Baturdays: Detective Comics #49, “Clayface Walks Again”

In All, Books and Comics by Kyu

Publication date: March 1941
Author: Bob Kane

To recap:

Not long ago, actor/make-up artist/Lon Chaney-stand-in Basil Karlo, the so-called “man of at least two faces,” went insane and began murdering people on the set of the remake of one of his classic horror films. Batman and Robin wouldn’t have gotten involved with these Hollywood murders, all so stuck-up with their fancy murder coffee and their expensive murder clothes, except that Bruce Wayne’s fiancee, Julie (who he has lately been at least attempting to cheat on) had a role to play in both the film and the killings (the same role, in fact–the victim), and so he had to step in to save her. The last time we saw Karlo, he was vowing vengeance. And America being the land of opportunity, he just might get his chance…

My head says it’s just a colorist’s mistake, but my heart says Bentley’s face is a satirical representation of trendy Hollywood tanning.

The two men proceed to play the “Stage Name” game, which as everyone knows goes like this:

1. Pick a metaphor for your stardom, usually meteorological (taking the world by storm).

2. Misspell it (taking the world by Storme). This is your last name.

3. Choose your favorite Shakespeare character (Portia, from “The Merchant of Venice”). This is your first name.

4. Watch the glamour magazine montage unfold!

Clearly the narrator is biased toward Movie Mag. What, no love for Variety’s headline, “Dizzy Dame Ditches Name”?

For the curious, my stage name is King Henry IV Earthkwake, but only because Hamlet Xplosion is already the name of my band.

Unfortunately for Bruce, Portia’s new stardom goes right to her head, and she decides that a handsome, wealthy playboy is no longer good enough for her.

This is a great example of the combination dialog/thought bubble (or “dought bubble”), the most important tool of snarky comic book characters everywhere. Dought bubble: keeping America’s secrets since 1934!

This all quite tragic. The identity Bruce has assumed in order to keep him and his loved ones safe is now driving them away… but who could blame them? Playboy Bruce Wayne is a big boring pretentious dick. So maybe not so tragic.

Bruce: “I wonder what Linda’s doing this weekend…”
Portia: “Who’s Linda?”
Bruce: “Dammit, that was supposed to be in a thought bubble!”

I know this issue is about Clayface, but I kinda want this to turn into a screwball comedy where Bruce gets a job at a diner to impress Portia, but has to hide that from his society buddies so they don’t start thinking he’s Batman, and then the Bat signal goes off but he has to work the grill because the orders are piling up and the surly-yet-lovable chef just had a heart attack, and he has to dash around in and out of costume fighting crime and keeping the customers happy in a Mrs. Doubtfire-style crescendo of manic comedy until it all comes crashing down when he tries to Batarang Portia.

It probably won’t, though.

“Movie stars don’t have problems, Bruce. You’d understand that if you were a movie star. Like me. Portia Storme.”

From now on, please pretend that every time the-artist-formerly-known-as-Julie says her own name, she then makes thunder noises with her lips.

Real thunder and lightning, meanwhile, accompanies the transport of one Basil Karlo, criminally insane…

If there are two things that really make Batman stories work during this period (and I do think most of them work, at least on an entertainment level), they’re the “something for everyone” mix of genres (comedy and horror and suspense and action and so on) and genre influences (noir, Gothic literature, gangster pictures, German Expressionism, soap operas, and of course superhero comics) which roll up early 20th-century popular culture into one giant entertainment Batamari, and the winking post-modern self-awareness that keeps the Batamari from collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

Both are present in the above panel. The melodramatic image of the prisoner transport on a lonely road in a raging thunderstorm is something I associate with the Gothics; and since the cliche could easily turn silly, the authors have a character remark upon the similarities between their circumstances and classic horror films of the sort Basil Karlo (read: Lon Chaney) would star in. (I am personally reminded of the climactic, apocalyptic storm in Tod Browning’s Freaks.) Once lampshaded (warning: that is a TV Tropes link, abandon hope all ye who click), the atmosphere is then free to be effective.

And effective it is–not only in setting up mood, but in driving the plot. The car ends up skidding off the rain-slick road and over the embankment, to crash into a tree at the bottom. After a long moment, a lone survivor emerges from the wreckage…

…who is he talking to? Why is he speaking in rhyme? what is happening

“Moments later” (according to the narration, ludicrously) Karlo is in a movie make-up store, strangling the terrified owner to death. Then he sets to work…

This is drawn so creepily. I love the eyes in the shadow of his brim.

Let’s pause here, before Clayface does anything, to consider his character. We didn’t really get to do that last time, since we didn’t know until the end who Clayface was. But now that we know it’s Karlo, this character has a great deal of thematic sense and relevance.

Take a look at the pacing here (no, this isn’t a non-sequitor). Like the original Clayface story, it’s excellent, taking full advantage of page breaks to provide narrative momentum between story segments. In this issue so far, we’ve had the title page, then the page where Julie becomes Portia Storme and breaks up with Bruce, and then this page, where Karlo re-enters and then transforms himself. See where I’m going with this?

