Clayface has become one of the surprise new stars of the DC Universe in the Rebirth era. The relaunch of Detective Comics shifted the title to being a team book in which Batman and Batwoman trained a new generation of heroes in Gotham City, including shapeshifter Basil Karlo. His story as a reformed villain torn between his human and monstrous forms, both genetically and psychologically, has been one of the key plotlines in the series. That story came to a head recently, and the new Detective Comics Annual reflects on the origin of Clayface this week. Writer James Tynion IV and his collaborators have transformed an ironically rigid character into a tragic antihero of the DCU.
It’s impossible to know what will come next for Clayface after the events of Detective Comics #973. However, it does provide a great opportunity to look back at the highlights of this long-lasting Bat-villain. Clayface was initially co-created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1940 and has been involved with plenty of heists and stories ever since. These are the seven comics and cartoons that are the absolute cream of the crop (or mud of the clay) in Clayface canon.
Batman: The Animated Series, Season 1, Episodes 20-21
Story by Marv Wolfman and Michael Reaves
Directed by Dick Sebast and Kevin Altieri
This is the gold standard of Clayface stories. There’s no better example of how an adaptation can refine and clarify a character’s complex collection of comics into a singular story. So perhaps it’s no surprise to see legendary comics writer Marv Wolfman co-authored the episode. Along with Reaves, he distilled Clayface’s origin into its most essential elements: a man obsessed with image, imitation and acting, a transfiguring accident, and a distinct lack of moral compass. The result is one of the most iconic episodes of this outstanding show’s first season. Clayface’s fast morphing form is still stunning on the small screen, and his story takes on appropriately Shakespearean tragic tones as the villain crafts his own fall.
Batman: Li’l Gotham #9
Written by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen
Art by Dustin Nguyen
This is by far the most friendly of the best Clayface tales, occurring in the all-ages setting of Li’l Gotham. Damian attends a comic convention with Bruce in order to meet one of his father’s heroes Simon Trent, the actor who portrayed Gray Ghost. It’s a reminder of how actors and superheroes can inspire greatness amongst their fanbase. Clayface represents the opposite end of the spectrum though as an actor obsessed with the past and wringing every dollar he can from those attending the con. It’s a fun and surprisingly smart take on the nature of fandom and its many forms.
Batman (vol. 2) #19-20
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo and Danny Miki
Following the death of Damian Wayne in Batman Inc., Snyder and Capullo had to grapple with the loss in the pages of their run on Batman. They snuck their emotional exploration into a story of identity theft via Clayface. In this tale, Clayface steals the identity of Bruce Wayne in order to commit a series of robberies. This causes a variety of problems for Batman and results in some great cameos (including the first in-continuity appearance of the suit from Batman Beyond). It ultimately allows Bruce to confront his own guilt as he faces himself and accusations about being a failed father. Clayface is a pure villain, but provides an incredible cathartic finale for the greatest trauma faced by Batman since the loss of his parents.
Batman Annual #11
Written by Alan Moore
Art by George Freeman
This one-shot by comics legend Alan Moore focused on Preston Payne, one of the later iterations of Clayface, in a bizarre love story. The very unstable Payne has fallen in love with a clothing store mannequin he names Helena. Batman becomes the third man in a perceived love triangle and has a difficult time fighting a Clayface who is interested in more than cash. The story becomes an exploration of misperception and the easily twisted nature of love. It results in a finale where Batman wins by understanding his opponent, and the opponent comes to his own bizarre terms with his perception of reality.
Detective Comics (vol. 1) #969-973
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Joe Bennett, Miguel Mendonca, and Jesus Merino
This is the summation of Tynion’s run on Detective Comics since its relaunch in Rebirth. Clayface has been one of the most dynamic figures of the team, and this story brings forth all of his most fascinating aspects. Clayface’s new friendships, his hopes and self-doubt, and the dangers of doing the right thing in Gotham City all craft a truly tragic tale. Only time will tell, but this story will likely redefine the tale of Basil Karlo forever. It’s a great Clayface story, no matter what comes next.
Joker’s Asylum: Clayface #1
Written by Kevin Shinick
Art by Kelley Jones
This is another story in which Clayface represents the negative side of nostalgia. He invades a movie festival terrified that his acting career might be defamed. The real joy of this story comes from the depiction of Clayface by Kelley Jones though. Jones' style elevates the grotesque and captures random elements perfectly, which combine to make one terrifying incarnation of Clayface. Never has his scale and amorphous form been presented as well as it has here. Jones is a perfect artist for Clayface, and we can only hope he will return for more work with the character soon.
Batman: The Animated Series, Season 2, Episode 3
Story by Alan Burnett
Directed by Eric Radomski
“Feat of Clay” is the perfect introduction of a villain, and “Mudslide” is the perfect outro. Clayface’s second and final appearance in Batman: The Animated Series finds the villain unable to maintain his shape as he slowly dissolves into mud. This loss of identity and self results in the villain lashing out more than ever, and Batman finds himself unable to act. Combined with the original episodes, it becomes a tragic finale that is almost unparalleled within animation. In spite of Clayface’s greed and wrath, he remains sympathetic when faced with an impossible problem that will soon consume everything he once was.