Detective Comics Annual #1 is another new origin story for Clayface. When I first read the solicit, I thought to myself, haven’t I already read this? And I’m not even talking within Tynion’s own run, but didn’t we have a revamped Clayface origin back in 2013? So, I pulled out Batman: The Dark Knight 23.3 : Clayface #1 and gave it a reread. Nevermind. This wasn’t really an origin story at all. In my mind, I remembered all the villain issues as retellings of their origins, but not so with the Clayface one. Only two pages of the issue are actually dedicated to his origin, while the rest is actually about him trying to gain the attention of the Secret Society. The little info we are given about his past is that he was an ill-tempered actor that punched his director, which facilitated his expulsion from Hollywood. Later he became Clayface to get revenge. It’s never explained how he became Clayface. So really, I guess a new origin is in order since we never really got one to begin with.
Next, I decided to flip back through Tynion’s stuff. I was almost certain that this topic was already broached somewhere in one of the issues of Tec. The most I could find was this:
At this point, I can only assume that I fabricated a new origin for Clayface in my own mind in order to smooth out all the continuity contrasts that arose from the existence of the New52/Rebirth Clayface’s amalgamation of histories. While half the story presented in this annual is merely expounding on the brief explanation given by Basil in the panels above, the rest is actually rather fresh and intriguing. To fully appreciate what Tynion has done here, we’ll have to go back in time and look at a recap of the character’s history.
Detective Comics #40 (1940)
Basil Karlo (Clayface) is actually one of Batman’s oldest foes, first appearing all the way back in 1940 in the same month that The Joker and The Cat (Catwoman) were first introduced. Basil Karlo is very much a product of the horror films of the 20s and 30s. The story revolves around a movie being remade and the set being plagued by all sorts of mishaps. As it turns out, Karlo was the lead actor in the original film and took offense at his masterpiece being remade. Hence, him haunting the set of the new film.
Many elements featured in the comic bare a striking resemblance to the aforementioned horror films of the time. For instance, actor Boris Karloff was a go to staple for horror films of the time appearing in such classic films as Frankenstein and The Mummy. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the name Basil Karlo was inspired from Boris Karloff’s name. You could also say that Basil Rathbone’s name may have been another inspiration for Basil Karlo’s name as he also appeared in many suspense/drama/thriller/horrors of the time.
Alongside Basil Karlo’s name being inspired by horror film actors of the time, several different plot elements from the original Clayface story are also reminiscent of horror film plots from previous decade, mainly those of Lon Chaney’s films. Dread Castle, the film featured in the first Clayface story, is about a hunchback named The Terror. The set and the hunchback element are both clearly inspired by Chaney’s 1923 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The idea of a vengeful entity plaguing a venue of entertainment is in some ways similar to Chaney’s 1925 film, The Phantom of the Opera.
It’s also worth noting that Basil Karlo is referred to as one of the greatest character and makeup artists, a title that was commonly used in conjunction with Lon Chaney. Below you can see stills of Chaney from both The Phantom of the Opera and London after Midnight.
Hard to think that Clayface’s bulging eyes from Detective Comics #40 weren’t inspired by Chaney’s work from London after Midnight. But that’s enough about Tec40, what about the rest of Clayface’s history?
You probably noticed that the first Clayface was merely wearing makeup and didn’t actually have the shape-shifting abilities that are most commonly associated with the character. That didn’t come along until 1961 in the form of Matt Hagen. Matt was a treasure hunter, and one day while searching underwater for buried treasure he came upon a subterranean cave that contained a pool of protoplasm. This mysterious liquid turned him into the shape-shifter we all know and love. Now, back to Basil.
The character had one more appearance in 1941 and then wouldn’t be seen again until 1989.
In Detective Comic #604, Basil Karlo returned with a master plan to make himself the ultimate Clayface. By this point in time, Matt Hagen was deceased, but his powers had been transferred to two other DC characters: Preston Payne (the 3rd Clayface) and Lady Clay (the 4th Clayface). After taking the blood of both characters and injecting it into himself, Karlo became The Ultimate Clayface exhibiting all the powers that the later Clayfaces possessed and essentially becoming the master mold for Clayface.
