Ask Chris #318: The Definitive Christmas Comic
Q: What is the definitive Christmas comic? — @Koltreg
A: "Definitive" is a pretty tricky requirement to meet. I mean, if you'd asked me about the best, or my favorite, the problem would be in narrowing it all down. To be honest, if it weren't for the fact that we're still in the honeymoon period right after it came out, I'd probably say that Grant Morrison and Dan Mora's Klaus fits the bill for all three. But "definitive" is a different beast entirely.
The problem that it presents is that you have to find a comic that's not just definitively Christmas, with all that goes along with it, it has to be definitively comics, too --- and if you think it's difficult for people to agree on what Christmas is all about, just wait'll you try getting them to pin down one single issue that defines comic books as a medium. At least religion has centuries of scholarship; comics just has loudmouths writing columns about them on the Internet.
That said, I do think I've found one that's as close as we're going to get: 1989's Christmas With The Super-Heroes #2.
Like I said, I'm not sure it's my favorite --- it's really hard to beat Ty Templeton's two-pager about Santa Claus going to Apokolips every year to give Darkseid a lump of coal, or that one where a little blind girl mistakes Ghost Rider for Santa Claus because his flaming skull gives off a cheerful warmth and the chains that he beats evildoers with jingle like Christmas bells --- but it definitely meets the requirements. And as a bonus, it has what may just be the single greatest Christmas story that it's possible to tell in the superhero genre. But I'll get back to that in a minute.
While its predecessor from the previous year was just a collection of previously published stories --- including Santa Claus: Wanted Dead Or Alive!, which is probably DC's most reprinted Christmas story by virtue of also being Frank Miller's first published work on Batman --- Christmas With The Super-Heroes #2 was all original stories. And they are so 1989.
That's one of the things that makes this book fit the bill of being the Definitive Christmas Comic. It might not capture the spirit of the entire medium, but it's the embodiment of a moment in time that dominated what comic book storytelling was for decades. This was, after all, a book that came out in the immediate aftermath of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, which solidified the (pretty patently false) idea of comics "growing up" that had been floating around since the '70s. This is a comic of that era, and as a result, the emphasis is less on holiday adventure and more on quiet reflection on the nature of superheroes and their stories.
All of which is to say that this thing is pretty grim.
Despite the cheerful cover of the superheroes hanging out with Santa Claus --- which, incidentally, marks Santa's only appearance in the issue, something that stands as the biggest strike against this book as a Christmas comic --- this issue skews pretty dark. That cover, with Batman building teddy bears and Superman sharing a cup of cocoa with an elf, immediately gives way to Paul Chadwick's story about a man stranded on a snowy highway on Christmas Eve who's been trying to flag down a car for four hours, only to be ignored by everyone who passes, who finally decides to give in and commit suicide in his car.
To be honest, that turned me off of this issue for a really long time. It's so jarring, and considering the kind of superhero Christmas story that I like --- the one where Ultron is rebuilt into Santron and Captain America has to give a "Yes, Virginia" speech, for instance, or the slapstick comedy of Paul Dini and Ronnie Del Carmen's "The Harley and the Ivy" --- seeing this book set the mood with something that depressing is pretty hard to get past.
The thing is, unlike a lot of the comics from that era (and, to be honest, a lot of Christmas comics that you see coming out today), Chadwick's story is dark, but not cynical. It's a crucial difference, and it works because it contrasts that real-world sense of isolation and loneliness that always creeps in around the holidays, the same thing that Charlie Brown has to struggle with in the most relatable Christmas special ever made, with the sense of wonder that comes from superheroes.
See, there's a reason that Chadwick called his story "Ex Machina." On that lonely, bitter Christmas Eve, when, he's just about to pull the trigger, there's a knock at his window.
The entire story is just Superman taking a moment to sit in this guy's car and talk to him about why he's so depressed. He's still Superman, of course --- he mentions that he's in the area because there was a potential disaster at a nearby missile silo that, because he intervened, isn't going to be much of a problem at all now --- but the story isn't about him pulling a dramatic feat of strength of super-powers. It's about his kindness, about the perspective that he can bring that's a little more forgiving than anyone else.
Even the people who don't stop to help an old man stranded in a snowbank on Christmas Eve get the benefit of the doubt.
