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The ’80s Revisited: Detective Comics #604

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detective_comics_0604The Mud Pack Part One: Men of Clay

Writer: Alan Grant
Penciller: Norm Breyfogle
Inker: Steve Mitchell
Letterer: Todd Klein
Colorist: Adrienne Roy
Assoc. Editor: Dan Raspler
Editor: Denny O’Neil
Cover Price: $1.00
Published by: DC Comics

This cover is another iconic one for me at least…with a mud/clay version of Batman and someone holding a glinting knife over it. There’s no cover credit in the issue…because this almost certainly was when covers were done by the main artist of the issue. And they actually reflected something from the issue itself…either thematically or literally. In this case…literally.

The issue opens with someone holding a mud statue of Batman, and then we jump to a few pages of some clay guy (Preston Payne, Clayface III) in Arkham, talking to a mannequin he’d been in love with but had to tell he wanted to break up. When she didn’t answer, he smacked her and freaks out when her head flies off. He winds up breaking down his door and killing/maiming guards…escaping. Elsewhere, Batman takes down some generic criminals in an alley before responding to a call about the escape. Meanwhile, a cloaked figure stalks through the movie theater district reminiscing about old times and when films were good, talking to someone named Matthew. When he’s approached by some would-be muggers, they get more than they bargained for as he shows them true horror as a slasher, killing them. While Arkham guards hunt Payne, they meet up with a woman in a costume who has mind-powers; Payne had passed out from tranquillizer darts, and she makes the guards shoot each other before she leaves with Payne in tow. In an abandoned theater/now-HQ, the cloaked figure speaks to Matthew again and we learn that Matthew had been Clayface, perished during a crisis, and whoever this is is trying to bring him back. He fails. Batman confers with Commissioner Gordon and they realize Looker of the Outsiders is involved…or so they think. It turns out we have another Clay-person in this Sondra Fuller or "Lady Clayface" or "Clayface Four." She’s like Hagen apparently was–a shape shifter…but it seems she can actually mimic others’ powers! She’s working with the cloaked guy who turns out to be Basil Karlo, apparently the "original" Clayface. While Matthew’s nothing but slopped mud now, this unites the original Clayface with successors Clayface Three and Clayface Four…a unique group sure to now be able to as one, claim fame, fortune, power…and kill the Batman! (And for effect, he stabs the mud statue of Batman he had, fulfilling the cover’s image).

While there’s the name Batman on the cover and he’s kinda in the background, the cover to Batman #439 is more Nightwing than Batman. Which makes this one all the more striking, being a large closeup of Batman, someone holding a knife…is it a statue? Is it Batman himself trapped in a covering of mud? It also feels like a fairly unique cover, all the more for the colors…so much muddy brown on a black background…it’s hardly a bright, cheery colorful thing to leap off and grab someone’s attention. For me, though, it was part of my first exposure to then-current Batman in 1989, and has remained a striking cover to me that always seems to grab my attention if I see it anywhere! And something like this story would be an excellent candidate for a Batman: Clayface or whatever those villain-spotlight TPBs are; or of a massive reprint issue for this arc, etc. Yet other than a Norm Breyfogle-specific collection, I don’t think this Mud Pack story has ever actually been collected as its own thing! Which is a darned shame, really.

41-year-old me in 2022 here thinks he knows that Clayface III (Preston Payne) is an Alan Moore character from an Annual. But this issue seems to give us what we need to know about him, what he is and does to appreciate the character. Same for Karlo…though we get less on Lady Clayface. We see her in action, but not much else. We also get the Hagen bits/references…bringing this group of villainous/antagonist characters together (for the first time?) as a unified threat, setting up whatever comes next. The issue is almost cinematic in some ways with an intro image, then prologue, introducing the characters and bringing them together, the Karlo "reveal" as the mastermind, and so on…leaving off on a (perhaps melo) dramatic cliffhanger/threat.

Visually, this has a definite difference from the Batman over in that title. Breyfogle‘s Batman is rather distinctive to me and rather prone to shadows and for lack of a better phrasing, a sort of "flow" with the action. I also really like his Bat-Signal…it’s recognizable, but its "wavy" effect seems much more authentic than a clean circle on clouds as it’s often depicted. As some of my earliest, regular Batman art, this set the standard for me, along with the likes of Byrne and Aparo as "my" Batman, and a style I very much enjoy.

