Baturdays: Detective Comics #45, “The Case of the Laughing Death”

In All, Books and Comics by Kyu

Publication date: November, 1940
Author: Bob Kane

If the title didn’t clue you in… yes, the Joker is back again. What’s the line about bad pennies?

I’m not going to throw it up here (in fact, given the poor quality of the copy I’ve got, I’m not going to be posting much of this issue), but the title page has Joker grinning and playing a song on a violin… and, subtly, the piece of music he’s playing? It’s called “A Symphony of Murder.” And after all, one of the reasons Joker is such a great character is that he invariably brings with him the cleverest plots. He’s not just any old killer–he’s a virtuoso. And it’s time for a little music…

Another day, another battle. This time, Batman’s stopping a museum robbery before it starts. The creators take good advantage of the unique location. Batman grabs a lance off a suit of armor and pole-vaults; topples a statue onto some bad guys; and generally acquits himself admirably. He takes down four out of five before sirens can be heard heading their way. The last he decides to let escape, following to see if the thief leads him to somebody a little higher up the food chain.

What he finds, however, is a puzzle: the thug disappears into the back door of a pawn shop, but when Batman follows, there’s nothing there. Just a brick wall. While Batman looks in vain for some sort of secret entrance, the thug makes a report about Batman’s interference to “A. Rekoj”, owner of the music store they’re in, which abuts the pawn shop.

Gosh! Who could this stranger be?

Rekoj tells the thug to come back tomorrow with the rest of the gang, and then sends him away. After he’s gone, the elderly Rekoj shuffles to the back of the room, and pulls up the carpet, revealing a trap door. Below, in a room filled with art, he peels back the costume and the makeup, to reveal…

You know, Joker is usually drawn with a very expressive face, and his earliest renderings here have always been off-putting to me. And I just now realized that the artist is very likely trying to recreate the concept of a dead, corpse-like face by deliberately drawing it “wrong,” drawing it without life. Something about this image, something in the lines, the colors, just says “discord” to me. I’m not enough of an artist to know why, but I think it must be purposeful. Anyway.

Joker isn’t just out for money, this time. He’s out for revenge on the men who put him in jail. (Remember that? it was before he escaped, and after the escape he was the ball in a game of Capture the Coma Patient, and at the end of that one Batman left him to die in a burning castle.)

First up? The District Attorney, whom the Joker is sending a lovely little record, such a sweet song…

There’s a gay joke here, but it’s probably a bad time. Bit insensitive, and all that.

Exit District Attorney Carter, stage left. Police outside his home hear the record, which at the end, simply skips, repeating Joker’s maniacal laughter again and again, and break in to find the body. (Apparently the gas is only enough dose to kill one person.)

Bruce and Dick are suitably concerned when they read about Joker’s resurgence in the paper (crime detection method #4). But there’s nothing they can do, as of yet. No clues to follow up on, no goons to interrogate. I assume there was no return address on the record. Nothing to do but wait for Joker to strike again…

Unless, of course, Batman happens to coincidentally return to that mysterious music store once again, curious to see what goes on there. That night, he spots a number of men leaving the store with instrument cases. Men with musical instruments leaving a music shop? Verrrry suspicious. If Batman had a beard right now, he’d be stroking it.

He follows them to the Schulyer Mansion, the site tonight of a classy ball. The men capture, tie up, and replace the band which were to play the ball. Once inside, however, it turns out that they can only play one tune: the waltz of death.

Hey, buddy. Leave the puns to the professionals!

They’ve just barely gathered all the loot from the guests, when the robbers are robbed!

Okay, so maybe he’s also after money. Man’s gotta have a hobby, I guess.

Bereft, the thieves turn back, only to run, hilariously, right into the Batman. Man, are they having a bad day. Following some fighting, Batman–no, wait. I can’t skip over this. I know this is aged and fuzzy but it’s too awesome:

Aw, hell yes.

