Cover Date: May 1954
Writer: Bill Finger
Penciller: Sheldon Moldoff
Inker: Charles Paris
Cover Artist: Win Mortimer
Synopsis: The story opens with a group of four criminals rushing into an apartment calling for their boss. They had heard that a rival gang, the Moriarity Gang, had paid a visit to their leader and may have possibly taken care of him for good. They find their boss alive, but teetering on the edge of life and death, as a chemist accompanying the Moriarity Gang has filled a pair of manacles placed upon the boss' wrists with a high explosive. The slightest movement could set off the explosive, making conventional methods of removing the manacles useless. The mob boss thinks all is lost when he catches sight of a billboard for Merko The Great, realizing that the magician's escape artist skills would be best for removing the manacles. The boss' men tell him they'll grab Merko at his show that night, a show that features among its audience Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
After the first act of his performance, Merko finds himself falling through his own trapdoor courtesy of the criminals. Bruce becomes suspicious when Merko doesn't appear to take his bow and, after a quick costume change, Batman and Robin appear backstage. It becomes apparent while talking to the stage hands that if Merko was kidnapped, it would be through the trapdoor, but when the Dynamic Duo follow it outside, there is no trace of the magician. This presents a problem as the performance is for charity, and if the show does not go on, the money will have to be refunded. The story then cuts to the criminal gang, who have brought Merko to their boss' new vibration proof room. Merko has no intention of freeing the crook, but figures he can stall as the crime boss needs him to unlock the handcuffs. Back at the theater, Bruce disguises himself as Merko, with Dick Grayson planted in the audience to be picked out as an assistant. The pair finish out the night with such tricks as pulling rabbits out of a hat and making a rope stand straight in the air without touching it.
After the performance ends, Batman and Robin head out to begin their search for Merko. While on patrol, the come across a group of the boss' goons robbing an armored car using a wrecking ball from a construction site. Batman and Robin go in swinging, but are distracted from the crooks by the armored car bursting into flames. They're able to rescue the driver, but the gang escaped in the meantime. The next night, the Duo continue their act, including the suspended animation trick, staying submerged underwater, and making an elephant disappear. While the act is going on, the boss is shown a newspaper with a front page on Merko's acts. Surprised, he quickly deduces that Batman has taken the magician's place and sends his men to take out the Caped Crusader. Their attempt fails thanks to a stampeding elephant and their getaway allows Batman and Robin to hitch a ride to their hideout. The Dynamic Duo easily dispatch the goons and make their way to the boss' room, where Batman reveals that there was no explosive in the handcuffs at all. Batman points out that the vibrations from the phone on the boss' desk would have caused the explosive to detonate long ago, leading Merko to comment that even Houdini himself would be impressed by Batman's "magic of deduction."
Thoughts: Before I talk about what's inside the issue, I want to talk about the cover surrounding it. Win Mortimer did a number of Batman covers throughout the Golden Age and every one of them was a gem. This issue's is no exception. While it is Bruce performing the magic tricks and not Batman, the cover captures the issue thematically. Batman's pose is great and the assistant and Robin complete the magical aspect to the piece.
On the whole, the story is a great one. The potentially explosive handcuffs add a suspense element, leaving the reader asking himself if they're going to explode, and later, how long Merko will be able to stall. The main fight scene is a great one, with a swinging wrecking ball and a rescue situation giving it a heavy dose of excitement. The highlights of the story are the magic tricks performed by Bruce, the secrets of which are revealed to the reader after they're performed. What kid (and adult for that matter) hasn't seen a magic trick and wondered how the magician does it? Well, with this issue, you can find out how five of them are done. The only nitpick I have on the story is that in the scene where the boss becomes aware of the continued Merko appearances, he makes reference to Batman and Robin noticing the criminals kidnapping Merko. The only problem is, the alley is deserted by the time Batman and Robin reach it, so it's a bit of a leap in logic for the boss to make. But I guess when you live in Gotham City and a magician you know you kidnapped is being impersonated, who else could be behind it but Batman?
Artwise, the story has some of the best Sheldon Moldoff work I've seen in a Batman story. Every page looked well polished, as if Moldoff spent more time than usual on the pages. Like the cover, the splash page depicts Batman in the magician garb, but unlike later issues, it's not an exact reproduction of the cover. The magician Batman, complete with turban, has his wand pointed at a top hat from which playing cards, rabbits, gangsters, Batman and Robin, and an elephant emerge. Fantastic splash page and my profile picture of choice at the moment. Moldoff's facial expressions in the issue were spot on, especially the panicked look that appeared on the boss' face. Moldoff's brilliant art complements Finger's solid script perfectly, resulting in a must read Batman story.
This story has been reprinted in Batman Annual #2 and the DC Comics Classics Library: Batman - The Annuals Vol. 1 HC.