Monday, December 24, 2012

A few thoughts on every single story in DC Universe Christmas (2000)

"Wanted: Santa Claus—Dead or Alive!" by Denny O'Neil, Frank Miller and Steve Mitchell (1980)

A million years ago, in 1992 or so, I received as a Christmas present a leather-bound, or, more likely, faux-leather bound hardcover entitled The Complete Frank Miller Batman. It included three stories, each listed in silver ink on the very thick spine: "Batman: Year One," The Dark Knight Returns and this story, which was very, very, very out of place sandwiched between those other two.

The Batman it featured seemed an entirely different character than the one in the two novel-length stories that surrounded it, and the Frank Miller seemed like an entirely different Frank Miller. He pencils this book, but under Mitchell's inks and Glynis Wein's colors, and in what must have been something much closer to the Bat-office house style of 1980, when the story was originally published. (Certain panels look like Neal Adams' Batman, others look like Norm Breyfogle's).

The story is pretty standard Denny O'Neil Batman, featuring a rather timeless take on the character (this could be in-continuity in any continuity) using stoolies and disguises to work a theatrical, cartoony underworld.

This is the story of how an ex-con hired to play Santa Claus at a department store is lured into helping some gangsters break in and rob the joint, but his conscience and/or the Christmas spirit convince him not to stray from the straight and narrow. And then the Star of Bethlehem appears to show Batman whose face to punch.

"Present Tense"by Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn, Paul Ryan and Dick Giordano (1997)

This is the first of several charming stories co-written by Waid in this collection. In this, The Flash Wally West uses his super-speed powers to hurtle himself all over the world in order to find the perfect last-minute—nay, last-second—gift for his girlfriend Linda Park.

It's built episodically, giving it a nice, tight construction, and it's a nice illustration of what made Waid (and Augustyn's) Flash comics so enjoyable (and why third-generation Flash Wally West still has such a sizable fan-base, despite DC shifting gears to push the second-generation Flash Barry Allen in recent years. The pair here highlight The Flash's incredible super-power, which is among the most straightforward and appealing of all comic book super-powers, while focusing their real attention on the character's inner-life and everyman dilemmas.

Their Flash was basically the Silver Age version meeting Spider-Man halfway.

"The Story of Fir Balsam" by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter (1943)

Wonder Woman is one of the few superheroes whose Golden Age comics were truly her Golden Age: Despite valiant efforts over the years, no run has been able to match this creative team's unique take on the character, a heady mixture of mythology and fairytale and romance and superheroics and children's literature and war and comedy. The comic didn't just borrow elements from different genres, but was it's own genre, and the reading experience echoed the experience of, say, reading Superman and an Andrew Lang fairy tale collection simultaneously.

This story is a pretty good example. Steve Trevor and Diana Prince are on the Canadian border in December, hunting escaped German prisoners. Wonder Woman stumbles upon them and family drama including two young children who are lost in the snowy mountains, seeking to find their estranged mother before Chrismtas, without their bitter father finding out. It is narrated by a fir tree.

Let me repeat: It is narrated by a fir tree.

Wonder Woman skis, uses a man as a human grappling hook at the end of her magic lasso, uproots a tree to stave off an avalanche, reunites the estrange parents, busts some Nazi's and gets to play "Miss Santa Claus." All in 13 pages.

"The Gift" by Dan Jurgens and Brett Breeding (1998)

This is a short (as in 17 panels over three pages) silent, highly economical story, highlighting Superman's relationship with Lex Luthor during the renegade scientist's "legit" phase and his adopted parents. It's sweet, economical and effective.

I think it's a good illustration of why it's better to have both Kents alive and in Clark/Superman's life. He's one of the few superheroes whose life is absent tragedy—at least, a tragedy that he lives with every day, one he experienced in a formative way (Krypton blew up when he was a baby, and while being the only one of his kind might make him lonely, he still have a family, and his close and positive relationship with his parents is one more area of his fictional life in which he sets a good example for his readers).

"A Swingin' Christmas Carol!"by Bob Haney and Nick Cardy (1968)

Perhaps the most insane story in the book, it's a poor re-telling of the too often re-told Dickens story, complete with a miserly junkyward owner named Ebenezer Scrounge, who says "Bah! Humbug!" and has an employee named Ratchet, and that employee Ratchet has a young son in a wheelchair named Tiny Tom.

Scrounge is involved in a wacky smuggling operation involving a villain named Mr. Big and a ray gun that can change mint merchandise to junk and back again. Haney's swinging, go-go, Fab Five version of the Teen Titans are on the case though, and wearing hooded robes, they scare the Christmas spirit into Scrounge and beat-up the bad guys.

