Ask Chris #174: DC Santa Vs. Marvel Santa
Q: How do the holiday mythologies compare between Marvel and DC? — @crcovar
A: How did you know, Crovar?! Another excuse to drop nine thousand words about the underlying differences in the structure of imaginary universes and how they’ve affected their storytelling over the past seventy years? It’s exactly what I wanted for Christmas!
Nah, I’m just kidding. We can probably get through this one in five or six thousand. Seven, tops.
You know, in my mind, when you talk about “holiday mythology” in comics, you’re mostly just talking about Santa Claus, and it probably won’t surprise anyone to find out that I’m actually really fascinated by the differences in how Marvel and DC have portrayed him. Part of it is just that I’m a fan of Christmas to begin with, but the other part is that he’s one of the few characters who has appeared that prominently in both universes, operating on the same sort of underlying foundation of his character. The only other one I can think of that really comes close is Frankenstein. DC never really had a version of Dracula that was as popular and definitive as Marvel’s, and the same goes for Hercules, while Marvel’s version of Camelot never really stuck to the universe in the way that stuff like Morgaine le Fey and the Demon did for DC. Santa, on the other hand, has a pretty extensive record of appearances in both universes, largely as the same guy, filling the exact same role.
Now, obviously there’s a slight difference between Santa Claus and a character like Dracula. In terms of publication, I mean — there are a lot of differences between the actual characters, mostly revolving around how milk and cookies fulfill a completely different set of dietary needs than the blood of the living. They’re both pretty adaptable characters, but Dracula starred in his own monthly title for 70 issues and continues to be a pretty popular fixture of the Marvel Universe. As much as I would read the ever-loving heck out of it, nobody’s going to give Santa his own ongoing series. He’s too tied into Christmas, so his appearances tend to be limited to, at best, popping up in a Holiday Special here and there every December. And to make matters even more complicated, there’s no real unified version of Santa in either universe. He just pops up for whatever story you want him to be in, filling all kinds of different roles. But, you know, that happens across pretty much every form of media for the past 1600 years, so there’s no reason superhero comics should be any different.
Still, there are enough of those appearances that you can start to figure out what the differences are between “Marvel Santa” and “DC Santa” (as much as either one of those options actually exists, anyway) and how he’s supposed to work in each universe. So let’s start with DC.
I talked about this a few days ago, but since day one, DC has been all over the map with regards to the existence of Santa Claus. One year they’ll be putting out a team-up story where Superman has to step in to help St. Nicholas out lest Christmas be ruined for everyone, and the next, there’ll be a story assuring their young readers that Santa most definitely does not exist, and then they’ll bounce right back for another story. Part of that’s to be expected, of course, given the number of different people working on those comics, but still, it’s strange to see it play out, especially in the stories where they come down on the side of the Damned to tell you there ain’t no Santy Claus.
That’s always struck me as weird. When you get right down to it, there’s nothing about Santa Claus that makes any less sense than Green Lantern, a dude who received a special ring that brings his imagination to life from a bunch of little blue do-gooders who live at the center of the universe and reward people for not telling lies or being afraid. It’s even weirder when this is a view being expressed by Superman, who is himself about as improbable as anyone could possibly be.
One of my all-time favorite examples of this weird disbelief comes from DC Comics Presents #67, a team-up with the pretty brilliant premise of pitting Superman and Santa Claus against the Toyman. Seriously, there is no better use of a Superman enemy that is also an evil toymaker than to have him fight Santa Claus and Superman at Christmastime. Anyway, as great as Len Wein, E. Nelson Bridwell and the Curt Swan/Murphy Anderson art team are, this story operates on the strange premise of Superman a) not believing in Santa Claus, and b) being surprised for the entire issue that the big man actually exists:
Admittedly, Superman has a pretty good reason for his surprise — he actually mentions that if Santa did exist, he would’ve seen him in the years since he built the Fortress of Solitude up there — but still. For his disbelief to persist to the end of the issue is mind-boggling. Why?
I’m tellin‘ you why: You know who Superman teams up with in DC Comics Presents #66, the month before this story? ETRIGAN THE DEMON. An actual, literal, fire-breathing demon from Hell who speaks in rhyme and is released via magical incantation by a wizard from King Arthur times. That is literally what happens in the previous issue. One would think that after that, he might be a little more willing to accept a magic toymaker with a sleigh and some flying reindeer, especially since he can also fly.
Incidentally, if you actually do get a Santa Claus team-up in the pages of a DC Comic, there’s like a 90% chance that it’s going to be with Superman. Occasionally he’ll show up and hang out with another hero, but, in another interesting tidbit, it’s never Batman. I can’t think of a single time those two have ever actually met. Even when they have a title as great as “Santa Claus: Wanted Dead Or Alive!” it always turns out to just be some dude who works at a department store, and I can assure you that no one is more upset about this than I am. Fortunately, there’s always that two-pager where he meets Darkseid to cheer me up.