It's the same tone as the scene in All Star Superman, and if that's the kind of Superman story that you like, it's well worth reading to see how well Chadwick pulls it off. Plus, there's a great gag in there where he sends the guy to Ma and Pa Kent's house for a warm meal --- literally writing directions to Smallville on the back of his suicide note in what might be the most heavy-handed symbolism of the year --- and mentions that they were a couple of good folks who "helped me out after I had some trouble in space one time."
It's the best kind of Superman line, because it's absolutely true, even if it's missing a pretty big piece of information.
That story sets the tone for everything else that comes after in the comic, including a grim but ultimately hopeful story from Dave Gibbons about Christmas through the years in the Batcave, Eric Shanower doing a Wonder Woman story about finding comfort in community even when you're suffering, John Byrne and Andy Kubert's silent story of Enemy Ace paying tribute to his fallen foes, and --- maybe the most lighthearted offering in the entire book --- a flashback story from William Messner-Loebs and Colleen Doran about Flash and Green Lantern teaming up to convince a depressed millionaire that Santa Claus does exist by taking him on a gift-giving tour themselves.
Again, all of these stories deal with pretty dark, and even flat-out depressing themes, but they all deal with them in a way that doesn't deny the hopefulness inherent in both the genre and the season itself. They're all stories that acknowledge hardships and that don't try to minimize them just by virtue of a flurry of snow and a handful of presents.
I've written pretty recently about how Brennert might have the single best quality-to-output ratio in the history of superhero comics, and here, he's back with Giordano, reuniting the team that brought you "To Kill A Legend" for "Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot."
Once again, the themes here are loneliness and isolation, but they're filtered through the lens of superhero comics in the most superhero way possible. This is, after all, a story about Deadman, someone who exists in a world that he can only interact with briefly by possessing the living --- a world he can't even leave without meeting some arbitrary requirements set by a goddess he doesn't even fully understand.
And that lack of connection --- not just to people, but to the world itself --- makes Christmas very difficult for him.
There are a lot of ways to write about depression and how isolating it can be, but Brennert turns Deadman into one of the most perfect metaphors I've ever seen. It's not that he can't experience happiness, and it's not that he doesn't care about the people around him. In fact, the first thing he does in the story is find a scummy New York businessman who made a profit by exploiting workers and then laying them off and use his fortune to not only give them a generous severance package, but send gifts to all his friends.
But Brennert and Giordano perfectly capture that sense of dissociation, the idea that while it's absolutely possible for someone to be depressed while still finding enjoyment in the moment, it never really feels real. It's like it's all happening to someone else --- and in Deadman's case, that's an idea that's true in a very real sense. When he possesses someone so that he can enjoy something about the season, he's literally putting on someone else's happy face to do it. His powers just add the guilt of having stolen that experience from someone else so that he can have it himself.
It's loneliness, isolation, depression, and dissociation on a superheroic scale, but the big twist of the story comes when he finds someone who can see him. Someone who seems to know a whole lot about what it's like to feel ignored and forgotten by the a world you love.
In case that familiar curl in her hair didn't tip you off, she'll end the story by giving her name to Deadman, a name that, in 1989, doesn't mean anything to him, or to anyone in the DC Universe. It's Kara. Kara Zor-El.
That's what makes this story work so beautifully, because it's the kind of Christmas story that you can only tell in superhero comics.
See, in 1989, DC was still feeling the immediate effects of Crisis On Infinite Earths, which was meant to restructure and streamline the universe. In the process, they got rid of a handful of characters, and while some of them, like Barry Allen, got to have those big heroic deaths saving the universe, and while others, like the Golden Age Superman, got to fly off to Heaven at the end of the story, Supergirl got the worst of it. She wasn't just killed off, she was killed off and then erased.
When the universe was put back together, Supergirl canonically never existed.
If Deadman being unable to interact with the world is an idea of depression taken to its superheroic extreme, then Supergirl is the embodiment of that fear of being forgotten, isolation on a whole other level. So when Deadman asks what the point of it all is, it's Kara who tells him that life itself is the point.
Admittedly, "someone always has it worse" might not be the best idea to take comfort in at Christmastime, but the message that good deeds are their own reward, and that other people don't need to know about them or remember them for them to have value? That's a very Christmasy idea --- it's why we have Santa Claus, the one mythical figure that we agree gets to have all the credit for some of the nice things we do every December.
And in a genre that's defined as much by retcons and canon as it is by super-powers and capes, that's something that could only be done here. It's the definitive Christmas Comic.