And Cardy gets to draw Wonder Girl in a super-short, fur-trimmed Santa-like dress that is out of sight. If you've read any of the Haney/Cardy Titans, well, you've read this story, which is plucked not from a DC holiday special but from the Titans ongoing itself. It's full of wacky circumstance, a Stan Lee-like hip uncle sense of what's cool, aggressive, desperate slang and beautiful, beautiful figure drawings.

"Present Tense" by Ty Templeton (1998)

Popular title for Christmas stories in DC holiday anthologies (Waid and Augustyn's Flash story appeared in 1997's DC Universe Holiday Bash, while this one appeared in DC Universe Holiday Bash II the very next year).

This is the shortest story in the book, running over only a dozen panels on two pages. It can be summed up in four words: "Santa Claus Vs. Darkseid."

"Billy Batson's Xmas!" drawn by Pete Constanza, writer unknown (1947)

Captain Marvel and Billy Batson buy each other Christmas presents, ones they each have always wanted but would never buy for themselves. That part of the story is cute, the rest is pretty run-of-the-mill, and lacks much in the way of inspiration or imagination of the sort that characterized the best Captain Marv--er, "Shazam" stories of the era.

The art's pretty nice though, it's fun to see it contrasted with all the other styles represented in this book, even/especially against the other Golden Age artwork of Peter's Wonder Woman, Jack Kirby's Sandman and Jack Burnley's Superman.

"Alone for the Holidays" by Chuck Dixon, Gordon Purcell and Danny Miki (1999)

Aw, it's stories like this that really make me miss Dixon's presence in the DC Universe. It's a short, four-page story in which the Nineties/Aughts Robin Tim Drake narrates about what a lame Christmas Eve he's having with his family all away, his girlfriend Steph hanging out with her mother and not even any crime to keep him busy. There's a neat twist ending that's hardly a surprise, and more of a "That's sweet" ending than an EC Comics kind.

"Star Light, Star Bright...Farthest Star I See Tonight!" by Paul Levitz, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Dick Giordano (1980)

Superboy visits the future around Christmas time and finds a handful of Legionnaires there—Phantom Girl, Saturn Girl, Wildfire, Lightning Fellow—and after a few panels discussion of various celebrations 1,000 years in the future (weird that some of these holidays haven't evolved to terribly much in 1,000 years, given that the 20th/21st century Christmas is completely different from that of 18th or 17th century Christmas), Superboy convinces his future friends to see out the star of Bethlehem.

They don't find it, but the search leads them to a planet where three races are all on the verge of extinction...until Superboy solves all their problems. I've never read many Legion related comics, so I don't know if this is a thing or not, but I was rather struck by the fact that Superboy doesn't really need the Legion at all. All they do here is what he tells them to do with their powers, and most of 'em are things he could do himself.

Were they always, like, Superboy's back-up singers...?

Lopez sure made the gals sexy too. This was when Saturn girl had her skimpiest (I think it's her skimpiest) costume, and Phantom Girl's is full of cut-outs. The way Lopez draws them casually leaning, or their bodies contorted while in flight...Yowza. After this and the Cardy Wonder Girl a few stories back, I was especially struck by how strange it is that today's super-comics are geared almost exclusively toward adults and, sans comics code and spinner rack distribution, can get away with considerably more in terms of sexuality, and yet the skill set just doesn't seem to be there in today's super-comics artists to draw realistic, casually sexy, beautiful women anymore. It's weird, really.

"The Present" by Devin K. Grayson, William Rosado and Sal Buscema (1998)

This is a Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up, from the time period when Kyle Rayner was the only Green Lantern, Connor Hawke had assumed the costume, identity and seat at the Justice League meeting table of his then still-dead father and Grayson was writing sharp, character-focused pieces for DC (Usually in the Bat-family, but occasionally elsewhere).

The superheroics in this short story are pretty forced: Kyle drags Connor along to the mall on Christmas Eve for some "panic shopping" for his JLA peers, and there they run into a troubled man with a shotgun that manages to hack into the computers controlling the malls door locks and lighting system.

The real focus is on the two characters' differing approaches to life, and how they relate to one another. I really liked this pairing of characters, and think it's a real shame Hawke's presence was overshadowed by his back-from-the-dead father and now, apparently, he doesn't even exist.

The Roasdo/Buscema team is a sharp one, and there are some nice, big thick lines outlining all of the characters.

I hadn't noticed before, but the version of Green Arrow appearing on that new CW show Arrow...? His costume looks an awful lot like this version of Green Arrow's costume...with a slightly different color scheme, of course.

"Night Prowler!" by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson (1971)

Nice, short, four-page story about a dude who sees Santa Claus when he thinks he hears a...well, it's in the title, isn't it?