Clayface is a dark mirror of Storme. Both, essentially, are people who assume another identity in the pursuit of fame. Remember that Karlo was originally sabotaging the remake of his old film, in an effort to prevent the newcomers from usurping his past fame. “The world will once again hear of me.” Past his prime as an actor, Karlo has (in his demented way) decided his only way of regaining his former status is through infamy. His transformation is not only of Hollywood (using the tools and techniques of movie make-up artists) but parodies it, as well–using the same make-up methods to disfigure and horrify, instead of the usual actor’s quest for youth and beauty. But the goals are ultimately the same–to be a new person with a new look whose work can’t help but draw the world’s attention. Except that in the case of Clayface, that work is murder.

Later, Bruce and Dick hear about Karlo’s escape and subsequent murder (crime detection method #4), and decide to go over to Argus Studios (who put out the remake) in case Clayface decides to show up. Which he does, of course. Fame is all well and good, but vengeance makes the world go ’round.

That plan sounds… wait for it… wait for it… explosive!

Peeking around the corner, however, Clayface spies the Batman, and decides that revenge is a dish best served to everybody. He takes a fire hook off the wall of the set and tosses it at Batman, who survives thanks to… his spider sense?

Batman’s shadow lay speared and bleeding on the floor. Batman rose, rage in his eyes and fists. His shadow would not go unavenged.

Batman tackles Clayface off the deck of the ship set and into another set entirely:

Batman is friend to all children!

If I’m not mistaken, Batman has presaged kaiju (men fighting in giant monster suits, ala the original Godzilla movies) by over a decade. Awesome.

Clayface catches Batman on the side of the head with a miniature train, however, and then sets a (real) truck on a collision course with the dazed hero. Cliffhanger the first. We follow Karlo’s perspective, wandering around looking for Robin.

All of these sets–the ship, the city, the castle–have been used many times as settings for Batman stories so far. This whole sequence is clearly a deliberate thinning of the fourth wall–an acknowledgment that comics are stories, made-up for amusement, and that the plot machinations which these issues normally invest with such seriousness are really just ways of moving the characters around from backdrop to backdrop, like actors moving around a studio of the imagination.

Anyway, Clayface whacks Robin on the back of the head, drags the boy into the wooden castle set, and sets off his incendiary bomb. (Cliffhanger the second.) And then, the gloating! Oh, the gloating.

“Narration provided for the illustration impaired.”

Clayface’s stage name is Lady Macbeth Forest Fyre.

Meanwhile, back at the first Cliff with someone Hanging off it, Batman sees the truck rushing toward him–and dives toward it!

That is not how chess works.

Batman soon finds firefighters trying to put out the wooden castle. Onlookers tell him they spotted Clayface going inside with Robin. Batman douses himself with the fire hose and heads inside.

“I’m going in, or my name’s not Mark Antony Cyklone!”

Batman’s need to save Robin is probably driven by his recent break-up–Robin is all he has left. Which makes it especially poignant when, after an arduous journey through flame, Batman emerges empty-

Just kidding! Hey, this cliffhanger stuff is fun!

Batman vows to get Clayface in return for the attacks. But Clayface has a different agenda:


Portia tells the studio heads about this, but they don’t want to stop shooting her new film. She agrees to continue, and the studio gives her a guard detail. The publicity guy (whose name, amusingly, is Gabby) leaks the details to the newspapers.

“And what’s this? Garfield has eaten all the lasagna? You’re a fool, Arbuckle! An utter fool!”

Having read the same paper, Batman visits Portia that night…

The next day:

What the–is he disguising his Clayface disguise? Why doesn’t he just put on different make-up?

Oh, right, he’s crazy. Nevermind.

Batman and Robin, meanwhile, show up at the studio gates, and run into Storme’s guard detail.

I’m sure your polite explanations are a great comfort to the man you have picked up and are using like a club to beat his friends.

In all the confusion, however, Clayface, up in a castle tower, has spotted Portia:


Batman sees where the arrow came from and makes his way to the castle.

Like a Cyklone, you mean!

annnnnnnnnnd FACE

Clayface dives down the stairs after Batman, knife out, and the two fight until Batman decides that he’s bored.

Batman would make the best parent. “Won’t shut up, will you, kid? Why don’t I sing you a lullaby… with my fists.”

Wait, did I say ‘best’? I meant ‘most abusive.’

Later, once Clayface is in police custody again, Batman and the studio execs gather around Portia’s body… and it starts to rise! Zombie Portia! Batman casually puts his fist through her brain, explaining that head shots are no, wait, I’m making stuff up again.

“We didn’t tell you because we thought it would be funny to see the look on your face!”
“And it was! Ha ha!”

Robin’s stage name is Puck Tornado. Coincidentally that is also his porn name.

I’m not even going to try remarking on the sexual undertones of Batman’s ex-fiancee dressing up like Robin. But there are definitely emotional issues at play here, as well:

“Keep smiling,” thinks Batman. “You’re happy. Your heart isn’t broken. You’re not going to put your fist through her stupid whore face. Just… keep… smiling…”

Tune in next week as Baturdays continues!