comics, comics criticism, dc comics, writing

The Mud Pack, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Batman

Like every child of the 1990s who ended up reading comics, my path was forged by Saturday Morning Cartoons. I discovered X-Men and Spider-Man through FOX Kids and still remember watching the premiere episode of the former, riveted by the high drama and mournful screams of Wolverine as he watched his funny little friend Morph fry by Sentinel fire.

I have less vivid recollections of my first experience with Batman: The Animated Series but Batman was the show that defined my childhood, the ultimate appointment viewing above all other shows, animated or otherwise. X-Men might have arrived with bombast and melodrama but Batman etched itself into my consciousness, becoming a part of my very sense of self in a way very few pieces of media could compare. Batman has been a part of my life from before my memory even begins. I wish I could say there was a lightning rod moment where the character etched itself into my life. But, really, Batman has just always been a part of it.

I can’t say that I remember the first comic book I ever read.

Growing up I didn’t have more than a random issue here or there. I never read a complete comic book story arc until I was into my teens. So the few comics I did have, isolated issues of random storylines, were read over and over and over again to the point of complete destruction. They existed in a state of quantum uncertainty, never begun, never ended.

I do know that the first Batman comic book I have any memory of owning or reading was one I received in a bundle of old comics given out to kids who attended a grade school roller skating party. There was no rhyme or reason to what was included in that stack of rubberbanded newsprint. I could not tell you what any of the issues were except for a single story that struck me immediately. My memory is filled with holes but I know that this cover image stopped me in my tracks and I couldn’t wait to go home and read this book.

I don’t remember much about my childhood, to be quite honest. I don’t know if it’s a trauma or physiological response to chronic illness, or just normal getting older, but much of my life before I had my life-altering surgery when I was 19 is pretty hazy. Maybe it’s normal and it’s the same for you. Human memory is a mystery to me. What scattershot recollections I have of simple moments of childhood are often paired with the media and art I was experiencing alongside them.

Holding Detective Comics 606 predates most of my struggle with Crohn’s Disease and the emotional and physical trials that went along with that. It isn’t a magical memory of a more innocent time that draws me in when I look at that cover, it’s the world it invited me into. The thrill and wonderment of discovery and curiosity that comes with encountering a new story for the first time. And with superheroes the stories never end, never even really begin. Their narratives are always in a perpetual state of becoming, just as we are–the memories of who we were a hazy blur and the trials and victories to come always uncertain.

In the dimly lit school cafeteria I saw this image of a ghostly Robin tormenting a howling Batman and I could not wait to understand what was happening. How could they have killed Robin? He was my favorite part of the tv show! The Batman I knew was never brought so low as what was shown here.

The striking Norm Breyfogle cover is immediately gripping but ultimately misleading. Robin appears on the first couple of pages but Batman knows from the start it is not really his dead partner. it still succeeds in throwing him off, however, and it results in his capture by the team of Clayfaces, one of whom, Clayface 4, has transformed herself into the dead Robin.

As a kid, just these initial few pages sent me reeling. Robin is dead? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. How did he die? How could they let him die? I never heard of Jason Todd and at the time it was much harder to look up these kinds of comic book histories online and so I was left to wonder what I had missed that could have led to this. The cover plainly stated RIP ROBIN on the gravestone, no mention of this being any other Robin than the only one I had heard of up to that point, Dick Grayson.

Just as confounding was the revelation that there was not just 1 Clayface but 4, and the one that I did know from the Animated Series was also dead! None of the people named Clayface in this issue particularly resembled the Matt Hagen version I was familiar with. The one time they namechecked Hagen was to explain he had died in some mysterious Capital C Crisis.

In the intervening years between losing this book, probably because it fell apart from being flipped through so often, and finally discovering it again, the story stuck with me as flashes of images. Not unlike the torture Batman is forced to endure, hypnotized and strapped to a chair to watch washed up actor Basil Karlo’s greatest hits.

Batman ends up hallucinating his worst moments and memories, just brief images splashed across the pages. Tormented by his rogues and grappling with failure. As an introduction to the comics it could be considered an utter failure for the way it drops readers in and forces them to keep up with the references and flashbacks.

