Batman: The Animated Series, “The Laughing Fish”

08May11

This one is a bit odd for me.

I know that many of the Animated Series episodes are adapted from earlier Batman comics, with only some details changed. At least, I know that intellectually. But emotionally, I first encountered these stories in their cartoon forms, so that’s what my brain wants to recognize as the “true” form. It’s the most appealing yet most troublesome aspect of nostalgia, that tendency to file things in the “right” and “wrong” boxes of your brain. “The Laughing Fish” was just like the rest-I saw the episode first.

But unlike the rest, well before the episode could become entrenched in the nostalgia part of my brain as a vague memory of an amazing Joker episode, I ran into a book called “The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told.” It’s a collection of…well, Joker stories. The greatest is a debatable title, but it was fairly old when I first read it, and they’d deliberately left out some of the most recent ones, such as The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke. And that issue had the two stories that form the base of this episode. And it wasn’t hard to realize why these elements were familiar to me. The end result is that unlike most of these Animated Series adaptations, “The Laughing Fish” is a bit more tangled for me, as I can clearly remember not just how the episode does the story, but how it changed things and mashed them up.

Of course, most of the changes are necessary for the format. Both of the stories it’s based on-“The Joker’s Five-way Revenge” and “The Laughing Fish”-are too gruesome for the Animated Series. They’re not the highest body count the Joker has racked up, but he kills a total of 6 people in the two of them. Considering he hasn’t been allowed to kill anyone in his episodes so far, you can guess how many he’ll get this time. At the same time, Harley gets to act more like a foil to the Joker than she did in her first appearance, where she was just a henchwoman with lines, so there are some less necessary but still appreciated changes as well.

Really, the best thing about the episode isn’t the character’s lines, the always great Hamill performance, or how well it’s been adapted to a kid’s show….it’s the atmosphere of dread. Between the lighting and the musical theme, this is probably the tensest Joker episode in the series so far, because no matter how much you might tell yourself that everyone will turn out fine, it feels like someone is going to die. The Joker’s first victim is a perfect example of that-sure, Batman tells the police that once the antivenom kicks in, he’ll be fine. But with those bulging eyes and rictus grin, it’s hard to believe things could ever go back to normal for the poor bureaucrat.

As for the plot itself, it’s fairly simple, at least in theory. The Joker is on the loose, but no one knows what he might be up to…until fish in Gotham harbor start to show up with the Joker’s grin on them. Incidentally, this may be the first time we’ve seen the Gotham harbor used for its intended purpose instead of criminal activities. It turns out that the fish are harmless to eat-the toxin is both diluted, and intended to affect fish instead of humans. Of course, that goes out the window a bit when the Joker goes into a trademark office to put his seal on the fish, and flies into a rage when he finds out you can’t patent fish. Of course, you could argue he could patent his image and sell the fish that way, but considering we’re talking about the Joker going into business, I can’t imagine he’d be able to make a living out of it.

Both the first and the second bureaucrat end up being poisoned by the Joker in retaliation, which always made me wonder if this was just something he decided to do when his original plan failed, or if this was the original plan-invent an excuse to target some random people, and bask in the fear his actions inspire. Eventually Detective Bullock tracks the Joker down-so does Batman, but it’s a nice nod to the Gotham police that even without Batman’s detective skills, some of them are clever enough to think of checking the local aquarium for the fish-based crime. Even if it does depress the Joker a little that Bullock was able to find them.

Action ensues, and in the end the Joker is plunged into the sea, and seemingly into the waiting jaws of a shark from the aquarium. Of course, he’ll be back, but while the Joker has survived a plunge into water before, this is the first time it’s been hinted that he was actually killed. It closes with the coda of Harley crying over her loss, and Batman saying that he wished he could believe the Joker was gone….but somehow, he knew it wasn’t true.

The animation for this episode is…decent. There’s nothing amazing to talk about (certainly nothing on par with the first half of “Robin’s Reckoning”), but there aren’t any obvious problems with it either. I’d describe it as utilitarian and out of the way, letting the story play out on its own. Though it does have an unusual opening for the series, as we skip the title card this time around.

“The Laughing Fish” isn’t my personal favorite Joker episode-as I’ve already said, that’s “The Joker’s Favor.” But it’s a strong story, well worth watching more than once.

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