Another great cover, actually depicting this month's story, which of course is another Joker tale. I love the way the balloons obscure the book's title, and the way that the DC Publications logo seems to be printed on one of them. And of course I would be remiss not to mention that this is the Joker's very first cover appearance.
"Laugh, Town, Laugh"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: Nationally beloved comedian Happy Hanson is dead, and his will is bizarre to say the least. His lawyer gathers together the nation's favourite comedians to tell them that each has been given a clue to Hanson's wealth, which will be rewarded at the end of the month to the man who tells the funniest joke, who will then be given all the clues.
Meanwhile, the Joker sits in jail. He plans to escape using only a deck of playing cards. He scrapes the pips from the cards and grinds them into cellulose fibre, then jams the cell door keyhole with it. When a guard comes to release Joker for his prison haircut, he finds the keyhole jammed, and decides to cut through. According to the Joker, when heated cellulose becomes nitro-cellulose, a powerful explosive, and thus BOOM! the Joker is free again. (There is about three to four things wrong with this escape plan, not the least of which being that you need to add nitric acid to cellulose to get nitro-cellulose, and then heat it to explode, but to a child reading in 1942 it probably seemed clever)
News of the Joker's escape reaches Gotham, but the Joker is concerned with another bit of news: Hanson's death. He's upset that he wasn't invited to the contest of the country's comedians, and decides to invite himself!
The next night, Bruce and Dick are summoned by the Bat-signal to police headquarters, where Gordon takes them to the home of Freddie Banter, one of the comedians. He has been hanged with a pair of suspenders! Found at the scene, a Joker card inscribed "Q: Why does a fireman wear red suspenders? A: To hang this fool up! -- As you can see, I have entered the contest with my own jokes! A new variation on the old! Ha! Ha! Ha! I have also stolen Freddie Banter's clue. I shall take the others, too! Ha! Ha! Ha!" Joker is killing people according to his variations on old jokes and stealing the clues. Batman admits he doesn't appreciate the Joker's deadly sense of humor and Gordon puts him on the case to bring the Joker in. Comedian Ted Allenby is run over the next day. "Why did the chicken cross the road? This poor cluck didn't!"
Batman goes to the home of comedian Denny Jackson (a Jack Benny type) that night to try and protect him, but his butler reports that he has gone to a music shop to buy a violin. At the shop, the Joker ties up Jackson and creates an elaborate trap involving a metronome stricking a glass tube of TNT that will soon shatter and explode. But Batman and Robin arrive to save the day. Joker escapes with Jackson's clue, but Batman and Robin disarm the metronome bomb and save the man's life. "Why is playing a piccolo like a prize-fight? Ha ha - I've decided to but all the blows together and make one mighty blast! Ha ha!"
The police form a cordon of guards to protect Claude S. Tilley (based on W.C. Fields), because that's worked so well in the past. Outside Tilley's home, a man on stilts walks by the cops holding some helium balloons. He lets some go and they float into the window and start leaking gas -- laughing gas! The man is the Joker of course and he steps in through the window past the helpless police and kills Tilly. "Why are certain comedians like balloons? You're full of gas! Ha ha!" And at the same time, Batman and Robin are protecting Buster Parks (Buster Keaton), but the Joker's gang busts in with knockout gas to immbolize the duo and kidnap the man. Our heroes race after them, chasing them to the pier.
But there's no way over to the Joker without alerting the look-out men... until Batman grabs some inflatable raft-shoes from the Batmobile and the pair walk across the water to the boat! This time the Joker has Parks suspended over the side of the boat with fishing wire, drowning. "What did the telephone operator say to the fisherman when he asked for a date? This line is busy!" The Dynamic Duo burst onto the boat and start fighting. Robin rescues Parks but the Joker captures Batman. Robin needs to give Parks artificial respiration or he'll die, but if he doesn't act now, the Joker will make off with Batman! The Harlequin of Hate enjoys the boy's "mental torture" and leaves while Robin saves Parks.
Joker now has all the clues, which read together are "Ask for checked package for M. Winner at Hotel Grand". The Joker is gleeful in his victory and introduces Batman to his latest death trap: Two doors, one leads to safety, the other to death and the Batman must choose! But suddenly, the Joker wonders why he goes to these immense lengths. Why not unmask Batman while he's captured and then kill him?? But Joker then changes his mind again! That would be too easy, unworthy of his great intelligence! He likes the battle of wits, the chase! So he leaves Batman to the death trap again, telling him the clue to safety is in the room.
Batman finds behind one door, a tiger, and another, death from hurled knives! And the room is filling up with poison gass, so he must choose fast. Batman notices that the knives door has flies swarming around it, so he choose it! The released knives break against Batman's chest -- they were made of sugar!
Batman escapes and joins up with Robin, they must now defeat the Joker at the Hotel Grand! Joker is already there and opens up the mysterious package, which is filled with a fortune in pearls. But the pearls are dead and lustreless, and Joker concludes they are valueless and he went through all this for nothing! Batman and Robin show up and Batman just plain beats Joker into submission. The Dark Knight then explains that pearls loose their lustre when they've been out of contact with a human body for a long period of time, and that in fact the pearls are quite valuable. "This time the laugh is on you!"
And so the Joker is returned to prison... but for how long??
My Thoughts: What's really noticeable about the story is how crazy Joker is. It's really a very modern concept of the character, and by modern I guess I mean Bronze Age of Comics era. Joker here is unpredictable, egotistical, and obsessed more with the continuing game of fighting Batman rather than bringing it to any kind of conclusion. Denny O'Neil must have read this story among other Golden Age Joker tales when he "reinvented" Joker for "Joker's Five-Way Revenge" in Batman #251 in 1973, because this Joker is identical to that later one. He's a complete psychopath. This story really feels like Bill Finger, who has always had a good lock on Joker's character, has completely nailed and perfected the character.
The Art: Really great, dynamic stuff here from Robinson and Kane. The fight scenes are great and the staging pretty good too, but what's noticeable here is an evolution to how the Joker is being drawn that gives him a more streamlined appearance and just seems better than how he was drawn before, much like the writing. What's important is that the art is polished, clear and enjoyable to look at in a way that is really improving as these stories go. The sequence where Joker considers unmasking Batman and then changes his mind is fantastic!
The Story: So the last two Joker stories were pretty forgettable robbery schemes and seemingly intended to tone down the character. So this story is just awesome in comparison. It's the single best and most important Joker story since Batman #1's two, in my opinion. Joker is crazy, his goals are related to his ego, his crimes are insane and unique and fatal, and his interaction with Batman really sells that these two are arch-enemies. I also really like that Joker's murder-jokes aren't really funny, except in the bizzare fashion of their connection to the murders -- you can see how a deranged mind like Joker's would be amused, but it's not like the reader is chuckling along, which is good in my opinion. The only weak point is Joker's improbable escape -- can a writer be clever and dumb at the same time? Other great moments include Finger's use of the bat-signal introduced last issue, Joker reaching for Batman's cowl and sudden change of mind, and some of the insane OTT elements, like the air-raft-shoes and Joker's deathtrap. A classic story.
Joker's Body Count: 43