But for me, it was like a roadmap to stories waiting to be discovered. I wanted to know more, to find out about these other Clayfaces and the sinister nightmares tugging at Batman’s cape.

These fractal memories of Batman’s became fractal memories of my own and this story became a hazy half remembered thing, a memory of childhood recalled in flashes of images.

The Mud Pack, I could remember. The dramatic kiss between Preston Payne and Lady Clay as two deformed monsters found kinship in one another. Basil Karlo’s Dracula visage rising through the foggy gravestones. And above all, the ghostly apparition of the dead Robin pointing his translucent finger at Batman, accusing.

It wasn’t until this last week that I was finally able to read the whole story of “The Mud Pack” and the quirks of the single issue of my childhood are no less evident when taken in full. It does little to introduce the various Clayfaces or contextualize the image of the dead Robin at the start of 606, or the bleeding woman haunted by Joker’s ghastly grin. The haunted imagery of Batman’s nightmares are delved by an obscure stranger from an obscure team of heroes.

The story’s writer, Alan Grant takes the readers’ familiarity with this twisted funhouse of the character’s history for granted, playing with dozens of moving parts to challenge Batman intellectually and emotionally. Batman’s pursuit of the Mud Pack is breathless and the reader can either keep up or be left behind. In doing so he makes the story feel like just a small fragment that we readers are having a brief view into. This is a world that has been long been lived in with a cast of characters who have been fully realized over time.

It is the blessing and curse of superhero stories that they have so much history to draw on. Rely on it too much and it becomes a noose that strangles the creativity of the artists and the patience of the reader. But implemented well it broadens the impact of a single issue, even if readers are unfamiliar with those histories.

Norm Breyfogle’s idiosyncratic art takes the story in Detective Comics 606 beyond its plot or written words. The torment and nightmarish hallucinations that befalls Batman are rent across the page as if the paper itself was shredded to reveal something hidden behind them. Breyfogle never hesitates to contort or exaggerate his figures for dramatic effect, with Batman’s cape a living entity of its own. His Batman is a creature of the shadow, standing in stark silhouette regardless of the lighting around him.

But above all his depiction of the Clayfaces is grotesque, making Payne and Lady Clay’s tragic human drama all the more painful. They seek only to give their freakish lives meaning, to find or forge a place where they could feel normal. They are tricked and betrayed by Basil Karlo into thinking they could build that together but are ultimately used and discarded, monsters and freaks left alone again.

Ah, to be alone and disdainful of one’s own body.

Payne and Lady Clay ultimately find comfort in one another’s arms and receive a dramatic sendoff with Breyfogle playfully encircling their climactic kiss in a heart-shaped panel that evokes old time cinematic romances. With Karlo’s silver age films a running motif throughout the issue, it is a playful nod that gives these monsters a heroic moment of triumph.

Reading and rereading this isolated issue the initial frustration with not knowing the events that led up to it faded away and the excitement to find out more about this world grew. Over time, as the internet became more accessible, I’d dive into online encyclopedias and fan sites like I was cramming for an AP History test. All I wanted to know was the complicated publishing histories of these characters that I fell in love with as a kid.

As I got sicker and sicker, I fell more and more into superhero comics, and I have this strange issue, a story with no beginning or end, to thank for that.

And that’s really the power of stories, isn’t it? The way they draw us in, give us the rush of discovery, the moments of peace amid stressful times. They focus us and center us, providing an outlet for every frustration or fear we might have. Superhero comic especially allow us to visualize the monsters and fears we face and remind us that they can be surmounted. It might not be today or tomorrow but today’s defeat doesn’t mean the end. Just “to be continued.”

The Mud Pack is a 4 part story published in Detective Comics vol.1 604-607. It is collected in Legends of the Dark Knight: Norm Breyfogle Volume One. It is written by Alan Grant with pencils by Norm Breyfogle and inks by Steve Mitchell. Todd Klein lettered and the original colors come courtesy of Adrienne Roy.

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