Batman: The Dark Knight Vol. 4: Clay is enjoyable, and for a reader wanting a continuity-light, back-to-basics Batman story (with just Alfred and Commissioner Gordon), this would be the book. The difficulty is that for ardent readers, other more tied-in Bat-books already just featured the characters Clayface and Man-Bat who appear here, and so Clay reads like unnecessary repetition. I like, especially, Hurwitz's writing of the interaction between the protagonists, but as always it's hard to call Dark Knight required reading.
[Review contains spoilers]
Clay collects Dark Knight #22-29, the final issues of the villain-focused series in the tradition of Shadow of the Bat and Gotham Knight. The first four issues are a Clayface story by Hurwitz and Alex Maleev, the next two an all-silent Penguin story with art by Alberto Ponticelli, and then a two-part Man-Bat story with art by Ethan Van Sciver.
The book starts at its strongest with Hurwitz and Maleev's first Clayface issue, in which Batman has to rescue a kidnapped Commissioner Gordon from Clayface. Maleev's art is nicely gritty, and the issue has the tone of a timeless Batman story -- Batman, the endangered Commissioner, and so on. The following issue is a bit too action-heavy for my tastes, but ramps up the action and offers fine visuals from Maleev, including the Bat-plane flying an encapsulated Clayface over the city.
In the third issue, Hurwitz pauses for Clayface's origin, and the story drags as a result. The Bat-villains' origins have been this book's reason for being, but have sometimes unfolded with tedious detail over multiple issues. Here Hurwitz spins the origin more briskly, but again, the dedicated full-stop origin issue gives the arc an odd pace, and also that Clayface just so happens to have an Arkham cellmate who wants to hear his life story (and then that cellmate almost immediately dies) is so coincidental as to feel contrived. Fortunately the fourth issue is a return to form, with Hurwitz depicting Clayface's particularly gruesome kidnapping of some Gotham citizens.
Particularly notable here is Hurwitz's interaction between Batman and Gordon. After the rescue in the first issue, Batman comically slaps Gordon in the second to make sure he's not Clayface in disguise. At the top of the fourth, Gordon complains about Batman surprising him from the shadows; at the end, Batman drolly announces himself: "It's me. I'm behind you in the shadows. I'm going to speak now." Hurwitz avoids the recent angst between the men and instead uses them as the source of the book's comedy, and in that way demonstrates a benefit of the two men's long-standing friendship as well. Hurwitz's Batman and Alfred equally needle each other to amusing effect.
But ultimately we just saw Clayface in Scott Snyder's Batman Vol. 6: Graveyard Shift (even more recently since the issues involved were collected late), and Man-Bat as well in John Layman's Detective Comics Vol. 5: Gothtopia. Here, Hurwitz posits yet a third Man-Bat (after Layman's Kirk and Francine Langstrom), Kirk's father Abraham. There's something engaging about Abraham as a foil of both Batman and Bruce, and I appreciated Hurwitz, via Alfred, really digging into the idea of "Man-Bat" versus Batman. At the same time, having another Bat-villain tied to Bruce Wayne's childhood is tiresome, and that Hurwitz retcons in Abraham so soon after, and incompatibly with, Layman's story feels like retreading already-worn ground. As well, Hurwitz has Batman "bleed out" again to save Gotham, an apt metaphor but one Hurwitz used himself already in Dark Knight Vol. 2: Cycle of Violence.
Ethan Van Sciver delivers fine work on the Man-Bat chapters, especially in a sequence of Batman free-falling over Gotham (though it's hard to believe Batman doesn't keep a Bat-parachute in his utility belt). Ponticelli does well in the silent issues, ultimately a Christmas tale, with good instincts as to when to show Batman's eyes through the cowl.
Batman: The Dark Knight Vol. 4: Clay is set within the continuity of its day, referencing both volumes past and the recent appearances of its starring villains. But at the point in which, the Clayface story, Batman is specifically using the solution from Graveyard Shift to try to re-capture the villain, I got the sense I'd read this before. I'd be happy to see Gregg Hurwitz on a mainstream Batman title, but the repetition underscores that Dark Knight was one Batman title too many.