Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Gee whiz, there are a lot of Clayfaces.

Throughout the Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages of Comics, there were four different Clayfaces. Most of them  had the shape-changing powers we normally associate with the character. The first Clayface, though, was a psycho-killer without any superpowers. I believe there is a Bronze Age story where he brings all the Clayfaces together and used a formula to give him powers, but mostly he just stuck knives in people.

This is Basil Karlo, who first appeared in Detective Comics #40 (June 1940). He was an embittered former horror movie actor who wore hideous make-up while whacking people who had bruised his enormous ego. A fictional mash-up of Lon Chaney Sr and Boris Karloff, Karlo was an effective villain.

He was still around four decades later, when he appeared in Detective Comics #496 (Nov. 1980). Written by Michael Fleisher and drawn by Don Newton, this 16-page story begins as an effective thriller, then morphs into a clever mystery in which Batman gets to show off his skills at deductive reasoning.

The story is set at a horror movie tribute being held aboard a cruise ship. Boris Karlo is one of the actors being honored for his work in the genre, though his incarceration in Arkham Asylum means he can't personally attend.

Which is something that Karlo does not react well to when he reads about it in the newspaper. He strangles a nurse to death, steals her keys and promptly escapes. While this is happening, the story is cutting away to show us stuff aboard the ship, but we periodically jump back to Karlo as he uses his skill as an actor to take on different identities and gradually make his way to the ship himself. Along the way, he kills some poor shlub and acquires a shotgun. It's an effective storytelling device that really does build up tension.

Bruce Wayne is attending the horror movie convention. This, by the way, is one of several indications we get during the Bronze Age that tell us a little about Bruce's tastes in movies. Here, we find out he likes the classic horror films. In another story from that era, we learn he likes the Marx Brothers. Batman really does have great taste in movies. though I've always wondered how he managed time to watch any of them when he spent his youth obsessively training to be a superhero.

When Karlo gets aboard the ship, the story still seems to be an effective but simple thriller, with Batman trying to catch Karlo before he kills someone. But there's actually more going on--with several clues seeded throughout the story that allow Batman to eventually figure out what he really needs to do to catch a killer.

I like this story. As I've mentioned in previous reviews of Batman stories from the 1970s & early 1980s, the writers at that time really got the character. Batman wasn't just a scary jerk with a lot of wonderful toys. He was a well-rounded crime-fighter--able to hold his own in a fight and use his Sherlockian skills to figure out what was going on.

As I've also mentioned before--I really miss that Batman.

There is one other interesting thing about the story. It opens with Batman saving a woman from being crushed beneath a falling Godzilla statue. This is immediately followed by Batman being shown the exhibit, thus giving us the information we need to have about the tale's setting. This involves showing us images of not just Godzilla, but also the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Alfred Hitchcock, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price.

I'm actually a little surprised by this. I would have assumed that DC Comics would use fictionalized versions of these characters and real-life people to avoid any copyright or trademark problems. But there they all are, by golly, staring out at us from the pages of this comic.

It certainly gives the story verisimilitude and helps us accept Basil Karlo as a "real" person as well, but I'm a little curious about how they got away with it. Perhaps brief appearances such as this are okay. Perhaps they took a chance and no one complained. Someone suggested to me that the use of the word "tribute" when describing them made it okay.

Or perhaps the Creature, Godzilla, Hitchcock, Lugosi and Price are just so awesome, they overrule copyright law and become a cosmic law onto themselves.

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