Bat-Villains: Clayface: Feet of Clay?

As I mentioned in the previous post, more than perhaps any other mainstream super-hero, Batman lends himself to dark, gritty noir stories, ones that straddle a line with horror, and perhaps cross that line on occasion. Batman can certainly star in a more mainstream super-hero tale, but he and many of his villains are cloaked in shadow, and you should be able to evoke an immediate mood of dark alleyways, sinister villains and sudden, strangled death with Batman and most of his rogues gallery. When Batman began his crime fighting career in the early 1940’s, noir was quite popular, and many of his early adventures took place in that setting. Clayface, who first appeared in June of 1940, was a perfect example of a shadow-cloaked villain who skulked through the night, killing those his warped mind had decreed worthy of death.

Basil Karlo, the original Clayface, was a horror movie actor who was driven mad because he wasn’t invited to star in the remake of his most famous picture. Yes, that is one of the lamest villain origins around. However, his origin isn’t really that important (although it could be punched up if necessary), not compared to what you have. You’re left with a crazy, insane actor, one that knows about make-up and understands the importance of drama and theatrics. He uses said make-up skill to give himself an ugly, grotesque appearance, and begins killing those he believed had wronged him, skulking around movie studios like an apparition. This Clayface was scary for a few reasons. First, he was completely insane, killing almost anyone he felt had slighted him. Second, he was able to project an image of stability, appearing in the daytime as normal, and only acting unhinged when he was in his Clayface make-up. That helped with the third reason he was scary; we never saw Clayface during the day. Often, what might seem frightening when viewed among the dim lights and shadows looks positively silly under the harsh light of the sun. By keeping Clayface away from the bright lights, he retained his sinister presence (one of the greatest images I’ve seen of him was from his second appearance. He was being transported to the insane asylum during the night when the vehicle he was in crashed. He escapes from the wreckage, and you see him, illuminated by a flash of lightning, standing on the bluff with his arms reaching toward the heavens, cackling maniacally. Yes, it’s cliche, but it really evokes a mood.).

Unfortunately, Clayface in this incarnation wasn’t interesting enough for Batman readers in the Silver Age of Comics, and a slew of new Clayfaces followed (there have now been seven of them). Each of the subsequent Clayfaces had super-powers; they were able to alter their bodies to look like anything. It made them quite powerful (more powerful than Batman) and I suppose it was meant to make them more interesting. However, while there have been good Clayface stories since then, I fear that most writers tend to now write the power, rather than writing the character. I would also offer the opinion that he’s too powerful for a Batman villain; I feel that, in his own titles, Batman works best fighting more street level threats. Save the super-powerful villains for him to fight for his appearances in JLA or other team books.

In current DC continuity Basil Karlo is back to being Clayface, and he’s stolen the power to alter his body chemistry. I think that there’s a lot of potential in this character and I’m glad to see him as Clayface once again. One of the big changes that should be made is to bring his power level down. It’s been established with some of the other Clayface characters that their powers fade over time. Perhaps Karlo’s could fade to an acceptable level; I think it would be useful for him to be able to change his basic appearance (face, skin color, hair, weight….superficial physical features) and that is it; no more giant clay monsters with sledgehammer fists; no more flying creatures, or super-attack forms. He’s now just an actor who has the ability to change his facial features, meaning that he could be anyone, which could be a nice way to up his horror factor. Also, since he’s an actor, he can play the character to match his physical change, meaning he could be very convincing. Plus, he’s still got his flair for the dramatic, which is a nice way of keeping the atmosphere charged when he’s the villain of the story.

What do you think? Do you see potential here?

Y’know, I think you’ve hit upon something that makes a lot of sense for a Batman villain, and that is the ability to be truly scary while operating only at night…mimicking the traits that make Batman who he is. I wish we could pretty much erase everything that has happened to Clayface over the years and revert back to the earlier history of Basil Karlo. Fortunately, by tempering his powers, we may be able to do just that.

