A Christmas Gift To You: The Full ‘Santa Claus vs. the Martians’ #1 Comic
Benito Cereno, James Harren and Ed Brisson’s Santa Claus vs. The Martians is a book I’ve been looking forward to ever since it was first announced. In fact, I even interviewed Santa Claus himself (along with Cereno) about it back in September! Unfortunately, while the series was scheduled to hit the stands this month, delays in production added a few weeks to the book’s release date, and so Image made the decision to delay it until next Christmas.
But if there’s one thing that we here at ComicsAlliance have learned from a lifetime of reading and watching holiday specials, it’s that this is a time of year when anything is possible! And in a bona fide Christmas Miracle, Cereno has decided to put the entirety of the first issue (lettered but uncolored) online for free. And just to make sure his present gets to as many readers as possible, he’s allowed us to run the entire comic here at CA as a special present to our readers.
1.2: “Karate Chop Washington” isn’t just an awesome sounding toy, it’s a reference to Black Ninja/White Ninja, a story that Cereno wrote for the print collection of The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, where the eponymous doctor confronts a baadasssss blaxploitation hero in the vein of Dolemite and Black Belt Jones. Suffice to say that while he’s tough, he’s no Santa Claus.
1.3: The kid here is recounting a list of actual legends about Santa Claus — or at least, the different legends that would become wrapped up in Santa over the past 1600 years. According to Cereno, Santa being “King of the Pirates” comes from the fact that St. Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of both sailors and thieves; sailors because he was one himself before he became a bishop, and thieves because after he died, his body was stolen and taken to Italy, where it remains today. Admittedly, that’s a pretty dodgy reasson for becoming the patron saint of thieves, but saints being, you know, saints, there weren’t a lot out there commiting acts of larceny to begin with.
“He beat up a guy who once said somethig wrong about God” refers to Nicholas reportedly slapping Arius for heresy at The First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD over whether Jesus was the son of God or God Himself given mortal form. Seriously. Slapped him right in the face.
“He handcuffed the devil and made him his slaves” refers to St. Nicholas having, as Cereno puts it, “a number of devilish companions, including Klaubauf, Ruklas, Bartel, Hans Muff, the original version of Zwarte Piet, and others. They are all the bad cop to St Nicholas’ good cop, and represent a triumph of Christianity over native pagan religions.”
1.4: Despite it being everything I want in the world, Santa Claus has not fought Dracula… yet. This line refers to a project Cereno’s been working on for years with frequent collaborator (and occasional ComicsAlliance contributor) Nate Bellegarde called (as you might expect) Santa Claus vs. Dracula.
3.1: The “stern saint” that Santa Refers to is both another reference to his days as Nicholas of Myra (see above, re: slapping), but also to early legends of St. Nicholas, who was just as quick with the switch as he was with the gifts. As Cereno says, “He carried around a birch rod with which to hit children who didn’t know their prayers. A lot of that got transferred to his companions later, but that was definitely him at first.” By the late Victorian era, when this issue takes place, Father Christmas was much less uptight, as we’ll soon see.
3.2: The carolers are singing the last verse of “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” Cereno chose these lines specifically because they were the ones that Walt Kelly often quoted in the Christmastime Pogo strips.
3.4: For those of you who always wondered what the deal was with that one verse in “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” where the carolers demand figgy pudding, here’s what Cereno has to say about the tradition:
Benito Cereno: Wassailing pre-dates modern caroling. It involves singing in hopes of receiving food, drink or some other gift in return. Older Christmas traditions have people going door to door demanding stuff, performing things in “exchange.” It would be like someone breaking into your house, doing a bad play, and then asking for a sandwich. But by the time of this story, the singing was a little tamer and probably sounded okay, but these wassailers are still looking for something in exchange.
4.1: Santa’s reference to himself as “the Lord of Misrule” refers to Father Christmas being way more of a party animal than he was previously — or would become, for that matter:
Benito Cereno: The wassailing of the orchard that we see on the next page is a practice that continues even today. People in apple country put toast soaked in wassail (the beverage) in the trees to appease fertility spirits in hopes of a bountiful harvest. The poems and songs from that scene (i.e., panel 4) are traditional. There’s a wassail king and queen and people drink wassail and put toast in trees and wear costumes and shoot guns.
The form we see Santa in here is that of Father Christmas, who, prior to the 20th century, was pretty different from both St Nicholas and Santa Claus. He was in charge of getting crunk at Christmas, which makes more sense when you realize how rowdy Christmas revelry actually used to be. Like I said, people breaking into houses, spontaneous theater, horrible bands playing on street corners, etc. Father Christmas was in charge of all that. As such, he was more a figure of fertility than the chaste saint, and a lot of what he does in this issue reflects that idea.
By which he means “walking around with his robe open and no shirt on.”
4.2: For those of you who want to re-enact this scene at home, you can make your own wassail! Just warm up some apple cider and add sugar, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, then drop in some chopped apples or oranges! Add in a bit of brandy if you feel like it (kids, get your parents’ permission!) and serve with toast. It’s fun and traditional!
5.2: The buxom Wassail Queen is not to be confused with Mrs. Claus, whose own shapely shadow was seen back on page 2. Traditionally, the Wassail Queen was a local who was probably picked by the same standards that we still use today to name Miss Grits in my native South Carolina.
5.3: The never-ending drinking horn is both a reference to the cornucopia/horn of plenty (which, in pop cultural terms, was passed to Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present, along with the mistletoe crown and chest-revealing robe) and to the myth in which Utgard-Loki challenges Thor to drink from a horn that actually contains the entire ocean.
