Christmas Comic Book ReviewsA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Keith Dallas
EDITOR’S NOTE: This week we continue our Holiday theme as I assigned our stable (pun intended) of SBC reviewers to evaluate any Christmas-themed comic book they desired. As you’ll see, their reviews involve a diverse cast (Spider-Man, Hitman Tommy Monaghan, Starman Jack Knight, Lobo) and the reviewers document some diverse reactions (from teary-eyed sentiment to incongruous mirth). But of course, how can anyone celebrate the merry Christmas season without pouring a glass of eggnog, roasting chestnuts by an open fire, and diving right into that comic book about…
Zombie World: Home for the Holidays
Reviewed by Bob Agamemnon
Writer: Gordon Rennie
Artist: Gary Erskine
Publisher: Dark Horse
Plot: It’s Christmas Eve in Connecticut. As tradition dictates, the Matheisons—a blue-blooded family with roots reaching back to colonial America—are gathering at the old homestead. This year, however, a zombie infestation spreading across New England means that all of the Matheisons, from puritan patriarch Methuselah to young drowning victim Timmy, are coming home for the holidays.
Comments: For many, the holiday season doesn’t herald tidings of comfort and joy as much as it brings ravaging torments of despair. Though the depression brought on by a solitary Christmas is well documented, it is the anxiety of a torturous weekend (or longer) in close quarters with one’s own family that is far more pervasive. What genre then, is most suitable when the prescription is catharsis? As is so often the case, one need look no further than the zombie comic.
Dark Horse’s short-lived Zombie World series may be forgotten in the minds of many comic-book readers, but thankfully it occasioned the production of what may be the only Christmas-themed zombie comic. This may bring forth images of Santa Clause lurching down the lane with his famous “bowl full of jelly” rent asunder, surrounded by reindeer reminiscent of Resident Evil’s zombie dogs. Or better yet, a zombie nativity scene complete with zombie shepards and a little zombie drummer boy. But the creators of Zombie World: Home for the Holidays have their finger on the pulse (or lack thereof) of the true horror of Christmas: your family.
Home for the Holidays is narrated by one Greg Mathieson, soulless financial analyst, sub par husband and father, and all-around waste of flesh. And he’s the sympathetic member of the clan. As Greg and his family arrive at his childhood home on Christmas Eve, we are introduced to the head of the Mathiesons, the family-obsessed Byrnon whose toast sums up his character perfectly: “ To Methuselah Mathieson, founder of the family! Four wars and far too many Democrat administrations, and they still haven’t got rid of the Mathiesons yet.” Writer Gordon Rennie manages, in three short pages, to sketch out the rest of the brood, aptly described by Greg as “a proud lineage containing all the usual screw-ups and throw backs you’d expect to find after three hundred years of rarified in-breeding.”
As the book progresses and the inevitable crisis slowly impinges upon the Mathieson’s gathering, it becomes clear that Rennie and artist Gary Erskine are using zombies as a vehicle to explore the bickering, secrets, and politics endemic to most family reunions. The first word of the impending zombie attack comes from cousin Edie. When she arrives, bloody and hysterical and having lost her boyfriend to the undead who have overrun the Connecticut highways, Simon (Edie’s unbearable brother) responds with a flip question: “Didn’t she complete rehab this time? I thought she was supposed to be cleaned-up these days . . .” Unfortunately for him, “the old Bolivian marching powder” is not to blame for his sister’s state of distress.
It goes without saying that it is Methuselah, “founder of the family,” who leads the charge of walking-dead Mathiesons from the local graveyard. One by one, each of the “screw-ups and throw backs” are given their just desserts, including our narrator Greg, who meets his end in one of the more touching zombie Hallmark moments. For those who dread another family get-together with that jerk Cousin Simon and crazy old Uncle Woodrow, Home for the Holidays will remind you that it could be worse. You could be a Mathieson.
The execution of Home for the Holidays isn’t always smooth. Gordon Rennie runs into some snags in his exposition that mostly stem from his narrator being barricaded in the attic while telling the story. Erskine’s zombies certainly pale in comparison to such maestros of the form as Remain’s Kieron Dwyer: For some reason, the heads of Erskine’s undead are always too big for their bodies. However, if that DVD of Dawn of the Dead under the tree just isn’t enough for you, head for the quarter bin and see if you can’t dig up a copy of this heartwarming family tale.
