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Recap #151: Detective Comics #40: The Murders of Clayface

Title: Detective Comics #40 – The Murders of Clayface

Writer: Bill Finger

Penciller: Bob Kane

Inker: Jerry Robinson

Initial Thoughts

I don’t talk about this as much, but before I was ever a Titans or Legion fan I was a Batman one. It started, of course, thanks to Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s animated series, but as I got older I tried to dig deeper into the more obscure aspects of Batman’s history. I was more fond of the Golden and Silver Age stuff like Kathy and Betty Kane, the original Batwoman and Batgirl, and villains like Doctor Double X and the Rainbow Beast.

My favorite member of Batman’s Rogues gallery is undoubtedly Clayface. But here’s the thing, there are over seven of them! If you watched the Batman cartoon, you probably remember Clayface looked like this:

And in the comics, he did. One of them did. Well, after the cartoon happened, people began using THAT design as a default appearance which made things frustrating. The cartoon version was a combination of the first three Clayfaces. The very first, who appeared in Detective Comics #40, wasn’t a shapeshifter. No, he was a serial killer with a grotesque face. But I can’t say much more than that because it would spoil the story.

Recap

It starts off when dashing millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne decided to pay a visit to his fiancée Julie Madison at her new job as a film actress for Argus Motion Pictures. At Argus, Julie introduces Bruce to her boss, studio head Mr. Bentley. Bentley is very impressed with Julie’s acting abilities and promises she’ll be a star in no time. As of right now, she’s got a supporting role in the new horror flick remake, “Dread Castle.” In case you were wondering, horror movie remakes aren’t a recent thing. Once sound was introduced into pictures and better special effects were developed, a lot of horror movies from the 20s and 30s were remade in the late 30s and 1940s.

Bentley introduces Bruce to Kenneth Todd, who’ll be playing the monstrous “The Terror” in the film. The role was originally played by Basil Karlo, whom Bentley hypes as the greatest character and make-up artist of all time. As it happens, Karlo has stopped by to wish Bentley and Kenneth, his successor, good luck on the movie. He expresses his hope that Kenneth proves to be “As smart as I was foolish.” Kenneth, despite initially seeming to be a douche, modestly responds he’s nowhere near the actor Karlo is. Bruce is confused by what Karlo meant; it turns out Karlo’s award-winning career ended after he got into several scandals and humiliating situations. After the press got through with him, people stopped seeing his movies even when prizes were offered.

Unfortunately, the relaxed mood is ruined when Ned Norton, the former director for the remake, bursts into Bentley’s office demanding to know why he was fired. Bentley says Norton already stalled production by going on benders and disappearing for days on end, so if he expects to keep working he should’ve acted like an adult.

Bruce and Julie are shown the set for “Dread Castle,” an honest to God castle complete with a real moat Bentley had constructed just for the movie. But there’s tension on stage between star actress Lorna Dane and her soon-to-be ex boyfriend, actor Fred Walker.

No, not THAT Lorna Dane.

Bentley contemptuously says Walker is the latest in a string of lovers Lorna’s dumped, referring to her as a gold digger. Walker refuses to take no for an answer as Lorna venomously explains she’s not getting tied down with an out-of-work, four-piece Chicken McNutsack. Walker grabs her and says she doesn’t deserve to live.

After Bruce and Julie leave, Bentley is accosted by local gangster Roxy Brenner. Brenner asks if Bentley’s finally considering his “Protection” offer, but Bentley wants nothing to do with him and tells him to go fuck off.

At Wayne Manor, Bruce finishes recapping his day with Julie and expects something bad is going to happen on that set.

A few days later, Julie’s invited Bruce to watch them film the scene where Lorna Dane’s character is killed by the hunchbacked Terror. What no one knows is that a ghastly face is spying on the cast from a shadowy corner of the set.

As Lorna Dane is about to “Die,” the grim figure pulls a light switch. Amid the darkened confusion someone screams, and the lights are turned on just in time to find Lorna is dead for real. The killer is satisfied. The police investigate but can’t find any evidence to substantiate a search for a suspect. Julie is worried because she’s supposed to be killed off next in the film. Bruce tries to assure Julie that Lorna was the only target, but secretly he’s just as worried. This looks like a job for… BATMAN AND ROBIN!

The Dynamic Duo heads to Argus Pictures to perform a private investigation and find Bentley being accosted by Roxy Brenner and his thugs. Bentley demands to know if Brenner had Lorna killed, but the gangster only promises the next accident will be worse. Batman and Robin burst in and make quick work of Brenner’s thugs. Brenner tries to cut out before Batman grabs him and makes him tell the truth. Brenner admits no, he wasn’t responsible for Lorna’s death, but tried to cash in on it to get Bentley’s money. Batman kicks him to the curb.