I agree that there’s a certain disconnect in having Clayface be able to turn into flying creatures or even to summon more of the material that gives him his abilities and turn into some giant hulking glob monster. As far as I know, it isn’t simple organic clay that gives him these abilities…if that were true, every baked-out bohemian with a pottery wheel could be a super villain. That said, let’s create a situation where the addition of all of this extra material has, over the years diluted Clayface’s powers. That makes sense. With limited abilities (only able to change his facial features, skin color, hair color and length, slight changes to height and weight, and perhaps appearance of gender), Karlo would be forced to devise other ways to execute his plans. I think it would be logical for him to follow one of two paths: either he becomes a pure lunatic Jack the Ripper type character with a pinch of Jekyll and Hyde in him, or he becomes a master strategist a la Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes with a splash of Phantom of the Opera thrown in for effect. Either one works for me, but let’s examine the differences and you tell me what fits better for you.

The first scenario returns the “normal citizen by day, crazed psycho killer by night” theme that colored Clayface’s original appearances. Imagine a serial killer in Gotham City that’s nearly impossible to identify. Every eyewitness account would describe a different culprit as he changed his looks for each kill. Even if someone gets on his trail, how easy would it be for him to just disappear into a crowd? And, with that in mind, perhaps he commits these crimes in crowded areas because he knows he can escape. Of course, the only thing lacking would be an appropriate motive. If we want the character to have legs, we’ll need more than just the one-trick storyline.

The second scenario pits Clayface against Batman’s detective skills, using Batman’s own abilities against him. Imagine a character that could actually make Batman paranoid! In this set-up, Clayface is actually after Bruce Wayne for some reason (easy to figure out). He could simply replace different people in Bruce Wayne’s life and steer him towards whatever goal Clayface wishes…perhaps kidnapping him? How paranoid would Batman be if he never expects these everyday people in his life of any wrongdoing? The added bonus in this scenario is setting up a bunch of scenes with Bruce Wayne instead of his costumed alter ego, which is something the Batman mythos needs more of in my view.

By toning down the “Aargh! I’m a monster!” campy, comic-bookish aspect of the Clayface character, we can make him into a truly formidable foe instead of just a one-joke loser. Thoughts on your end? Which direction do you want to explore?

Man, that is not an easy decision, because they’re both great potential stories. Tackling your second idea last, the story possibilities here are great. I love the idea of Clayface manipulating Bruce Wayne in the manner you describe, and it works great as a storytelling tool as well. I wouldn’t let the reader know what Clayface was up to, or even that it was Clayface in all the scenes in which he is impersonating someone close to Wayne. Wayne would never suspect anything as long as Clayface stayed in character and didn’t have anyone do anything wildly out of character, and I don’t think that would be difficult for Clayface. You could end up with Batman in some incredibly dangerous situation, a situation that Clayface manuevered him into, and then reveal that the villain here is Clayface, and reveal that he has been manipulating Wayne for weeks (months?), and then reveal all the times he’s posed as someone else. Readers would certainly start looking back over those issues, finding the subtle clues that were dropped. It could be very cool, evoking a sort of The Sixth Sense feeling, where you smack your head and say, “D’oh! Of course! It was there all along, but I didn’t see it because I wasn’t looking for it!”

Yes, that could be really cool. But I’m not choosing that path.

Batman has enough rogues in his gallery that I’m not sure there are any niches he needs filled. That being said, his gallery is brimming over with “master planners” and characters who plot long and hard to bring down Batman. I think that Clayface can best serve in the rogues gallery by making him the serial killer you mention. First of all, I think that this option really ramps up the potential horror of the character, since he really could be anyone at anytime. Second, using that horror reinforces the character’s origins as an actor in horror movies; an insane Robert Englund, in a way. Actually, that’s not a bad analogy. We’re kind of exploring the story of what would happen if Robert Englund went insane, started dressing as Freddy Krueger, and was gutting people with some homemade metal claws. Third, I think this way really helps to showcase Batman’s detective skills (I’m a big fan of any Batman story that has him doing actual detective work). If we went with the idea of Clayface subtly manipulating Batman, we don’t get to show much detective work, since Batman isn’t aware of what’s going on. However, with the serial killer option, Batman knows that there is evil afoot (he’s seen the corpses), but finding the killer is made much harder due to Clayface’s ability to change his appearance. It would be interesting to deal with Batman’s frustration as the victims continue to mount, and to devise a way for Batman to finally figure out the killer’s identity and how to find him.