8.6: Father Christmas’s “Gods above!” isn’t a typo, it’s a nod to the fact that a good half of the things we think of as being characteristic of Santa Claus come from Pagan religions — specifically Norse mythology. We’ll see more of that shortly.
9.2: And here we have the Martians. Specifically, it’s a Martian tripod as described by H.G. Wells (and later, Orson Welles) in War of the Worlds, and if it looks familiar, there’s a good reason: Wells’ description was the inspiration for how the Martians have been depicted in dozens of movies and comics, including League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Marvel’s Killraven in the ’70s — and more recently in Secret Avengers and Captain America. Also, “KREERANK” is Martian for “‘sup fools.”
11.6: “Spieltoe” is the name of Santa Claus’s donkey in Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, one of the lesser-known stop-motion Christmas specials produced in 1977 by Rankin-Bass, the same studio that did Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, among others.
Benito Cereno: In France, Pere Noel’s donkey’s name is Gui, which means mistletoe, but this story isn’t in France. Father Christmas is associated with all sorts of animals, including donkeys, horses, goats, reindeer and more. I chose a donkey because he’ll be riding a horse later.
13.3: “A basket full of people on one’s back” is, of course, Krampus‘s preferred method of dragging wicked children off to Hell.
13.5: “As wax melts before the fire” is a quote from Psalm 68:2, but it — and much of what Father Christmas says to the martian– is drawn from an actual Catholic exorcism.
14.2: This is the Heat-Ray, the fearsome weapons of the Martians in War of the Worlds.
15.1: Father Christmas’s line about sifting people as wheat is from the Bible, specifically Luke 22:31, where Jesus says it to Simon (who later becomes Peter). This is another bit of the exorcism liturgy, but it also has some interesting significance to St. Nicholas.
One of the miracles for which Nicholas was canonized involves him sailing into port with some sailors and demanding that they allow him to take some of their wheat for the needy. They groused about it, as they were going to get docked when it came time to weigh the shipment, but lo and behold, they had the same amount of wheat they set sail with, despite Nicholas taking enough to plant two years worth of harvests.
15.4: “Waes thu hael” is the Old English root of the word “wassail,” a greeting translating as “be you hale/healthy.”
15.6: “Drinc hail” is the response, meaning (as you might expect) “drink well.”
17.4: Father Christmas’s dialogue here and in the next panel are also drawn from Psalm 68. Not that you’d know it from all the talk of burning enemies and scattering them before God, but it’s actually a chapter about how great it is to sing songs.
19.4: “The man I once was,” is once again St. Nicholas, specifically referring to one of his (typically) gruesome adventures from his time sailing around the 4th century. During a famine, a butcher had abducted three children, chopped them up, and stuffed them in a barrel to cure so that he could sell them to the starving populace as jerky. Nicholas, being a saint and all, not only discovered the man’s crime, but reassembled the dismembered bodies and brought them back to life, thus becoming the patron saint of children.
A similar legend also led St. Nicholas to become the patron saint of prostitutes. During yet another famine (times were hard in St. Nick’s day, it seems), a man was so hard up that he was considering turning his three daughters out on the street — imperiled children often coming in sets of three. In order to preserve their virtue, Nicholas dropped three small bags of gold down the man’s chimney, where they landed in the stockings the girls had hung up over the fire to dry. Think about that one on Christmas morning.
19.7: Here’s Cereno’s translation of Father Christmas’s prayer here:
“Holy God, to whom belong everything, heaven, earth, sky and sea…”
“May you order that he rise again, and may you listen to those crying out to you.”
Benito Cereno: That Latin, by the way, is taken from a medieval miracle play that dramatizes that story about the murdered boys.
20.3: Despite making cusses, this kid is apparently Nice enough that he got exactly what he wished for on Page 3: He gets to see Father Christmas.
21.2: While the mention of France is just logical based on the first land-mass you’d hit if you hightailed it out of England to avoid being fried by Martians, the discussion of oranges and Spain actually has a lot to do with Santa History. Oranges have been popular gifts at Christmas for literal centuries, because over time, the three bags of gold that St. Nicholas was depicted with from the story of the three would-be prostitutes became misinterpreted by the public as what they appeared to be in paintings: Oranges! Thus, St. Nicholas giving out bags of gold to keep three girls from having to turn on the red light became Father Christmas giving out oranges. It even added a wrinkle to the tradition that persists even today among the dutch that Santa sails in from Spain, as that’s where oranges came from in Europe.
24.3: It might seem odd for a Christian saint like Nicholas to be telling a kid legends of the Norse gods, but again, as Benito says, much of what Father Christmas represented came not from Christianity, but from Norse mythology: Reindeer, elves, flying through the sky on Yule and putting presents in kids’ shoes are all things originally cribbed from Odin. He’s even done it in Marvel comics, and if they’re not the authority on the Asgardians, who is?
25.3: If there’s one thing I recognize from 28 years of watching the Charlie Brown special, it’s when I’m seeing someone give a speech about the True Meaning of Christmas, and that’s exactly what we have here.
Benito Cereno: Yeah, basically. But (spoilers) every issue of the mini-series is going to feature the “true meaning of Christmas.” All different, all equally true.
26.3: And at last, the moment that was a foregone conclusion from the moment Wells’ Martians showed up and started terrorizing the populace: They get driven off by Earth’s surprisingly Christmasy germs!
And that’s the end of the first issue of Santa Claus vs. The Martians! Once again, a special thanks to Benito Cereno for not only allowing us to run the story, but for helping out with the annotations as well. If you’d like to see larger versions of the pages (without the commentary cluttering things up between them), check out his website, and when the series shows up in Previews again next year, check it out!