’t want to give everything away.
So is issue #19’s main story a good read? Definitely. I don’t like the idea of Clayface’s goo being mystical in any way but between the solid detective work, great art, and really cool action scene with the surprise villain cameo– I had a great time. So how about the back-up “Ghost Lights” that was written entirely by Tynion IV? Well, that one really went all-in for the supernatural stuff.
I’ve never fallen in love with the Batman/Superman dynamic the way many fans have and oddly enough it’s not because I don’t like the way Batman’s used. It’s quite the contrary. It’s because I think Superman is always watered down quite a lot. Batman’s always shown to be at his most cold and calculating and Superman is nice and a bit stupid and just there to give the book a cool splash page from time to time when something big needs to be thrown into the heavens. I like the idea of a smart and more capable Superman and that’s why it’s tough for me to ever enjoy one of his books. I’m always thinking “How did he not hear that guy’s heartbeat coming up behind him?” or “Shouldn’t Superman have been able to catch that with his super speed?” or “Stopped it with his ice breath/heat vision/etc. etc.” He’s a character who is always as powerful as the story requires him to be in that situation and I find that inconsistency annoying. Anyway. Superman flies into Gotham to ask Batman if he wants to talk about his feelings and, obviously, Batman doesn’t. Together they investigate a case in which people are going missing in a building where a demon of some kind has been summoned. It’s well drawn Alex Maleev who gives the story a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and the big reveal at the end is scary and disgusting so basically it’s a story that works if you’re into that sort of thing. I don’t really care much about seeing Batman tag along with Superman to fight monsters so it didn’t really do a whole lot for me but I can recognize the entertainment value in it.
It’s great to have a smaller story for a change, especially one that has such great detective work and a Clayface who is actually a formidable opponent. The backup, while not my cup of tea (extended DCU + ghosts), will surely serve as a fun team-up to those who like the Batman/Superman dynamic. I say pick this issue up. It looks to be a very entertaining 2-parter before we jump into the massive Zero Year.