Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about the many, many men and one woman who have gone by the name Clayface.
Now primarily known as a shape-changing monster capable of overcoming his foes at a moments notice, the first Clayface was nothing like that. Originally, Clayface was an actor by the name of Basil Karlo. An actor of the silent era, his career was washed up by 1940. Hired on as an adviser to a remake of one of his classic horror films, Basil dressed in a heavy mask and began killing the cast. He was angered that Hollywood had forgotten him. When Batman and Robin investigated the set, Basil tried to kill them armed only a dagger. He failed.
His plot was exposed and Basil was arrested. He only appeared one more time in the Golden Age and was seemingly forgotten.
It was 1961 when the first of the shape-changing Clayfaces was born. Matt Hagen, a treasure hunter, stumbled across an ancient underground grotto which had been undisturbed by humans for centuries. Bathing in the grotto’s waters caused Matt’s body to become soft and malleable. By simply concentrating, Matt realized that his new body could change its shape into anything he imagined.
Thinking that he was invincible, Matt began a crime spree in Gotham City. There, he battled Batman and Robin. His plans probably would have succeeded but it turned out that the waters of the secret cavern only changed Matt’s body for 48 hours. When his time limit was reached, Matt changed back to normal and was sent to jail by the Dynamic Duo. Batman then tracked the grotto down and triggered a cave-in, forever keeping anyone else from gaining the powers of Clayface. At least, that was the plan.
As we’ve learned time and again, things like prison and cave-ins don’t keep comics villains down long. Matt returned to battle Batman soon afterwards. This time, he developed an artificial chemical that mimicked the grotto’s powers. He was once again Clayface but now he could only be a shape-shifter for 5 hours, a far cry from his old ceiling of two entire days.
Matt didn’t make friends easily. Even among his villainous peers, he had no allies. In fact, he and the Joker got into a feud during which each tried to outdo his rival using the other’s techniques. While attempting to pull off a Joker-style heist, Matt was forced to abandon his plans after the team of Batman, Robin, and Bat-Girl cornered him.
This story showed that when Matt changed shapes, he also gained the abilities of that shape. Turning into a sphinx with wings meant he could fly. And the following year, when he turned into Superman, he gained all of Superman’s many powers.
Why Matt didn’t just stick with his Superman charade with its wealth of powers remains a bit of a mystery. It would have made Matt’s life much easier when battling Batman.
Matt’s battles with Batman faded over time. During the New Look Batman era of the late 1960s and beyond, an attempt was made to make Batman more down-to-earth and human. Battling a big pile of shape-changing clay didn’t fit that model, so Matt rarely appeared. So forgotten was he that when he died during the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries in 1986, the majority of his death panel was taken up by the death of a silly Atom villain named the Bug-Eyed Bandit.
However, several years before Matt’s death, a third Clayface jumped on the scene. Named Preston Payne, his grotesque appearance kept him isolated from society. While attempting to fix his appearance, he injected a serum based on Matt Hagen’s blood into his system. He soon found that his skin appeared to be melting. In order to contain his body, he built himself an exosuit which gave him enhanced strength. Preston also discovered that the injection he’d given himself caused him to live with extreme pain. The only way the pain subsided was for him to touch another person. However, his touch would cause that person to gruesomely melt.
Preston fled from society. The serum had also affected his mind, making him confused, angry, and paranoid. Desperately lonely, Preston took a store mannequin for a girlfriend, convinced she was a real person. As a only inanimate objects could withstand his touch, Preston was content for a while.
Shortly after Matt died, a fourth Clayface came on the scene. Sondra Fuller grew up thinking that she was ugly. In an attempt to make herself more attractive, she allowed the criminal organization known as Kobra experiment on her. While Preston’s experiments failed to give him the ability to change his shape, Kobra’s injections worked on Sondra. She now had powers and abilities identical to the late Matt Hagen.
After failing in her attempts to kill the Outsiders, Sondra broke ties with Kobra and went solo. Quickly, she tracked down Basil Karlo, the original Clayface and now an old man whose health was failing. While standing at his bedside, she described her origins.
Together, Sondra and Basil agreed to form the Mud Pack, a group comprised of the various Clayfaces. Towards that end, Sondra kidnapped Preston and seduced him using telepathic powers gained while shaped like a member of the Outsiders. Basil was able to scoop together what remained of Matt Hagen after the Crisis. With his one ally, one kidnapped victim, and one small pile of clay sitting around a conference table, Basil promised everyone wealth, fame, and power.
