Saturday, February 26, 2011

That's a Killer Smile...

Detective Comics #476 (March/April 1978)
"Sign of the Joker!"
Steve Englehart-Marshall Rogers/Terry Austin

Doug: Today is the conclusion of my 3-part look at the love given to the Dark Knight Detective by the creative team of Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin. This is the last issue in Englehart's wonderful run with Rogers, as Len Wein would take over the scripting chores with 'tec #477. As such, several loose ends are tied up. This particular issue was a favorite of mine as a kid.

Marshall Rogers art is really moody in this story. The backdrop for the story is a blinding thunderstorm -- a cold, December rain. Rogers and Austin fit this perfectly with their scenes, and the crescendo to the story is masterfully done once the action moves outside. Englehart's script is really solid, although I'd still argue that Batman would have moved the Joker's potential victims to a safer place of hiding than at their own addresses. But the pay-off to this one is strong enough that I'll forgive those rather glaring plot holes last issue and again this time.

We begin where we left off: the Joker has threatened another member of the Gotham copyright office, as he continues to want to patent the fish that now bear his image. As stated last week, he figures to get a percentage of every fish product sold up and down the Atlantic coast of the United States of America. The target this time is Thomas Jackson, and Batman, Commissioner Gordon and (of all people -- Englehart paid homage throughout his run to the history of the Dark Knight) Chief O'Hara have assembled with a force of Gotham's finest in hopes of keeping Jackson alive. Suddenly Jackson's cat enters through the pet door, right as the clock chimes 3 o'clock -- the hour the Joker pledged to make his kill. Jackson rushes to shoo the cat out -- it's brought a Joker fish in with it! But as the cat whirls, everyone sees that it, too, has a Joker face; it leaps past Jackson, right into the Batman. Batman recoils, then drops to the floor, dead. A gaping grin stretches across his cowled face. But we immediately learn that Jackson and the Batman had switched places. Somehow the cat had sensed that, and had gone for his master.

Batman changes back into costume and bolts from the house. The Joker's been broadcasting his threats on television, and Batman thinks he may be close. As he runs through the rain, he catches a fleeting image of what appears to be the ghost of Hugo Strange. Not knowing that Strange is dead, Batman brushes it off. But he is surprised to see a device at his feet -- a Vapor Analysis Meter (in another nod to the television show, the thing is labeled). Batman decides to keep it. We then get three pages of Silver St. Cloud and Rupert Thorne, oddly paired as driver and hitchhiker, on their way to Akron. They keep silent, each lost in thought. Silver worries that she does indeed know that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and that she should be with him. Thorne is worrying about the ghost of Hugo Strange, and thinking that his female passenger is his protection from harm. And then the news comes on the radio -- a report of the Joker running wild in Gotham. Thorne takes exception to the Batman, and Silver takes exception to his exception. They argue, and Thorne ends up kicking Silver out of the car. She walks a short distance and, as fate would have it (keep in mind that it's 4:00 am) she finds a guy working on a small airplane. She tells him she'd like to charter it. As Thorne drives away, he's suddenly assaulted by Strange's ghost! Guess he shoudn't have gotten rid of the dame!

Back in Gotham, Batman is with Gordon and several members of the GCPD. Suddenly Batman leaps toward an officer and pushes him back against the wall. The "Vapor Analysis Meter" revealed a gas that the Joker had been coated with during the Hugo Strange auctioning of the Batman's identity, back in 'tec #473. The Joker quickly reveals himself and launches an acid attack from his badge. Batman easily ducks it, and the Clown Prince of Crime speedily exits the premises. The fight then takes to the streets. The Joker begins to climb a fire escape with the Dark Knight in pursuit. It's at this point that Silver St. Cloud returns to Gotham. The two combatants continue to scale the fire escape, the Joker pausing momentarily to stomp on Batman's hands. The rain is sheeting. Batman swings up under the landing where the Joker has perched, and jars the villain. Regaining his balance, the Joker then launches himself at a girder suspended on a crane, high above a construction site. Batman again pursues, and as he lands the Joker deals another acid attack. Again, Batman leaps away safely, but as he does lightning splits the sky and strikes the girder. The Joker plummets into the river below.

Batman drops to the surface and surveys the water, but finds no sign of his nemesis. At that moment Silver arrives, and begins a soliloquy whereby she tells Batman that she knows he is Bruce Wayne. She says that after seeing him in danger, knowing that it easily could have been him struck by the lightning, she can have nothing to do with him. Although she confesses her love, she tells Batman to not call her -- ever. She leaves. Gordon arrives to tell Batman that Rupert Thorne was apprehended in Ohio, and was in such bad shape mentally that he rambled off a confession of crimes dating back decades. So much for the President of the Gotham City Council.

Again, a fun story from DC's Bronze Age. And I think that as we've gone on with our different reviews, we'd all agree that there's a difference between DC and Marvel in this era. But the art was outstanding, and the story was passable. I was able to get through it and just enjoy it without dwelling too much on some of the parts that might have been better dealt with. Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that two important Bronze Age treasuries were advertised in this issue: Superman vs. Muhammad Ali and Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes -- the wedding of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl!


Anonymous said...

Ah! That's where I remembered it from!

It was killing me trying to remember when I had read this and who had written it! I remembered the Joker falling out of a helicopter similar to the movie, but couldn't place the story.

Fred W. Hill said...

I think this story could well have fit within the Marvel mode of the era, not surprisingly since Englehart had written for Marvel for so long before switching to DC. DC was slowly becoming less staid and set in its old ways, recognizing that it had to change to stay viable. In this case, at least Englehart managed to wrap up most of his ongoing plots, unlike his departure from Captain America and the Avengers.

Of course, the Joker is one of those villains who will never truly die, at least not as long as any Batman comics continue to be published. At least we can presume the Joker's death in Miller's Dark Knight mini was permanent, but that was a brief peek into the world of a much older Batman -- if it had been made into an ongoing series, the Joker would have come back, "died" and so on innumerable times since then and Batman would remain perpetually 60-something until cancellation.

Fred W. Hill said...

More reflections on this story -- suddenly it struck my memory that Englehart's story was heavily inspired by the very first Joker story (which I read in Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes), in which the Clown Prince of Crime kills people with his special poison right under the Batman's nose. Moreover, Englehart's Red Skull tale in Captain America included a similar tactic -- the Skull using a gas that caused his victim's heads to transform into red skulls as they died, and killing a victim who was under Cap and the Falcon's protection in a locked room! I have no idea if the Skull had used that tactic in any Golden Age stories, but these were the first stories I'd ever read where the Red Skull truly became scary, at least to my adolescent self.

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