Starman #27 (1996)
Reviewed by Jason Sacks
Writer: James Robinson
Artists: Steve Yeowell (p), Wade Van Garbage (i)
I miss Jack Knight and his friends and family. Jack, at first reluctant, then heroic, protagonist of Starman, was one of the most intelligent and surprising characters in comics. His series also boasted one of the strongest supporting casts in comics: Jack’s father: the original Starman, Mikaal Thomas: the extraterrestrial ‘70s disco Starman, the O'Dare family of police officers. I miss them all. I want to know what Jack is up to, how he’s doing with his young daughter, and how his antiques business is doing.
The holidays are all about catching up with old friends, so I pulled out my copy of Starman #27 to spend some time with the whole cast of characters. I found a wonderful Christmas treat.
The comic starts out with a wonderful Norman Rockwell-esque cover by Tony Harris. A man in a Santa Claus costume is crying in the snow while a sad Jack Knight is standing behind Santa, a wonderful Christmas scene behind him but separate from Santa. Harris, the current artist on Ex Machina, paints a wonderful portrait that is a charming outline of the story inside.
The story begins with the O’Dares getting ready for Christmas. The elder O'Dares are setting up a family Christmas party and are full of the holiday spirit. Meanwhile, Jack Knight is flying to the party and finds a man in a Santa Claus suit sitting on a park bench crying. It turns out that he is a homeless man who had worked as a department store Santa whose clothes were stolen. In a pocket of the Santa’s ratty pants was a locket that represents his old family, long since dead in a car crash. “The locket’s still yours and it holds memories and you want it back, right? Come on, Santa, let's get it back.” Jack slowly tracks down the locket, passing some extra cash to homeless folks to help them get warm meals as he searches. As the O’Dares’ house fills up with family and friends, Jack sacrifices his holiday on a quest to help his new friend. He finally tracks down the locket at a pawnbroker’s store, where the pawnbroker was shot in the midst of a robbery. Jack stops the robbers. The Santa, who was a medic in Korea, manages to save the pawnbroker’s life. The pair part ways, with Pete, the Santa, walking back to his storm grate to sleep, and Jack stands in the snow, beginning to tear up. Cut to the party at the O’Dares’ house, where people are having fun around the Christmas tree, wondering what
happened to Jack. Finally, Jack shows up at the party, with Pete along with him. Pete is welcomed to the party, and at last, dinner is served.
It’s a little but hokey, but this story always chokes me up. Every character is full of the holiday spirit, especially our hero, who commits a truly heroic act by sacrificing his precious time to help a stranger. We see that heroism isn’t about powers. Heroism is about spirit and humanity, intelligence and caring. Great thoughts for the holidays.
Reviewed by Kelvin Green
“The Santa Contract” (see, it's a pun on a pun!)
Writer: Garth Ennis
Artists: John McCrea (p), Steve Pugh (i)
Publisher: DC Comics
In this issue, Tommy Monaghan, Gotham’s pre-eminent assassin for hire, hunts down a radioactive Santa Claus. And there’s me thinking that the DCU was boring...
What I like most about this story is also what I like most about my favourite Christmas film, Die Hard, and that’s the fact that it uses Christmas as a backdrop for a rollocking good story, making good use of the inherent contrasts. Oh there’s a little bit of a moral at the end, but even that is a break from the norm, freely admitting that Christmas may have lost its original meaning, but that at the end of the day, it does have some redeeming features. Along the way, we get the aforementioned radioactive Santa, a Simpsons reference, a Bladerunner pastiche, a spoof of superhero origin stories, and lots and lots of comedy violence. This is more of a straight comedy issue than others in the series, and it’s clear that everyone involved is having a laugh. Ennis even presents the narration in a twisted Christmassy verse, at the same time harking back to Etrigan’s largely comical appearances in earlier issues. Meanwhile, John McCrea pencils everything in his unique hybrid of realism and exaggerated cartooning, which is exactly the right tone for this series, and this story in particular. We’re also treated to a number of visual jokes that run from clever to inane, but all are funny. It’s not particularly Christmassy, but this is a good fun comic that’s definitely worth a read, especially if you’re sick of endless cheesy (although undoubtedly well-meaning) Christmas comics. Ennis would do his traditional heart-warming Superman story later on in the series (and he’d win an Eisner for it), but this one is just for laughs.
