Today, Spencer and Scott are discussing Batman 20, originally released May 8th, 2013.
Spencer: As a kid, Clayface was always one of my favorite Batman villains. Some of that has to do with the fact that he starred in one of the first cartoons that ever made me cry (Batman: The Animated Series’ excellent final season episode “Growing Pains”), but mostly it was just my young self finding this giant shapeshifting puddle of mud that could sprout blades out of his chest to be totally wicked awesome. I won’t even try to hide it, I still find those facets of the character just as fun as an adult, but I’ve come to realize that, beyond the standard shapeshifter tricks, there isn’t much to Clayface’s personality; usually he’s just treated as a device to serve some other villain’s master plan. Scott Snyder manages to wring a surprising amount of personality out of Clayface, but if the walking mud puddle isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry: there’s plenty of other stuff going on too.
With Bruce Wayne at his mercy, Clayface explains that he’s been using his new abilities to blackmail the rich and famous, and if he wants to keep his lucrative little business running, he’s going to have to take out Batman, and he plans to use Bruce—the Bat’s greatest benefactor—as bait. Clayface leaves Bruce for dead and takes off to commit crimes as Bruce Wayne, but with the help of Lucius Fox, Bruce escapes, dons a fancy new Batman armor, and is able to stall Clayface until Lucius can trap him in a containment room that can only be opened by the one person Clayface can no longer become: his original identity, Basil Karlo. On the way out, though, Clayface unknowingly presses Batman’s buttons by transforming into Damian, leading Bruce and Alfred to watch recordings of Damian and grieve together.
Snyder has crafted a unique voice for Clayface; he comes across as a gruff blue-collar kind of guy, someone I imagine you’d find in a run-down bar somewhere. He also created a convincing reason—besides money—why Karlo targets the people he does (“they’re only driven by work and glory, not caring who gets hurt around them”). I don’t necessarily take this at face value though; as a failed actor, there’s obviously jealously involved as well. Clayface would want you to believe that there’s something righteous in his crusade, but it mostly just reveals his hypocrisy, since he himself is only motivated by money and since he has absolutely no concern for the people who get caught in his crossfire.
Both before his transformation and afterwards, though, acting has always been the one trait in the forefront of Clayface’s personality. It’s a handy skill to have as a shapeshifter, and Snyder uses it to great effect, especially in this brilliant scene where Clayface attacks Batman by imitating his Rogues Gallery.
Still, I would have liked to found out a little more about Clayface. I don’t blame Snyder—he didn’t have much space to work with, and I think he used the page count well—but I found myself curious about what exactly Clayface gets out of this. What does he spend all this money he extorts on? Does he even care that he’s literally losing his individuality in this sea of DNA he’s been absorbing? Maybe he hates himself and would rather live his life as anybody else? I’d love to see the answers someday.
Batman also spends much of this issue acting as he attempts to conceal his identity from Clayface, Lucius Fox, and the police force. It’s one of the oldest plots in comics—the hero has to save the day as his secret identity without anybody finding out who he really is—but it’s been used so rarely in recent years that it feels fresh. It’s a lot of fun seeing Bruce play dumb for Clayface and finding silly excuses to give Lucius (even if Lucius seemed much more in the dark about Batman’s identity than he did in Batman Inc.). Batman’s “fiber mask”, which allowed him to convincingly conceal his identity, could have been silly (it’s dangerously close to Chris O’Donnell’s rubber lips in the terrible Batman and Robin movie), but in an issue that already features Clayface and not one, but two robotic armors, I don’t have any problem accepting it.
As much as I enjoyed this issue, and this storyline as a whole, there was one detail that really confused me. When Clayface is committing crimes as Bruce Wayne, he’s wearing Batman’s tunic beneath his shirt. His shirt is open, as if showing it off, and as he returns to Wayne Enterprises, the shirt is buttoned up, so we know Clayface is aware of the costume. Yet, at this point, Clayface isn’t supposed to know Bruce’s identity. So what’s the point of the costume? Clayface mentions to Bruce that he was “going to use Batman’s own gear to wreak havoc”, so maybe that’s why he has the tunic on? But besides the costume, Clayface doesn’t use any of Batman’s other gear; he rides a generic motorcycle and uses firearms. So I suppose, in the end, I still don’t get it.
As for the art, I feel like this is one of Greg Capullo’s best issues yet. He’s clearly having a ball drawing all the wacky stuff this story threw his way, from the Bat-Armors to the gear in the armory and especially Clayface’s insane transformations, which strike a balance of being gross but not quite stomach-turning; “charmingly gross,” maybe?
Yeah, Clayface is definitely a character that plays to Capullo’s strengths.
Man, all this talking and I didn’t even get a chance to mention the back-up; Scott, I’m leaving it to you! Also, any theories on Clayface wearing Batman’s costume I may have missed? Were you heartbroken by Damian’s reappearance? And how cool was that Batman Beyond cameo?!
Scott: It was pretty cool, although I’m not exactly sure what makes a Batsuit “cost effective” or why that would even be an issue as far as Lucius is concerned. I doubt Bruce has ever cautioned him to be more economical when it comes to Batman’s gear. I also found it strange that they would gut the weapons before throwing them into the crusher/incinerator but leave a fully-operational robotic Batsuit intact. But I don’t want to harp on that scene too much, I can forgive its convenience.
I thought Snyder did an excellent job handling the aftermath of Damian’s death in this issue. Clayface managed to cut right to the core of Batman when he morphed into Damian while describing an episode of uninterested fathering he witnessed between Bruce and Damian. The emotional response Clayface’s words elicit from Batman is enough to raise the eyebrows of Jim Gordon, who is already in the midst of a bunch of confusion as to whether Bruce Wayne is Batman, and unfortunately Snyder doesn’t show us how Batman explains himself after his tantrum. But I like how it leads into the scene between Bruce and Alfred, which is probably my favorite Damian-grieving moment of this series so far. Bruce has tried so hard to make grieving a solitary practice, so letting Alfred share his memories of Damian is an important step for him, and one that is necessary for Batman to move on from Damian and focus on new stories. With “Zero Year” starting next month, Damian might get pushed to the sidelines, so I was glad to see such a touching tribute to him at the end of the issue.
If this scene didn’t convince you that Bruce has a wonderful support group to help him through this dark time, the backup surely did. The Batman-Superman friendship is one of the sweetest things about the DC universe. Superman shows up just to check in on his buddy, ends up nearly dying, and is still willing to hang out on patrol with Batman. Superman is a good friend, but he’s also a perfect crime-fighting partner, and right now Batman needs distractions like this to take his mind off of Damian. There isn’t a ton a plot to speak of in the backup, but Alex Maleev’s art added a lot of character to these pages. The deep shadows and high-contrast seem fitting for a Batman story, but it’s an unusual treat to see Superman inhabit a world like that.
Spencer, I can’t figure out why Clayface would have been wearing the Batman costume either. My best guess is that he wanted to be prepared for when he finally met Batman and got a hold of his DNA. If he then wanted to transform into Batman, he would save himself some time by already being in costume. Or maybe he’s just Clayface, and his actions don’t always have to be logical. An entire generation of Batman fans loves Clayface because of Batman: The Animated Series, myself included, and I’m guessing most of us were too excited about his appearance in these issues to even notice that possible plothole.
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