So, reading this issue—the first of the Joker Laughing Fish two-parter—it’s clear why the comic’s got such an excellent reputation. Even with the utterly banal, fascist narration and Batman talking like a tool, it’s a great comic.
Four things happen in the comic, all excellent for one reason or another.
First, Batman goes to confront Silver St. Cloud because he thinks she thinks she knows he’s Bruce Wayne. He’s got to steel himself up for the conversation; she’s in her little sister’s bathrobe, getting ready for her date with Bruce; it doesn’t go well for either of them. We get thought balloons from both, first Batman, then Silver. Thanks to Marshall Rogers’s design-heavy panels, even writer Steve Englehart’s most leaden lines work out. It’s a great start and just gets better: after leaving her apartment, calling her from a phone booth in Bruce voice, some fishermen hail Batman down to tell him their catch is all Joker-faced.
The Joker has poisoned all the fish in the sea to look like him. Presumably, they don’t die, and they’re still safe to eat because the next great scene is the Joker going to the copyright office to demand legal rights to all the fish. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible about my dated nostalgia for the comic and Englehart’s disappointing writing, but, holy shit, Batman, Englehart’s Joker is phenomenal. Rogers (and inker Terry Austin) obviously play a big part, but all the problems Englehart’s had writing the comic disappear when he’s writing the Joker. It’s magnificent.
Joker’s going to kill the copyright clerk at midnight unless he gets the paperwork through; Batman goes to help Gordon protect the clerk. It’s a speedy locked room mystery with a fantastic visual finale. I feel like the locked room mystery is an homage to an early Batman, possibly something reprinted in Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. This issue showed up in Greatest Joker and, well, duh.
The other excellent bit is Rupert Thorne’s continued meltdown. He gets into a fight with the Joker in the men’s room (it happens) before running out on his pals and skipping town. On the way, he picks up a familiar hitchhiker to set up more of next issue’s peril.
I wonder if skipping the previous issues, regardless of their continuity value, is the best way to read Laughing Fish. Silver’s never had this much characterization, Englehart’s Batman-in-love has never been anywhere near this good, the Joker’s singular, and the Thorne subplot seems interesting. Plus, Rogers was stilted at the beginning.
Or is it confirmation bias because I’m describing how I first read it as a kid when it really hit.
Great comic. Finally.