by Jarrod Jones. This is RETROGRADING, where that ain’t blood—that’s mud.
THE STORY: “The Mud Pack” parts 1-4. (Detective Comics #604-607)
THE TEAM: Alan Grant (writer), Norm Breyfogle (penciller), Steve Mitchell (inker), Adrienne Roy (colors), Todd Klein (letterer), Dan Raspler (associate editor), Dennis O’Neil (editor). Published by DC Comics.
THE YEAR: 1989. Tim Burton’s Batman was decimating box office records. After a successful 1988, which had brought mainstream attention to DC Comics with The Killing Joke, and later, with “A Death in the Family”, the publisher increased production of both its Batman and Detective Comics titles to bi-monthly status in order to meet the summer’s movie-mandated demands. The marquee draw for ‘Tec in the Summer of ’89? Alan Grant & Norm Breyfogle’s “The Mud Pack”.
RECOLLECTIONS: Nothing gums up your nightly war on crime faster than a crew of adversaries deciding to team up against you. For Batman, any rallying of rouges could be just another occupational hazard but in the case of 1989’s “The Mud Pack” the prospects of a Clayface team-up proved to be a sticky situation for the Dark Knight, indeed.
The hook: Basil Karlo, fallen film star and washed-up serial killer known as “Clayface”, primes himself for a bloody comeback by rounding up every person in the DC Universe who ever shared his nom de guerre to take down the one man who’s thwarted them all—The Batman.
The seeds of the Mud Pack were sown in the Mark Waid-edited Secret Origins #44, which set the stage for each member of this criminal cast by establishing where they were in the DCU just before Karlo executed his nefarious plot against the Caped Crusader. (Waid confesses he was the one responsible for the team’s moniker: “I did come up with the name,” he says, “which is about as clever a day as I ever had.”*) Karlo, aka “Clayface I”? Recently released from prison. Matt Hagan, aka “Clayface II”? A casualty of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Preston Payne, aka “Clayface III”? Currently locked up in Arkham Asylum living a perverse soap opera with his wife “Helena”, a department store mannequin. And as for Sondra Fuller, the Kobra-constructed “Lady Clay”, she’s been bombing around high society looking for the slightest provocation to break bad once more. Basil Karlo, for her, would seem a fit ringleader.
So by the time ‘Tec #604 began, Karlo was already decked out in his theatrical cape, fedora, and mud mask, seen hoisting a sack of dried-out dirt that used to be Matt Hagan and slaughtering a misfit crew of young punks who dared trespass against him and his tantalizing bag of goods. Our night at the opera had begun.
When I say “opera”, I mean it. “The Mud Pack” is a slice of ham cut thick, served as a felonious four-course meal with the Secret Origins ish acting as appetizer. Alan Grant, formerly of Judge Dredd, had brought a bit of Mega-City might to the Bat-title; his Batman came with a flair for drama and a keen sense of confidence, a grinning vigilante who used the shadows to maximize the effectiveness of his billion-dollar campaign against crime. His Batman also shared the same air of self-righteous authority for which Judge Dredd has always been known—he’d even referred to criminals as “creeps” as he knocked them to the pavement.
What worked about Alan Grant’s Bat-run was how he constantly drew attention to how ridiculous Bruce Wayne’s private life actually was. There’s a bit in “Mud Pack, Part Three” (‘Tec #606) where Commissioner Gordon takes a report on the latest Clay-crusade—sez Lieutenant Kitch: “Seems the female warped into some giant bird and flew off with the others”—and doesn’t bat an eye. That’s but one example of the heightened nature of this era of DC’s Bat-line—a far cry from the dour Batman offerings of the modern era, sure, but it’s far from quaint.
Theatricality, that was Alan Grant’s Gotham City secret. Grandiosity. Horror and villains and a dauntless hero at the center of it all. And few artists captured these high-wire theatrics better than Norm Breyfogle.
The penciller of “The Mud Pack” and the primary artist for Detective Comics from 1988 most of the way through 1990, Breyfogle captured every popularized facet of the character and purified them into a single essence of untapped lunacy. He tapped into what made Wayne’s fantastic alter ego tick (in a way that DC likely wanted perpetuated during the ’89 “Summer of Batman“), and he delivered the hero’s lean, mean physicality we saw from earlier Bat-artists Jim Aparo and Neal Adams, presenting Batman as a moody vigilante, a daring superhero, and an urban myth all at once.
Breyfogle’s Batman is the optimum Batman, as elastic as the hero’s thrown punches and hurling kicks, fit for super-epics and horror-drenched monster mashes such as “The Mud Pack” alike. If Batman is considered to be the most versatile superhero of all—and he often is—then Norm Breyfogle was one of the last artists to absolutely nail that versatility.
Also, Breyfogle’s knack for drawing the best facial freak-outs made Grant’s lunatic scripts so much fun. If Grant used an exclamation point in his dialogue or captions, Breyfogle was there to maximize its use—either with impact lines, terrified reaction shots, or both. For “The Mud Pack”, which drew from both Batman’s earlier, more horrific tales and his Eighties Outsiders exploits (including a supporting role by the Outsider’s Looker), Breyfogle, Steve Mitchell, Adrienne Roy and Todd Klein came together to give that summer’s boisterous Bat-saga a sense of modernity that, in retrospect, seemed to herald the coming of the Dark Knight’s future adventures—and eventual fall from grace in “Knightfall.”
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Silly? You bet. Melodramatic? Oh my, yes. (Best bit: The discovered passions of Clayface III & Lady Clay.) Adventurous, monstrous, and more than a little insane, “The Mud Pack” is Gotham City madness in its purest form.
RETROGRADE: 8 out of 10
* From ‘Back Issue’ #98, August 2017.