Anyway, despite Superman’s reluctance to believe in Santa Claus, the DCCP story is a nice little adventure with St. Nick, but that in itself is a rarity. In the modern age especially, DC’s depictions of Santa tend to be pretty cynical, whether it’s a gag about how he gets paranoid about his operation as Christmas Eve approaches…
…or, you know, The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special, where Santa Claus is hacked to death with a butcher knife by the title character. The ’90s: They were a time.
I’m not quite sure why that is, but if I had to guess, I’d say that DC’s tradition of optimistic heroics makes it a little easier to play fast and loose with the mythology of Santa Claus. When you already have Superman, you can afford to get a little snarky at someone else who runs around in a red suit being nice to people all the time for the sake of a gag. And, of course, there’s also that slightly more recent tradition of cynically rejecting that optimism and all that goes with it, but I don’t want to get into all that again this close to Christmas.
So that’s DC Santa, and like I said, he’s really hard to pin down. Marvel Santa, on the other hand, is usually a lot more simple. In the Marvel Universe, Santa Claus definitely exists:
Wait, sorry, wrong picture. That’s one of Santa’s helpers. Here we go, I think this is the right one:
Eh. Close enough.
As you can probably tell, actual appearances by Santa Claus are way more rare in Marvel comics than they are over at DC — Marvel’s Christmas comics are usually more about the Punisher stabbing crooks with various holiday decorations, including the antlers of a set of tiny fake reindeer in what is probably the high point of the medium — but he still shows up from time to time. It’s always really interesting when he does, too, because while people are usually skeptical about whether the person they’ve encountered is the real Santa Claus, they very rarely deny that he actually exists.
I can only think of one story where Santa not being real is used as a confirmed plot point, and oddly enough, it’s one of my all-time favorite Christmas comics: Jeff Parker and Reilly Brown’s “Yes Virginia, There Is A Santron,” in which a girl who was profoundly upset when she learned Santa wasn’t real rebuilds one of Ultron’s discarded bodies into a robotic Santa Claus, complete with a nanotechnological “workshop” for fabricating toys in his bag. Needless to say, Ultron’s original programming reasserts itself and it tries to murder the Avengers.
It also features mistletoe shenanigans.
Beyond that, everyone just pretty much accepts that they’re dealing with the actual Santa Claus, and he even has an origin story that’s tied into Thor. See, canonically — in the Marvel Universe sense, not the St. Nicholas of Myra sense — Santa Claus as we know him is directly descended from Odin, who used to ride around giving out gifts to celebrate Thor beating a troll who tried to destroy Asgard with a meteor so hard that he turned into a star:
It’s been established in the Marvel Universe that the Norse Gods change and assume new forms over the centuries, occasionally leaving old ones behind, and my theory is that this is exactly what happened for them, a literalized version of the process of various stories and folktales combining to make what we know as Santa Claus, only their Santa is a real dude who occasionally hangs out with the She-Hulk as a private investigator named Nick St. Christopher. It’s an idea that’s backed up by the entry they gave to Santa when he finally got his Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry a few years back, too, although once the origin is established, that thing goes into some pretty great directions.
Here’s a few highlights:
In December, 1943, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had Santa Claus captured to destroy the USA’s morale, but US President Franklin Roosevelt sent Sgt. Nick Fury, Captain America (Steve Rogers) and Bucky (James Barnes) to rescue him.
In more recent years, on Christmas Eve, Santa saved New York City from the Hate-Monger (a clone of Hitler) when his sleigh — seen only as an unidentified flying object — soared through the air at unprecedented speed, distracting one of the Hate-Monger’s pilots, who crashed into the Hate-Monger’s nuclear bomb. Years later, on another December 24th, Cerebro, the mutant-detecting computer of the X-Men, detected “the most powerful mutant ever registered” in New York’s Rockefeller Center. This being was also detected by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (Unus the Untouchable, the Blob, the Toad and Mastermind) who sought it out, resulting in a skirmish with the X-Men. This ended when Santa briefly transformed the Brotherhood into inanimate toys, teleported the X-Men away, erased both groups’ memories of his involvement and then gifted the cit with snowfall.
It is a source of eternal frustration that the Handbook entry doesn’t have citations, so I have no idea where to start looking for Santa’s multiple battles against Hitler. I do, however, have the one where Dr. Doom steps up to deliver the toys when Santa’s injured.
So there you have it. Two different takes on Santa Claus, a character who seems like, if anything, he goes against the established mood of the universe that he’s in. Set alongside DC’s bright, optimistic heroes, he’s mostly cynical and occasionally doesn’t exist, while Marvel’s flawed heroes believe in him so undeniably that he’s actually in the Official Handbook. But if there’s one thing to take away from this contrast of styles, it’s this:
Batman has never gotten a present from Santa Claus.
Dr. Doom has.