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Batman 75
"Mr. Roulette's Greatest Gamble!"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND Feb-March 1953
Story:
Art: Dick Sprang and Stan Kaye

Here's a review that sat around unfinished since April, from the Batman issue of my birthday month and year. The splash page shows Batman and Robin strapped to the heads of pennies as tall as they are! They flip through the air above a gent, hooded, caped and in a business suit, who proclaims, "It's a simple gamble, BATMAN! TAILS, you WIN--HEADS, YOU LOSE--YOUR LIFE!"

The story opens as Vicki Vale, photographer for Vue magazine, greets a nattily dressed caller at her apartment. Introducing himself as Mel Hughes, Private Detective, the bespecled, mustachioed gent gives her two small boxes, wrapped and tied, as per his client's request. The accompanying note informs her that one is worth $1,000...the other, worthless...and invites to gamble on her luck, as signed by Mr. Roulette! The mystery-loving photog plays along and opens one package, to find a thousand-dollar bill which she declares to be genuine! Hughes tells her she's lucky and invites her to open the other. It contains a similar bill which immediately disintegrates due to a chemical treatment that's sensitive to air. Hughes points out that it also contains a note for her. This one says that he, Mr. Roulette, gambles with death, and that if she wants a "sensational" story she should pay him a visit. As he leaves, Hughes leaves an address card on her table, saying that his client has long admired her work and wants to give her a scoop. The lady is game.

The next day, as Vicki tells her editor of her lead, he balks. The current issue is devoted to gamblers: enough is enough. Besides which, he exclaims with his arms raised, it sounds dangerous. Sitting on his desk and looking down at him, she retorts that it may be more than a gambling story and indeed a bombshell, and that she can take care of herself.

Soon, she arrives at an isolated mansion in the hills north of Gotham, to be greeted by the hooded Mr. Roulette. The house we see is expansive, the corridors decorated with images of dice and playing cards. Even the clasp holding his cape is a die the size of your fist. He explains to Vicki that he wears the hood to save his family the embarrassment attached to the publicity he seeks. He goes on to explain that he may die at any time, and wants the world to understand why: it's because gambling is all he cares about, but meanwhile, it's all become dull. There's no longer any thrill in betting for money alone. So--now he gambles with DEATH! "But how do you play this--this DREADFUL game," she asks. "Ha-ha! That is my brainstorm! This whole house--I had it EXPERTLY BOOBY-TRAPPED by engineers. Death lurks anywhere--or everywhere! I gamble my life each time I open a door--or select a book--or turn on a light! You'll SEE!

Suddenly, Batman and Robin bolt through a doorway! Vicki's editor was worried and phoned the police, Batman says. So, he and Robin will be her bodyguards. Vicki breathlessly tells Batman what we've just learned...and suddenly two identical old-style standup phones, side by side, ring! Mr. Roulette warns them to stand back out of harm's way as he chooses which one to answer! Abruptly he lifts one of the receivers, and Vicki nearly swoons into Batman's arms as Mr. Roulette chats calmly for a moment with the neighborhood butcher. She's in shock that an inquiry about the state of his meatlocker could have cost him his life! "Ahhh--that was exciting," he enthuses, and then proceeds to demonstrate what would have happened if he'd chosen the other. Crouching, he lifts its receiver with his cane, and the mouthpiece fires a round, splintering the ceiling in line with where he would have been standing! Mr. Roulette then exults, "You'll do a story about me, Miss Vale? There's lots more to tell! For instance, all death-traps here are wired so that the ODDS keep changing! Tomorrow, the SAFE phone may be the DEADLY ONE! I never know for sure!" Vicki's expression is shocked as Batman hustles her out of there!

As they drive her home, Robin says that Mr. Roulette should be committed to a hospital and under observation!...except that they don't know who he is, of course. Batman resolves to solve the mystery. The next day, he speaks with Mel Hughes, who holds his pince-nez while explaining he's bound by his client's wish for anonymity, and Batman notices something "funny" about the man's nose. Later, in the evening paper, Bruce and Dick read a headline about Mr. Roulette's death defying lifestyle when they catch sight of the Bat-Signal. Soon, at Commissioner Gordon's office, he informs them that Mr. Roulette called to complain of a prowler. The Daring Lawmen soon arrive, and do a preliminary sweep of the grounds. There, they spot a figure running across the tennis court, to the open gate at the far side. Robin grabs a section of pipe and follows Batman, who's already pole-vaulting over the tall fence. In moments, they throw the tennis net to snag the poor fish!

The duo stride into Mr. Roulette's study, pulling the perp like a dog by his coat's collar, and identify him as "an old safe-cracker by the name of 'Soup' Drews. Clasping his own hands in glee, Mr. Roulette congratulates Batman, as he's undoubtedly saved the thief's life! Indicating two identical wall safes above a bookcase, Mr. Roulette asks "Soup" which he would've cracked. The genius, who seemingly doesn't read the papers, replies, "Well, I dunno! Prob'ly the one on the right, I guess..." Swiftly, Mr. Roulette twists that safe's dials, then yanks the door open by means of a long string. Four poisoned darts immediately shoot out, and Batman raises an angry objection! If this doesn't stop, innocent peddlers or delivery men might be killed! Mr. Roulette waves his fists in the air and rails against the suggestion: "This is my whole life! NO! I WON'T stop! And you can't make me! This is MY house! Get out! GET OUT!" And they do.

