Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas in Comics

The Marvel Holiday Special has been an enduring tradition for more than thirty years, but you wouldn’t know it reading the latest issue. Despite a good combination of talent for this year-ender, you won’t find much mirth to go around.

Mirth is probably the basic problem - just how do you write a holiday special in the mists of Civil War, Planet Hulk, and other continuity-shaping events? Marvel tries to aptly solve this problem by dedicating several pages to ornament cut-outs to amuse the kids. Never mind that the Planet Hulk image is way too scary for a Christmas tree, but to make matters worse, the very idea like an insult to fans who paid four bucks for features they could find in a coloring book.

The stories are tremendously flawed as well. “A.I.M. Lang Syne” is doubtlessly the best of the bunch, detailing an office party for one of Marvel’s most notorious organizations. However, the very execution is sloppy, as the entire story is haphazardly spliced through the comic book, making it impossible to read straight through. Despite an excellent title, “How Fing Fang Foom Saved Christmas” reuses the killer Santa Claus theme of last year’s episode to little effect. This is only magnified by the fact that the enraged Fing Fang Foom made a far funnier appearance in Warren Ellis’ Nextwave earlier this year. Mike Carey’s “A For Annihilus” is a charming tale told in alphabetic accord, but by the end, Carey seems as tired of the story’s gimmicks as his two main characters, the Thing and Annihilus. And finally, the Official Marvel Handbook of the Marvel Universe is halfway decent guide to Santa’s appearance in the M.U., but the appeal is limited, as half of the article is comprised of Santa facts you’ll find on Wikipedia.

If you want more holiday bargin, pay the extra buck and get the “DCU Infinite Holiday Special”. This book seems more like this prime holiday goose as opposed to the bargain turkey Marvel put out. To my knowledge, this is the first time DCU has put out a all-encompassing holiday specials, and the results are astounding.

Even the weakest story, the Trial of Shazam-centered “The Gift of the Magi” boasts great art from Marcos Marz, Luciana Del Negro and Rod Reis. The problem with this story is it makes no attempt to catch up readers to its premise. Figures like Solomon and Achilles appear with interesting archetypal twists, but its extremely difficult to tell what’s going on unless (I’m assuming) you’re familiar with the ongoing Shazam book. Right on its trail, the Green Lantern “Christmas with Hector Hammond” gets point for placing Hal Jordan in a Christmas-bound mind-game with imprisoned psychic Hammod, but the final effect is too brief to be appreciated.

But with the exception of the above, there are good stories, and lots of them. Bill Willingham brings everyone’s favorite magical misfits the Shadowpact in to help old Saint Nick fight the Anti-Christmas League in a story Willingham was probably born to right. Plus the image of Phantom Stranger in a red stocking cap is priceless. The Joe Kelly Supergirl tale “All I Want For Christmas” is a typical tale of a broken Christmas, but the end result is expertly to penned to suit Supergirl and supporting characters like Alfred and Superman.

Two tales specifically shed new Christmas light on the new faces in old costumes. Bart Allen, new to the role of the Flash, helps a screwed-up accomplice of the Rogues enjoy a white Christmas in “Father Christmas”, while new Batwoman Kathy Kane helps reunite a Jewish family torn asunder by the Holocaust in the Greg Rucka-penned “Lights”. Considering Kane hasn’t seen a decent thread of character development in “52”, “Lights” stands out a break-through moment for the character.

But the last page of “Yes, Tyone, There Is a Santa Claus” is worth the entire five bucks. Written by Kelly Puckett, the Elseworld tale finds a 1940’s-style Superman dressed up as the other man in red to brighten a young boy’s Christmas cheer, only to get talked out of the act by Batman. What happens next is sheer hilarity - its a tale which can only be told in Elseworlds, and I honestly didn’t see it coming at all!

So, in closing, holiday comic shoppers should definitely favor “Infinite Holiday” as a stocking stuffer over the ho-hum lump-of-coal that is “Marvel Holiday Special”. Here’s hoping this is the beginning of a tradition for DC, who very aptly supplied the Christmas cheer this holiday season!