Now lets take a quick sidestep out of the comics to take a look at his appearance in Batman:The Animated Series from 1992. This version of Clayface was a mix of Basil Karlo and Matt Hagen. He had Matt’s powers and name but was an actor like Basil. This is also when they came up with a more scientific explanation for Clayface’s powers, turning to science and an invention by Daggett Industries as opposed to some random underground pool of mystery liquid.
After Batman: The Animated Series, I noticed something puzzling going on in the comics. Clayface would be used, but it seemed fairly irrelevant to some of the writers whether it was Basil or Matt. On top of that, they never brought Matt back to life. So, I just assumed it was a case of a new writer going with what they knew, which at that time would have been B:TAS. Whatever the case may have been, by that point, I suppose it really was irrelevant for the most part. They were both shape-shifters with the past of an actor, regardless as to whether they were being called Basil or Matt. A flower by any other name kind of thing.
Another example of how backwards and confusing things got was exemplified in the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009). In one scene from that game, you come across Gordon in a cell, but it’s just Clayface pretending to be Gordon so that you let him out. The thing that I found particularly odd about this part of the game was that there was a mannequin in Clayface’s cell. Well, the mannequin was actually a prop associated with the 3rd Clayface, not the 1st or 2nd. So, maybe it was a nod to that, but I kind of thought it might have been a case of so many different characters being Clayface that things just started running together in people’s heads. And that’s how I figured someone on the design team may have ended up including the mannequin when it really didn’t belong.
You probably think I’ve been rambling on here for awhile now without saying anything about Tynion’s story. Well, aside from my brief mention of Batman: Arkham Asylum, I think most of what I prefaced the actual review with will ultimately help you enjoy the issue more. So, let’s finally get to it.
Before even cracking open the first page, you may have noticed that the cover appears to have crease marks on it. This is an awesome detail to include. It’s basically trying to imply that this is a folded up marquee poster from the 1930s/40s. Not only that, look at the text. What it says, how it says it, and the font it is written in is totally indicative of horror movie posters from that era.
Here, compare “The Wolf Man” text with the cover text.
Fortunately, the awesomeness doesn’t stop with the cover. Before getting to the narrative of the opening scene, let’s take a quick look at everything else.
- Sepia tones used in the flashback along with film strip boarders give everything a dated/grungy look that I just adored.
- The very first page has a Boris Karloff Frankenstein mask in the background. I’ve already explained the connection between Karloff and Karlo, so, enough said.
- Renu by Daggett Industries makes a prominent appearance.
- Basil’s father looks like Vincent Price. With nothing else than the visuals to go off of, I was already making this connection, but then later in the story they actually call him Vincent Karlo, and that cemented it for me.
There is more to it than just the simple fact that Vincent Karlo looks like Vincent Price. Like all the other horror greats that were worked into Basil Karlo’s original character creation, Vincent Price is also a horror icon of that era. Tynion integrating Price into Karlo’s new origin is a very strong nod to the traditions surrounding the original Karlo. And due to those connections, this feels very organic. As if it was something that always was or should have been. Simply a part of the character we were never aware of even though it was always there.
The scene itself is a cautionary warning from Vincent that in order to play a monster you have to give in to the monster within yourself. But the trick is, never to let people see how much of you is really that monster. The idea of Clayface being more a monster than a man on the inside is nothing new. Tynion has brought it up again and again over the course of his run, but seeing this warning coming from his father makes it somehow fresh again. Perhaps it’s the idea that children end up being more like their parents than they want. Or maybe it’s just the fact that it was delivered with all the other elements that make the scene so great. Whatever the case may be, I loved it.
It’s at this point that the story jumps to the present. Although, the present of this story is still like 6 or 7 years in the past from the current time frame of the ongoing Tec issues. It’s kind of jarring because it feels like the opening scene is taking place much further back than the 90s, even though based on the current timeline that’s when it would have been. Since, in my mind, Vincent is most clearly lament a Hollywood from the golden age of cinema, it’s peculiar to be thrust into the present with cell phones and glitz. Granted, prosthetics were still in high use back in the 70s and 80s, which is when Vincent would have been working, so it still makes some sense. But I think you get my point.
