Ask Chris #271: Santa Claus, The Greatest Superhero Of Them All
Q: How do Santa Claus and Christmas magic mix with superhero settings, where actual magic and superpowers exist? Just how powerful is it? -- @anniezard
A: If my years of obsessing over Christmas specials have taught me anything, it's that Christmas magic is quite possibly the most powerful force in the universe. It can change the hearts of miserly ducks, open up a portal to to the mystical realm of Eternia so that kids can learn all about how Skeletor loves fights, and it can even cause dangerous levels of interference with the Morphin Grid. Outside of Batman's thirst for justice and Jughead's love of hamburgers, it might be the single most powerful force in the universe, assuming that you're measuring between Thanksgiving and January 6.
As for how Santa Claus himself can fit into a superhero setting, I actually think he's one of the easiest characters from literature or folklore to just slide right into a world of crimefighters and arch-villains. More than Dracula, more than Robin Hood, he's the one who works the best, because when you get right down to it, he's already doing the same kind of stuff. It's just that for some reason, they never call him up when it's time for a crossover.
As much as I love Christmas comics, I will never understand why so many of them are reluctant to just throw Santa Claus in there as a known quantity. There's this weird kind of insistence, even in a world that's built around improbable characters known for incredible feats, that Santa Claus, of all things, is just a step too far.
It's not just a product of the cynicism of the modern age, either. There's a Supergirl story from the early '60s --- not even a Christmas story, just a random story that showed up in the pages of Action Comics, where Supergirl just casually mentions that Santa Claus doesn't exist and how terrible it would be if children found that out before they were ready. Like, say, by reading it in an issue of Action Comics that came out in friggin' July.
Even when he actually shows up in the story, there's still this idea of disbelief from people who really ought to be a little more openminded about the whole thing. There's no better example of that than his appearance in DC Comics Presents #67, where he teams up with Superman to fight the Toyman, and Superman spends the entire issue just flat-out refusing to believe that he's not dreaming the whole thing. Superman, a bulletproof alien who sometimes goes to visit his friends who live in the 30th Century by flying through time under his own power, and who is good friends with a woman who got her powers from Actual Zeus. There are no circumstances whatsoever in which that dude should be surprised to find out that Santa Claus is real.
Incidentally, this is part of the same problem that I have when vampires or werewolves show up in superhero comics and no one believes that they are actually dealing with vampires or werewolves until they are presented with irrefutable evidence. Like, Batman has been on the Justice League for 55 years now, a team that includes two space aliens and a merman. He's been to other dimensions, knows at least two people who have been alive for several hundred years, and has met actual ghosts before. If that's the frame of reference that you're working with, you should probably just go ahead and assume that you're going to run into Santa Claus and Dracula sooner or later.
And seriously? There's no way that Santa Claus's entire operation makes less sense than Green Lantern's.
To me, it seems like the best way to deal with Santa Claus would be to treat him the same way that superhero comics deal with aliens, where everyone just sort of knows and accepts that they exist. Sure, there are people who might have their doubts, but they should be the outliers --- a friend of mine once said that in comics, the people who don't believe in alien abductions are the same people who do believe in them in the real world, and Santa's the same way. He's out there, and while you can't exactly find that workshop and go talk to him, no one should really be surprised if he gets in touch.
This, incidentally, definitely makes me feel like there should be a Lois Lane story where she tries to get an interview with Santa Claus to finally one-up Clark Kent for scoring that first interview with Superman, but I should probably save that one for the next time someone asks me about comics that I'll never actually get to write.
That said, even if you accept Santa as a known quantity in a superhero universe, you're still left with the question of what to do with him -- specifically the question of what the heck he's doing for the rest of the year.
The easy answer, of course, is that he's building toys for all the good children of the world and doing the necessary research to determine who gets 'em, but that's also at odds with established Santa Canon. He's clearly the guy in charge, but it's the elves who do most of the actual toymaking. So if he does exist, and he is in a world that's being beset by arch-villains on a pretty constant basis, how come he's not using his considerable power to fight crime alongside the other heroes?
The obvious choice, and the one that you see most often, is that he's only really a going concern at Christmastime, specifically Christmas Eve. This ties back in with the idea of Christmas Magic, and how it's something that's very specifically tied to December 25, starting to ebb on Boxing Day (or, if you're a traditionalist, on the Epiphany once all the colly birds and drummers drumming have shown up) and then ramping back up on Black Friday or the first day of Advent. It's the kind of setup that's given an offhand mention in that DC Comics Presents story, where it's hinted at that Santa's at the peak of his powers only on Christmas Eve:
He also says that his sleigh is so sturdy because it carries the hopes and dreams of all the world's children, which is pretty great.
If you go with that idea, then there's a good reason why he doesn't show up to fight the Anti-Monitor or whatever. As powerful as Christmas magic might be in December, it's not really doing much in March, so for most of the year, Santa's just a kindly old toymaker with a high tolerance for cold weather.
It's an approach that makes a certain kind of sense --- mainly because Santa's pretty inextricably tied to a specific season and there only about four of us who are super interested in seeing what he's doing all the time --- but it doesn't quite mesh with his long history of using his considerable power for good. The second option, then, is that he's spending January through November dealing with problems that only he can solve.
This was the approach that JRR Tolkien took in his Letters From Father Christmas, a series of letters he wrote to his children over the course of a few decades that, because they were written by JRR Tolkien, went from simple missives about getting the kids' wish-lists to sprawling epics about how the North Pole was constantly under attack from goblins and had to be defended by snow golems and the North Polar Bear.
I say this every year, but those letters are literally the best story Tolkien ever wrote, and should be made into a major film trilogy immediately, if not sooner.
Anyway, the advantage to this version is that it gives Santa Claus a purpose beyond gift-giving that fits in with the kind of struggles that define a superhero story. If he actually is fighting against evil for the rest of the year, then it makes sense that he would only be free to head out to the wider world would be when he's at his strongest. Also, when you consider how many demons, devils and other assorted ne'er-do-wells there are in superhero comics who would definitely hate the idea of happy children waking up to PlayStations and Transformers, there's no shortage of threats that he'd be callled upon to deal with. Just imagine that every time you read a comic that doesn't have, say, Neron in it --- which is a lot of comics --- he's probably trying to blow up the North Pole's supply of Monster High dolls.
But that creates a different problem, which is that if there's an important battle happening with the happiness of the entire world --- or at least the chunk of it that celebrates Christmas as a gift-giving holiday --- hanging in the balance, then why the heck aren't we hearing about it?
There is, however, a third option for how Santa should work in a superhero universe, and unlike the others, it doesn't require going back and changing things that have already happened. Instead, it's something that we do going forward, recasting Santa Claus as a character who just hasn't shown up yet.
I mean, we know he's powerful, we know he's fast, we know that he keeps tabs on things and has been around long enough to know when things are serious, and we know that he cares enough about the world to make sure everyone gets an orange in their stocking on Christmas Day. If he hasn't shown up to fight off Darkseid or Thanos in the past, it's easy to assume that he figured that all the other superheroes could handle it, and so far, he's been right about that.
Imagine, then, how awesome it would be if the next time there was a massive crossover that put everything in danger --- something that had nothing at all to do with Christmas - Santa Claus actually did show up, because this time, for the first time in 1,672 years, things had gotten so real that he knew they needed everyone on deck.
You cannot tell me that would not be off the chain.