Monday, July 22, 2019

DETECTIVE COMICS #475 & #476

"THE LAUGHING FISH!" | "SIGN OF THE JOKER!"
Writer: Steve Englehart | Penciller: Marshall Rogers | Inker: Terry Austin
Letterer: Ben Oda & Milt Snappin | Colorist: Marshall Rogers | Editor: Julius Schwartz

The Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run on DETECTIVE COMICS comes to its conclusion with a two-part classic pitting Batman against the Joker. This time, the Clown Prince of Crime has infected the world's fish with a variation on his Joker venom, giving every fish a hideous grin. Joker's plan is to copyright the "laughing fish" and rake in the bucks every time somebody buys one.

It's an utterly nonsensical plan -- something the narration calls out a couple times -- but that's the point. The Joker is, at this point in continuity, one hundred percent insane. I'm not sure when it was decided that the character was clinically insane... I know he wasn't in his earliest appearances, since at one point Bob Kane and Bill Finger sent him to the electric chair (and if a criminal is certified insane, they can't receive the death penalty), but by the seventies, he's absolutely there. It was Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams who had the character escape from an upstate asylum in "The Joke's Five-Way Revenge", but I just don't know if it was ever previously stated that he was crazy.

But in any case, "The Laughing Fish/Sign of the Joker" is absolutely the craziest we've seen him in our jaunt through the seventies -- and while I do like the idea that he would come up with a scheme that makes not an ounce of sense to any normal-thinking human, I can't say that I wholeheartedly approve of Englehart's version of an insane Joker. I'd go so far as to say that, more than "Joker's Five-Way Revenge", this is where the modern-day Joker, a character who makes me extremely uncomfortable, was born. In fact, I can pretty much pinpoint the exact panel when it happens:


Up until this moment, the Joker was a murderer, but even though he was crazy, he killed with purpose or out of necessity. In "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge", he's out to bump off all the members of his old gang because he knows one of them ratted him out to the police. In "This One'll Kill You, Batman", he kills a guard at Arkham Asylum who attempts to stop his escape, and then sets out to murder the only two doctors in the world capable of concocting an antidote for his new poison.

But here, as he and his gang wander a Gotham street after threatening a paper pusher at the local copyright office, one of his men asks the Joker what he's going to do next. Joker answers the question and then, laughing, shoves his subordinate in front of an oncoming truck, telling him to mind his own business. It's shocking, random, and totally uncalled for. A far cry from the Joker of previous years, who -- while certainly homicidal -- was also intelligent, cunning, and often surprisingly rational.

From this moment forward -- though it's a fairly slow creep over the years -- the Joker becomes more and more prone to such manic murders, until we get to the version most fans know today -- the guy who escapes from Arkham every few months and goes on an indiscriminate mass killing spree. So, while I love much of Steve Englehart's work on DETECTIVE COMICS, I'm pretty disappointed that he's the one who planted this seed.

That said, Englehart does use the Joker pretty well in this story, for the most part. In a great callback to his earliest appearance, where he went on the radio to announce his murders ahead of time, the villain stages a chilling TV broadcast to declare that he will kill a copyright stooge at precisely midnight. Despite the best efforts of Batman and the police, Joker succeeds. A second announcement is made and three hours later, Joker again outsmarts the good guys and kills another bureaucrat. Both these murders are done "remotely" with gas and a poisoned cat, respectively, But when it comes time for a third murder, the Joker shows in person, in disguise, and Batman unmasks him. Their fight carries them out into rain-drenched Gotham, where Joker is electrocuted by a lightning strike while standing on a steel girder, and then plummets into the bay, seemingly dead (but of course no body is found).

Then there are the sub-plots! Issue 476 is Englehart's last, something he knew going in -- remember, he was contracted for an eight-issue run and then he planned to retire from comics. So of course he needs to wrap up the ghost of Hugo Strange, Rupert Thorne's war against Batman, and the Bruce Wayne/Silver St. Cloud relationship. Some of these he addresses better than others (if at all).

In particular, and puzzlingly, the ghost storyline receives no definitive conclusion (though it is used to take Thorne off the board). Strange's apparition appears to scare Thorne out of his wits in Gotham, sending him on the lam. Then, later, the ghost appears to Batman following the Joker's second murder, and leaves behind a detection device that allows the Caped Crusader to unmask Joker as he attempts his third killing (it detects a special gas Strange sprayed everyone at his auction with a few issues back). Then, the ghost appears once more as Thorne drives his car through Ohio, causing the corrupt councilman to crash.

