Clayface vs. Grey Ghost

Clayface vs. Grey Ghost.  Clayface is pictured on the right.

After many months of watching Justice League, Sam (5) abruptly asked to watch “some Batman” today.  I got out our old DVD sets of Batman: The Animated Series and asked him which episode he’d like to see.  Sam decided the way he usually does, by looking at the pictures on the DVD box, and chose “the one with Clayface.”  That would be “Feat of Clay,” the two-part episode introducing the new villain.

I think what he was expecting after a not having seen the show since he was 3 years old was a plot where Clayface wants to do something bad and Batman has to stop him.  Instead, this is what he got:

Lucius Fox, an employee of Wayne Enterprises, goes to meet Bruce Wayne in the middle of the night in an abandoned tramway station.  Lucius, it seems, has some information on a crooked industrialist named Daggett that he’s turning over to Bruce so that Bruce can give it to the district attorney (which would be Harvey Dent, but that’s another story).  Bruce Wayne, however, turns out not to be Bruce Wayne but rather an actor impersonating Bruce Wayne, on the behalf of some gangsters working for this Daggett fellow, who want Lucius dead.  This actor turns out to be a Lon-Chaney-style “Man of 1000 Faces” named Matt Hagen.  Hagen was in an accident years earlier and sold his soul to this Daggett creep in exchange for a miraculous makeup compound that gives Hagen the ability to fix his scarred face enough to keep working in movies.  Trouble is, the makeup is addictive and makes your skin fall apart if you stop using it (a plot that WB would use again, to little effect, in their movie Catwoman, which might as well not have been based on a comic book at all for all it resembled the DC character).  Meanwhile, Daggett has gotten tired of Hagen’s unpredictability and puts a hit on him.  Daggett’s hit men could easily shoot Hagen, but they decide at the last minute to, instead, dump a beaker full of this magic makeup gunk on his face.  The gunk soaks into his skin and affects him on a cellular level, turning Hagen into the hideous Clayface, a monster with the ability to mold his features into any form.

And that’s just Part One.

Setting aside thedarkness of tone and the ugly, brutal quality of the violence, Sam was utterly baffled as to what was going on.  As well he might be.  He kept turning to me and saying “What’s going on?  Where’s Clayface?”  (Clayface, indeed, does not even put in an appearance until well into Part Two.)  Once Clayface appeared and Batman started pursuing him, he was still confused.  “Wait, why is Batman after Clayface?  What did Clayface do to Batman?”  (Imagine: he’s five years old, yet he already grasps the notion of “probable cause.”  A costumed vigilante can’t just pursue a shape-shifting monster merely on a hunch, there are rules!)  I tried to explain as simply as I could what was going on, how Batman (that is, Bruce Wayne) isn’t after Clayface per se, he’s after whoever tried to kill Lucius Fox, and that leads him to Hagen (but not before a couple of dead-ends and having to spend the night in jail), and Hagen, after a great deal of angst, embraces his new-found powers as Clayface and uses them, not to commit crimes, but to get even with Daggett, the corrupt industrialist who made him this way.  So Batman, by the end of the show, isn’t even fighting Clayface, but trying to help him reintegrate his fractured personality, an issue close to the heart of the 1992 Batman.

It’s impressive how much these early episodes of Batman TAS were real detective shows; there are gangsters and murderers and briefcases full of incriminating evidence and surprising amount of innuendo, references to things unsaid and shady, mysterious moral zones.  Characters sometimes have complex, perverse or contridictory motives; you have to really pay attention to follow the plot, even as an adult.  Also impressive, after watching so much Justice League, is how dark and painterly the animation is (that is to say, it looks like the Fleischer Superman shorts).  Justice League looks like a kids’ show in comparison. 

But the darkness and complexity of the plot was a little too much for my little guy to soak in and he needed a pallette-cleanser.  He chose “Beware the Grey Ghost,” an episode where Batman teams up with the actor who used to play Bruce Wayne’s favorite costumed crime-fighter, the Grey Ghost, to solve a series of mysterious Grey-Ghost-inspired bombings taking place in Gotham.

This, especially after the scary, sophisticated Clayface two-parter, was right up Sam’s alley.  Bruce Wayne watched superhero shows with his dad when he was a kid!  Sam was right there.  He completely understood who the Grey Ghost was and what he meant to Batman, and it was revealed that Batman has a secret cache of Grey Ghost toys and action figures, you could see the Batman universe snap into sharp focus for him.  And when Batman teams up with his childhood hero in order to solve a crime, it was wish-fulfillment on a meta-level. 

For Sam’s 45-year-old dad, there was great humor in the episode as well, since Adam West voiced the part of the Grey Ghost and the mad bomber turned out to be a demented toy-collecting manchild played, both in looks and voice, by series producer Bruce W. Timm.

For a bedtime story, it was the new issue of Justice League Unlimited, where B’wana Beast saves the day by punching a giant bee.  That was one he could easily wrap his mind around.

For my readers who wonder if I’m ever going to write about a movie made for grownups again, go see the hugely entertaining, compulsively watchable Notes on a Scandal.  It features a deft, accomplished script by Patrick Marber, a thunderous, tumultuous score by Philip Glass and a couple of stunning, detailed, utterly lived-in performances from Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.


