Batman: The Animated Series Adapted Several Joker Classics - But Did It Succeed?

Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's latest installment, a look at classic animated heroes of the past. This week is our fiftieth entry, and to celebrate I'm debuting a new element of the feature. We've examined dozens of tie-in comics with links to the source animated material. (And we'll continue to do that in the future.) But, beginning this week, we're also looking back on the original comics that inspired episodes of the cartoon.

The first episode we're reviewing has its roots in two separate comics storylines. "The Laughing Fish" draws inspiration from "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge" (Batman #251) by the legendary team of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, and "The Laughing Fish!" and "Sign of the Joker!" (Detective Comics #475-476) from another beloved team, Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers.

The Englehart/Rogers team created in 1977 what many considered the definitive take on Batman. Some even say the concept of "definitive runs" began with the Englehart/Rogers Detective Comics run. As the Batman film went through various stages of development from the late 1970s to its debut in 1989, these issues of Detective were often treated as the template of what a Batman movie should be. These issues do read as a film, with interlocking subplots, an examination of Bruce Wayne's personal life, and a building narrative that requires an epic finale.

When adapting Englehart/Rogers’ famous Joker story, however, the producers had to trim much of the material. There's an ongoing subplot about city leader/mob boss Rupert Thorne's haunting by the ghost of Hugo Strange, for one. Plus, the status quo at this time has the city council turning on Batman, forcing him to operate with official police assistance. (Gordon acknowledges he'll catch heat from the city for calling Batman in an early scene.) Finally, there's the ongoing Silver St. Cloud romance, which had Bruce Wayne falling madly in love with a woman who soon discovers his secret identity. After various rewrites, this plot found its way into the Batman film as the Bruce/Vicki Vale romance. In the animated "Laughing Fish," however, there's no time for Bruce's love life.

So, having cut to the core of the story, we have the major beats of the first two acts of the episode. Fish are appearing in Gotham Docks with Joker smiles, shocking the populace. Joker wastes little time visiting the office of the city Copyright Commission with his henchmen. He demands the copyright to these fish, and royalties for all sales. Fish are a natural resource, he learns, and can't be copyrighted. Joker, logically, declares war (via television) on the city's bureaucrats.

His first victim is G. Carl Francis, who's murdered when the second portion of a binary compound floods his home through the heating ducts. (Poor Carl didn't realize the Joker sprayed him with the first portion when he invaded his office earlier that day.) The Joker's second target, Thomas Jackson, meets his end after his cat ingests one of the Jokerized fish. Driven insane, the kitty leaps on his master and infects him with the toxin. Only a loyal pet could've seen through Thomas' disguise, as he and Batman switched outfits earlier. (This bit likely there to justify that memorable, but still gimmicky, cover for issue #476.)

The Joker's next attempt on a bureaucrat is his most direct. Disguised as a member of the police brigade sent to the next target's home, the Joker simply appears, squirts acid at Batman from his prop flower, and a chase ensues. (Can we guess the Joker's already given up on this copyright scam and gone straight to "Kill Batman" again?) The conclusion has the Joker facing Batman at a construction site, the victim of a lightning strike that sends him into the waters below, likely dead.

The Englehart/Rogers run was one of the very first comic stories to employ meta-references, with street names taken from previous creators and intentional nods towards landmark issues. The premise of the Joker announcing these murders on television is a reference to the Joker's debut in Batman #1, where he announced future victims over the radio. The concept of the Joker still managing to kill an innocent man under heavy police protection is another element of Batman #1. Even the title "Sign of the Joker!" is an homage to Batman #1, a line Batman speaks after Joker's first apparent death. Practically every issue of this run acknowledges the lengthy history of Batman, granting a value to the character's past that comics publishers rarely recognized in this era. The concept of a fanbase so devoted it would pick up on these references was still a new idea at DC in these days.

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