Bat Signal

Issue 298 – “The Challenge of Clay-Face”

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Hey there everybody, and welcome back to another installment of Bat Signal, my ongoing quest to read every issue of Detective Comics with no rhyme or reason. And we have a really fun issue in store for today. As you can see from the cover, we have another Clayface story. And yet, a very different kind of Clayface story. Previously I’ve discussed the original Bat-Villain known as Clayface. This version was a disgruntled actor named Basil Karlo who was adept at makeup and costuming, and starting killing people related to his movies by dressing up as a monster from one of his movies. But that’s not who we have today. No, today we have the more well-known Clayface, the one from the Animated Series. The one who actually could shape-shift. And folks, that leads to some completely insane stuff. So let’s do this thing.

The issue starts off with Batman and Robin meeting with a wealthy philanthropist at his mansion. He’s apparently donating a large amount of cash to “Police Benefit Fund” in the middle of the night, and is giving it to Batman and Robin to pass along to the fund. There’s something incredibly shady about this transaction, but whatever, the real menace begins when a man comes lurching out of the shadows. But not just any man, this one seems to be made completely of clay. He runs at the philanthropist, ready to steal the money from him, when Batman gets between them and starts fighting. So the thief transforms himself into a giant snake to strike Batman. This gives the Dynamic Duo a moment of pause, but then Robin jumps into action and lassos the snake, hoping to take it down that way. Unfortunately the man then transforms into a buzz-saw to cut the rope, and then into a giant eagle so he can grab the case with the money in it, and fly away, leaving Batman, Robin, and the philanthropist incredibly confused.

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So that was a weird night. Even for Batman and Robin. And what exactly is going on? Well, we find out right away, because we immediately cut to the hideout of a man named Matt Hagen, who is the thief. We’re then given a flashback to show that Hagen was a deep-sea diver who made his living scavenging off of shipwrecks. And one day he came across a secret grotto with a mysterious pool of “protoplasm” in it. He investigated, and ended up falling in. And when he came out he found that he was now made of living clay, and could change his shape at will. So he obviously decided to use that ability to start robbing people, and the philanthropist was the first attempt. And since that was such a rousing success, he decides that he’s going to need to do this a lot more.

Meanwhile, Batman and Robin have gone to the Batcave to discuss this being that the newspapers are now calling Clayface. They figure that he’ll strike again that night, and get ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. And later that night Clayface heads into an art museum, taking the form of a lion. He begins scaring off patrons, and when it’s just him and the owner of the gallery he grabs a priceless painting and gets ready to flee. But unfortunately for Clayface the Dynamic Duo shows up at that exact moment, and push him into a closet. However, Clayface then squeezes himself out of the keyhole, and gets ready to attack his tormentors again. However, when Clayface prepares to transform into an eagle again and take flight, he realizes that something’s wrong with his powers. They seems to be rapidly fading. So he instead just uses his strength to throw a sculpture at Batman and Robin, and then flee in the chaos. The Dynamic Duo give chase, and end up coming across the gallery owner, saying that Clayface dropped the painting and fled. However, when they get back to the gallery they find the real owner tied up, and realize that Clayface tricked them again. So they return to the Batcave, and Batman manages to deduce exactly what’s going on.

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So yeah, Batman has managed to figure out that Clayface’s powers are fading, and he’s going to have to go renew them. Which is exactly what he’s doing. Hagen returns to the grotto and jumps back in the protoplasm pool and regains his powers. He now knows that his powers can fade, and decides to start experimenting with the length, while also planning a new series of heists. So Clayface gets himself some goons and they begin running around Gotham, committing as many crimes as they can before his powers cut out again. Including running into museum in Chinatown and stealing some sort of jade artifact. They manage to escape, but one of the thugs does leave behind some mud from his shoe. Which gives Batman and Robin a pretty good clue to track down Clayface and his gang.

They bring the clay sample back to the Batcave, and find that it could have only come from one excavation site in town. And that site happens to be right next to the home of a local thug named Joe Shank. So Batman and Robin stake-out Shank, and end up following him to the Natural History Museum where he meets up with another goon and Clayface. So the Dynamic Duo run out at Clayface and the goons. However, Clayface turns into a bull and charges at the crimefighters, knocking them down. Robin seems to actually be stunned, and Batman chases off after the goons. However, Robin was just faking it, and he sees Clayface run off back to his secret base. So Robin decides to get in a little helicopter and follow after Clayface, finding his way back to Clayface’s house. Robin starts climbing down Hagen’s chimney, but ends up slipping and falling. Hagen freaks out about Robin’s appearance, and transforms into a horrible monster, ready to kill Robin. But Batman runs into the room at the last second, and works to save Robin. Clayface prepares to turn into another monster, but he realizes it’s now been 48 hours since his last dip in the pool, and his powers have deactivated. Which is exactly what Batman was anticipating. He manages to tie up Clayface, and wait for him to turn back into Hagen so they can arrest him. However, Hagen promises to never tell them the secret of his powers, and is sent to prison where he can plot his return to crime and power some day.

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This issue is a whole lot of fun. I’ve always enjoyed Clayface as a villain, primarily due to his appearances in the Animated Series from the 90s. He’s got some very interesting powers, and certainly becomes an outlier to Batman’s typical rogue’s gallery, what with actually having what are essentially magical powers. And I will say that I enjoy this version of Clayface much more than the disgruntled actor one that I’ve already discussed. I know that the character gets even more convoluted eventually, adding in even more character to use the name, and then combining multiple of them, but as far as this issue goes it’s pretty cut and dry. Matt Hagen is just a lousy dude who gets powers and decides to abuse them. Just like countless other random villains that have appeared in Detective Comics before and after him. But this one gets bonus points for having a character with some incredibly inventive powers, and who takes full advantage of them here. This isn’t just a Clayface who mimics people, he becomes animals and objects, and even can fly. It’s a super wacky issue, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

“The Challenge of Clay-Face” was written by Bill Finger, penciled by Sheldon Moldoff, and inked by Charles Paris, 1961.

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