Clayface is a lot of things. I don’t mean that in the “he has the power to transform into different people” kind of way, but in that his character has changed dramatically since its inception. Originally, Basil Karlo didn’t even have super powers; he was just an actor who wore a monster mask to kill people. In the silver age Matt Hagen (a name you may recognize from Batman: The Animated Series) fell in some magic goo that gave him shapeshifting powers, becoming the second Clayface. Later, Clayfaces like Preston Payne and Sondra Fuller got clay-based powers through science experiments.
By 1989 DC had realized that it was getting really hard to keep track of what should be a fairly straight-forward villain. To fix this, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle wrote the storyline The Mud Pack, which gave Karlo the powers of all the other Clayfaces, and wrote the others off as either dead or gone. For all intents and purposes, Basil Karlo was “the” Clayface for the first time since shapeshifting became part of the character. His acting background was a perfect fit for the villain whose powers involve turning into other people. It also lent itself to dramatic pathos for someone who used to be beloved by millions but is now a monster. Collin Kelly and Jackson Lanzing have decided to totally focus on that aspect of the character and make the entire story about his pursuit of being a star.
The opening segments really lean into the “Hollywood movie” angle. Its narration is in the form of script pages and it’s filled with little vignettes of Clayface’s coworkers who work as waiters with him as they all wait for their big break. The characters are brimming with optimism and support each other in their dreams. It’s easy to get caught up in rooting for them as underdogs. The whole sequence plays out like so many films about people trying to “make it” in Tinsel Town, and that’s the problem.
So much of the story is dedicated to Clayface wanting to be famous that it feels incredibly one note. Being an actor is part of Basil Karlo’s backstory, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of his character. With how much focus is placed on the acting, I initially thought that this was an origin story. That would be an instance where a plot where Clayface being willing to do anything to be an actor would have made sense. It would also fit in with the loose connection these One Bad Day stories were meant to have with Batman: The Killing Joke. However, instead of fleshing out the characterization like Alan Moore’s comic did for the Joker 35 years ago, Batman: One Bad Day: Clayface reduces Clayface into the most basic interpretation of his premise.
Even the twist on the standard Hollywood hopeful plot, that Clayface is killing people and impersonating them to rise to the top, doesn’t amount to much, nor is it very interesting. It’s barely more complex than the original comic from 1940 where Basil Karlo just stabs his competing actors, and that was told in about 12 pages. I’d almost say it was attempting to be an homage if it were closer in premise and structure. Here, Clayface never has a good reason to do the things he does except “well Basil Karlo was an actor so I guess his motivation is to be an actor.”
At one point the story becomes so on the nose that it’s revealed that the movie that Clayface is trying out for is literally called “One Bad Day” and appears to be an adaptation of The Killing Joke. It gives the impression that the story’s writing process involved the initial pitch and little more.
The story so desperately wants to say something profound about Hollywood, fame, and the perils of stardom, but it’s not capable of expressing those ideas in more than clichés. Clayface is trying to be an actor, so of course he needs to be working as a waiter in LA, despite the fact that it doesn’t really make sense for the shapeshifting super villain to do that. The director and producer are caricatures of the “soulless mass-marketability above any sort of creativity” approach to movies, with some easy pot shots at the recent trends of cinematic universes.
Everything that the story is trying to say is worth saying. There are poignant thoughts to be had regarding show business in general as well as Basil Karlo’s relationship with it. Other writers have utilized his acting past to tell incredibly resonant stories that make his a tragedy. One that comes to mind immediately is the Batman: The Animated Series episode Feat of Clay, which combined the origins of Basil Karlo and Matt Hagen. There, it’s Basil’s addiction to fame which leads him down the path to becoming a monster. The story and character intertwine to form a greater whole. Here, all of Clayface’s overwritten monologues about how hard it is for him ring totally hollow because we have no reason to care about his demand to be famous. It’s given no context outside of the idea that it’s his only personality trait.
If there’s a saving grace, it’s the art. Xermánico does a wonderful job bringing the characters to life. The level of care and detail put into their expressions allows you to empathize with their emotions even when the words don’t. The dread of his victims and the terror of his attacks look about as good as you could want from a Clayface comic. Romulo Fajardo Jr. really delivers on colors as well. It seems to always be just before sunset in LA, and the dramatic lighting that provides makes each scene feel vibrant yet ominous.
- Clayface’s acting career is the most interesting thing about him
- You want some excellently drawn scenes of a Hollywood murderer
- You like stories with a simple premise
Instead of exploring the character on a deeper level like the series’ namesake, Batman: One Bad Day: Clayface #1 falls back on tired clichés, and in the process actually flattens what depth Clayface already had. The fact that Basil Karlo was an actor becomes his sole character trait to the point where nothing else about him matters. Some truly impressive art is not enough to elevate this middling story to anything that will define the character.
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purposes of this review.