There’s another thing to this issue that struck me as a kid: the cover proclaims "Free Full-Color Batman Mini-Poster Inside!" Bound into the center of this issue is an actual poster that can be removed (carefully)…a double-page sized image of Batman, and seems to be the same paper as a cover…something higher quality than the basic "newsprint" the bulk of the issue was printed on. This poster is single-sided; and does not even have ads or other promo stuff on its back; removing it in no way decreases (and actually, INcreases) the readability of the issue…no story/panels are lost, it’s truly an actual bonus for the issue! Some comics in the late-’80s/early-’90s would feature "pin-up pages" of art by creators either not as associated with a character or not holding the "main" art gig for the character/team; filler space, etc. This poster is its own thing, an original image not just lifted from a panel…and certainly "worthy" of a cover itself…but, no "variants" here!

I’ve snagged multiple copies of this issue over the years. My original in 1989; as well as copies from bargain bins; at least one copy was solely for that poster, which I have framed on a wall; and a copy I got to get signed by Breyfogle himself some years back when I was unable to locate my actual original copy in time; and now this copy I got for this reading project at present.

I’d definitely recommend this issue if only for the poster, should you happen across it in a bargain bin. The Mud Pack seems a totally forgotten, high-quality story (albeit perhaps from rose-colored glasses of nostalgia) that I’d definitely recommend getting if you’re able to get all 4 chapters; and ideally copies for less than whatever modern comics cost. To me, this is certainly a 25-cent book; but decently worthwhile going up to $3/$4 (maybe $16 at most for all 4 chapters) just because it’s such a quality Batman/Clayface(s) story and strikes me as having a lot more…SOMEthing…than modern $5 and $6 single-issues.

I did a bit of "internet research" because neither this issue nor Batman #439 had cover dates on them…but I know I had to have gotten them at the same time as Adventures of Superman #453 (April 1989) and Superman #31 (May 1989). Apparently somewhere in this timeframe DC and Marvel had some shenanigans on adjusting cover dates, and from what I can figure out, it seems likely that the correlation here–what put these 4 together for me–was that the Superman issues probably were "left over" and had not been pulled; while the Batman issues were very new. Or something to that effect.

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Remembering Detective Comics #606

My first-ever Batman comics were Batman #439 and Detective Comics #604. While looking back I can remember how little “sense” Detective 604 made to me at the time, #606 (my second issue of the series, having missed #605) left QUITE a mark on me, as well as really informing my sense of the then-current Batman. The real sense of true time having passed somewhere between comics my Grandpa’d shared with me and these brand-new ones I was reading.

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For one thing…Batman at a grave marked R.I.P. ROBIN…with a GHOST of Robin? Ok, from Grandpa’s comics, Robin was Batman’s buddy, his partner, whatever. He was like Batman, he was one of the main characters…but apparently between those comics and this, he’d DIED???

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WAS only a kid.

Time had definitely passed. Stuff had HAPPENED. Whoever this Clayface Four was, she could only mimic Robin…who Batman obviously has regretful memories of. And the shadows to the imagery…that was truly effective!

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Yeah…apparently Batman had been defeated, at least in The Joker having stabbed Robin to death.

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As the issue progresses, a glimpse into the past…an event tragic, traumatic, hurtful, impactful, in Batman’s past…

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More hurt, more violence that he couldn’t stop…

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Obviously not the brighter, more “fun” Batman I’d seen in Grandpa’s comics. And sure enough…Robin–dead. Though at the time I had no clue who Barbara Gordon was, or that that was her, or The Killing Joke, etc.

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Obviously…a number of villains in Batman’s life. Crazy, colorful madmen, all of whom wouldn’t mind hurting him, killing him, that he’d not permanently stopped. I sure did not know Killer Cros until years later, and probably was only vaguely familiar with Riddler and Penguin.

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…and QUITE a cliffhanger. I had no idea who this woman was–Looker–but this image, of a mad/insane Batman, driven there by the sheer horror of everything he’s faced, of the violence and failures (and no references to Zur En Arr)…obviously I knew he “got better,” but it would be several years before I’d acquire the “missing” 2nd and 4th/concluding chapters of this story. Meanwhile, the main Batman title moved on to A Lonely Place of Dying, a new Robin, I let comics go for a short time, and then returned the summer before the Death of Superman stuff.