And that's it! No explanation of how the ghost exists or how it was able to leave a physical object for Batman to find. As noted above, Englehart knew this was his final issue, yet he leaves this plot wide open. Which, since this is an ongoing serialized comic book, is technically fine -- let the next creative team sort it out. But it nonetheless feels odd since Englehart goes to the trouble of wrapping up everything else.


The Thorne storyline gets resolves perfunctorily, but at least it is resolved. As noted above, Hugo Strange's ghost (combined with a run-in with the Joker), sends Thorne running from a city council meeting. He jumps into his car and drives off, picking up a hitchhiking Silver St. Cloud along the way. But Thorne eventually kicks Silver out of the car and soon after, the ghost appears and causes him to crash. Then, as the story wraps up, Commissioner Gordon informs Batman that Thorne was found by Ohio state troopers, babbling about his crimes, including his scheme to discredit Batman. Thus Gotham's Bat-ban is lifted and Thorne is arrested.

Considering what a big deal Englehart built Thorne up to be, it's bizarre to see him dealt with in this fashion. There's no showdown with Batman; our hero doesn't find his own way clear of Thorne's maneuvering. Heck, the "cease and desist" action against Batman didn't even affect him while it was in force! It wasn't even a minor inconvenience. Batman just kept on doing his thing, and Commissioner Gordon kept on summoning him with the Bat-Signal. At least Len Wein had some cops shoot at Batman now and then during "Bat-Murderer", keeping up the illusion that he was on the lam in some capacity.


I know that Gerry Conway would bring Thorne back during his multi-year run as writer of BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS, and there he would eventually give Thorne's storyline a much more spectacular conclusion. But again, here it feels like Englehart just sort of ran out of room and realized he needed to take care of Thorne before his run was up. Which, if he had been in an ongoing run and suddenly learned he was being removed from the series, would make sense. But knowing he would be writing eight issues going in, he really should've plotted Thorne's downfall better than this.

But Bruce and Silver fare a bit better than Strange and Thorne, at least. Batman visits Silver early in issue 475, to probe whether or not she truly knows his secret. They have an awkward standoff, then Batman departs. Silver immediately decides she needs to leave town, and winds up hitchhiking when her car breaks down, thus planting her in Rupert Thorne's passenger seat. They debate Batman until Thorne kicks the "bleeding heart" Silver out of the car. Silver finds her way to a small airfield and charters a plane for a trip back to Gotham, just in time to watch Batman's showdown with Joker. After seeing her love in mortal danger, Silver decides they cannot be together, and breaks up with him. So, if nothing else, this particular storyline has a conclusion that feels as if it was planned out in advance.


And thus ends Steve Englehart's run on DETECTIVE COMICS. It's short, but it holds the distinction of being the first attempt on DC's part to truly capture Marvel's magic for their Caped Crusader, and I believe that on that front, it is phenomenally successful.

There's a coda in the next issue, however: Len Wein drops by again to present a brief framing sequence for a reprint of "The House That Haunted Batman", which some may recall Wein co-wrote with Marv Wolfman, and which Neal Adams and Dick Giordano illustrated, in DETECTIVE #407. The reprint's opening pages, drawn by Rogers and Giordano, see Batman and Commissioner Gordon visit Thorne at Arkham, and Batman learns a few tidbits from the Englehart run of which he was previously unaware. Presented here for your pleasure:
How Thorne gets out of Arkham and winds up reelected to the city council in Gerry Conway's run is something I look forward to learning someday when I read those issues. But for now, that transition will remain a mystery!

Issue 477 also ends with a brief framing scene, featuring a vagrant killed by a caped mystery man -- a plot to be resolved in our very next post, as Wein and Rogers introduce Batman to a brand-new Clayface.

7 comments:

  1. I had a blast as always with these kind of reviews. :)

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  2. Let me guess, you first read this story from THE GREATEST JOKER STORIES EVER TOLD? Ditto, back in 1999. Any interest in the Englehart-Rogers sequel DARK DETECTIVE?
    This story was to directly occur after the Penguin story, but the Joker was already appearing in BATMAN, and Editor Schwartz said that both Bat-titles can't have the same villain separately, so Englehart quickly did the Deadshot story.
    Marshall Rogers wanted Silver to be in the nude in her apartment confrontation with Batman.
    Englehart based the Ghost on a DICK TRACY story (Flattop Jr. getting haunted by a girl he killed, leading to his death).
    Evidently BATMAN (1989) was influenced by several pieces of this run: the Joker's chemical mixing, the heroine being based more on Silver St. Cloud (despite the character being named Vicki Vale), the Batman-Joker fight in a high place, Boss Grissom based on Thorne.

