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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. Before I introduce this edition’s topic, I just wanted to let you all know that Back Issues is moving to a twice-monthly format for the foreseeable future. These columns involve a lot of research, and doing it weekly has just become untenable, so I hope you’ll all continue to join me twice a month!
This edition’s topic is Holiday themed. With Christmas just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to take a look a just a few of the crazier Holiday-themed stories from comics over the years. This column is going to be a little saltier than is typical, so if you’re offended by Ducks used to reinforce ethnic stereotypes, Cosby sweaters on super-heroes, inexplicable seal-hybrids, and Santa wielding shivs, then you’re really not going to be able to handle the language to come. You’ve been warned.
4 – Christmas on Bear Mountain – (1947)
Though he toiled in relative obscurity for the early part of his career, cartoonist Carl Banks‘ remarkable work on the Donald Duck comics for Disney and Dell were immediately impressive. As the strips went uncredited, his work on the title led him to be called “The Good Duck Artist” by fans until his identity became common knowledge. In 1987, he was one of the inaugural inductees (in-duck-tees? Sorry) into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.
In 1947’s Four Color Comics #178, Banks created “Christmas on Bear Mountain” starring Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, as well as introducing a new character; Donald’s rich and skinflint uncle Scrooge McDuck.
It’s Christmas, and a broke Donald is worried about what to do for his nephews for the season. Hope arrives when Scrooge invites them to his chalet on Bear Mountain. But Uncle Scrooge has an ulterior motive in that he wants to dress up as a bear to frighten his nephews and test their bravery. Why? Reasons. Solid Cartoon Duck reasons, okay?
Anyway, through a series of mishaps, real bear cubs enter the chalet, joined by their understandably perturbed mother. The nephews are scared out of the chalet, and wait for the mama bear to fall asleep, whereupon Donald sneaks in to tie her up before fainting on top of the bear. When Scrooge returns, he assumes a fearless Donald subdued the bear and then was so calm and tough he took a nap on top of the sleeping animal (as you undoubtedly would, I mean that’s just a given, right?).
Impressed, Scrooge spends the holiday with his nephews, and thus begins decades of reinforcing the stereotype of Scottish people being cheap. And, you know, “Ducktales.” “Ducktales” is the bomb.
3 – Yes, Virginia, There is A Santron! (2005)
The Marvel 2005 Holiday Special features this little doozy written by Jeff Parker with art by Reilly Brown. The premise of this story is just a whimsical slice of Holiday fun, and it works pretty perfectly, frankly.
The story opens with a brilliant but troubled young woman building a robot to fulfill the duties of Santa Claus. Virginia has always had an attachment to the idea of Santa, and with her skills as a scientist (this is Marvel, so “Scientist” means “can accomplish anything remotely sciencey in any kind of sciencey discipline”) she repurposes an old Ultron robot she has stumbled across into jolly old St. Nick. Except some of his original programming must still be kicking around because Santron goes right out to murder the Avengers, who are all at their annual Holiday Party.
Santron arrives, and of course the heroes all work together to defeat the threat, and then decide to find Virginia and help her have a Merry Christmas, which of course involves a rousing and touching speech from Captain America that makes Wolverine shed a tear. Parker nails a ton of funny moments that make this kind of a perfect example of the comic book holiday tale. It’s light but sweetly earnest, with a “peace on Earth, goodwill to all” message that is just the right kind of hokey.
Luke Cage gets to say “Sweet Christmas” and wear an ugly sweater, while there’s a number of funny quips by Spidey and great jokes about what the hell Gravity is doing in this august company (though I actually think Gravity is cool, if I’m honest). It’s crazy in that it revolves around the Avengers fighting a robotic Santa, but it all comes together and works.
2 – The Sandman in The Seal Men’s War on Santa Claus! (1978)
When Jack Kirby came to DC Comics in the 1970s, he created a wealth of material for the company, and almost all of it was totally bonkers. Some of it was brilliantly, wonderfully inventive bonkers, like all of the Fourth World/New Gods stuff. Some of it was just variably interesting bonkers, like OMAC and Kamandi. And some of it was just legitimately, banana-pants crazy-town. Enter “Sandman.”