What Basil really wanted was just power for himself.
When Batman tracked the Mud Pack down, he discovered Basil had taken a sample from each of the other Clayfaces and injected them. Though he was the original Clayface, he was also the only one without powers. Thanks to his experimentation, he now had the shape-changing abilities of Clayfaces II and IV but also the acid touch of III. He was the ultimate Clayface. He was also a bit of a ham.
Quickly, Basil’s powers spun out of control and his acid touch caused him to melt into the ground. The last he was seen, he was descending quickly through the Earth’s crust and making his way to the mantle.
Meanwhile, Sondra and Preston fell in love. While Basil was challenging Batman to a fight, the duo ran away to live together in the wilderness. There, they bore a child they named Cassius Payne.
Cassius genetically gained the shape-changing power of his mother. Shortly after Cassius debuted as the fifth Clayface, the sixth Clayface was revealed. This is getting confusing so feel free to start taking notes at home.
The Department of Extranormal Operations, a government agency in the DCU who kept tabs on the various superpowered beings, kidnapped young Cassius and removed a small piece of him for study. This small piece quickly attached itself to Dr. Peter Malley, the scientist who was studying the fifth Clayface. There, the piece of Cassius bonded with Peter to make a creature who called itself Claything but, really, it was Clayface VI.
DEO agent Cameron Chase worked alongside Batman to track Claything down. The only thing that stopped Claything from killing Agent Chase was her latent ability to undo superhuman powers.
Meanwhile, a massive earthquake in Gotham City destroyed much of the area’s downtown buildings, but it also set Basil Karlo free from his prison deep below the earth. The cataclysm shook Gotham to its core and Basil was quick to get back into the city. One of the first things he did was set about taking control Robinson Park, a section of the city that Poison Ivy already claimed ownership. He encased the plant-powered villain in mud while he ran the park. When Batman freed her months later, an understandably upset Ivy proceeded to use Basil’s body for the rich soil that it was.
Shortly after No Man’s Land ended, a seventh Clayface showed up in Gotham’s East End. There, he began killing prostitutes. This Clayface had been a member of the army at one time but had since been experimented on where he gained his Clayface powers. It wasn’t clear who did the experimenting. It could have been the DEO, Kobra, or some other entity. In any case, Selina was able to take out this new menace all by herself, though it was a close one.
By this point, the whole Clayface thing was getting pretty ridiculous. There had been seven Clayfaces in the DCU, with five of them currently living. Instead of streamlining this problem, DC rolled the dice and created an eighth version of the creature. It was a strange choice. This eighth and final Clayface was the Clayface who dressed up to look like Jason Todd during the original Hush storyline.
Things were so confusing that when someone named Clayface did show up to battle a hero, it was nearly impossible to decide which one was currently on the page. Who was this Clayface battling Power Girl during Infinite Crisis? Is this Basil? Sondra? Cassius? The one who fought Catwoman? The brand new one? The whole Clayface situation was a mess.
The Clayface situation appears to have been fixed in the New 52. Clayface appeared very early on in the reboot. There, he disguised himself to look like a Venom-infused Joker, though Batman discovered very quickly who he was really battling. Clayface’s human name wasn’t given during this conflict, so it would have been any of them.
However, Clayface’s next appearance proved just which version he was. When Poison Ivy needed a bodyguard to help protect her after she left the Birds of Prey, she broke Clayface out of Arkham and infected him with plants which controlled his mind. In order to help subdue him, she took to using his human name, which was Basil Karlo.
It appears that the original Clayface from 1940, the same one who was upgraded in 1989, is the current Clayface. Here’s hoping DC keeps it simple now and Basil remains the New 52′s only Clayface. Did Basil now get his powers from a serum derived from samples taken from Clayfaces II – IV? For everything to remain clear, my money says no. Perhaps we’ll get the new story behind Basil’s powers one day, but keeping his background mysterious is fine for now. There’s plenty of time for more Clayface stories later and then we can get to the bottom of his origins. For now, let’s just enjoy the Basil that we are given.
Jeff Reid thinks that Matt Hagen was the most powerful being in the DCU for a time. Were he alive today, he’d probably have tons of followers on Twitter.