"The Harley and the Ivy" by Paul Dini and Ronnie Del Carmen (1995)

This is probably the highlight of the book, really, a 12-page story from one of those wonderful Batman Adventures Holiday Specials, in which the Animated Series versions of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn kidnap Bruce Wayne and force him to fun a fairly legal shopping spree, until Wayne gets enough breathing space to put his game face on.

I remember reading this in its originally context and really like it. I don't think I knew at the time, or forgot since, that it was drawn by Del Carmen, a comics artist whose work I greatly admire, and whose work I far too rarely see (the first place I saw his work was a great 1996 Aliens one-shot).

Here he's drawing in the Bruce Timm derivative style, and doing it very well...the main difference between these characters as they appear here and as they appeared in the cartoons being how scantily clad they are in the first scene.

"Santa Fronts for the Mob" by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (1943)

I assume this one is in here for the creators rather than the characters, as this is the Golden Age Sandman, in his yellow and purple spandex costume, and Sandy The Golden Boy.

When an anxious department store owner worries that he may have an inferior Santa Claus, he hires a gangster who seeks out professional wrestler Mountain-Man Bearde, a big, bearded man with the greatest fucking name ever to play Santa.

"An Eye For Detail" by Chuck Dixon and Quique Alcatena (1999)

Bat Lash foils a gang of bad guys. It's another super-short story—just four pages long—but Dixon makes enough of the scene to characterize Bat Lash. This is a pretty good example of one type of story that's common throughout the collection, a sort of introduction to a character.

"Silent Night" by John Byrne and Andy Kubert (1988)

Another short character sketch type piece, this one featuring Enemy Ace, and presented in a completely silent story. As Enemy Ace stories go, it's a bit lacking. There are no airplane fights, for example, no hanging out with a wolf, no mention of the killer for it being written on a drawing one of the characters produces. An Enemy Ace story without words doesn't really work, I don't think, because it lacks the repetitive phrasing that gave the original stories their song-like quality.

This one's written and pencilled by Byrne, with Enemy Ace co-creator Joe Kubert's son inking him; Byrne and Andy Kubert are both pretty popular artists with distinct styles, so it's fairly interesting to see how their styles mesh.

"No, Bart, There Is No Santa Claus" by Mark Waid and Devin Grayson and Craig Rousseau and Mike Sellers (1999)

The second story featuring a speedster co-written by Waid in this collection. The premise of this one's pretty amusing, with Impulse's mentor Max Mercury shocked to find the impulsive, teenage superhero still believes in Santa Claus.

He tries to talk him out of his child-like belief in Santa, but Impulse isn't having any of it. In the DC Universe, Santa Claus isn't really all that implausible ("I've heard about him. Secret headquarters. Red suit. Travels at Super-speed."

The rest of the story's nothing super-special, really, but it's a fun, funny inversion of the child and adult roles regarding Santa Claus.

"Superman's Christmas Adventure" by Jerry Siegel and Jack Burnley (1940)

Wait, did I already call one of the previous stories in this collection the most insane story in the collection? Because I take it back: This one is.

Lois and Clark are assigned to write about Christmas shopping, and Superman sees an ungrateful little rich brat, so he uses his fantastic powers to abduct the boy from his bed and show him a poor boy crying himself to sleep.

Meanwhile, Dr. Grouch and Mr. Meaney, two well-dressed old curmudgeons with their own personal spaceship, fly to the North Pole and try to convince Santa to quit giving away toys for free and instead go into business with them. Elves chase them away with "pop-guns and charged electric rods," which, um, I guess is another word for cattle-prods.

Then they try to burn down The Daily Planet building. Then they fly back to the North Pole, shoot an elf in the face (with a gas gun, although the image looks a bit ambiguous), then they tie Lois Lane to a giant firework and shoot her into the air, steal all his reindeer, and start wrecking Santa's toy shop with axes, until Santa counterattacks with wind-up toy soldiers.

When Superman saves Lois and the reindeer, Meaney gasses them all, forcing Superman to carry Santa's sleigh himself (on one stop, he throws Meaney down Grouch's chimney). Despite all of that, Santa still gives the old sourpusses Christmas presents, and his forgiveness fills them with the Christmas spirit.


Aki Alaraatikka said...

Wow. I can`t really say that I`d want this collection, because I want all the issues of the series, where those stories were printed to.

David page said...

That Harley and ivy story almost sounds like a story which featured in the gotham knights episode Holiday knights.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that Alan Brennert's famed Deadman/pre-Crisis Supergirl story didn't make it into the collection.

Dave said...

That Deadman/Supergirl story and Paul Chadwick's Superman story where he talks a man out of suicide are two of the best things I've ever read. The latter stands up with the best Superman stories ever.