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I was too young at the time to fully grasp deeper “meta” elements in comics…particularly ongoing, continuous stories with characters such as Batman, that will never–TRULY–be allowed to permanently change, die, etc. But at the time, this was a grave image, and I remember truly considering the danger Batman was in, and that there wouldn’t be a guarantee of his victory (particularly after seeing all his failures!). I also know at the time I had no sense of who this was, that this was a key, crucial character in the Batman story, as opposed to just some officer.

Over the years, I gradually filled in the gaps. I learned OF stuff, gathered more detail and confirmation of the Joker having KILLED Robin…and then got to read the story itself in a book from a nearby library.

It wasn’t until over a decade after this issue that I got to read A Killing Joke first-hand. Outside a backing-board “trading card” from a 3-pack of comics (ubiquitous-ish in the early 1990s at department stores like Hills), I didn’t even know of the Outsiders until a group the Eradicator was part of in a new title in the mid-’90s.

And the issue had an ad that also stuck with me through the years, showing that time had passed, and giving the far-younger me something else to chew on: more than one Robin? This one hadn’t died? That meant that the dead Robin was at least a 2nd one!

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I would love to have a poster of this image. Along with The Mud Pack and A Death in the Family, the story this ad is for–A Lonely Place of Dying–is one of “the” Batman stories of my youth, in my introduction to comics, prior to Knightfall. I imagine I’ll cover A Lonely Place of Dying in the near future.

DC Villains Month, Week Three

THE ROGUES (Flash #23.3)

foreverevilrogues001This was a last-second choice for me, but ended up being one I’m quite glad I made! I got pulled into The Flash back in 2002 or 2003–with Johns‘ #197 or so, starting off the Blitz story arc introducing a new Reverse Flash/Professor Zoom/whatever. I’d heard plenty of good prior to that, and finally checked in on the series, and found the issues focusing on specific Rogues to be extremely enjoyable–adding far more depth to cheesey characters than I would have ever seriously considered. Similarly, I’ve heard about some “changes” to the Rogues in the New 52; of their prior “gimmicks” being turned into “powers” through machinations of one of their own…but I never bothered to follow up. So this issue gave me a sampling of exactly what I wanted out of the issue and expected: a glimpse at the Rogues; how they’re interacting, what they’re like, and all that. Seeing that they still have a Code; that they may not get along perfectly but still have each others’ backs…I like that. That it’s mixed with seeing where they’re headed in light of the Crime Syndicate’s bursting onto the scene shows there’s a lot of potential. The cover’s fairly generic/”iconic,” but I still like it…though I seriously doubt it would have grabbed me in and of itself.

CLAYFACE (Batman: The Dark Knight #23.3)

foreverevilclayface001I’ve never been a huge fan of Clayface, though he always had potential. Yet, while that’s a singular thing…my very first “true” Batman villain in comics I owned as a kid was Clayface…or rather, it was the Mud Pack–Clayface II, III, and IV banded together attempting to bring back the original. And it was the fond memory of that 1980s arc that prompted me to want to check out this issue, and while it certainly doesn’t measure up to 25 years of sentimentality, I found it to be a solid issue. We get a glimpse at Basil Karlo in this case…a rather different Clayface than I remember pre-New 52, or from The Mud Pack. Here, he’s basically a thug with a temper and powers, who refuses to blindly follow others and prefers to act on his own plans and initiative. Nothing here particularly struck me or interested me in seeking out other stuff…but it was still an enjoyable enough issue, and with the 3-D cover, certainly “worth” my $3.99 for the issue.

