In “Batman: The Dark Knight #23.3: Clayface” by John Layman and Cliff Richards, Basil Karlo woos the Secret Society as he strives for a larger stage in the absence of the Justice League.
It’s a fun twist that Clayface isn’t invited to the Secret Society and reacts by launching a spontaneous audition, though he steals the idea from someone else. He’s enough of a big ticket Bat-villain to take over a title for one month. In the story, he’s also immediately recognizable to all that cross his path, but fame doesn’t equate success. Layman’s dialogue for Clayface’s thoughts and dialogue are suitably thuggish and self-centered, but not memorable or distinctive otherwise. In fact, most of the comic is marred by a lack of originality and depth.
“Batman: The Dark Knight” #23.3 is told in first-person and has a thin plot with an ending that echoes the beginning. Clayface gives the reader a quick run-down of his origin, glossing over his physical transformation. Layman writes a story like a parable in structure and karmic payoff, but without the punch or jolt of hope from a moral. Clayface is presented as the sum of glaringly obvious personality flaws, primarily the self-importance, quick temper and poor impulse control that led to the destruction of an acting career. Unfortunately for actor and audience, his one-shot spotlight and big chance in “Batman: The Dark Knight” #23.3 is wasted. Even with stakes as high as membership in the Secret Society, Clayface’s arrogance and other character flaws outweigh his abilities. The last page ending foreshadows more thickheadedness to come, as if it weren’t obvious already.
Past, present and future are the same for Clayface, even if his fortunes perpetually wax and wane. In his beginning is his end, and vice versa, but without poetic or philosophical depth. There is zero character development in “Batman: The Dark Knight” #23.3. Indeed, the lack of change and lack of adaptability in Clayface is the punchline of the book. This rigidity is an ironic interpretation of a shapeshifting character made of clay, one of the most classically malleable of substances. Still, the irony alone doesn’t make “Batman: The Dark Knight” #23.3 an enjoyable read, since Layman’s story is too formulaic to be suspenseful, and Clayface himself too shallow to be sympathetic.
The slap-down scene, the climax of the book, has the most pathos due to Richards’ facial expressions. However, the thinness of Clayface’s personality in “Batman: The Dark Knight” means that during most of the story, Richards has little to work with in body language. Clayface lumbers from panel to panel like a dazed bull alternating between rage and puzzlement. Richards’ style leans more towards realistic than cartoony, which has the effect of making the slapstick violence in “Batman: The Dark Knight” #23.3 too visceral. His skill is evident, but he may not have been the best match for the tone of the story. Still, Richards’ attention to background detail, especially in the bar scenes, is a pleasure.
Layman’s humor on “Chew” is reliably wacky and creative, and he’s shown before that he can poke fun at his characters while building up the reader’s fondness for them. The saving grace of Clayface’s story ought to be the humor, but it doesn’t quite come off. The big joke hinges mostly on the capacity of the audience to smugly laugh at stupidity. Watching Clayface overreach and fail again is slender satisfaction, since he’s never been a villain in the big leagues of Batman’s rogues. “Batman: The Dark Knight” #23.3 disappoints by driving home how unworthy of time the main character is, rather than delivering meaning or amusement.