Like many Batman fans, I’m still getting used to Clayface fighting alongside the Bat-family rather than against them. Luckily, Detective Comics has recently featured Clayface battling the Bat-family once again. While readers await the next chapter in Clayface’s return to villainy in Detective Comics #974, Detective Comics Annual #1 resets Basil Karlo’s origin to fit the Rebirth age. James Tynion IV crafts a tragic backstory with respect to the character’s complicated history that reveals a young man who is more a victim of circumstance than a true villain.
Clayface has been a Batman adversary since 1941 embodied by numerous people, so this issue stands to provide a concrete origin for the character. Tynion doesn’t completely ignore the character’s history, though. He makes a nod to the original Clayface — an actor who went on a killing spree after being recast — by writing this young Basil as a rising actor pursuing a role based on an eerily similar killing spree. In a heartfelt moment overlooking Los Angeles, Basil explains why the role is so important to him: if he plays the character right, he can prove to people there is something worth liking in even the darkest people. A bit naive, but a hopeful and noble ideology.
Before shooting begins on the movie, Basil is in a horrific accident that disfigures him so terribly he begins abusing an outlawed makeup material called Renu to morph his face back to normal. This accident quickly sends Basil into his devious ways, doing anything to get his hands on Renu and keep his dream role.
Clayface’s motives lacked depth in 1941. He was simply a bad dude wanting revenge on those he thought wronged him, whereas this new origin adds complexity. He’s interested in the role because he wants to prove even a monstrous person can be loved. He’s an empathetic man who wants to make a point: he’s not driven by greed or a thirst to watch the world burn, but his desire to make the world just a little better.
A chance encounter with Batman reveals Renu was banned for its harsh mental side effects that change the user’s personality. The personality changes not only explain Basil’s sudden departure from hopeful actor to criminal but also displays the notion that he’s more a victim of circumstance than a true villain. His accident sent him to a dark place, but Renu’s lasting side effects keep him there, unable to escape to a brighter life.
Before the issue ends Basil makes his full transformation to Clayface while making one last run at a stockpile of Renu. Although this scene is gorgeously drawn (more on that below), the issue stumbles here. The reader learns nothing else about Renu, most importantly how it allows Basil to manipulate his appearance or how it leads to his final transformation. Early panels explain it was used to manipulate plastics, but that doesn’t explain how it is used for Basil’s benefit. I understand the writer only has so many pages to tell the story, but this just felt a little rushed.
The ending also left more to be desired. For such an emotionally driven story showing a man dragged to villainy by circumstances mostly out of his control, the final pages lack a punch. The book just sort of ends, somewhat abruptly.
The art on this issue is fantastic. Eber Ferreira inks with exquisite detail on every page, especially when it comes to facial expressions. This is an emotionally driven issue meant to show the reader how Basil slowly lost himself and Ferreira drives each emotion straight to the heart of the reader with lifelike facial expressions from each character. From the nurturing smile of Basil’s father to the horror expressed by his friends as they see his scarred face, Ferreira’s ability to convey feelings heightens the emotion of each scene.
Aside from expertise with drawing normal people, Ferreira’s drawings of Basil’s deformities are equally effective in elevating the story and supplementing Tynion’s points. Basil’s complete transformation into Clayface is made more agonizing thanks to the grotesquely ghoulish art. Tynion’s efforts to place Clayface among the likes of Two-Face as a villain who is less of a bad person and more of a victim of circumstance are apparent in the art as much as the narrative — the readers’ first glimpse of Basil after his accident shows one portion of his face brutalized while the other seems unscathed.
Undeniably evil villains are easy to write, easy to hate, and aren’t memorable. The best villains have depth; they were once better people or still have good in them waiting to resurface. In Detective Comics Annual #1, James Tynion IV and Eber Ferreira craft Clayface into a more complex character whose descent into vileness was a tragic mixture of bad luck and uncontrollable circumstance.