The Golden Age (1940-1961)
Originally, Basil Karlo didn’t have any supernatural abilities. In his first appearance in DETECTIVE COMICS #40 (1940), he was depicted as an insane and jealous B-list actor who wore a costume from a movie he’d once worked on. With no special abilities or powers, Basil relied on staging murders based on scenes from movies, before he was finally brought to justice by Batman.
Matt Hagen & Preston Payne (1961-1986)
Chronologically, the first version of Clayface to display monstrous powers was Matt Hagen, who debuted in DETECTIVE COMICS #298 (1961). Hagen was a treasure hunter and a thief who specialized in procuring rare and valuable items, selling them off to less-than-reputable buyers. During one mission, Hagen inadvertently fell into a pool of magical, clay-like “protoplasm,” which covered his body and gave him special abilities. The effects of the pool were not permanent, however, and Hagen would have to return to the pool time and time again to “recharge.”
Hagen promptly decided to use his powers in his criminal activities, which quickly caught the attention of Batman and Robin. The Dynamic Duo deduced they could use water and ice to weaken Hagen in his empowered form, and were thus able to send him to prison. Hagen wasted no time in staging various escapes, after which he would inevitably return to the clay pool to re-empower himself and begin another crime spree.
In DETECTIVE COMICS #312 (1963), Batman and Robin uncovered the source of Hagen’s powers and destroyed the pool. Unable to accept returning to a life of normal, decidedly non-clay-based crime, Hagen focused his efforts on trying to chemically re-create the pool’s effects. He was successful, but during his trials and experimentation he inadvertently allowed one of his blood samples to fall into the hands of the third Clayface, Preston Payne—who used it to empower himself in DETECTIVE COMICS #478 (1978) while searching for a cure to a genetic disease he suffered from.
Payne did not have shape-shifting abilities, however, and his body nearly disintegrated into a pile of mud. He created an exo-suit to keep himself together (literally) after experiencing another side effect: his touch could melt anyone who touched his skin, something he discovered after coming into contact with his girlfriend. She did not survive the experience, and neither did Payne’s sanity.
Payne was committed to Arkham Asylum, while Hagen was eventually killed by Shadow Demons during the CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS in 1986.
Basil Karlo inherited the Clayface mantle yet again following the Crisis on Infinite Earths, joining another Clayface, Sondra Fuller, or “Lady Clay,” who was introduced as a villain in THE OUTSIDERS #21 (1987). Fuller, who had voluntarily agreed to undergo an experimental procedure to grant her Matt Hagen’s powers, met Karlo in prison, where she convinced him to form the “Mud Pack,” a cabal of the existing Clayfaces—including Payne and the muddy remnants of Matt Hagen—to take on Batman (DETECTIVE COMICS #604, 1990).
The Mud Pack failed, but not before Basil used samples of both Fuller and Payne’s blood to transform himself into the “ultimate” Clayface, with a shape-shifting, mud-based body he retained permanently.
From that point on, Clayface became a fixture of the Gotham City underground, perfecting his shape-shifting abilities to trick and manipulate the Batman Family as he moved in and out of Arkham Asylum.
In SHADOW OF THE BAT #27 (1994), it was revealed that Payne and Fuller escaped prison after the Mud Pack’s failure and fell in love. Fuller’s abilities allowed her to withstand Payne’s toxic touch, and the two conceived a child—Cassius Payne—who was born with versions of both his parents’ abilities, as well as the ability to spawn sentient duplicates or “Clay-Things” out of his body.
One such autonomous Clay-Thing came in the form of Dr. Peter Malley, who was created from a skin sample pulled from Cassius (BATMAN #550, 1998).
Later, two more Clayfaces were introduced—Todd Russell (introduced in CATWOMAN #1, 2002), who was given his powers thanks to military experimentation, and Johnny Williams (in BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS #60, 2005) who was a firefighter caught in a chemical explosion.
The New 52 (2011-2016)
Following the events of 2011’s FLASHPOINT, the Clayface family tree was largely condensed once more down to Basil Karlo, who retained his monstrous, clay-based powers following the continuity reimagining. His abilities were bolstered with the addition of a power to mimic the DNA of the people he copied. He attempted to impersonate Bruce Wayne in an effort to take over Wayne Enterprises, but was thwarted by Batman.
After the events of DC UNIVERSE: REBIRTH #1, Basil was reimagined yet again. In DETECTIVE COMICS #934 (2016), Basil escaped Arkham, not to go on a criminal rampage but to sneak into a theater to watch one of his own movies. Full of self-loathing and regret for his actions, this interpretation of Basil was more victim than villain—something that Batman saw and noted as he recruited Clayface onto his newly formed team of burgeoning vigilantes led by Kate Kane and Tim Drake.
Basil adjusted to the change from rogue to hero poorly at first, grappling with his inability to see himself as anything but a monster. But with the help of his new team—including Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown, and Luke Fox—Basil came to see himself as someone capable of good.
Basil’s abilities were used with the help of Tim Drake to create the “Mud Room,” a training facility within the team’s base of operations (a.k.a. the Belfry), in which Basil would use his clay form to create constructs and simulations for his teammates to fight. Sadly, medical testing revealed that his brain was slowly deteriorating when he stayed in his clay form, and would eventually drive him to become the mindless monster he feared himself to be.
When the time came that Basil could no longer control himself, Kate Kane used an experimental weapon designed to put him down. Kane was removed from the team for her actions, and with Clayface gone it wasn’t long before the Gotham Knights all went their separate ways. After the team’s dissolution, a somehow re-emergent Clayface appeared briefly to show his end may not have been as final as the Knights had thought… but that he would retreat from Gotham until he could truly get himself under control. (DETECTIVE COMICS #969-981)