- Quick aside: Basil’s agent brings up an Indiana Jones Knockoff that Basil was in. Back in Batman: The Dark Knight 23.3 : Clayface #1 there is a poster in the background for a movie called Soul Cannibals where Basil is dressed like Indiana Jones.
- Also, his agent tells Basil not to take so many villain roles or he will get type cast. The conversation actually reminds me of something I once heard about Arnold Schwarzenegger being warned not to take the Terminator role out of fear he would be typecast as a villain. I find it interesting that not only does this issue have a lot of great connections with previous Batman stories, but it also has quite a few connections to the actual Hollywood of our past.
As the story progresses, we discover that with his new fame Basil wants to be involved with a very specific picture. I’ll let Glory take it from here:
In case it’s not clear, she just described Detective Comics #40. It’s so great to see it there because it’s a way of acknowledging the original and working it into the new story in a way that isn’t dismissive or disrespectful. His response to her is also exceptional. I’ve often seen arguments over Superman where people tend to focus too much on the character’s powers and forget that the real draw of Superman is who he is as a person and not what his special abilities are. Well, I think that sentiment can be transferred quite aptly over to Clayface. And that’s just what Basil does here. He isn’t talking about Clayface, but when I read what he had to say, I saw it as Tynion’s commentary on the character. It also carries forward the whole monster on the inside mentality and that Basil believes that if people really like you they should be able to accept the monster within. That you don’t have to hide it.
- Incidentally, I wasn’t a fan of the way Glory looked in this issue. Granted, all we’ve scene of her past is a couple of quick flashbacks sprinkled throughout Tec. But in all those flashbacks I always got the impression that she looked kind of dowdy. In this issue she is wearing off the shoulder numbers and even a mid-drift exposing ensemble. That’s not at all the way I see her, and not the way she has been depicted up till now.
As things progress, Tynion once again takes a page out of the past and implements a theme that existed in many of the horror films that inspired the Clayface character. Instead of having Cayface simply seeking revenge or wealth, it’s about dealing with the way society shuns those that are ugly and rewards beauty. When you consider characters like Frankenstein, Quasimodo, and The Phantom; they are all characters with ghastly appearances, but they are also characters that have hints of goodness in them. It’s interesting how much Clayface was inspired by these characters, but in the original 1940 version, the central theme from those characters was actually one of the aspects missing from Clayface. The fact that Tynion has changed the origin of Clayface in this way is yet another example of bringing the character closer to the roots he was harvested from. Much in the same way that I said the inclusion of Vincent Price as his father felt very organic and something that should have always been, this does too.
This comic is 38 pages long, and at this point in the review, I’ve only covered the first 13 pages. I could go on and on about this issue. It’s so fantastic. Definitely worth reading and definitely worth the price tag. The fact that I’m stopping here and not cover any more of it shouldn’t be taken as an indication that things fall apart in the second or third act. It’s all just as good as everything I’ve said up till this point. In fact, when it got to the last page, I just wanted it to keep on going. But to be honest, this article is already a little too long and I’m past my deadline for it. So, I simply have to post. I hope that’s not too disappointing for anyone reading and I hope that what I did give you was enough that this article was still worth your while. Besides, this way, I’m leaving something for you to discover on your own. Enjoy.
- You’re a Clayface fan.
- You’re into old cinema.
- You like horror.
- You appreciate attention to detail and an acknowledgment and respect to the past.
With this story, Tynion manages to pull from so many different sources it’s almost unbelievable. But at the same time, he finds a way to integrate them all so cohesively. While this story is a new take on the origin of Clayface, Tynion executes it so masterfully and with such reverence to the heart of the character, at times it’s hard to imagine Clayface’s origin having ever been anything other than the way it is presented here.
SCORE: 9.5 / 10