It was like…some kinda blob! (Feat of Clay)

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It’s September 8 and 9, 1992, the two days immediately following “Heart of Ice,” and the Thursday and Friday of the show’s first week on the air. The episode is “Feat of Clay,” a two-parter introducing the monstrous, shapeshifting Clayface, a.k.a. Matt Hagen, whose comeback–mentioned on the cover of the People Magazine issue showed at the end of “Beware the Gray Ghost!”–is here explained as the result of drug abuse.
Because make no mistake, that is what is going on in this story. The Renuyu cream that gives Hagen his powers is highly addictive, causing painful withdrawal symptoms whenever he stops taking it. Tricked into using it by Dagget, Hagen becomes a pawn in his schemes, his self-control and morals corrupted by his dependency on a chemical substance. In classic gothic tradition–as we have discussed before in regards to Batman Returns–this moral degeneration is represented by physical grotesquerie, as Hagen ends the first part transformed into the monstrous Clayface, a half-melted parody of the human form.
In the second part, this equation is reversed: now, Clayface’s physical transformation feeds into his despair, and in turn his abandonment of his one friendship–or, rather, “friendship,” as the caring, concern, and implied cohabitation between Teddy Lupus and Hagen suggests there might be something rather more going on there. In either case, Teddy serves much the same role here as Dent’s fiancee, Grace Lamont–a possibility of redemptive love that the character transforming into a villain cannot accept.
The grotesque is here a sort of vicious cycle: like Dent before him, Clayface’s monstrous appearance aggravates an already established fear of rejection, and causes him to lash out, which in turn draws the hostility of authorities, which in turn is interpreted as rejection and the cycle repeats. The addition of the drug addiction angle, however, freshens the formula considerably–after all, that kind of social isolation is precisely what causes drug addiction in the first place.
What we have here, in other words, is a hybrid of the kind of sympathetic villain origin story, which Batman the Animated Series has shown several of already, with that familiar staple of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the anti-drug PSA episode. Those episodes are usually laughable in their clumsiness, due mostly to being about as subtle as a brick to the face–but the whole point of the grotesque is to be gross, in its original sense as the opposite of subtle. Drugs turning people magically into hardened criminals is cheesy and embarrassing; drugs turning people magically into hardened criminals who then melt and become shapeshifting monsters is highly entertaining television, because for once there is something happening at a higher volume level than the voice shouting “drugs are bad!”
Indeed, so successful is the body horror at rendering the addiction narrative subtle by comparison that as of this writing the similarity to an anti-drug PSA is not mentioned on the DCAU Wiki, Wikipedia, or TVTropes, all three places where significant numbers of fan-hours have been spent in various flavors of documenting the series’ minutiae.
Let us turn, then, to the episode’s use of the grotesque. In discussing Batman Returns I talked about it as working together with the carnival theme of that movie, which is most obvious in the Penguin, but also evident in Catwoman’s desire to subvert the capitalist order. Superficially, we might seem to have something similar going on with Hagen, as a wronged employee of a crooked businessman who, after an attempt on their lives by that businessman, is transformed into a grotesque figure and turns to supervillainy in their quest for revenge. However, that anti-drug element provides the key difference.
Hagen is already committing crimes at the start of the episode, in exchange for the drug that he depends on both to maintain his career as a leading actor and to keep the withdrawal symptoms at bay. He is not, as Selina Kyle was in Burton’s film, an innocent; he is corrupted physically and morally by the Renuyu drug. That is, after all, the role of the drug in an anti-drug PSA: it is a corrupting influence, the reification of a Faustian bargain with the dealer. Beware of letting it into your soul, young person! Remain pure. Just say no.
In other words, what is missing here is the carnival. The grotesque is not an object of fascination here, but a punishment visited on Hagen for his failure to remain pure of sin. The sacred remains sacred and the profane profane; there is none of the fusing or subversion of the normal order. Batman and Clayface are never going to flirt, nor is Clayface likely to make a run for Mayor or have any success if he tries.
This will be important to keep in mind going forward, because Batman the Animated Series, and to a lesser extent its successors, likes to play with the grotesque a lot, but that does not necessarily mean that it is engaged in carnivalization. The carnival is not the only environment where the grotesque can be found; it is how the carnival uses the grotesque, as part of a project to invert or disrupt the social order, that makes it unique.
Batman, it increasingly seems, is wedded both as a character and a narrative to the extant social order. Despite his superficial resemblance to a vigilante, the Conroy Batman is not able to sustain the carnival atmosphere that the West Batman accomplished. Instead, there is–as in this episode–a dark tone, a sense that the grotesque is a part of the order of things, lurking at its base where we try not to look. Hagen is the fallen elite, the outcast–the person, notably, that Bruce Wayne very nearly became, if not for the very public reveal that a shapeshifter existed and was actually behind the attempted murder of Lucius Fox.
This is a cautionary tale: be careful, be pure, don’t fall off the hill because at the bottom there’s nothing but mud that you will never be able to climb out of. In that sense, this episode is something of a reflection of “The Forgotten.” Hagen, it is implied, never really had an identity–he is nothing but his prior roles, an amorphous personality who becomes physically protean as well, and then finally destroys his identity in his last, greatest performance, faking his own death. For this crime of being a figure of change, a distortion of the “normal” man (there are multiple shots where it is quite plainly visible that Clayface no longer has external genitalia), he is forced down into the bottom rungs of society, penniless and alone on the streets.
So he–or, perhaps, she, as Clayface takes the form of a woman in this final shot–laughs. What else is there to do? It’s the only weapon left, here at the end–to laugh, to acknowledge the absurdity of both what has happened and the social order that he no longer has need of or a place in. That laugh is the key to the carnival, the one place where it enters into this episode. Simultaneously a grotesque figure and a conventionally attractive young woman, laughing at society, finally resolved to begin working in earnest to upend its arbitrary order and instill chaos: the Joker is no longer alone in that role.
Enter Harley Quinn.

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