Publication date: June 1940
Author: Bob Kane
Clayface was one of my absolute favorite villains from the Paul Dini/Bruce Timm television show (Batman: The Animated Series, which I am looking forward to reviewing when I am old and gray) of the early 90s. B:TAS, along with the two related animated features, represents the foundation of my Batman knowledge. It is my ur-text, and everything else revolves around it. B:TAS was the only Batman I experienced wholly as a kid, before I became an overgrown man-child using a pretentious private school education to deconstruct silly boy’s adventure stories. It had an awesome art style (influenced by art deco, one of the best retro art styles), took Batman very seriously (no camp), and mixed action with excellent character writing, not just for Batman but his villains as well.
And one of the best villains was Clayface. Despite his unreality–Clayface was a character not dissimilar from Spiderman’s Sandman, only goopier–a Clayface episode was always entertaining, because he could shape the clay into weapons or even people, and because he was significantly stronger than Batman, which meant Batman had to win with creativity instead of his fists. The same held true for the Batman Beyond character inspired by Clayface, Ink. Maybe I just like shapeshifting monsters.
That’s all a wild digression (and out of order, shame on me), because the original Clayface is just a dude with a lumpy face. Aww.
However, once I got over that disappointment, I realized this was actually a really well-done and entertaining story. In fact, after the bizarre Mad Monk plotline, this is the first chance the series has had to really stretch itself, narratively speaking. Instead of a pure action title, this story takes the form of a murder mystery, and applies the very strict rules of that genre pretty well.
We open, therefore, with a brief scene of exposition. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson getting dressed for work, after a long hard night of… crimefighting. Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, they’re talking about Bruce’s fiancee, Julie, who seems to be doing well after the whole werewolf/hypnosis thing. In fact, she’s become an actress in a new horror film at (the fictional) Argus Motion Picture Company. Bruce is going over to the studio to meet her.
Right off the bat we meet Suspect number 1: Mr. Bentley, the head of the studio. (Oh, yeah, everybody’s a suspect.) Seems pleasant enough. He shows Bruce around.
Suspect number 2: Kenneth Todd, the star of the picture, which we learn is called Dread Castle. This is in fact a remake of an earlier horror film. Let me remind you this is 1940.
It’s also interesting to learn that the villain of the picture is, in fact, “The Terror.” Back in the classic era of horror (particularly the Universal Pictures flicks, including Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf-Man), ie., pre-WWII or thereabouts, the monster was almost always the star, whereas these days (ever since the ’90s, really), depersonalization of the bad guys has resulted in a shift of focus back towards the protagonists. The modern zombie picture is a prime example of this.
Suspect number 3: Basil Karlo, the star of the original Dread Castle, a make-up artist, and obviously a stand-in for Lon Chaney, Sr., the “Man with a Thousand Faces,” who is most famous for being the original Phantom of the Opera–a film to which, by the way, this story bears more than a little resemblance.
All three suspects so far seem happy–Karlo and Todd even shake hands and share compliments–but there are twisted emotions boiling under the surface which will soon explode into violence. We learn immediately that Karlo’s career tanked as the result of bad publicity. And there’s more, as we meet–
Suspect number 4: Ned Norton, the director of Dread Castle. Norton shows up pissed, demanding to know why he can’t direct the picture. The studio head, Bentley, explains that Norton’s been way too unreliable–disappearing for days on end, without explanation. But taking a look at this picture, I’m guessing Norton’s pissed in more ways than one:
His ominous threat delivered, Director McDrunky stumbles out, stage left.
Next on this tawdry behind the scenes tour, Bentley beams over his exorbitant production costs to Bruce and Julie. He built a real castle with a moat around it–a little extreme, but typical of Hollywood in its heyday. Then and now, there are always powerful people willing to spend ridiculous sums of cash in order to build a world to play around in.
No time to dwell on the hubris of American moviemaking, however, as Suspect number 4 makes an appearance, fighting with Lorna Dane, the starlet of Dread Castle. (“Oh! Oh! A tiff!” says Bruce, presumably in the most effeminate way possible.)
(If I may digress briefly, I agree with Vern‘s Theory of Bad-Ass Juxtaposition, which states that a bad-ass becomes even more awesome when he/she has a character trait not normally associated with bad-assery, like knitting. My own corollary to this is that, mathematically, the bad-assery and the juxtaposed trait are inversely proportional–meaning that the more bad-ass you are, the more un-bad-ass your character trait can be and still work. Batman, then, is at the top of this scale, being so bad-ass that his juxtaposition is that he’s actually gay. Or to put it another way, Batman’s juxtaposition is just Bruce Wayne. Anyways.)
Suspect number 5: Fred Walker, a down-on-his-luck actor who has seen his girlfriend Lorna’s star rise much faster than his own. Like any intelligent actress, she knows dumping dead weight will only help her climb higher, so she breaks up with him. (Bentley calls her a gold-digger.) It probably wasn’t advisable to break up with him so humiliatingly (“Our love? Ha! Ha! Don’t make me laugh!”), and in public, and on the set of her new film. Naturally it leads to our second dire threat:
There’s our roster. 5 suspects. 6, if you count the gold-digger. 7, if you assume Julie’s under the control of the Mad Monk again, which I kinda hope she is because it makes this less sad:
“Ha ha! Yes, isn’t male hegemony great? Now come on honey, let’s–” …you know what, there’s really nothing I can say here that would make this panel creepier, only more explicit. Let’s just move on.
Oh, I spoke too soon. A sixth official suspect has appeared!
