Clayface takes center stage in ‘Batman: The Dark Knight’

(CBR) In the world of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, Clayface has always been a hard villain to pin down.

On the page, the DC Comics supervillain can take the form of anyone he wants, sliding in and out of personas thanks to his massive, claylike body. And in real life, the character has gone through over half a dozen alter egos as the Clayface concept has been worked over again and again. With the advent of DC’s New 52 relaunch, the original villain to carry the name — horror actor Basil Karlo — has stepped back up as the definitive shapeshifter of Gotham. But until now, he’s remained a blank slate.

That’s set to change in the upcoming issues of “Batman: The Dark Knight” by writer Gregg Hurwitz and artist Alex Maleev. After looking into the inner workings of villains including the Penguin, the Scarecrow and the Mad Hatter, Hurwitz is ready to zero in on Karlo’s origins even as his Bruce Wayne falls to pieces after the death of his girlfriend Natalya in the previous arc. With two issues of the new story already on the stands, CBR swings THE BAT SIGNAL — our ongoing discussion of Batman and his world — toward “The Dark Knight,” and below, Hurwitz explains why now is the time to get into the muddy past of the faceless villain, how his love of villains and black humor has helped the book find its place at DC and how his comics life informs his new thriller novel “Tell No Lies” and its story of a man hunted by his own mystery serial killer.

CBR News: Clayface is the latest in a long line of classic Bat-villains to take the spotlight in “The Dark Knight.” Many of the other characters you’ve dealt with have reflected a different idea inherent in the Bat mythos. What does Basil Karlo show us about this world you were interested in exploring?

Gregg Hurwitz: Clayface makes a deal with the devil — he is willing to do anything, to change in any way to be recognized and adored. He’s a foil for Batman in that way because what is more constant in this world than Batman? Batman won’t alter his values for gain and eschews recognition. I thought it’d be fun to put those opposites into play.

Of course, this arc follows the surprising death of Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend Natalya in the Mad Hatter story that preceded it. Let’s explore that from both sides. First, what do you think the death added to the overall story you’ve been telling in “The Dark Knight,” and why was this Clayface arc the one that needed to follow that event for Batman as a character?

Her death left Bruce much more vulnerable than he’s been. And Clayface is willing to play on that to his advantage (as in his initial escape in Issue #22). At the same time, Batman’s trying to get back to business, and he’s less than eager to discuss with Alfred his emotional state over Natalya. So he’s pursuing Clayface with a singularity as a way to sublimate his grief — and to get back to doing what he does.

This is a slightly different take on Clayface than we’ve seen in the past in terms of motivation, and we’re looking at an incoming new origin for him as well. What did you hope to uncover about the character in this new telling? How do you think this origin will recast him a bit in Batman’s rogue’s gallery?

I don’t want to give too much away, but we’ll see that some of Clayface’s transformation from man to monster wasn’t entirely his fault. Of course, as in any tragedy, the moral flaw is inside him — he was willing to be or do anything to be famous — but that doesn’t mean he deserves everything that happens to him. When writing a villain, I have to find a point of empathy to make sure I can write him or her with a human point of view. If there’s no humanity and only pure evil, then it’s hard for me to ask readers to care.

At the same time, we’re also seeing more connections between this story and other titles in the Bat-line — particular Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s recent Clayface two-parter. How do you view “The Dark Knight’s” overall place among the numerous Batman titles hitting the stands?

It is stitched into the fabric of the DCU, perhaps holding a slightly darker place than the others. I like to keep a strong focus on the villains, play with a certain amount of black humor, and emphasize psychology quite heavily. All of these elements certainly exist in the other books, but I think we all have our different ratios of them, and that’s what makes them each unique.

And of course, the series takes place within the context of the wider DCU as well. We’ll soon be seeing some surprising guest stars show up in the book in the form of Black Canary and Condor. What role do they play in the ongoing Clayface story?

Well, the Family’s been none too happy with Batman of late, so when he needed backup, he had to go outside his usual circle. And I thought it’d be fun to send a few new heroes sailing into the pages of “The Dark Knight.”