23 Responses to “Clayface vs. Grey Ghost”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    This same series even have a Rashomon episode. (Which I guess a few series have done… OK, maybe it’s mandatory.)

    Adam West voiced the part of the Grey Ghost and the mad bomber turned out to be a demented toy-collecting manchild played, both in looks and voice, by series producer Bruce W. Timm

    Hahaha, that’s great.

    And appparently I’m Batman. I am the night. Michelle Pfieffer, here i come.

    • Todd says:

      This same series even had a Rashomon episode.

      I saw so many Rashomon parodies on episodic television when I was growing up (All in the Family was the first one I remember), by the time I saw the actual movie it felt like a tired cliche.

      Except — and I think this is crucial — in the TV parodies, the characters always remember things with a bias toward making themselves look better. In Rashomon, perversely, the characters all remember the moment in a manner to make themselves look worse.

    • Anonymous says:

      This same series even have a Rashomon episode. (Which I guess a few series have done… OK, maybe it’s mandatory.)

      Said episode also has a great little in-joke of having both Ron Pearlman and Robby Benson do voices.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Go for it – where else are we going to read such analysis without having to make excuses about being comic/cartoondom geeks. Now Sam on the other hand, has got to live with these documents floating around the net archive, showing that he started his years off firmly in the grasp of cartoons. Imagine some day, he’s going to be a famous lawyer, and his version of the arch-enemy, the prosecuting lawyer for example, will be looking for some Achillles-heel type material on the web, and there they find this wealth of formation-years insights… Just a thought.

    But since you offered an avenue for “grownups” again, I am going to add this adult-themed question, as it sort of fits in with Justice Leagues and the like: I was googling you the other day and came across a startling bit of timing I may or maybe didn’t catch a reference from you in your earlier posts, but certainly considering narrative and protaganists has something to it, and that is that you had a production in NYC, of your “Helsinor”, a version of “Hamlet” during THE Sept.11th. Would be curious to read something on that once.


    • Todd says:

      Helsinor was my re-make of Hamlet, told from the point of view of Claudius, starring future Venture Bros voices James Urbaniak as Hamlet (and his father, old King Hamlet) and Steven Rattazzi as Polonius. It was my last, best bid for commercial success in off-Broadway theater, a dynamic take on a familiar property with a cast stuffed with Obie-award-winning actors.

      The idea was that, like Hamlet, Hamlet’s father was stark raving mad, had gotten Denmark into a stupid, wasteful, pointless war, and was going to ruin the kingdom if Claudius did not stop him. Claudius kills him, marries Gertrude, discovers love and success, and everyone in the kingdom is perfectly happy with the situation until Hamlet comes back from school and ruins everything.

      The space the show was playing in, The Theatorium, was two blocks south of Canal Street. On September 11, the entirety of downtown New York was shut down and quarantined, making it literally illegal for anyone to come see my show. We were dark for a week, we opened again the next week and by the end of the run we full houses, just in time to close.

      I am aware that the attacks of September 11 had nothing to do with a grudge against me or even against downtown theater in general, but I took the hint and have not mounted a show again to this day. Which means, I suppose, that the terrorists have won.

  3. eronanke says:

    I remember the “Clayface” episodes; I also remember loving them and Batman: TAS. The new ones have nothing on that dark, brooding series, although Batman Beyond came close.

    • Todd says:

      Batman Beyond was a good show. The new one I think stands on its own as a show and is certainly intense enough, but does not match TAS’s complexity and fidelity to its source material.

      • thawhidol says:

        Big fan of your Justice League and Batman writings. Cute note, in the Batman Beyond episode… um Inque I believe, when Inque invades the batcave, an elderly Bruce Wayne fights her off, and disguises himself in a Grey Ghost costume. That one scene sold the show to me before it started to slide at the end, only to be redeemed by the Justice League cartoon.

  4. kornleaf says:

    a. Also impressive, after watching so much Justice League, is how dark and painterly the animation is (that is to say, it looks like the Fleischer Superman shorts). Justice League looks like a kids’ show in comparison.

    Compared to Batman the Animated Series (BAS) Justice League IS a kids show. Both on plotline, character development and animation. I mean, the villans have so much more depth as well as the hero(s).

    You don’t really start getting more of the sophisticated and complex stories/character hang ups until JLU and the Question starts coming around.

    b. I LOVE the grey ghost episode for the same reasons you are describing here. When I first saw this episode I imagined that some day I would be a batman and “meet the real one” in the fantasy world i created upstairs in my noggin.

    • yetra says:

      Actually, I was wondering what the target age is for both Batman and Justice League. Those Batman plots seem way too complex for a 3 or a 5 year old. I am guessing Sam is a super genius to even be attempting to sort it all out 🙂 All kidding aside, from the things you post, I think he’s the child I’d most like to meet and have a conversation with some day.

      Is he mainly all about the super heroes, or do you dabble in things like miyazaki’s films?

      • Todd says:

        Today he said he wanted to watch the Clayface episode again, and when I asked him “Wasn’t it too scary?” He said “No, it was just too hard to understand.”

        I have no idea what the target age is for Batman. All I know is the first episode deals with a guy who’s running a child-slavery ring in the sewers. That pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the first two seasons, anyway. Even Harley Quinn, who’s a delightful character, has some serious kinks to her. I would say that, really, it’s not for anyone under seven, but some of the plots are complicated enough to escape a twelve or even a fourteen-year-old.

        I would say that both shows would be best enjoyed by teens (or “tweens,” as we showbiz types call the younger set). Justice League seems a little younger (when WB was talking to me about a JL movie, they were talking about trying to serve the kids who are interested in DC characters but too young to see the movies. Sam only occasionally has difficulty grasping the motivations of the characters, but the action in Justice League is bold, concise and dynamic and a beauty to behold, so even when the plot is about time travel or capital punishment or Greek mythology he just kind of goes with it. The shows wear their heaviness lightly, and Sam is great at picking stuff up from context. He’s watched some episodes where I thought he’d never get it and months later he’ll still remember why the bad guys were breaking into the Watchtower and what they were trying to steal and who was going to use the magic suit of armor to free which god of the underworld from Hades, and so forth. Luckily, the JL scripts have a startling lack of stupidity in them, so when he’s learning about different cultures (the old west, Serbia, Gypsies, what have you) he’s not getting a load of crap.

        It’s funny you bring up Miyzaki. After Clayface and Grey Ghost last night, and before B’wana Beast, he trotted upstairs to watch Kiki’s Delivery Service with his little sister. We’ve got a lot of Miyazaki sitting around the house and they watch him as often as they watch, say, Disney.

        • robolizard says:

          Its interesting, but Bruce Timm’s and Paul Dini comic miniseries’ and comic books [‘Harley and Ivy’ in particular here [] and [].] are intended for adults. Its a serious world with a cartoon sensibility.

          • Todd says:

            I got a copy of Mad Love to read to Sam, judging it merely by the goofy, brightly-colored cover art. Boy did that require some explanation.

          • Todd says:

            Those comics are swell. They’re light-hearted, flow like a bubbling brook and full of great character interaction. Intended for adults or not, Sam would have no trouble following them (assuming I read them to him).

  5. Anonymous says:

    Actually . . .

    Daggett’s hit men could easily shoot Hagen, but they decide at the last minute to, instead, dump a beaker full of this magic makeup gunk on his face.

    They don’t merely dump a beaker of gunk on his face, they force it down his throat. (The scene is shown in sillhouette, which is probably they only way they could get it by S&P.)

    • Todd says:

      Re: Actually . . .

      The sound effects imply that they’re forcing it down his throat, and that would seem to be the reasonable thing for a pair of responsible, professional hit men to do, but the silhouette makes it look like they’re merely pouring it on his face. Hey, no one is more disappointed than myself.

  6. toliverchap says:

    Feat of Clay is classic. I think they were some of the first few episodes aired on FOX at 4:30 PM weekdays. Back when I was a kid I really enjoyed them and I still do now. I think I knew even as an 11 year old that this show was much cooler than your average cartoon. You are right though in the commentaries Timm talks about how they choose to do the animation on black paper to emphasize the darkness of the show and how just being able to have the bad guys fried real guns was an accomplishment for the time. But Feat of Clay is certainly one of the more complex episodes with one of my favorite lines around that I’ve never forgotten in all these years: “I can’t fix it anymore!”

    • Todd says:

      Making the whole thing more complex and adult is Clayface’s relationship with his assistant. At first he just seems like a personal assistant, but by the time he’s serving dinner to Clayface in his home at night and Clayface knocks the tray out of his hand and says “I don’t need you any more!” you realize that the assistant is also Clayface’s lover, and the writers haven’t even made a big deal out of it. And the message is that a long-term gay lover is just one more completely ordinary thing one encounters in the world of adult behavior.

  7. craigjclark says:

    For my readers who wonder if I’m ever going to write about a movie made for grownups again, go see the hugely entertaining, compulsively watchable Notes on a Scandal.

    Will there be a test on it?

    Notes is one of those “if I had all the money and time in the world” kinds of movies. I’m vaguely interested in it, but not enough to see it over, say, Pan’s Labyrinth or Children of Men or Letters from Iwo Jima or anything else I’ve already been sold on.

    • Todd says:

      Here’s your triage list:

      1. Pan’s Labyrinth
      2. Children of Men
      3. Notes on a Scandal
      4. Letters From Iwo Jima

      Letters, which has been hugely praised in the media, is actually rather a trudge to sit through. Eastwood makes the rather obvious point early on that the Japanese are people too, and the narrative does not develop an inch from there.

      • craigjclark says:

        That’s pretty close to the order I’m seeing them in, actually. (I’m catching Children tomorrow and Pan’s on Wednesday.)

        As for Letters, that’s been a given since I saw Flags of Our Fathers with my Dad. We make it a habit of seeing most war movies that come out (as well as whatever Clint Eastwood is up to, which nicely dovetailed this year), something I’m going to miss when I move to Indiana at the end of the month. We started by seeing Das Boot when it was re-released several years back and haven’t really looked back.