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    1. I did first read this in GREATEST JOKER STORIES EVER TOLD, way back in 1989 or whatever, when it was first published. It's an odd thing, but I remember being pretty excited when I realized that between "The Deadshot Ricochet" in GREATEST BATMAN STORIES, these two in GREATEST JOKER STORIES, and then, in 1992, "The Malay Penguin" in GREATEST BATMAN STORIES vol. 2, you had four sequential issues!

      I was unaware of the rule from Schwartz about no overlapping villains in a month, but it does make sense. I've always thought editor should police how often their villains are used, not just at the same time, but in general throughout the year. Too much Joker or Penguin or whoever can lead to overexposure.

      I've read that what eventually became Tim Burton's BATMAN was based in part on Englehart's run... I think Englehart was even hired to write a script or a treatment at one point, when the movie was in development in the early 80s. There are similarities in the finished product, but it's not as easy to draw a straight line as it probably was when the adaptation was first proposed.

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  3. Just wanted to drop a line to say I really like the insight into the panel when you suspect the "modern" Joker was born. It's hard to imagine a time when Joker's evil was intense but somehow less depressing, as opposed to now when he's pretty much the "gets-away-with-murder" poster child.

    My first big encounter with murderous Joker was his slaughter of a TV audience in Dark Knight Returns, and I'll admit my teenage self became a big fan of the enormity of his villainy. Maybe in hindsight it was more palatable because he was able to face some sort of justice at the end of that Elseworlds-type story. But it was not long (I think around "Death in the Family") when his unpunished cruelty became cliche and off-putting, and even a bit dull.

    Of the two iconic 70s Joker stories, Laughing Fish and Five-Way Revenge, I've only ever read the latter, but I'm sure I'll find a way to add the Fish tale to the list someday, and the added significance your review has added to the story has made me look forward to it just that much more.

    Best,
    -david p.

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    1. Thanks, David -- I agree, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS gives us a major leap in the evolution of the mass-murderer version of Joker, but as you note there, it's an "imaginary story" and he doesn't go back to jail in the end, where we know he'll break out again soon.

      "Death in the Family" is another major point in this evolution. It was one of the few DC stories I read as a kid, because of all the publicity around it, and I remember being extremely uncomfortable and disturbed by Joker's manic glee as he beat Robin with that crowbar. That was the sort of thing that kept me from reading much DC as a kid. It was just too much for me at that age (and I don't particularly care for it today, either).

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  4. Interesting take on the Joker. I think the character has become ridiculous in the comics, maybe starting with the death of Jason Todd or even the Killing Joke, where his acts get more cruel and vicious, such that I think were they done by any other villain would've resulted in death.

    Then you add in what I sometimes feel is the weird Harley/Joker fandom and the character has become overpowered and grating in my opinion. So it's interesting to read your opinion on when the character became more randomly vicious.

    I agree with david p in that the character has become off putting and dull though apparently, not for most people.

    I should point out all that's different from Heath Ledger's take, which I thought was quite good.

    But in the comics people complain about Batman being overpowered but the same could be said for the Joker and it's the nature of serialized corporate owned comics that any true justice in the stories is overruled.

    I liked Grant Morrison's take on the character for the most part and same with Scott Synder, and while the latter definitely went for the over-the-top horror element with the character in Death of the Family and Endgame he at least had some significant comeuppance, perhaps as much as one could for a popular corporately owned character.

    cheers

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    1. I liked Heath Ledger's Joker as well... he was more like the Denny O'Neil version, being cunning and mostly rational, rather than the later over-the-top insane maniac we've come to see. His whole deal was about uncertainty and chaos for it's own sake, but I don't recall him murdering indiscriminately. His chaos was directed, to prove a point and accomplish a goal. (Right? I haven't watched the movie in like ten years...)

      I've never read any of the later stuff, though I could see how Morrison would have handled Joker well. I'm not a big fan of him in general, but he does seem to understand the characters. My aversion to him is mainly due to all the weirdness he injects into his stories.

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