Clayface: Best Part of the DC Rebirth?

Clayface: Best Part of the DC Rebirth?
Scan: Batman Detective Comics #1
I’m not going to sugarcoat this; I have not exactly been a fan of the DC Rebirth. Partially I was one of the three people on Earth who really, really loved the New 52, especially the assorted Bat-people and Bat-people-adjacent books. Red Hood and the Outlaws was my favorite ongoing series besides Saga; everything Scott Snyder did with Batman was magic, as was Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl.

By contrast, I don’t feel like DC Rebirth has the same easing-in quality that New 52 did, and the stories are just plain less interesting. I could hardly get through the first Superman and Flash arcs. Green Arrow and Hal Jordan & The Green Lantern Corps are a little better, but the first book that’s really grabbed my attention is Batman Detective Comics, written by James Tynion.

The series follows Batman and Batwoman (who was about the only thing I didn’t like about the New 52 and who is a much more compelling character here) as they train a team to prepare to fight an army patterned after Batman’s own methods. The team includes Red Robin, Spoiler, Orphan and, surprisingly, Batman enemy Clayface. The latter is definitely one of the best things in the whole rebooted universe.

I’ve been fascinated with the character since the Matt Hagen incarnation appeared in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Feat of Clay." In the episode, Hagen, who also incorporates many aspects of the original Clayface, Basil Karlo’s life, is an aging actor who was disfigured in an accident. Mafia don Roland Daggett begins supplying Hagen with a compound to hide his scars in exchange for his help in committing crimes, but the compound is highly addictive, giving Daggett nearly complete control over Hagen. Hagen tries to steal some of the compound, but is caught by Daggett, who then proceeds to pour a fatal overdose down Hagen’s throat in a scene that is still pretty gruesome for an afternoon cartoon show. Hagen manages to survive, and becomes the shapeshifting mud monster Clayface.

His stellar appearances in the DC Animated Universe and a few other vehicles aside, Clayface remained kind of a second-string villain in the comics. There have been something like ten different ones, and while some, like Preston Payne and his walking metaphor for sexually transmitted disease, were kind of interesting, no one Clayface in particular ever really defined the character the way his animated counterpart did.

In Batman Detective Comics, Clayface is once again Basil Karlo, a former actor who turned monster after an accident ruined his career. We meet him in a movie theater where he has broken in to watch one of his old films, sitting dejected, massive and alone after having driven the other patrons out in fear. Batman and Batwoman approach him, and he begs them to let him finish the feature, promising not to fight when it’s over. Instead, he is recruited into the team as its most rookie member.

Karlo is an amazingly sympathetic character in this incarnation, and it kind of feels like what writers have been trying to do for The Thing and Hulk finally paid off with the monstrous Karlo, who dreams of his former life. One great aspect is his constant search for reinvention, not just as a Bat protégé but as a man.

Most of the rest of the Bat team are people rather secure in their identities, save Tim Drake, who wants to quit vigilantism to go to college but who fears Batman’s disappointment. His reticence to commit to evolving his life is in sharp contrast to Karlo.

In training Clayface, Batwoman gives him a device that cancels his powers, reverting him back to simply a man so he can learn the fundamentals of fighting he never had to as he overcompensated with his abilities. This frustrates him, obviously, as it makes him easily the weakest member of the unit, but he finds a silver lining in that he can use the device to go on acting auditions again (he uses the Hagen alias in these cases).

It’s really intriguing to watch Karlo struggle with the concept of monstrosity over the first arc. On one hand, he finds catharsis in destructively lashing out in a melee (with a quick apology to Batman for doing so), but on the other he expresses sadness when an attempt to reason with people in danger to flee while in disguise fails and he resorts to fear to get them moving. There’s something so perfect about watching him moon at his own past on the silver screen, declaring the handsome actor to be him, while literally sitting in a theater he just cleared of other people like a classic monster would have. The fact that Karlo was a horror actor on top of all that is surely not lost on him.

There’s an old philosophy joke. Intelligence is knowing that Frankenstein isn’t the monster, but wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein was totally the monster. As a former villain under the command of a billionaire who spends his nights throwing sharp pieces of metal at the mentally ill to try to save the world, Karlo is Batman’s perfect counterweight, and thus far his journey has been the best part of the Rebirth for me. I’m hoping he’ll get a spin-off, maybe solving crimes working in Hollywood or something. Until then, though, it’s good to have him in Gotham.

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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner