Another Golden Age cover that has nothing to do with the interior story. At no point does Robin get roughed up by Quasimodo. Instead, the Joker returns.
"The Case of the Laughing Death"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson and George Roussos
Synopsis: Our story opens with Batman foiling a robbery at a private museum. A gang of crooks attempt to steal some artifacts, but Batman drops a giant statue on them to defeat them, and while it's not too too big, it may be the earliest instance of Trademark Bill Finger Giant Props that will reach an apex in the early 1950s. Anyways, the police show up and one of the thugs flees, with Batman in hot pursuit.
He follows him to an old music shop, but when he tries to follow him inside, he meets a blank brick wall. Batman concludes that there must be a trick door, but he gives up on trying to find it.
Inside, the surviving crook meets with an old man named A. Rekoj, who admonishes him for his failure at the hands of the Batman. Rekoj orders the crook to bring what's left of the mob tomorrow night, as he has another job planned. Alone now, Rekoj retreats to a private chamber, filled with art treasures, and removes the make-up on his face to reveal THE JOKER! It's important to note that Finger is clear that the Joker removes flesh coloured make-up to reveal the ghastly white face underneath -- this is how the Joker looks naturally!
The Joker announces that now that he is back he will complete his revenge upon his old enemies (a plotline last seen in Batman #1) and will kill District Attorney Carter! I believe this is the first mention of the District Attorney, but in the past the Joker has targeted and killed the Chief of Police and a prominent judge -- hinting that before he was the Joker he was already a criminal.
Anyways, the next day the District Attorney receives a record sent anonymously in the mail. It has no label or identifying marks, but Carter's reaction? "Oh well, I'll play it anyway." Idiot. Anyways, as eerie, forbidding music begins to play, a gas is released from the record. The Joker's voice (still described as toneless and droning) on the record explains that the grooves in the record where coated with a Joker Venom designed to release as a gas as the record scratches across it. The District Attorney dies laughing.
The murder makes the papers -- Bruce and Dick know the Joker is still alive. The next night, Batman returns to the music shop, where "Rekoj" is instructing his gang about their next job. The plan is for the crooks to impersonate a band in order to gain entry to a swanky party and steal all the loot. This works out well, but then the Joker shows up and holds-up the crooks! He steals the loot and makes off just as Batman arrives on the scene.
Batman quickly (in one panel) deals with the thugs and then goes after Joker, but the Harlequin of Hate gets away. Batman decides to follow the escaping crooks back to the record shop, this time gaining access through the secret door. Rekoj once again yells at the crooks for failing, then retreats to the private room to remove his make-up.
The gag is that this way Joker steals all the loot but doesn't have to share with the other crooks. What's interesting is that Joker isn't shown to fence his ill-gotten goods, but instead keeps and hoardes them as trophies of his brilliant jobs. Anyways, turns out Batman followed him down here, too! Never one without a trick up his sleeve, Joker hits a button and traps Batman in a giant glass chamber, to slowly suffocate. Obviously Joker read Detective #27. Joker runs off gloating about his next job, and Batman escapes using vials of acid in his utility belt. Batman figures out the Joker is going to steal a jade Buddha worth half a million dollars that is being shipped from China. The Chinese hope to sell it to buy humanitarian supply to help Chinese being attacked by Japan (there was a war on at the time, you see). Batman vows to stop the Joker's scheme, for the sake of the war-torn Chinese.
Joker gets onto the ship by (buying/stealing, then flying and) crashing a one-man plane into the ocean near the ship and getting picked up and rescued while in his musician Rekoj disguise. Robin drops Batman off using the Batplane, meanwhile.
Joker hits the crew with his gas, then burns through the safe with an acetelyne torch he brought along. But Batman is there, and soon they are engaged in a running battle for the Buddha throughout the ship. The Chinese see the two and assume Joker is attempting to save the Buddha from the menacing looking Batman. So Robin shows up to help (who is piloting the Batplane??) and beats up some Chinamen so Batman can corner the Joker. Batman gets the Buddha away and then punches the Joker over the railing of the ship. As his body sinks into the waters, Batman wonders "is this truly the end of the Joker?" I doubt it.
Batman returns the Buddha to the Chinese, and he and Robin are off in the Batplane. The Chinese conclude that the Batman is a great man. Yes, he sure is.
My Thoughts: Well, we get a true return of the Joker after his appearance in Batman #2 as a comatose plot device, but it's a rather tamer one than his debut stories in Batman #1. I think this is largely because Finger realized that for the Joker to be a recurring character that he couldn't be a grandiose serial killer of the scale of those first appearances, because the Batman would look ineffectual not capturing or killing him. Granted, this is the first of many times that the Joker dies an "ambiguous" death, as Batman assumes he may have drown. Does that count as a Batman kill? I'm not sure.
The Art: Not as good as the Joker's first two appearances, but better than Batman #2. Joker's hairstyle is slightly altered here, a little crazier and messier than the slicked back original look. The art looks rushed, but maybe that's just Roussos' inking. In other words, this is okay, but not great.
The Story: We're kind've all over the place here. We get a classic Joker kill, a plot about gangsters stealing things and working for Joker, and a climax on a boat. These three elements never really coalesce or match up, other than the Joker using a music gimmick in all three. It's okay, and has an early use of a Joker deathtrap (recycled in concept from the Batman's first appearance), but it's basically an average, forgettable kind've tale.
Joker Body Count: 17