Suspect number 6: Mobster Roxy Brenner (presumably bitter about going through life named after the fame-hungry heroine in Chicago), who shows up right after Bruce and Julie leave, asking for protection money from Mr. Bentley. When Bentley refuses to pay (an inadvisable position which tends to lead to crying clowns), Roxy delivers the third big threat:
Back at Wayne’s house, Bruce (resplendent in his bathrobe) holds court to a rapt Dick Grayson, concluding this opening act with his analysis that an “aura of hate” suffuses the studio’s very atmosphere, and the ominous declaration that “something is going to happen, and soon!” Thus we have our fourth threat, coming from Suspect number oh wait that’s Batman, never mind.
The stage is set! The pieces are in place. The ducks are in a row. It’s time for Fowl Play: Checkmate Murder.
Luckily nobody kills nobody until Bruce Wayne shows up. As they prepare to shoot the scene in which The Terror (Suspect #2) is to kill the Countess (the gold-digger), a “hideous face” with “baleful eyes” watches from the shadows.
No, but seriously, it may or may not be this person’s intention, but he (she?) has a good point–Hollywood is full of false people pretending both on and off the screen. This is something that can only be exposed through stabbing, apparently.
At the height of the scene, while The Terror stands over Lorna with a fake knife, the unidentified man hits the “shut off all the lights” switch (in my experience, not usually present on a set, but perhaps they did things differently back then), and stabs her to death in the dark. Everyone else panics and shouts until somebody turns on the lights again, revealing the starlet’s dead, deceased, murdered corpse on the floor. The page closes with another statement (you can tell this comic is well-structured because it has clear divisions between well-drawn narrative movements), this time from the killer:
The cops investigate and find nothing, because they’re still lazy and incompetent. Whereas at this point, you and I have multiple suspects. Most of them have motives in one way or another–Roxy Brenner threatened to rub out the stars of the picture, Fred Walker vowed to shut his ex-girlfriend up for good, and Norton, ex-director, could be trying for sabotage. Even the head of the studio might be hoping to stir up publicity for his picture. The only person we know isn’t guilty at this point is Suspect number 2, star Kenneth Todd, because he was in costume pretending to kill Lorna when the real killer was in a different costume actually killing Lorna. Anyone else could have committed the murder. Well, except Lorna, I suppose.
And because it’s not clear that Lorna was the target (and not the film itself), Julie is now worried–after all, she’s to be the next victim of the movie’s Terror. Bruce, also worried, decides Batman and Robin need to get to the bottom of this.
Their first step? Break into Argus Pictures. They just happen to stumble upon another meeting–the studio head, Bentley, confronting Roxy and his thugs, claiming they killed Lorna to scare him. Batman and Robin beat them all up and interrogate Roxy, who claims he didn’t kill her, he was only trying to capitalize on the murder with Bentley. Batman gives him a swift kick in the pants (seriously) and turns to Bentley for answers about Lorna’s murder. Bentley tells him what we already know–Norton had a motive to sabotage the film, and ex-boyfriend Walker wanted her dead. Batman heads off to talk to Walker.
What he finds, however, isn’t a killer but a victim–Walker’s been hung up on a hook in his closet, an image which predates similar gruesomeness in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre by over 30 years.
Batman ponders this new clue. One more suspect eliminated–two if you count Roxy, who couldn’t have gotten here faster than Batman.
Meanwhile, the comic reminds us it does, in fact, include a character named Robin. Currently the Boy Wonder is wandering around the movie studio alone. He spies a light in the Dread Castle set and goes to investigate. Clayface has spotted him, however, and when Robin climbs to the top of the gloomy stone spiral staircase, Clayface leaps at him with a knife!
This is no mere costumed boy, however! This is an agile, acrobatic sidekick. Robin ducks, sending Clayface flying over his shoulder. The knife clatters to the ground, but Clayface advances. And then this agile acrobatic sidekick… trips on his lantern. And cracks his head against the wall.
Given that sorry performance, maybe he deserves to be thrown off the roof, which is what Clayface does to him. Robin’s unconscious body splashes into the moat. Luckily, however, Batman has returned in time to dive in and pull the kid out. They investigate the castle tower, but find nothing.
Later, though, Clayface puts on his ghoulish makeup, preparing to kill Julie during her death scene, and giggling maniacally about it like any good deranged murderer should. The day of the scene arrives and everything seems to go according to plan–but as Clayface pulls his arm back to throw a knife at Julie from the catwalks above the set, a rope snags him. The Batman!
No fool, Bentley orders the cameramen to capture the ensuing fight. It’s short but good–Batman and Clayface trade blows, and then Robin swings in and finishes the killer off with a couple of good punches. Batman ties him up, and it’s all over but the unmasking.
Do you know, fair reader? Of course you do, you’re not an idiot. Only an actor could craft the make-up necessary to turn an ordinary face into the horrific visage of the killer. And of our acting suspects, one was murdered, and another proven innocent… leaving only:
Yes, Basil Karlo, man of at least two faces that we know about. Consumed by jealousy, bent on ruining the remake and the star who supplanted him in the role of The Terror, and driven mad by a lifetime of horror movie roles, Karlo set out to murder Lorna, then Julie, then Rod, in the order their characters were to die in the film. Lorna’s ex was a side-project–Walker recognized Karlo’s makeup job and tried to blackmail him. As they’re taking him away, Karlo vows he’ll get Batman yet, and the story closes. All in all, a pretty satisfying issue–part mystery story, part slasher film, another great villain origin and classic Batman story. It’s a happy ending, too! Batman solved the mystery, brought the killer to justice, and saved his fiance’s life. Even the studio head is impressed.
Tune in next week for Detective Comics #41 as Baturdays continues.