An hour later, though, they've returned to snoop around, but are caught in the act by an armed Mr. Roulette. He tells them they didn't hear him come up from behind because of the gum-soled shoes he always wears. Batman figures he could probably take the guy out but doesn't want to risk Robin's life in the process. Soon, the duo are down in the boiler room, tied back-to-back to a steel pillar, where Mr. Roulette will hold them until he can figure out some way to dispose of them. He then leaves, having taken their utility belts, so that they won't ruin his fun in life! Once they're alone, Batman tells Robin to brace a shoulder under his (Batman's) back, to give him leverage. Batman then arcs forward at full length and grips the glass-dialed gauge with his feet, then allows gravity to pull him and it to ground, where it shatters! They use the shards to cut their bonds...and suddenly a shot rings out, just overhead! The duo are upstairs in a moment, but too late! Mr. Roulette had gambled once too often! The costumed form lies flat on the carpet, face up, in front of a pair of table radios...more specifically, in front of a radio with a gun barrel pointing out of the speaker! Robin pulls off the mask, to see if they recognize him, and yes, it's Charley Denver, one of the gamblers on the cover of that current issue of Vue magazine. Once they leave the building on their way to Gordon's office, though, Batman's manner changes. He pulls Robin aside, saying that he was only playing along with the kid's conclusion while they were inside the house. The dead man is NOT the man they knew as Mr. Roulette, because he was wearing the wrong shoes! The soles and heels were leather, not gum!

The duo sneak back inside and find Mel Hughes, the detective, who's shocked to see them and gives chase into a gallery reserved for just such occasions. Batman tells him to take off his rubber mask, and explains that he'd spotted it in the office earlier when he'd removed his pince-nez glasses and had no red marks on the bridge of his nose. In fact, it's Rigger Sims, Denver's partner and the other gambler on the Vue cover. As he pulls a lever in a glass-enclosed control booth, Sims says that the whole scheme was an attempt at the perfect murder, a confession that won't do Batman any good now, for, at that moment, a pair of giant dice roll in their general direction! As they topple an outsize stack of gambling chips in front of the dice, diverting them, the Boy Wonder quips, "WOW! This is ONE time I'm glad the CHIPS were down!" Sims rattles on that the whole thing was a hoax, that there were no death-traps in the house 'cept those he rigged to impress them and Vicki. Even "Soup" was a set-up, Rigger explains, as he runs inexplicably from his safely enclosed control booth and across a giant pinball machine. Batman immediately assumes the player's position and fires a crouching Robin expertly through the chute and off a flipper to collide with Sims. BUT!... Sims wriggles free and the lawmen chase him to a giant roulette wheel. BUT, something's wrong with the controls! The wheel is already spinning, and the ball is released even as they clamber aboard! The duo duck into a pair of numbered slots as the ball shoots over them, only to slam atop Sims in the Double-Zero slot. "The house wins," enthuses Robin! Batman responds that Sims is lucky he wasn't killed!

Later, at headquarters, Batman explains to Gordon and Vicki that Sims wanted Denver out of the way so that he could pocket all the profits from a joint business venture of theirs, and Robin continues that Vicki 's writeup of the eccentric Mr. Roulette would have assured the success of his plan... "but he failed to count on Batman!" The end.

A pretty good story that would have been better without the obligatory giant props...not that I wasn't glad to see them! Their appearance suggests that Bill Finger was the writer. The final setup was begging for a real groaner from Robin, who should have had the wits to say "he failed to bet on Batman!" On the other hand, that comeback sounds as if he was counting on Batman to foil the plan, so maybe the editor nixed it but had nothing better to replace it.

Two-part house ad: Superboy #24: "The Super-Fat Boy of Steel" rips a seam in his costume while pushing a convertible out of a ditch, as Lana and a friend look on; and House of Mystery #11, where members of a seance are shocked that the ghost they've summoned is one of them, who'd died during the session! Another half page, which boasts the "Editorial Advisory Board" of a Clinical Psychiatrist, a Consultant on Children's Reading, a Director of Curriculum Study, and a Director at a Juvenile Clinic, lists the 39 titles then in the DC stable. Only 6 of them survive to this day, and all feature DC's Big Three characters. We'll add two bonus points for Phantom Stranger, included here and who endures, though without a magazine.

Dick Sprang supplied his usual slate of character types, from the square-jawed private detective to some shifty-looking gamblers. Generally, artists will draw men as ugly as gargoyles to make a point, while putting the women in an idealized light. Sprang was more courageous than his peers, as Vicki Vale wears her hair in a severe bun and is depicted as unflatteringly as the rest of the cast. Or, maybe he just didn't like her much.

Maybe I don't like her much, either... how is it that she can positively identify a $1,000 bill as genuine with just a cursory glance, and in 1953 yet, when that was an almost unimaginable amount of money? We can ponder this point as our eyes drift over the sumptuously appointed big-city apartment that this young, salaried feature photographer calls home. It must be in the same building where all the marginally-employed sitcom characters have spacious one-bedroom flats with good city views.

"Soup" Drews?! Mark Gruenwald used to complain that all the good names were already taken, and this one suggests that the problem may have been older than he thought.

Finally, there's a "Casey the Cop" gag page by the late Henry Boltinoff (w/lettering by Saladino). His "Hocus Focus" feature still appears in the Sunday paper here, well over a year after his death. That's quite a backlog! Let's see if he breaks Reg Smythe's record on Andy Capp, which continued with new dailies for two years after Smythe's demise. What a pro!

This one's for Steve Chung and Bob Buethe, who got to the bottom of things for me. Tom Orzechowski
San Francisco CA