Afterwards, Batman races after the fleeing Joker, managing to tackle him and get smacked upside the head with a bag full of jewels for his trouble. Joker gets away, but the thugs don’t, and Batman hides on the back of their car, waiting to see who their boss is.

Inside the “pawn shop”, Batman watches as the crooks engage the secret door and go through the secret tunnel to the secret entrance to the music shop where the cranky old man starts yelling at them. The fools! They’ve blundered again! Get out! Etc. They scurry off.

Back in his even secret-er room underneath the floorboards, Joker gloats. By stealing the jewels from his own goons, he doesn’t have to split the profits!

Come to think of it, this is actually a very pedestrian plot. I’m disappointed in you, Joker. And so is Batman:

I like the subtle characterization here. Joker’s question isn’t, “How did you find me?”, it’s “How did you find me?” As in, “Batman! But… but you’re a friggin’ moron!”

In a ridiculous turn of events, Joker imprisons Batman in a glass cylinder which descends from the ceiling. A trap which was apparently put in place just in case Batman arrived, stood exactly where was standing, and stepped under it.

Yes, you read that correctly. Look:

“I’m in a glass case of emotion!”

No, Joker. Shoot him. Shoot him with a gun. That’s the smart thing to do. Oh well.

Not only does Joker not shoot him, he also gloats, giving Batman a hint of his next crime–stealing $500,000 worth of “treasure on the ocean.” And as it turns out, the whole “slow suffocating death” thing, the elaborate set-up, the precision craftsmanship, the installation fees, it was all for naught. Batman’s out of there in like ten seconds using some acid off his utility belt.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Joker is planning on stealing a jade Buddha (worth half a million dollars, which today, accounting for inflation, is worth approximately $2.67 kajillion), and that his plan is, as befitting a criminal mastermind of his caliber, ridiculously circuitous.

Joker’s Plan:

  1. Dress up as an elderly musician–the clothes, the make-up, etc.
  2. Fill a violin case with weapons.
  3. Buy or steal a one-man plane.
  4. Pilot that plane across the water to the ship with the statue on it.
  5. Crash the plane.
  6. Survive the crash.
  7. Get rescued by the very same ship.
  8. Wait until alone.
  9. Take off costume and make-up.
  10. Sleep-gas the ship’s crew.
  11. Use an acetylene torch to cut through the steel door.
  12. Retrieve the Buddha.
  13. Cry triumphantly, “Mine! All mine! And no one can take it away from me!”
  14. Aw shit, Batman showed up. Didn’t see that one coming. Otherwise Step 13 would have been, “Run away with the loot before Batman shows up.”

Wow. This panel should be in the dictionary, next to the word “bitch-slap.”

Joker and Batman have a running battle out onto the deck of the ship, where the Chinese passengers see them and completely misinterpret what’s going on. The masked man must be a thief, and the kindly, smiling gentleman must be trying to save the Buddha! Luckily, they can’t even begin to interfere, with Robin charging through them, punching them left and right, making a hole for Joker and Batman.

As Joker flees, Batman grabs what is, for no reason at all, a gymnastics high bar in the middle of the deck, and, swinging around in a circle, launches himself aerodynamically off, and lands right on top of the Joker. The Buddha goes flying out of his hands (this really is like a game of football, isn’t it?). One more punch, and Joker staggers back against the ship’s railing, and falls over.


Anyway, except for a couple panels of borderline offensive “oh, we so solly, Batman” Chinese gratitude, which we would all do better to just skip entirely, that’s it for this issue of Detective Comics.

All in all, despite my initial excitement, I feel like this was a rather slipshod episode. Joker’s plans were interesting, but there just wasn’t a lot of follow-through. His vengeance plan only featured one person, and felt shoe-horned into a story which was basically only about one thing: Joker stealing things, from his own men and then from the Chinese. Batman didn’t need to do anything interesting in order to beat him. Even the glass death-trap didn’t provide much trouble. Disappointing. Well, perhaps next month’s issue will be an improvement.

Tune in next time as Baturdays continues!