Clayday.

As promised last night, I’m going on a little bit of a Clayface spree today.

Clayface is a Bat-villain that I always thought was cool, but was super underused. I understand why; the detective nature of Batman meshes best with super villains that, minus their deformities and gimmicks, are gangster and serial killers types than actual super villains, and there are only so many ways you can have Bats battle a shape shifting mud man. As a result of this difficulty, there are way too many versions of the character running around, which has only furthered the problem. Plus no matter what version you’re working with, he kind of looks like a walking poop. But whatever, I still dig the guy.

Originally though, the character was straight out of the gimmicky serial killer villain section of the Batman rogues gallery:

Basil Karlo (yes, they were thinking Basil Karloff) was a disgruntled actor who dressed up as the villain he played in one of his horror movies and started killing off the people who were remaking his movies (maybe Jackie Earle Haley should be looking over his shoulder for Robert Englund). That villain was a masked slasher named Clayface. Sadly, as you can see in the auction, the glory of this issue being his first appearance has been usurped due to it being the same issue as the Joker’s debut cover appearance.

The Basil Karlo slasher Clayface only showed up a couple times before languishing in comic limbo. The Clayface name later resurfaced, with the mudman look and shape shifting powers that are now considered the character’s trademarks.

Matt Hagen was a treasure hunter who found a pool of radioactive mud that enabled him to change his form. Much like poor Basil Karlo, the high points for this version of the character were few, and in fact the highest once again involved the Joker.

This is probably the best known Silver Age Clayface story, mainly because it’s the one with the most exposure, due to it’s inclusion in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told collection. The Matt Hagen Clayface was put out to pasture alongside the Bug Eyed Bandit in a single panel during the Crisis On Infinite Earths, a telling gesture of where the character ranked in the DC villain pecking order of the time.

And now we come to my favorite of the Clayfaces. Clayface III, Preston Payne.

Preston Payne was an ugly little research scientist with a pituitary problem who took a blood sample from the Matt Hagen Clayface in an attempt to cure himself. It worked for about 5 seconds, then his body broke down into the usual muddy mess and he melted his girlfriend by touching her. Whoops.

Being a scientist, he builds himself a containment suit to hold himself together, and discovers that he needs to keep melting people to keep from feeling agonizing pain. He also fell in love with a department store mannequin.

No, seriously.

That’s her. Right there, on the cover. Believe it or not though, it works. And it’s the idiosyncrasy that takes Clayface 3 and gives him that extra little bit of depth to push him over the top in the running for the title of most interesting Clayface. I own both the issues shown here (along with Detective Comics 479, as the character’s first appearance was a two parter- technically a 3 parter if you count his pre-Clayface 3 cameo at the end of issue 477), because they are, in my opinion, the three best Clayface stories ever. And they have nothing to do with shape shifting, instead focusing on the tragic aspects of Payne’s condition and his damaged psyche. As usual however, the character really never got much play after that, staying mostly off the radar almost all the way to the 90s (1989 to be precise).

1989 saw all the Clayfaces brought together for a 4 part (or 5 part if you count the Secret Origins issue) story arc called “The Mud Pack”, where Basil Karlo gets out of the loony bin, teams up with Lady Clayface (a female version of the character created as a Kobra henchwoman a few years earlier in Batman and the Outsiders), and busts out Preston Payne so they can form an alliance to get revenge on Batman (in a running gag, the last remaining pile of mud from Matt Hagen, who Karlo tried and failed to resurrect, is given a seat at the table whenever the group meets).

Sadly, it’s not as cool a storyline as it sounds, as it really serves only to put all the Clayface eggs in one basket, as Karlo betrays the rest of his Pack by stealing everyone’s powers, becoming Ultimate Clayface a good decade before Marvel decided putting Ultimate in front of everything was cool. Lady Clayface and Clayface 3 promptly get over it, fall in love, and are written out for the next 10 years or so (eventually they have a little clay baby and we get a whole mess of crap with them running around trying to find him and one of the scientists who has him getting Clayface powers himself and a whole other bunch of stuff that never rises above meh who cares).

On a sad note, James Robinson, writer of classic, character respectful books like Starman and The Golden Age (which I hyped here), aka a guy who REALLY ought to know better, took a big healthy Matt Hagen shaped dump all over Preston Payne in his recent Justice League: A Call For Justice; tossing aside everything that made that version unique and using him as a generic shape shifter (a power the Payne version never had)… and then blowing his head off.

Since then, the amalgamated Karlo version is the one that gets the majority of the action in the comics. The classic Batman the Animated Series cartoon also went the amalgamated route, combining the Karlo and Hagen Clayfaces and leaving out Preston Payne and his melting touch entirely (probably wise; BTAS was pretty dark as far as afternoon cartoons go, but it wasn’t so dark that you could melt people into puddles of goo in it). As was usually the case, the Animated Series produced some of the best stories ever for the shape shifting version of the character. It also produced this cool looking action figure:

Yeah, ok he still looks like poop. But he shoots a spiked ball!

One Comment

  1. Posted April 14, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    This is a Really nice collection of clayface tales. dc has always needed a dose of marvel silver age skepticism and pain – I can’t think of any other villain, with the exception of harvey “two-face” dent, who embodies these necessary story telling traits.

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