Commissioner Gordon has been a fixture of the series from the start, and I get a feeling he’s a balancing force in what is often a very gritty crime drama. What’s the most important aspect of Gordon for you in this book?

I love writing Gordon. The uneasy camaraderie between him and Batman might be my favorite aspect of the book. In fact, I think it’s one of the most unique relationships in all of pop culture. Gordon is a trusted ally, a moral voice, and a rock to Batman in the insanity that is Gotham.

Speaking of the series from the start, your “Dark Knight” Annual brought back a number of villainous faces from your Batman work, and we’ve since seen this cast of criminals keep showing up in the Clayface arc. Over the course of doing so many issues, how have all your Batman stories started to snowball together?

Yes, I love bringing my evil crew back for guest appearances. I so love writing Oswald (he’s probably my favorite), but getting to feature the three rogues I tackled first in one annual? That was heaven. And there is a certain amount of snowballing going on. I had the honor of New 52-ing a few of these guys and my readers know their backgrounds pretty well at this point, so I like hiding little references throughout the new stories for dedicated readers, while making sure the stories also stand on their own.

You’ve been able to work with a number of well-known artists each with their own strikingly unique styles: David Finch, Ethan Van Sciver and Szymon Kudranski. Now you’ve welcomed Alex Maleev to the fold. How does he fit in with “The Dark Knight” as a series and with Clayface as a villain?

Alex is wildly talented and I love seeing Batman wearing “the Maleev style.” But of all the villains, Clayface seemed the perfect place to start given Alex’s style. The way he’s played with Clayface’s shape has been a blast to watch.

On the other side of your writing life, your new novel “Tell No Lies” just arrived in bookstores and online. I think I even see some similarities with Batman in that the book deals with tensions between high society and the roots of economic disparity. What led you down that path as you were planning your next thriller?

It started with a simple idea: What if you started receiving death threats — accidentally? Threats intended for others with concrete life-or-death deadlines? My hero, Daniel Brasher, finds himself inadvertently in the middle of a killer’s vendetta. And this story is played out on the labyrinthine streets of the city of my birth, San Francisco. Like many of my recent thrillers, it has a Hitchcockian “everyman” hero who is pulled in over his head and has to rise to the occasion. I suppose in certain regards, it’s my homage to “Vertigo,” where the winding and complex alleys and hills represent the increasing dark psychological stakes. And yes, this thriller deals with race and class, which function differently in San Francisco than anywhere else. But perhaps a bit like in Gotham!

At the same time, this is the latest of your books to deal with the concept of a man thrown into circumstances beyond his understanding. Why is that a particularly deep well for you as a crime writer — or maybe why do you feel it’s a deep well for crime fiction in general?

Because I think those characters stand in for that little part in all of us that — when we’re not up to a job, a relationship, some hard circumstance in our life — tells us that we’re a fraud. That we just can’t do it. That we just can’t get up one more time. For me it’s thrilling to watch people like you or me when we catch them on the worst day of their life. We’re in their shoes, looking at the blood and wreckage, feeling their stress and pain and rooting for them to get up just one more time and form order from the chaos. That part is like Batman and is perhaps why I’m so drawn to him as a character. He doesn’t have any superpowers — he just represents the peak of human potential, hard work, and discipline. The strong jaw helps too.

You do a ton of writing in scads of different media: comics, TV, movies. Overall, what is the creative itch that going back to novels scratches for you, and how is “Tell No Lies” a good example of that?

There’s more room to dig deeply into characters and relationships — and I mean that literally. There’s more real estate. With a novel, you have 400 pages of final product. A script is more like a recipe, an invitation to collaborate. With a novel, the writer has to do everything — he or she has to be the director, the cinematographer, hair and makeup stylist, costume designer, art director. The entire enterprise succeeds or fails based on which words you choose to type on that blank screen. And there can be something magical when you hit the right combination of words in the right order and it all becomes real.

Batman: The Dark Knight” #23 by Hurwitz and Maleev goes on sale October 23. “Tell No Lies” is on sale now.