Bizarro Back Issues: Batman Plays ‘Killer’s Roulette!’ (1972)
Earlier this week, Matt Maxwell posted the cover of Detective Comics #426 on the always-fantastic Intrapanel Tumblr, and ever since, I've gotten a a few people asking just what exactly is going on in that story. It makes sense that they would, too -- as Maxwell quite rightly points out, it's one of the best examples of the "I Have Got To See What's Happening In This Story" school of cover design that served DC so well in the Silver and Bronze Age.
Still, as much as those comics usually made the reader ask questions, very few of them went as far as having Batman sitting there holding a loaded gun to his head with a suicide note, apparently getting ready to blow his own head off. It's a hell of a cover, but as you might expect, it's not exactly what happens in the actual story. It turns out, what happens there is even weirder.
Before we move on from that cover, by the legendary Michael Kaluta, there are a couple of things I want to point out. First, Bronze Age Batman thought of Superman as one of those nearest and dearest to him! Aw, they're friends! I mean, admittedly, you have to think that Commissioner Gordon and Alfred are going to feel a little bit slighted about that - especially Gordon, who doesn't have the excuse of Batman protecting his secret identity to fall back on - but still! I always like to see the World's Finest being buddies, even in a... somewhat grim context.
Second, this note continues the longstanding tradition of Batman signing notes by drawing a little picture of a bat under his name, which is the absolute best. It's like the vengeance-driven vigilante version of dotting your I with a heart.
Underneath that cover, though, is "Killer's Roulette," a story written and drawn by Frank Robbins. Robbins, also known as Frank The Boy Wonders, is easily one of the most overlooked Batman creators of all time, largely because the bulk of his work on the character came in a time that the series was transitioning away from the goofiness of the Silver Age into the slightly darker but still world-traveling adventure hero version that you'd get from creators like Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers and, of course, Bob Haney and Jim Aparo. But then again, that's kind of what makes his stuff so great, because it's the perfect combination of those two aesthetics, and nowhere is that more apparent than in this issue.
Our story opens in the high-rise office of one of Gotham's wealthier businessmen, which is in the process of being robbed when our unnamed cat burglar stumbles on its owner, Arnheim, dead in his chair from an apparent suicide, complete with a note blaming gambling debts. The thief goes to beat feet, when suddenly, Batman swings in to put a stop to all these criminal shennanigans:
There's a bit of action about the thief grabbing the gun and trying to shoot Batman only to find that it's empty (and that there's only one cartridge in the cylinder, something that'll be important later), but I'm more interested in the dialogue here. Robbins, like Haney, gives the Dark Knight some pretty amazing patter, and while he doesn't quite go as far as Haney's (in)famous "The Batman digs this day!", it's still pretty great.
I mean really, let's all just bask in the warm glow of Batman referring to money as "bread."
When Batman turns in the robber at the local police station, he finds out that there have been three similar "suicides" among Gotham City's richest citizens in the past few days, and what's more, there's something strange about the scene of each death. The pistols used in each case are only partially loaded, with the remaining bullets lined up neatly on the desk. Clearly, there's something fishy going on, and Batman suspects... murrrrrder!
If he's going to crack the case, though, he needs to find out a little more, which is why he hits the streets in search of information on the crimes. And, this being a Batman story, he does it in exactly the way that I think we've all come to expect from the Dark Knight: He goes to visit the local gossip columnist.
I would give anything I own for a full-on Christopher Nolan adaptation of this story, complete with Christian Bale growling "Gingie-Baby, I want a line on some inside info!" and someone calling Batman "B-M."
Gingie is able to provide Batman with the crucial piece of information that he needs to crack this case, namely that all three dead men were compulsive gamblers. With that in mind, Batman disguises himself and heads off to a riverboat casino anchored just offshore, and starts using what Robbins describes as his "tremendous powers of calculation" to win big at roulette. Far be it from me to doubt the Batman's considerable abilities but this... this seems dubious at best. I'm not sure that "super-roulette calculating" really falls under the heading of what it takes to be the World's Greatest Detective, but I guess that when you're Batman, detective work involves a lot of things that it doesn't for other people.
Sure enough, Batman wins big enough that he attracts the attention of one Conway Treach, who appears to be a villain from an episode of Maverick.
Incidentally, the name Batman uses for his high roller disguise, John Hazard, is a reference to Johnny Hazard, a newspaper adventure strip that Robbins created in 1944, which ran through 1977. I imagine there was probably a panel in there where Treach responded to the name by saying "John Hazard? Like that amazing newspaper strip from King Features, which readers of Batman comic magazines would love? Truly the name of a very marketable character!" that got cut for space reasons.
Anyway, Treach entices "Hazard" to a game of Russian Roulette, taking him back to his house and explaining the setup, just as he has to his previous three victims. Each man will write a "suicide note," and whoever doesn't get a bullet in the head can just take his note with him and leave with the agreed-upon stakes. In this case, it's "Hazard's" gambling winnings, amounting to $1,000 cash, against Treach's car, and honestly, that seems like a pretty low price for a game where the best-case scenario is that you literally watch someone die two feet in front of you, and where you have an even chance of being the one who actually dies. That's the '70s for you, I guess. A thousand bucks was a lot of money back then.
Treach demonstrates that the gun is fully capable of firing, and while "Hazard" makes himself comfortable at the table, Treach turns around to get a piece of paper for their notes, turning back around a few seconds later to find the Batman:
It's a pretty awesome bit of comic bookery from Robbins, and I love the idea that Batman could get his entire costume on in two seconds, out from under what I can only assume was a tearaway ruffled tuxedo shirt and lime green aviators.
Batman demands a confession and then, apparently forgetting his code against using firearms, demands that Treach sit down and actually play Russian Roulette against him, adding a bullet to the chamber each round. Miraculously, neither man is hit even when they get to five rounds in the chamber, until Batman puts a sixth one and then demands that Treach fire a fully loaded pistol directly into his own head.
This might seem completely out of character for the Caped Crusader - and let's be real here, it pretty much was - but it turns out that neither man was ever in any real danger. Considering that he walked away from at least three rounds of Russian Roulette against Gotham's richest citizens, Treach had to have a trick, and Batman was able to spot it early on and use it to his own advantage:
And that explains that. Of course, why exactly Batman went through with playing the entire game when he spotted the trick in the first round, well, that remains unknown.