That settled, Batman asks Bentley is he can think of anyone else who wanted Lorna dead and he names both Fred Walker and Ned Norton for obvious reasons. Batman orders Robin to keep watch on the Dread Castle set while he looks for Fred Walker. But it doesn’t take long before Batman discovers a fatally wounded Walker strung up in his home. Walker is only able to babble about someone or something called “Clayface” before he dies. Batman has no clue what this could mean and decides to reconvene with Robin.

(Clayface by Simon Fraser)

At the same time, Robin notices a light in one of the castle towers, realizing he’s not alone. As he investigate, the same grotesque killer, Clayface, waits around a corner for Robin to appear before lunging at the Boy Wonder with a knife in his hand.

Caught by surprise, Robin flips Clayface over his shoulder and disarms him, but the killer announces he’ll end the boy’s life with his bare hands. Robin trips on his lantern and hits his head on the stone wall, falling unconscious. Clayface dramatically decides to toss the boy off the castle balcony and into the moat below. Batman returns just in time to see Robin’s descent, and dives into the moat as Robin hits the surface. The cold water shocks the boy awake and explains to his mentor his tussle with Clayface. By the time they reach the castle top, the killer’s gone.

The following morning, Clayface dons his awful visage once more. He brags to himself that today Julie Madison will be the next to die, not just in the film, but in real life. The movie is proving to be prophetic and no one knows it.

On the set, as Julie is about to “Killed,” Clayface prepares to throw a dagger at her from the catwalk above the set. Batman appears and knocks the knife from Clayface’s hand before tackling him down. The actors and staff below watch the fight breaking out between the hero and the villain, but Clayface’s madness gives him extra strength and he throws the Dark Knight off. Clayface leaps off the catwalk, grabbing a rope to swing below, but Robin is ready for him this time. The Boy Wonder swings on top of Clayface before socking his jaw. This gives Batman the opportunity to throw a lasso over Clayface, and suspends him from the catwalk.

Captured, Clayface is unable to stop Batman from removing his make-up. Bentley realizes he’s seen Clayface from somewhere before. An old movie, which makes sense because beneath the clay is…

BASIL KARLO!

Batman explains Karlo was driven by his hatred of having one of his old roles “stolen” by Kenneth Todd and decided to ruin “Dread Castle.” Bentley is confused though, because if Karlo hated Kenneth why didn’t he kill him first? Batman explains Karlo’s years of horror acting got mixed up with his warped egomania. The man became consumed by his past roles, killing off the actors as they were to die in the movie. That way, Karlo would be a star again. He was saving Kenneth for last because the Terror was supposed to be the last to die in the film. “Clayface” was another role Karlo played at one point, it seems. Karlo admits he killed Fred Walker because Walker stumbled upon Karlo in his Clayface gear and stupidly tried to blackmail him. Karlo swears vengeance on Batman before the police haul him away.

Bentley congratulates Batman and Robin on a sensational victory, and offers the two acting contracts right then and there. Batman turns him down, saying their only career is JUSTICE. Julie can’t help but regret her darling Bruce isn’t as dashing and heroic as Batman.

Jude’s History On Clayface

So now that you know who the first Clayface is I can launch into more exposition.

Basil Karlo was modeled after Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, two of the great horror actors of the Golden Age. He only made one other appearance after this story before he was replaced by the Silver Age Clayface. He was then brought back in the 1980s where he teamed up with several other Clayfaces, before stealing their abilities to become “The Ultimate Clayface.” In the late 90s Karlo was solidified as the main Clayface, but due to the influence of “Batman: The Animated Series” he was written and drawn like the cartoon version, which caused confusion.

(The Ultimate Clayface)

Following the end DC’s disastrous “New 52” continuity reboot, Karlo’s backstory was rewritten, making him much younger and featuring him as a supporting character in the “DC Rebirth” run of “Detective Comics” by James Tynion IV. Karlo was included as a villain given a chance at redemption by joining Batman’s team of Gotham-based heroes, and formed an unlikely friendship with Cassandra Cain. Personally I’m not fond of this decision.

Clayface II was Matthew Hagen, a treasure hunter who discovered an underwater grotto containing a strange pool of protoplasm. After bathing in the pool, Hagen became a lumpy, clay-like creature who could alter his shape any way he pleased. However, the effects were temporary, which meant he had to keep going back to the cave. Hagen was pretty much a goofy villain who wasn’t that much of a threat. He was killed off during “Crisis on Infinite Earths” and he’s stayed dead. Obviously though, the name and appearance were used as the basis for the animated series’ Clayface while giving him Karlo’s acting background.