Unfortunately, as you also mentioned, we have one nagging problem with this version of the character: motivation. Why would Clayface be killing people? We can always use the insanity motivation, perhaps having him target a particular group of people (people who look like an old director, casting director, actress, etc. that frustrated him when he was in Hollywood), and that could make for an incredibly intereshing, creepy story. Sadly, it can only make for ONE of those stories. Once Batman captures him, if Clayface escapes, we can’t do the same story again. “Oh look. Clayface is killing more people exactly like he did before. Zzzzzzzzzzz.” However, this might be a way for us to use both of your ideas. We do the serial killer storyline, and at the end of it, Clayface is sent to Arkham. While there, he realizes that, if he escapes and goes about his plans as he did before, he’ll simply get captured again and thrown back into Arkham, and that simply won’t do. Instead of simply cutting people down in the streets, he’s going to have to be more careful, and he’s going to have to be smarter. Perhaps it’s also time for him to secure some money, so that he can begin to lay a defense (or at least afford a decent attorney), if he’s captured again. Thinking along these lines, he decides to hit some of Gotham’s wealthiest, and kill them in such a way that he can seize their valubles after they are disposed of. So, he spends time watching them (in a variety of guises) and then getting close to them (again, impersonating different people). He manages to lure them to some out of the way spot, where he kills them in his typical gruesome fashion. He then takes their place and goes back to their lives long enough to drain their accounts and transfer as much of their wealth to himself as possible. Once he’s done that, he abandons their identity and goes after someone else.

The police would be baffled. At first, they wouldn’t be looking for a corpse, since no one would be missing. Then wealthy Gothamite #1 disappears. A manhunt begins, and in a few days they find the corpse buried in a shallow grave or throw into a ditch outside of town. An autopsy is performed, but something is wrong. This corpse died five days ago, but 20 eyewitnesses saw him at the Gotham National Bank three days ago! This happens a few times, and then Clayface targets Bruce Wayne. Now we have a chance for Wayne to use his detective skills, since he’d know he was a possible target, and although he might not know the details of how the crimes are being committed, he’d certainly be on his guard.

Is that too big of a leap from a serial killer to more of a planner, or do you think it’s a logical progression?

Reading your response and your thoughts behind the “master planner” idea, I started thinking that my original premise was kind of boring. It would take a tremendous amount of build-up and rely on a lot of talking head scenes between Bruce Wayne and other average folks with nary a cape or cowl in sight. But once you established the whole “bad guy taking out rich people” angle, it seemed to make a lot more sense.

I don’t think it’s a giant leap for Clayface to go from psycho random killer to more focused goal-oriented killer. Spending some time in Arkham Asylum would give him time to collect his thoughts, realign his persona and take the opportunity to see the error of his ways, so to speak. Plus, I don’t think there’s anything creepier than the idea of killing someone and then taking their place for an extended amount of time…that demonstrates a deep sociopathic problem not out of line with someone who was previously a serial killer. In fact, I almost see that as a progression of his psychotic behavior. Going from the terrifying serial killer to the brooding revenge killer fits well and incorporates both scenarios that I presented (which I was actually torn about too).

The biggest stretch for me is taking Clayface from a bumbling, shape-shifting brute to a calculating murderer. I think the best way to do that would be to demonstrate some sort of mental breakdown associated with Clayface losing the majority of his powers. He snaps because he doesn’t have the freedom or the protection that his powers once gave him. But who does he take it out on? Is it a random thing? Does he associate his loss with a certain archetype? Random killings would be the most brutal, but also the most difficult to explain. And yet, for my money, taking out individuals who all look the same, or have the same occupation or have the same connections is almost telegraphing information for Batman…he’s such a great detective, that these obvious similarities would come to him like a fever dream.

