SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Detective Comics Annual #1, by James Tynion IV, Eddy Barrows, Eber Ferreira, Adriano Lucas and Sal Cipriano, on sale now.
Only three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and revised origin stories in comic books. Whether it’s the result of retcons, reboots or sliding timescales, few, if any characters are immune, particularly when it comes to the Big Two publishers.
In some cases, these changes are minor, such as Iron Man’s origin shifting from the Vietnam War to the Persian Gulf War to an unspecified conflict in the Middle East. Other characters, such as Wonder Woman and Hawkman, have backstories that seem to change every time the wind blows. As for longtime Batman villain-turned-ally Basil Karlo/Clayface, the latest retelling of his origin story, as told by James Tynion IV in the pages of Detective Comics Annual #1, falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
In each of the now-three distinct iterations of his backstory, Basil is depicted as a Hollywood actor who’s driven mad and eventually imbued with shape-shifting abilities, transforming him into villain known as Clayface. However, when he first debuted in 1940’s Detective Comics #40, he was far removed from the version of the character we know today.
Rather than superpowers, the “Clayface” moniker originally stemmed from the fact that Basil quite literally wore a mask of clay. Upon learning that one of his classic horror films was being remade, Basil confiscated the mask from the set and began killing off the actors one by one before eventually being stopped by Batman and Robin.
Decades later, in the 1989 “Mud Pack” storyline, the various other Batman foes to adopt the “Clayface” alias over the years, Matt Hagen, Preston Payne and Sondra Fuller – each of whom had powers – formed an alliance with Basil to finally take down the Caped Crusader. Unbeknownst to his newfound allies, though, Basil’s true intention was to use their genetic materials to imbue himself with abilities and become the “Ultimate Clayface.” Although he succeeded, he was eventually defeated by Batman.
Clayface’s status quo would remain the same until 2013, two years after DC’s New 52 line-wide reboot. In Batman: The Dark Knight #24, while locked up in Arkham Asylum, Basil recalled how he had once been a D-list actor with a bad temper. After finally being told he’d never make it in Hollywood, he turned to The Penguin, who recruited him as one of his henchmen. In exchange, though, he offered Basil a mound of clay believed to be the source of power for Navajo skinwalkers.
While studying the mystical substance, it began to spread throughout Basil’s body, quickly entering his bloodstream and reshaping his DNA to grant him the ability to not only mirror the world around him but to copy and retain the DNA of others. However, while he initially used this new power strictly for acting purposes, Penguin soon came to collect his debt, forcing Basil to do his dirty work. With each kill and each transformation, Basil lost more and more of his true self; so much, in fact, that he eventually found himself unable to hold his shape for extended periods of time. This effectively marked his final descent from Basil Karlo to Clayface.