Bizarro Back Issues: Robin, Batgirl and the Devil-Worshipping Ghost of Benedict Arnold (1975)
Batman’s villains are unquestionably the greatest bad guys in comics. The best of them are compelling, complex characters in their own right that can work in a variety of stories, and even the second-stringers tend to be, at the very least, visually interesting. So when it was time to spin the Caped Crusader’s sidekicks off into their own comic, you’d think they’d be going up against the Joker or Ra’s al-Ghul or one of the other great bad guys their franchise has to offer. But you would be wrong.
Because the villain that brought Batgirl and Robin together as a team was the Satanic ghost of Benedict Arnold.It all went down in 1975′s Batman Family #1, in the awesomely (and accurately) named “Invader From Hell.” The story was brought to you by the pretty incredible team of Elliot S! Maggin and Mike Grell, and even for the comics I talk about in this column, it is weird.
So weird, in fact, that things start getting crazy right there on the cover. I’ve always been a pretty big fan of the old Silver Age gimmick of having a character show up and acknowledge that he’s in a comic book that he wants you to read, but Nick Cardy’s Batman looks so uncomfortable in his role as the “host.” Throw in the stiff posture and the way he’s kind of half-shrugging as he points to his sidekicks’ attempt to run down the Ghost of Benedict Arnold and his flaming hell-sword with a motorcycle, and this is a Batman who seems like he would rather be anywhere else. To him, this stuff is boring.
The story takes place during that weird, post-librarian phase of Barbara Gordon’s life where she was a member of Congress. Nobody nobody really talks about that era anymore and honestly, there’s a good reason to avoid it: trying to wrap your head around the mechanics of being a legislator and a costumed vigilante at the same time is pretty tough. I mean, at the very least, she is not really devoting adequate time to the needs of her constituents if she’s out beating up the Penguin when she should be voting on campaign finance reform, and that spotty record’s going to come back and bite her in the ass come November.
She does, however, take the time to host educational programs about history. Unfortunately, it’s during one of these that Ghost of Benedict Arnold claws his way out of hell and decides he’s had enough of her sass:
Arnold’s motivation here seems to be that he wants people to stop thinking of him as such a lousy guy, but I’m not really sure that whipping out a sword and attacking a member of Congress who is also a young lady is really going to do him any favors on that front.
As you might expect, Babs and Dick Grayson — who drove down from Hudson University to hold her cue cards, an act that people all over Tumblr are classifying as an act of truest love and devotion on par with the Taj Mahal — beat feet out to the hallway to make awkward excuses while Arnold chops up a camera. See, at the time, neither was aware of the other’s secret identity, which made for a pretty interesting dynamic — no pun intended — in their partnership.
Once they’ve pulled off the quick change, though, it’s back into the studio to take on Arnold. Unfortunately, beating up a guy who’s been dead for 200 years isn’t quite as easy as it sounds:
This whole exchange raises a lot of questions, and while most of them revolve around the super-jacked legs that Grell gives to the Teen Wonder, I’m actually more concerned with the fact that Benedict Arnold is familiar with Stonewall Jackson (1824 – 1863). In a more detective-oriented story, this might be a clue that we were dealing with an impostor, but I can assure you that this is definitely The Real Benedict Arnold, back from the dead.
Are we to assume, then, that Arnold has just been hanging out in the afterlife, watching American history unfold and just getting more and more pissed off that the British didn’t take over? I guess so!
While the theological implications are never really discussed, we do learn that a knowledge of key Civil War figures isn’t Arnold’s only super-power. When Batgirl tries to lasso him, he teleports away, and leaves a message written in flames warning them to stay out of his business. And it’s that last bit that drives Barbara’s cameraman completely insane:
I don’t mean that in the “this comic is insane” sense, either. Dude actually goes mad in the grand tradition of Lovecraft, his mind snapping under the weight of the cosmic horrors he has just experienced. Really, though, you’d think people in the DC Universe would be a little more used to that by now. There is literally a monster from a higher plane of existence that shows up in Metropolis, wearing a bowler hat and shattering reality every three months. Fortunately, since this story takes place in Washington DC and not Gotham City, he most likely got actual psychiatric treatment and didn’t become a revenge-crazed arch-criminal.
The next day, Barbara gets called to the floor of the House, only to find that Benedict Arnold has taken over Congress!
Yes, the greatest traitor in American history is making his demands, and — hey, who’s that dude with him?
Holy cats, THAT’S STAN LEE! Or at least, it sure as hell looks like him:
With Stan the Man cooling out beside him, Arnold breaks it down for Congress: He has an army of Redcoats (?) on their way to blow up the Pentagon with their muskets (?!) unless they hand over control of America to him, at which time he will presumably hand it over to Zombie King George III. It is a plan that is downright Cobra Commanderian in both its complexity and its chance for success.
Needless to say, Batgirl and Robin head out to fight the British (or the… zombie British? I don’t even know anymore), and while they make a gallant effort that at one point involves Robin yelling out “galloping gazebos,” they’re eventually overwhelmed and strung up in some kind of 18th Century Deathtrap. The trick is that one can free the other while sacrificing himm or herself…
…and you’d think that a guy who was able to observe the world from the afterlife would’ve seen that one coming.
Batgirl and Robin free each other, and at this point, Stan Lee has had about enough. He starts berating Arnold for failing, but Arnold begs him for one more chance and says that he’ll be able to take them out if only he has two swords. Stan snaps his fingers and he gets his second sword, but for some reason, he also gives Batgirl and Robin swords in order to even the odds.
The crazy thing about this fight — relatively speaking — is that it takes Arnold like two pages to remember that he has f***ing super-powers:
You’d think that would’ve come up earlier. But when it does, it’s too late: Batgirl and Robin have retreated to the holy ground of a church, and for some reason this means that the entire fight is over and they win.
And then you find out that Stan Lee is the Devil.
Yeah, it turns out that the Devil hates America, and thought that the best way to destroy it would be sending Benedict Arnold back from Hell with super-powers in order to… Man, I have no idea where Maggin was going with this. All I know is that America wins for reasons that I don’t understand.
It’s a pretty dodgy resolution, but on the other hand, it’s enough to get Batgirl to start making out with Robin:
Excelsior, True Believers!