LEX LUTHOR (Action Comics #23.3)

foreverevillexluthor001This was probably my favorite issue of the Villains stuff this week, and definitely one of my favorites for the month. Seeing Luthor BE Luthor…businessman and evil and all that, yet not without thought/motivation. We get to see him–amidst dealing with other stuff–take apart a rival businessman’s life for slighting him, JUST to make a point. And while a feat on that level to many would take a lot of time and effort…it’s hardly a second thought for Luthor. It’s also a look at what he does–can do–outside of solely plotting and executing plans for Superman’s downfall. Probably what hit me the most was that it reminded me a lot of Luthor from the late-80s/early-90s…not an exact fit, but I could see this Luthor propositioning a waitress just to mess with her, and then drive off, leaving her to wonder what her life could have been. That this issue leads directly into Forever Evil #1 which I read a couple weeks ago adds to my enjoyment…here I’m only really visiting DC stuff again for a month, and there’s already some “continuity connection.” I was also quite glad that–despite the cover–Luthor was NOT the power-armored mad-scientist in this. The cover itself doesn’t blow me away or anything, but works for the issue…I suppose I have to “accept” that the power-armored Luthor IS rather “iconic” in general.

ECLIPSO (Justice League Dark #23.3)

foreverevileclipso001The first real “crossover”/event I remember “experiencing” in comics was the Eclipso: The Darkness Within story that crossed through a bunch of DC‘s Annuals back in 1992, and carried with it some iconic moments for me, and gave me a rather serious introduction to the character beyond his goofy-ish earlier appearances that I–to this day–have yet to read. So getting to read an issue focusing on the character now in the New 52 seemed ripe for an enjoyable check-in of sorts…though I found myself somewhat disappointed with the issue. There’s a lot of potential, but there’s no way one lone issue can hold the level of story that a dozen Annuals held…there’s just not that much room! Add to that the hassle getting this issue in the edition I wanted (3-D cover) and it just wasn’t gonna measure up to expectation. That said, I by FAR prefer this take on the character to the stuff post-Identity Crisis, and wouldn’t mind reading more dealing with this character. I do quite like the cover itself as well–for one thing, Eclipso’s name is spelled out pretty much as its own logo, so the Justice League Dark logo looks like just more dark energy radiating from the background swirl or the black diamond energy. The issue’s not worth the hassle I went through getting it…but it was worth reading, and I’m glad I did get to.

Joker’s Asylum II: Clayface #1 [Review]

Mudnight Madness

Writer: Kevin Shinick
Artist: Kelley Jones
Colorist: Michelle Madsen
Lettering: Pat Brosseau
Asst. Editor: Harvey Richards
Editor: Michael Siglain
Published by: DC Comics

There’s not a whole lot of depth to this issue…it’s a sort of generic kind of tale of Basil Karlo, the original Clayface (for those of you keeping score, Matthew Hagan was Clayface II, and the one with the containment suit was Preston Payne (Clayface III), and Sondra Fuller was turned into a Clayface IV in the 1980s story The Mud Pack. Matthew Hagan was the version used for the animated series and in Batman: Hush, I believe, and so would be the more familiar character).

While out and about, Karlo finds that a bunch of kids are participating in an audience-participation showing of one of his old movies, “The Terror.” Seeing this Rocky Horror Picture Show type treatment as a sign of disrespect, he intervenes intending to show the terror of the film for real, but finds that the teens gathered idolize him, and hold him–Basil Karlo, Clayface–as their hero. Seeing how this could work, he accepts their willingness to be part of his legacy. When Batman shows up, he finds that the teens may have achieved more than they bargained for, as he faces this old foe.

The art on this issue, by Kelley Jones really takes me back quite a bit. I believe Jones was the artist on one of the Bat-titles (Detective Comics) in the early 1990s, during the Knightfall epic. I recognize the abnormally-large bat-ears on Batman’s cowl, and the exaggerated scalloping of the cape…just from the cover. Other than that, the art provides a solid visual for the story.

The story itself, as said, is not all that deep…it’s just a story that we see more of Clayface than we do Batman…but Batman’s involvement is much more noticeable here than I recall any of the other issues in this round of Joker’s Asylum. While this is not a bad Clayface vs. Batman story, it doesn’t offer as much of the title character and somewhat leaves a suggestion that without Batman’s actual involvement, there’s no story to tell at all.

This is probably the palest of this round…I don’t feel I learned anything new, gained any new insight, or otherwise got anything out of this that couldn’t be gotten from any other issue involving (to say nothing of starring this Clayface.

Recommended only if you’re specifically interested in Clayface as a concept, the Basil Karlo Clayface, or a completist interested in having all 5 of the Joker’s Asylum II issues.

Story: 4/10
Art: 7.5/10
Overall: 5.5/10

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