Monday, November 21, 2011

Detective Comics #40 (June 1940)

"Beware of Clayface!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Bob Kane
Jerry Robinson

Synopsis: Suddenly, Bruce Wayne's fianceé Julie Madison (not seen since Detective #34) is a motion picture actress. From reading the newspaper, Dick discovers she's acting in a new movie at Argus Pictures. Bruce decides to meet her at the studio (which is assumedly across the country in Hollywood). All this transpires in a single panel, because this is the Golden Age, dammit! Julie introduces Bruce to Bentley, head of the studio (drawn carrying a golf club!), who in turn introduces Bruce to Kenneth Todd, the star of Bentley's new picture "Dread Castle", a remake of an old silent picture.
Just then, the star of the original version, Basil Karlo, steps in to wish Todd good luck in the role. Karlo is remarked upon as an excellent character actor and make-up artist who ruined his career with his bizarre behavior. Just as Karlo leaves, Ned Norton bursts in, proving that Bentley has the worst secretary of all time. Norton is the director of "Dread Castle" but Bentley fires him because he has been chronically absent from set and causing delays. Norton leaves, but not before making some ominous threats.
Bentley takes Julie and Bruce down to the set, and it turns out he has spared no expense and built an entire castle for the movie (proving that Bentley is the worst film producer of all tim
e). As they arrive, star actress Lorna Dane is breaking up with her boyfriend Frank Walker because he hasn't had a role in "months" and she can't be seen "tied to an actor that's slipping!" Jeez, they must've really cranked them out under that old studio system, eh? Frank gets angry and leaves, but not before making some ominous threats.
Bruce decides this is an appropriate time to take Julie home (back to Gotham? Or some house in LA?), but not before Bentley can make a joke about how women are property. Oh, 1940, how I miss you. As Bruce leaves, a gangster named Roxy Brenner shows up and begins hustling Bentley to pay him protection money on the set. Either Bentley is way more of a B-movie producer than the story wants us to believe, or Brenner is the dumbest gangster of all time. Major studios pay insurance, Brenner, which is like protection money, but without the guns. Also, worst studio security ever, am I right? Anyways, Bentley refuses to pay, so Brenner leaves, but not before making some ominous threats.

A few days later, Bruce returns to visit Julie on the day they are shooting the pivotal scene where Lorna Dane's character is killed by The Terror (Kenneth Todd's character). Because again, worst studio security ever. But just as the scene reaches its crescendo, we are introduced to a frightening figure in the shadows in one of Kane and Robinson's spookiest panels ever (right -->). The mysterious man kills the lights and in the darkness there is a scream, and when the lights return, Lorna Dane is dead.
The police investigate, but after a week, Bentley decides to resume production. Julie confides in Bruce that she is worried she may be next, but Bruce reassures her by saying the killer was probably only after Lorna. Privately, however, Bruce is not so sure, and so he and Dick suit up as Batman and Robin, apparently driving Bruce's 1936 Cord all the way to Argus Pictures. As they get there, Roxy Brenner is using Lorna's death as a point to insist upon Bentley paying up, but Bentley still refuses. Batman and Robin leap in, unannounced, and spend a page beating up Brenner and his men, but once Batman is satisfied they had nothing to do with Lorna's death, he lets them go. Bentley tells Batman that he suspects either Frank Walker or Ned Norton, so Batman goes to confront Walker at his home and instructs Robin patrol the studio lot. Yeah, real good use of your partner.
Batman discovers Walker unconscious and hanging from a coat hook in a closet (??), any attempts to interrogate him yielding only the mumbled name "Clayface". Batman wonders who Clayface could be -- Ned Norton or Ken Todd? Meanwhile, back at the studio, Robin is attacked by Clayface and dropped off the side of the castle, into the moat below. Luckily, Batman returns at just that instant and saves Robin from drowning. With no new leads, Batman and Robin decide to wait until Clayface makes the next move.
The next morning, the scene where Julie's character is to be murdered by The Terror is being shot. Clayface shows up to attempt to kill her, but Batman is waiting and foils the attempt. The two battle on the catwalk, and Bentley (who appears to be directing this picture as well), orders the cameras be turned on the fight because "the shots will be knockouts!" Clayface tries to make an escape, but is foiled by Robin. Captured, Batman removes the mask to reveal Clayface to be... Basil Karlo! The master of monster make-up was jealous the remake of his great role did not feature him, and decided to murder the characters in the order they die in the film, as the scenes were shot. As for Frank Walker, he had found out and threatened to black mail Karlo. Bentley is greatly impressed by Batman's fighting and detective abilities and offers to put Robin and him in movies, but he refuses because they have devoted their lives to fighting crime. Julie once again wishes Bruce could be as dashing as the Batman.
My Thoughts: The introduction to Clayface may be the peak of the classic Batman creative team's obsession with cinema, specifically genre cinema. We've seen in the past how the character of Batman is essentially Zorro crossed with The Shadow, how Robin is inspired by Robin Hood, the influence of King Kong on the Monster Men, of Conrad Veidt on The Joker. Clayface's story clearly results from Bill Finger's love of horror, and Kane's art reflects a semi-expressionist sensibility. Basil Karlo's name comes from Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, two popular actors of the time, but his character is largely based on Lon Chaney Sr., a silent film horror character actor who was known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces" due to his amazing ability to create make-up to slip into any role. Chaney died before making any kind of transistion to the sound era, but many of his films were indeed remade with others in the lead roles. By turning him into the fictional Karlo, Finger and Kane create a creepy, murderous villain that remains my favourite interpretation of the Clayface character.
The Art: Kane and Robinson succeed in one thing in this issue, and that is the spectacularly spooky and shadowy design of Clayface himself. Shadows and blacks are used very evocatively in this issue, courtesy of Robinson's pen. But the art itself seems rushed, even lazy, compared to the past two issues of Detective. Kane's compositions are crowded and unclear, with the fight scenes feeling very familiar by this point.
The Story: Finger's plot would probably require a six issue mini-series if done today. As is, it passes by extremely quickly, its tale of revenge wrapped inside a whodunit mystery -- whose answer might seem quite a twist to a young child reading the story, but in retrospect Karlo is fairly circumspect in being the only character who doesn't immediately start swearing revenge on the movie. That being said, linking a Bat-villain to a tragic, mad, revenge filled origin story is unique at this point, and in fact will remain that way until the 1980s or so. And while the plot of this story is fairly unique for a Batman tale, I suspect the writers of Scooby-Doo must've read it because it follows the formula of that show to a tee!
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Clayface

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