Bizarro Back Issues: Joker TV! (1967)
You know how every now and then, you'll see a cover on an old comic, and it'll stick with you even if you don't actually read the issue? That happened to me with Detective Comics #365. Ever since I spotted it on the wall at the comic book store where I used to work, I've held on to that image of that Carmine Infantino image of Batman and Robin attacking a house shaped like the Joker's face, a brick facade shaped into the ramshackle rictus of their arch-nemesis, with guns emerging from his eyes and mouth.
It's an amazing image, but it wasn't until I saw it floating around Tumblr the other day that I realized I should actually read the comic --- and it turns out that it's one of the weirdest stories with one of the most fun ideas that I've ever seen in a Silver Age Batman comic.
It is not, however, a story about Batman and Robin laying siege to the Joker's Ha-Hacienda --- at least, not in the way that you'd think it would be from the cover.
I mean, that's in there for a few panels in a really weird way --- not to get ahead of myself, but the "House" is actually underground beneath a flophouse, which seems a bit excessive --- but it's definitely not the focus of the story. Like a lot of stuff from the Julie Schwartz era, I suspect that the cover idea came first and the story was retrofitted for it after. And that, in turn, is the first weird thing about this issue, because what actually happens could've made a pretty eye-catchingly weird cover by itself.
This issue hit shelves in 1967, when the Batman TV show was at the height of its popularity. I've written before about how the show's first season was marked by just straight adaptations of what was happening in the comics, but by the time it was into its second, it's easy to see that the aesthetic that was being reflected by the TV show was being reflected back into the comics.
As a result, this story feels more like an episode of the show than anything else. From the first scene, you can almost hear Desmond Doomsdays' breathless narration as a department store full of Batman merchandise is suddenly beset with that most heinous of crimes: Unlicensed Retail!
Yes, it seems that Gotham's fickle citizens are less into celebrating the hero who frequently saves their lives than they are in getting the cheapest possible sweatshirt. It's like Black Friday in July!
Needless to say, the Joker merch is being sold by the Clown Prince of Crime himself, and when Batman is called in for what the narration describes as "a grim counsel," the question is why.
Please note that the motivations behind this special crime-caper will only be explained in a theoretical sense. I don't want anyone to get their hopes up.
Even weirder, after his public stunt in the department store, which might've netted him about thirty bucks, the Joker then goes on to literally shine a spotlight in the sky leading Batman directly to his location. That's a lot of vaguely criminal activity for very little gain, especially since the Joker seems bizarrely ill-equipped to fight back against Batman.
This thing where he freezes up during the confrontations happens a couple of times over the course of the story, and I don't believe that's ever explained, either.
Either way, the Joker escapes, leaving Batman and Robin to wonder how he's profiting from these weird stunts. Since they're back at Square One, they decide to track down the source of the merchandise the Joker was selling, and find out that a "Mr. Jay" placed a wholesale order on custom t-shirts that was far larger than just the merchandise that he brought to the department store.
No, seriously. They track down that dude's wholesale order and then solve the crime by critiquing his retail strategy. That's what Batman did in the '60s, y'all!
It turns out that "Underworld" in this case is both figuratively and literally true: The Joker is running a criminals-only store full of Joker-themed merchandise in a sub-basement beneath a sketchy hotel. And not only that, but after a fight with Batman that involves "Jet-Propelled Joker Skates" (on sale now at J-Mart!), he escapes down a slide into another sub-basement.
That's where he's constructed the "house" that you see on the cover, and it's also where we find out the actual scheme that he's got going on here. See, the crimes might not be getting him anything --- and considering that he's buying enough merchandise to stock an entire store that appears to be frequented only by hoods and ne'er-do-wells, I'm pretty sure he's actually in the hole on that front --- but that's not actually the point. The entire reason, the only reason for these strange crimes, is to lure Batman into a conflict.
Because he's broadcasting those fights to special criminal televisions for a monthly subscription fee.
My dude just invented the Netflix of crime!
That is cold brilliant, especially considering that it happened fifty years ago. And it's such a good TV-related plot --- the Joker gets a TV show to counteract Batman's success as a TV star --- that it's shocking that it happened in the comics rather than the TV show.
The climax, of course, takes place in and around the grinning facade of the Joker House, and while it's not as thrilling as it is on the cover, the plot going on around it is more than enough to make up for it. Eventually, though, the Joker forgets that it's hard to produce a television show while you're unconscious, and Batman and Robin get the advantage. Thus, while crooks across Gotham are tuned in on their special Joker-sets, Batman grabs him and swings him into a wall, putting an end to his criminal broadcast forever.
But hey, at least he was recognized by his peers.
Please note: It definitely did not take six years for the Joker to get out of prison.