It’s definitely not unheard of in the world of comics for a villain to be written off only to have someone else take up their mantle later on. The Flash's rogues Trickster, Mirror Master, and Captain Boomerang are usually the first ones that come to mind for me. But while researching my last article Comics to Video Games: Batman Beyond, I was shocked to find one villain, a master of mimicry himself, who has been mimicked more than any other.
I had always known that Clayface had come in several shapes, sizes, and personas over the years, but further investigation shows that there have been eight Clayfaces over the past 70 years and that is only in the main comics continuity. Nevermind the Earth-9 Clayface or the variations and additions made through other media like the Clayfaces introduced in the mid 2000s cartoon The Batman and the short lived Birds of Prey TV series. So what reason could there be that the DC Universe would need so many clones of the same shapeshifter and does it diminish the value of any Clayface story arcs? == TEASER ==
The most confusing thing as to why DC feels the need to have all these Clayfaces and have not killed them all off is that several of them have different powers with the same underlying shapeshifting theme, but you very rarely see those differences beyond their introductory arc.
Preston Payne (Clayface III) has some of the weakest shapeshifting powers of the bunch, but has the unique ability to melt and absorb anyone he touches into his own mass of clay. Yet the last time we see him before he is supposedly killed off in Justice League: Cry for Justice , Prometheus mutated him further so he could shapeshift better and be like all the other Clayfaces and then has him act as a distraction. Is it that no artist out there is willing to cross that line and show some really gruesome deaths at Payne’s hands and really explore his “hunger” to its fullest extent? Instead, DC made him like everyone else for a time to keep his name fresh and force him into a story.
Or how about Sondra Fuller (Clayface IV), also known as Lady Clayface? Although primarily a shapeshifter, she has the unique ability to mimic super powers as well as appearances. But ever since the Mud Pack storyline where she mimicked the powers of Looker to lure Preston Payne into the group, we’ve barely seen her at all, nevermind using her unique skill set. Could you imagine the havoc she could cause the Justice League by being able to take on different power sets?
And then of course there is the currently most often used Clayface, Basil Karlo (Clayface I). Originally just a killer in a grotesque masque, Karlo used a blood transfusion from Payne and Fuller to give him both of their combined powers. And yet, all we see from him is simple disguises and some giant mallet hands at best. Karlo was the madman behind bringing the Mud Pack together and now he is mostly hired help for other villains.
Then you have supposedly the most powerful Clayface of them all. I don’t even want to think of the insemination process, but Preston Payne and Lady Clay would have a baby who they named Cassius "Clay" Payne (Clayface V). But he is never featured in most Clayface story arcs and we’ve had three more Clayfaces after him introduced in spite of the clear exploration and development that his character needs. I would love to see him break out from S.T.A.R. Labs and try to reunite with his parents and then you could develop them all very clearly in one stellar arc.
But I guess DC feels why explore these characters when you can just make more of them? The potential for Clayface is constantly being watered down and molded into lackeys and pawns in greater villains’ master plans, but why can’t they be great again and given prominence once more? Or at the very least, kill them all off because it’s becoming nearly impossible to keep track of them. I can just imagine in an upcoming issue of Batman you’ll have Dick Grayson taking on a Clayface and ask, “Which one are you again?” or “Are you someone new or have we danced this dance before?”
The real reason why I think we have so many Clayfaces is that it has become the DC Universe’s deus ex machina. You have these personality types, although only mildly explored, set in stone and so when you need to further a certain plot or bridge a gap to the next big story arc, why not throw in a Clayface one-shot where you can make them more willing stooges or write them out like they did with Clayface VI, VII, and VIII. I’m sure that most of these roles could have conformed to an already established Clayface though.
Peter Malley or “Claything” (Clayface VI) was a scientist in the Department of Extranormal Operations who experiments on Cassius and becomes bonded to a skin sample he takes from the boy and becomes the sixth Clayface. But we can’t have more than four running around at once so he was quickly killed off and his remains are in the DEO Headquarters. Just waiting to be revived by DC when they paint themselves into a corner, I’m sure.
Then came Clayface VII, Todd Russell, an army veteran who was severely wounded and it is insinuated that the Department of Extranormal Operations experimented on him, although this was never clearly stated. Russell can’t handle the mental stress caused by his new form and becomes a serial killer who preys upon prostitutes in Gotham’s East End and actually never faces Batman. Russell is another unique Clayface in that he can change not only his shape, but his size as well, and was done in by Catwoman when she protected those parts, capturing Clayface VII in a giant freezer and then handing him off to Bats. This was necessary because Basil Karlo was so busy I’m sure and couldn’t be bothered to murder prostitutes.
And then there is Clayface VIII who is also currently deceased. Johnny Williams was a firefighter who was caught in a chemical plant explosion and doused in chemicals that, you guessed it, turned him into a Clayface. His claim to fame is that he was the one that Hush and the Riddler manipulated to act like Jason Todd and also don Tommy Elliot’s guise when Hush captured Alfred in order to throw Batman off his trail. Of course, he was just doing this because Hush promised him a cure and this was not the case and after some time Williams could no longer hold his form and just broke down into nothing. You mean to tell me that if Prometheus could manipulate Preston Payne, that Hush couldn’t? Hush nearly got Batman’s entire rogues gallery to work for him in his coming out party, but he needed his own Clayface instead of using any of the others who had been established already?
There is one time though that I feel DC had it right and had some real consistency with the character. This character is what really set the standard for a Clayface. One of the most popular, likely due to his name being used for the Batman: The Animated Series Clayface, and the only Clayface who has seemingly stayed dead (although I’m sure he’ll come back too at some point) is Matt Hagan (Clayface II). He was the first true shapeshifter of the bunch and lasted for more than two decades as a nuisance for the Dark Knight.
Hagan was a treasure hunter who discovered some radioactive protoplasm and found he could change his form at will for two days straight after bathing in the goo. Although a much more tame character than many of the others (it was during Batman’s campy era that he came along) Hagan was the first true shapeshifter and the DC Universe was fine with having just one man made of mud running around.
It just seems like a shame to see a character with such great potential and a rather strong fan base being used like a common thug and not getting the respect that even characters like Killer Croc have gotten in recent years.
So what do you think? Has it gotten to a point that Clayface isn’t nearly as effective as he used to be? Does DC need to rectify this situation and keep the Clayface population to a minimum? Or is Clayface always going to be how DC gets out of a situation where they’ve painted themselves into a corner? Let us know with comments below!