It’s telling that a new Clayface emerged while Hagen was still alive. Clayface III, Preston Payne, was an acromegalic, which meant most people shunned him due to his appearance. Payne visited Hagen in prison and asked for the secret behind his transformative abilities. Hagen wouldn’t talk, but allowed Preston to take a sample of his blood for analysis. Preston tried to derive a shape shifting formula based on the protoplasm traces in Hagen’s blood, and it worked… for a little bit. Preston’s appearance soon became permanently clay-like without the shape changing benefits. What’s worse, he’d become afflicted with severe pain, and his bare touch could melt human flesh to goo. Preston built an exoskeleton to contain his body, but had to spread the illness to other people in order to stop the pain for a time. An extremely reluctant killer, while he worked to try and restore his body in his madness brought on by the pain and isolation he fell in love with a mannequin he named “Helena.” She was the only “Woman” he could touch. They took the disfigured aspect and gave it to the cartoon’s Clayface.

Unfortunately, Preston was killed off by that goddamn hack James Robinson in the abysmal “Justice League: Cry for Justice.” The reason I’m not fond of the sympathetic portrayal of Karlo in “Rebirth” is because if they wanted to make Clayface a tragic character, there was loads of potential in Preston. I miss hammy egomaniac Basil Karlo.

Some time later a fourth Clayface appeared in “Batman and the Outsiders.” This one was Shondra Fuller, an agent of the terrorist organization called Kobra. Shondra got permanent shapeshifting abilities AND she could duplicate the superpowers of those she mimicked. While considered a Batman villain, she was essentially an arch-enemy of the heroine known as Looker. But becoming anyone she wanted didn’t make Shondra happy, because it meant people were never getting close to the real her. She became bitter at being forced to steal bits of other people’s lives instead of living one of her own.

After these four were Cassius, a child Clayface, and Dr. Peter Malley, who’d become a creature called “Claything” when a skin sample taken from Cassius bonded with Dr. Malley and mutated him. There were also a couple of others but there wasn’t much to them in the personality department and there were more like knock offs of Matthew Hagen. I can’t say much about Cassius or Malley because those would be major spoilers.

The animated Clayface was an amalgamation of Basil, Matthew, and Preston. Matt Hagen was once a brilliant and famous movie actor before he was horribly disfigured in a car accident.

Hagen was approached by Roland Daggett, an unscrupulous businessman who offered Hagen a chance to reclaim his former glory. Daggett gave Hagen access to a chemical compound called “Renuyu,” a cream-like substance that makes human flesh malleable like clay. What Hagen didn’t expect was the addictive qualities of Renuyu, being gripped with awful pain if not used every so often. Daggett had Hagen perform several acts of corporate sabotage against his competitors in exchange for more Renuyu. In the process, Hagen was becoming extremely irritable and tended to lash out at people, including his stunt-double (and possible boyfriend) Teddy. Hagen eventually decided to try and steal as much of Renuyu as he could instead of relying on Daggett. Unfortunately, Hagen was caught in the act by Daggett’s henchmen, Germs and Bell, who proceeded to force feed him an entire bottle of Renuyu.

(“Let’s give him all he’ll EVER need!”)

The overexposure saturated Hagen’s entire body, turning him into a hulking, misshapen lump of clay, and while he discovered he could change his entire appearance the act was akin to tensing a muscle meaning he couldn’t hold the form for long. Hagen decided to get revenge on Daggett and tried to murder him during a day time talk show interview, in the process exposing the truth about Renuyu before it was released to the general public.

Hagen made several appearance afterwards, including in one incredibly dark and sad episode that featured a young girl named Annie. Throughout all his appearances in the DC Animated Universe, he was voiced by Ron Perlman.

In “The Batman” series from the early 2000s, they did feature Basil Karlo, but their first Clayface was Ethan Bennett. Ethan was a canon foreigner in the series, a young police detective and friend of Bruce Wayne’s. Ethan spent most of the first season as a friend to Bruce, before he was driven insane by the Joker and unintentionally mutated into Clayface. Ethan tried to murder the Joker as revenge, as well as police chief Angel Rojas (who admittedly was a colossal asshole). Surprisingly, Ethan was given the chance to redeem himself before the series ended, which was around the same time Basil Karlo was introduced as a wannabee actor.

Final Thoughts

I don’t get much room to talk about my interest in comics on here, but I might be able to change that this year. There are several potential Batman stories, including the follow-up Clayface tale in “Detective Comics” #49 I can recap, plus a few I might have planned for Halloween and December. God knows I’d love a shot at reviewing the other Scary Godmother stories.

From the build-up, had Fred Walker not been killed next you could’ve deduced he was Clayface as way of him proving to Lorna what a “Great actor” he was by donning the ultimate persona: Death. I wonder what happened to Ned Norton since he pretty much vanished and we weren’t even shown Bruce and Dick investigating him.

It’s interesting to me how Karlo was essentially a prototype of serial killer characters found in more recent horror films, like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees.

It was nice to talk about something besides the Legion and the Titans for a change.

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