Bat Signal

Issue 475 – “The Laughing Fish!”

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Hello everyone, and welcome back to another installment of Bat Signal, my ongoing project where I’m attempting to read every issue of Detective Comics in random order and with very little context. And folks, we have a fun one to talk about this week. A famous one too, possibly one of the more famous issues that the Random Number Gods have ever given us. I was actually first familiar with this story thanks to the classic Batman: The Animated Series from the early 90’s, which occasionally took some of the more famous and well-loved issues and turn them into episodes. And this story was one of those selected, turning it into one of the best episodes of the series. And it really is a fun story, even though we don’t get all of it in this issue. Yeah, we have another one of those weeks where I pulled a multi-part story, which means we may not actually get the end of it for years. But, what we get is a lot of fun.

The issue starts off dealing with some ongoing drama in the life of Bruce Wayne. Specifically his love-life with Silver St. Cloud. Now, I’m aware that Silver is a pretty famous and beloved love interest for Bruce, but I actually don’t have a whole lot of experience with her as a character. But, it becomes evident through this story that Silver has recently pieced together the fact that Bruce Wayne and Batman are one and the same. But, Bruce isn’t quite sure that that’s the case, so he suits up as Batman and goes to visit Silver in her apartment. The two have an awkward conversation, and Silver holds her cards close to her chest, not revealing if she actually has figured out the secret. And, after some tense conversation, Batman finally leaves the poor woman alone and heads out into the night of Gotham City, eager to get his mind off his love life. And, as luck would have it, he almost immediately starts hearing some mean on the waterfront screaming in confusion. So, Batman swings down to see what’s up, and finds something surprising.

 

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So, yeah. A group of fisherman have just gotten into the Gotham harbor with a strange discovery. All the fish they caught, regardless of species, appear to bear the face of the Joker. Batman’s obviously a little alarmed by this, but he’s at a loss to explain why on Earth the Joker would make fish looks like himself. But, using his previous experiences with the Clown Price of Crime, Batman assumes that he’s up to no good. And, the next morning, he realizes just how serious this whole thing is. Because it’s not just these fisherman finding these strange Joker fish. Hell, it’s not even just Gotham City. Fishermen all over the country are finding that their fish have suddenly mutated into strange Joker fish. But, why?

Well, because the Joker is a lunatic. Which, we obviously already knew, but this plan is something very special. And, it’s time to learn what it is. Because, the next day the Joker and several of his armed goons bust into the office of a copy-writing office. The man who works there, G. Carl Francis, is obviously pretty horrified, but also confused. And that doesn’t really change when Joker explains why he’s here. Apparently he’s devised a new formula of his Joker toxin, and has spread it into the oceans around America, mutating the fish to bear his likeness. And, he’s doing this in order to copy-write the fish, so that whenever anyone around the world buys a fish, he gets a cut. Which, as Francis points out, makes no sense, since you can’t trademark a living thing. But, the Joker doesn’t really take that news well.

 

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The issue then meanders around with an ongoing plot that doesn’t really have any bearing on the story at hand, for quite some time. It revolves around a local mobster known as Rupert Thorne, who is having a bit of a mental breakdown. He was responsible for the death of Hugo Strange, and has been seeing his ghost lately. The Joker ends up showing up and screwing with Throne for a bit, but then leaves and gets back into the real plot, by getting on live TV and threatening the life of Francis again. And, after two threats on his life, Francis decides to take it all seriously and calls the police.

Batman is then called in by Commissioner Gordon, who has taken Francis into protective custody. Francis tells Batman everything that happened, and the World’s Greatest Detective gets to work trying to figure out what the Joker has in store for Francis. Batman and the police go over the building as many times as they can, and decide that there’s no way that the Joker could possibly get in to kill Francis. So, of course, at midnight, some gas starts to pour into the room where they’re keeping Francis. Batman gets a gas-mask on the man, but it doesn’t work. Francis dies with a grinning rictus on his face, and Batman realizes that Joker tricked them, and fed in a gas that didn’t affect anyone but Francis, because he’d already received the first part of a compound that caused death when mixed. The Joker then goes on the television again, gloating that he bested Batman, but also warning that he’ll keep killing people until his trademark is accepted.

 

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This issue is a whole lot of fun. Yeah, it would be nice if it actually had some closure, but that’s just one of the unfortunate things that can occur due to the ridiculous confines of this stupid project. But, ignoring that, there’s a lot of like about this story. I love Steve Englehart, and his work on Batman is proving to be really fun. But, I’ve learned over the yeas that Englehart is one of those writers whose sensibilities almost completely lines up with my own, and he’s usually good for a story I’ll love. Which is extra impressive when it revolves around a Joker story from the late-seventies, when the character started to morph into the grimdark mess that he’s become in recent years. But, this early in his rebranding is still a version of the character I can enjoy, when he was equal parts homicidal madness and cartoonish buffoonary. I mean, the Joker did gruesomely kill a man, but he did so because he’s trying to make money off specifically branded fish.  That’s a lot of fun. It also makes me realize how fun it would be to see a story like this in modern day, where the Joker is ultimately trying to accomplish something trivial and weird, because we’ve been trained to expect something horrific and disgusting from the Joker, but seeing him be goofy would possibly be even more unnerving. But, as it stands, it’s just a really good issue of comics, and I completely understand the love that this issue has garnered over the decades.

 

“The Laughing Fish!” was written by Steve Englehart, penciled by Marshall Rogers, inked by Terry Austin, colored by Jerry Serpe, and lettered by Ben Oda, 1978.

 

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