Created by Kirby and writer Michael Fleisher, this new version of Sandman had really no connection whatsoever to the Golden Age version of the character. Please God, don’t ask me to explain his origin because it is literally incomprehensible and insane. It involved subconscious dreamworlds and two…things….called Glob and Mr. Brute and it just made not a lick of goddamn sense.
The Sandman series was cancelled during the DC Implosion of 1978, but there was still one Sandman story left in the inventory, and it was a delightfully wacky little holiday story that finds Sandman trying to save Santa clause from a race of mutant Seal Men determined to destroy St. Nick.
First of all, there’s the delightfully earnest beginning that finds Sandman’s sidekick Jed (who has about the most awful Dickensian nightmare of a foster family you can imagine) succeed in persuading a reclusive millionaire to promise to donate a million bucks to charity, but only if Jed can prove the existence of Santa. Which is a pretty big dick move to lay on a little kid if you ask me. Jed of course asks Sandman for help.
Then once they get to the North Pole they uncover Santa’s been kidnapped by the Seal Men, and they pledge to help him and did I mention the mutant Seal Men that everyone seems to just accept as totally not a crazy-ass thing? Seal Men. To be clear, these are Seals that walk around on two flippers and wear overalls and talk and have a king and what not. And why have they kidnapped Santa? Because of presents. Seems last year he gave the Seal Men gloves, scuba gear and galoshes. Let’s forget for a second that these are an insane collection of things to give anyone and focus on the fact that Seals have neither hands nor feet and can swim pretty well, so Santa was clearly fucking with them on this one. After convincing the Seal Men that this was all a big mix up (for which Santa offers no apology by the way), Christmas is saved and the old miser ponies up a million bucks and gets to drive Santa’s sleigh.
This story is a bunch of damn nonsense. It does have Kirby’s still incredible and imaginative art, which bursts with more energy than this collection of craziness probably deserves. But its heart is in the right place, and there’s something undeniably endearing about the whole thing.
1 – The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special (1991)
Lobo was created in 1983 as a straight-up villain for DC’s “Omega Men” series by Keith Giffen and Roger Slifer. He didn’t really catch on until Giffen later reimagined him as an ultra-violent parody of the grim and gritty anti-heroes that had begun the dominate the super-hero genre. The initial Lobo stories were anarchic and wickedly funny, though to Giffen’s dismay, Lobo would soon come to exemplify the very type of story-telling and characters he was trying to skewer.
But in 1991, he was still defiantly satirical. His Paramilitary Christmas Special is one of the defining stories for the character. Written by Giffen and Alan Grant, with art by definitive Lobo artists Simon Bisley, the story opens as the down on their luck Thung family realize their meagre circumstances won’t permit them to provide a properly materialistic Christmas for their kids. They discover a book has been dropped off mysteriously at their door.
The book tells the tale of intergalactic bounty hunter Lobo, hired by a jealous Easter Bunny to kill Santa Claus as the rabbit is tired of Kringle hogging the spotlight. Lobo makes his way to the North Pole and murders his way through Santa’s elves before encountering the jolly fat man himself. But Santa is no chuckling chubby pushover, rather he is a burly muscled tough guy attended by a trained gorilla named Kong. Vicious, gory ultra-violence ensues, but Lobo come out on top when he cuts off Santa’s head.
Not content to leave things there, Lobo loads up Santa’s sleigh with nuclear weapons and proceeds to bomb the planet. Which I guess counts in Lobo’s world as a happy ending. The special ends with the patriarch of the Thung family finishing the book and then heading upstairs to murder his children.
DC Comics published this book in 1991. DC Comics. They published a book that sees Santa decaptitated, the world end in a ball of nuclear fire on Christmas Eve and then concludes with child murder. Oh, and Lobo gives us all the finger. God bless us, everyone.
This marks my final Back Issues Column of 2016. To all faithful readers near and far, Happy Holidays! And if I run into you under the mistletoe back near the quarter bins, cheek only, okay? Don’t make this weird.