By Neil Ellis Orts
In the summer of 1975, I was 11 years old. I was a central Texas farm boy who read, fished, drew, and daydreamed the isolated summer days away—in between the farm chores, of course.
We went into town twice a week in those hot months. Sunday was for church, and then another day for whatever other business we had in town.
Most of my reading came from the small public library in Giddings, but by this point, I was well introduced to the metaphorical cocaine of comic books. I knew better than to think I could get one with every trip into town, but softening up Mama for a four-color treat was never far from my mind.
When I think of one of the most exciting acquisitions of that time, I always think of Batman Family #1. I knew enough at that point that a first issue of a comic was really important and was going to be worth a lot of money someday. Not that I ever intended to sell any comic I bought, but it was exciting to know that I had a first issue.
The main story was "The Invader from Hell" (written by Elliot S! Maggin and illustrated by my then favorite artist, Mike Grell). I pause for a small digression—the title, having the word "hell" in it, was dismaying to me. I'm pretty sure I made a point of never having the comic open to that splash page if an adult was around! Such language! But it turned out to be fairly literal, so it was justifiable in the end.
In the summer of 1975, the United States of America was well into the hype of the upcoming Bicentennial celebration. Batman Family #1 was a part of that. The opening sequence hinges on a Bicentennial Minute, a nightly feature, at that time, on CBS, which had different celebrities recount an historical event from 200 years previous. U.S. Representative Barbara Gordon narrates the story of Benedict Arnold—but just as she gives the famous sign off for those Minutes, Arnold comes to life from the backdrop and destroys the cameras. Dick Grayson, there on summer break from Hudson University, is helping with the taping. He and Barbara both sneak off to come back as Batgirl and Robin—The Dynamite Duo!
That's enough of the plot except how, in retrospect, it fed into the piety of my youth. The Devil, the actual Devil, is a character in this story and was responsible for reviving Arnold who, in turn was to break the "American spirit." It definitely fed into or grew out of the notion of the United States being God's chosen country, that dangerous combination of religious conviction and patriotic zeal.
Of course the most famous turncoat of colonial America was in Hell. Of course the Devil would bring him back to life to destroy the spirit of America by destroying America's heroes—and of course Batgirl and Robin would be the first targets.
And, of course, I'm being facetious about these plot points. But at 11, I took it all very seriously. I even remember mentioning to a teacher at school, the following year, how surely Benedict Arnold was in hell for betraying America. I'm amazed and grateful that this teacher was not so caught up in the Bicentennial fever to automatically agree with me. She questioned if going to Heaven or Hell might not be more complicated, that it might have something to do with motives we can't see. Perhaps Arnold was working out of some pure conviction in his heart, that he was doing what he thought was best. Would he deserve Hell for that? For being in a small town public school, that's fairly nuanced theology.
The rest of the book, a "Giant" as they were called in those days, was full of reprints that featured a humorous Alfred story from the 1940s, another story that featured Commissioner Gordon, and the first appearance of Man-Bat—a character advertised elsewhere in the book as getting his own comic that coming fall! (Another first issue that I was lucky enough to find and buy.) I loved the history of the comics characters that those reprints gave me. It was among my first tastes of comics continuity and history.
In rereading that comic, however, I'm most struck by the lead story, the "origin" of The Dynamite Duo. As an adult, it now looks like the Devil was defeated quite easily, maybe too easily. And of course, it's hard to ignore that in the present day comics world, this would have been a 3-6 month saga of our heroes fighting Hell itself.
But on closer reading, it is also true that what defeated the Devil (and Arnold) wasn't strength or even wit. What defeated the Devil was Batgirl and Robin's simultaneous and mutual release from a death trap, one that if they'd not triggered together would have sacrificed one and saved the other.
The Devil was defeated because our heroes were willing to sacrifice him and herself. There are worse messages for an 11-year-old.
Such lessons aside, the real value in this comic to me was as I stated earlier—it was my first Number One. It's also worth noting that I had no idea what to do about that. I still have that comic. It is covered in tape, fading in places, the newsprint soft and fragile. I didn't know about "bagging and boarding." I simply loved it and read it to pieces. I got more than my 50 cents worth of enjoyment.
Tattered as it is, it remains one of my most valuable comics.
Neil Ellis Orts is a writer and performer living in Houston, TX.