Bat Signal

Issue 570 – “The Last Laugh!”

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Hello chums, and welcome back to yet another installment of Bat Signal, my never-ending quest to read every issue of Detective Comics, in random order, and with basically no context. And, we have a weird one to talk about this week. This is an issue of Detective Comics that can feel incredibly hard to pin down, kind of standing in two very different worlds, occasionally still coming across as a weird Bronze Age tale full of goofy dialogue and gags, and at other times leaning more towards the grim and gritty world that Batman would soon be plunging head-first into when this issue was published in 1987. It’s kind of an issue that’s at war with itself, but it’s at least a pretty entertaining little yarn, and it gives us chance to talk about the Joker, and more importantly Catwoman, who we haven’t talked about in ages on this project. So, let’s dive into this weird little story.

The issue begins with Batman and Robin, Jason Todd flavor, arriving at a seedy bar in Gotham City called McSurley’s. It seems to be a frequent haunt of criminals, and they’re pretty used to the occasional invasions from the Dynamic Duo. But, it does appear to be Jason Todd’s first trip into this bar, so Batman struts around, kicking some ass and making it clear that he and Robin aren’t to be messed with, until the titular McSurley approaches them, wanting to see what they’re here or. Batman tells him that he’s actually only here to talk to a man called Profile, an information broker whose office is behind the bar. McSurley takes Batman back to meet with Profile while Robin hangs out drinking milk with a prostitute, and after making short work of Profile’s burly guard, the Caped Crusader enters Profile’s office. The man is clearly used to working with Batman, and plainly asks what Batman needs to know. And, all Batman is looking for is the Joker’s current whereabouts. Sadly, Profile isn’t really willing to part with that information, fearing his standing in the criminal community if he gave  away the Joker. So, Batman responds by casually implying that he’s going to place fake evidence at a bank robbery and get Profile arrested.

 

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Profile doesn’t want anything to do with prison, so he quickly squeals and tells Batman that the Joker is hanging out at an abandoned novelty factory. So, with that information he leaves the office, gets Robin, and the two start heading toward the factory. And, why are they seeking the Joker? Well, he’s apparently captured Catwoman, presumably from a previous issue’s story, and has brought in a devious neurosurgeon named Dr. Moon to use some sort of electro-shock technique to make Catwoman compliant. Because apparently at this point in the comics Catwoman knew who Batman was, and the Joker was hoping for that information. At least, the Joker assumes she knows, and after she wakes up from the procedure and the Joker demands Batman’s identity, she whispers something into his ear.

But, before Joker can do anything with that information, the Dynamic Duo arrive. Robin slips into the main floor of the factory, finding several of Joker’s men standing guard. He makes a big scene, getting everyone’s attention and using his acrobatic skills to take the men out, requiring them to call for backup. But, as you and the Joker can probably guess, this is just a distraction, and Batman come barreling into the Joker’s hideout, ready to save Selina and take Joker down. But, first he has to deal with one of Joker’s henchmen, who apparently knows kung-fu. And, while Batman’s battling the little man, the Joker sneaks Catwoman away, hoping she’ll be able to help him find Batman’s alter-ego. The pair attempt to escape in a little car shaped like the Joker’s face, and Batman gives chase, leading to a fight atop the speeding car.

 

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The Joker pushes Selina’s buttons, referencing what I assume were current events in the comics that imply Batman recently chose to save Robin instead of Catwoman, causing her to fly into a rage and attack Batman. And after a short battle Batman is knocked off of the car, and has to watch in vain as the two villains speed away. So, seeking some sort of clue, Batman returns to the factory where Robin has ties up the henchmen and Dr. Moon. Batman demands that Dr. Moon fix whatever he did to Catwoman, but he refuses, citing his mad-scientist street cred, so Batman’s going to have to figure out where Selina might be leading Joker. And, he has a stretch of an idea. He noticed a newspaper in the Joker’s hideout mentioning a family who are newsworthy because their daughter has been in a mysterious cataleptic trance. And, thinking that Selina saw the word “Cat” and decided to take Joker to those people’s home, Batman and Robin race off into the night!

And, as insane as it sound, they’re right! The Joker and Catwoman have entered into these random people’s home, and the Joker is convinced that the father is actually Batman. They tie the family up in a giant cat’s cradle, and the Joker begins demanding the man admit he’s Batman, even though it makes no sense that he’d already be home after the Joker just fought with him. And, after the man continues to act baffled, the Joker starts threatening the life of his entranced daughter, which is a bridge too far for Catwoman. She breaks out of whatever spell she’s under, and fights the Joker off, just in time for Batman and Robin to show up and help. The Joker is furious that this little scheme gave him the wrong identity, and he attempts to flee, in the process waking up the daughter somehow. Joker and Catwoman attempt to escape from these innocent people’s apartment, but before he can climb up out of a skylight with Catwoman, she cuts the ladder, causing Joker to fall behind while she can escape. Batman then starts beating the hell out of the Joker, venting all of his frustrations over losing Catwoman until Robin is able to talk him down from doing something he’d regret.

 

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I liked this issue. But it’s incredibly weird. Like I said up top, it seems to be straddling two very different eras of Batman as a character. And, I don’t think I’ve ever read a comic quite like it. One moment Batman will be making a cheeky joke, calling Robin a chum, and running around a factor with over-sized versions of normal items, and another moment he’ll be contemplating beating Joker to death, threatening to frame a man for robbery, and mourning the devastation that being Batman has had on Bruce Wayne’s life. It’s weird, but in a way I kind of appreciate. It’s taking the full breadth of Batman and tries to accept it all, perfectly encapsulated in the final screen-grab I posted above, where Batman literally goes from threatening murder to smiling with Robin and heading home to celebrate a job well done. This an incredibly weird juxtaposition, and the entire issue feels like that. And, I don’t really think it fully sticks the landing. It’s full of tonal whiplash, but I do kind of appreciate it. It’s a deeply flawed little story, and clearly part of some larger drama between Batman and Catwoman, which we all know is virtually never-ending, but I found myself oddly drawn into it’s weird little aesthetic. For whatever that’s worth.

 

“The Last Laugh!” was written by Mike W Barr, penciled by Alan Davis, inked by Paul Neary, colored by Adrienne Roy, lettered by John Workman, and edited by Dennis O’Neal, 1987.

 

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