So, the catalyst is a dampening of powers (and a slightly off-balance mindset to begin with). The reaction has yet to be determined. But you’ve managed to tie the fallout of his rampage into a series of plausible story arcs that would set Clayface up as a truly dangerous foe. We just need to tie together the loose ends.

That’s a good point you make about his personality being somewhat different from the way it’s been portrayed for years. I’m basing a personality largely off two comic stories written almost seventy years ago, and the character has been seen quite a bit between then and now. Reconciling the current incarnation of the character with the one we’ve detailed is going to take a little more work. Certainly there’s been a tendency in the past decade for creators to wildly reimagine characters and simply introduce their new versions without bothering to explain why the character is so drastically different from their last appearance, but that’s not how we roll here at Meanwhile…Comics!

I would say that the last time I read a Clayface story, which was in No Man’s Land, Clayface wasn’t bumbling. He wasn’t anything like what we’re discussing here, but he wasn’t an idiot, and he managed to control Poison Ivy (and for awhile) part of Gotham City. That gives us at least one recent appearance that we can point to him as being moderately competent and able to think for himself.

Now, we start the story with Clayface’s powers failing him (I’m not sure if we want to do this on camera or off. You could actually start your Clayface story many issues before the reinvention, if you have him fighting Batman (or someone else) and suddenly his powers begin to fade. Perhaps he overextends himself, or if we want to come up with a more “comic-booky” reason for his power to give out, throw him into something electrical/radioactive/designed-by-Jack-Kirby and have that knock out his powers, bringing him down to the level we’ve decided on. He’s then easily captured by police, and probably sent to jail, not the asylum.

While incarcerated this first time, he begins to realize that the powers he’s had for so long are gone, probably forever. He’s stuck with the powers we’ve detailed, and at first, he rails against this fate. The shock of losing his powers coupled with (if we go this route) the shock of the electrical or what-have-you discharge he took when he lost those powers, begin to push him further into insanity. He begins to bemoan his fate, cursing what brought him to this day. And what did bring him to this day? It was that no good director who refused to cast him in that last movie and made him turn to crime! And that obnoxious young movie star that they cast instead of Karlo, just because the little snot was considered “hot” and “in”! Karlo stews in his juices for awhile, and then begins to realize that he can use the powers he has to get revenge on people like that director and star. He uses his new powers (which the authorities probably don’t even know he has yet, thinking him completely depowered) to escape and begin his crime spree.

As for who he kills, if you want random, make it random within very broad parameters. We could say that Karlo is killing anyone who reminds him of his former life. That could encompass almost anyone, so it seems completely random, but to Karlo’s warped mind, there’s a strong logic to it. Now, if we showed Clayface losing the vast majority of his power, we’d want to show him breaking out of prison and some of his crimes (again, stressing the horror of this man). However, if we haven’t shown those, we can now show what appears to be random, unrelated people killing random, unrelated people. Again, this can ramp up the horror, since you never know when someone in a scene may start killing someone else, since everything seems so random. The reader will be left guessing, and they can try and solve the mystery with Batman. I think either option (show Clayface or don’t at the beginning) can net us some horror and mystery and I think we’ve managed to walk from rather dull muck monster to much more interesting figure of horror.

I prefer the idea of just jumping right into the middle of the murders. It would be much more intriguing for neither Batman nor the reader to have any idea what is going on at the outset. At some point, we’d reveal Clayface to the readers and then be able to do some flashback pieces that show him losing his power, breaking free, and concocting a list of victims.

And the victim list itself could seem completely sane to Clayface, but just a load of random names to anyone else…for instance, maybe he blames the phone company employee who was repairing the system outside his home when he was expecting a call from his agent, or the girl at the coffee shop who served him a latte that was too hot and burned his tongue right before he had an audition, or that guy who just had to catch the same elevator Basil was on and it was enough of a delay to make him late. It would be a truly baffling group of murders for anyone to comprehend, yet Clayface would be making mental notes of all these inconveniences that ruined his life.

I like it. Problem solved! Now who’s next?

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