Marvel Holiday Special: 1991
Reviewed by Michael Deeley
“A Miracle a Few Blocks Down Form 32nd Street” (by Scott Lobdell/Dave Cockrum/Joe Rubenstein)
“A Christmas Coda” (by Walt Simonson/Art Adams/Al Milgrom)
“Midnight Drear” (by Steve Grant/Klaus Janson)
“Twas a Midwinter’s Night” (by Tom DeFalco/Sal Buscema)
“Precious Gifts” (by Len Kaminski/Ron Lim/James Sanders III)
“Ghosts of Christmas Past” (by Howard Mackie/John Herbert/Al Milgrom)
“It Came and Went On A Midnight Clear” (by Scott Lobdell/Denis Jensen/Barb Kaalberg)
“A Spider-Man Carol” (by Danny Fingeroth/Ron Garney/Mike DeCarlo)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Eight stories about Marvel heroes at Christmas show the more human side of the characters. The old “All-New X-Men” face the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, and get unexpected help from Santa. Franklin Richards learns the value of sacrifice when he finds Jacob Marley’s ghost. The Punisher helps bring a little cheer to the homeless. Odin starts a Christmas tradition in old Norway. Steve Rogers finds Bucky’s sister, Ghost Rider is mistaken for Santa Claus by a blind boy, sick kids teach J. Jonah Jameson why Spider-Man’s a hero, and Captain Ultra and Plantman teach us about replanting Christmas trees.
This was the first Christmas themed comic I ever read, and it still holds up as one of my favorites. Cap’s meeting with Bucky’s sister, telling her what happened to her long-lost brother, is a touching scene. It also reminds Rogers of the kind of life he gave up when he became Captain America. Incidentally, the story begins with Steve volunteering at a soup kitchen for vets. That’s the kind of Cap I’d like to see more of: a nice, decent guy who always tries to do the right thing.
This was also a good sampler of comic art styles. It’s hard to get more diverse than the Manga-influenced work of Art Adams, the “traditional” styles of Dave Cockrum and Sal Buscema, the stark gritty inks of Klaus Janson, and the lively pencils of Ron Garney. Big props also go out to John Herbert. His highly detailed style perfectly conveys the fear of the young boy, the cemetery he’s lost in, and the sheer terror spread by Ghost Rider.
I know the Ghost Rider story is supposed to evoke humor and fear from a little boy trusting a demon, but I can’t help thinking how dammed scary Ghost Rider looks! And he should look scary; He’s a biker with a flaming skull! He should be the most frightening mo-fo you have ever seen! Bikers make us nervous. Demons want to kill us. Put them together and you’ve got a monster that makes you shit yourself just by looking at you! If Ghost Rider is ever revived, they should make sure he’s drawn by an artist that perfectly captures that visual hook. GR should be the scariest thing anyone ever sees. Everything else about the character and story draws from that.
Most of these stories don’t have heroes fighting villains. They just try to have a Merry Christmas. Quiet stories like these, where super heroes are human first and super second, are more memorable than the typical action fare. This Marvel Holiday Special gives us some quiet moments rendered by some great artistic and writing talents. Not a bad Christmas gift at all.
Amazing Spider-Man #248 (available in reprinted form in The Very Best of Spider-Man TPB)
Reviewed by Judson Miers
“The Kid who Collects Spider-Man”
Writer: Roger Stern
Artist: Ron Frenz
Publisher: Marvel Comics
I thought I had the perfect Christmas-related comic book from New England Comics with The Tick and Multiple Santa, but I couldn’t find it in my collection. After another search, I actually found a better issue!
Before the Gwen Stacy-Norman Osborne love child affair, before the return of the clone, before the symbiotes, Spider-Man used to be about ordinary people (either masked or unmasked) who interacted with each other. These stories had “heart” and touched me when I was growing up, teaching me lessons about life, and giving me someone to look up to as a role model. This is one of the greatest stories ever told…
The issue starts with a news clip from Conover’s Corner entitled “The Kid who Collects Spider-Man!” The kid, Timothy Harrison, was “nine years old…going on thirty-five.” Spider-Man hangs from the ceiling talking to Timothy who’s in his PJs in his bed. Throughout the issue, Timothy shows Spidey his entire collection of Spider-Man memorabilia. Spidey does his own “show-and-tell” as well. Timothy gets to see the weight of Uncle Ben’s death on him as they relive some of Spidey’s adventures.
Finally, Timothy asks to see who’s behind the mask… After a few tense moments, the mask comes off to reveal Peter’s face. “Don’t worry, Pete, I understand. It’s our secret! Forever and ever…I promise.” They hug good-bye, and we see a tear rolling down Peter’s face. As Spidey swings away, we find out that Timothy was a patient in the Slocum-Brewer Cancer Clinic diagnosed with terminal leukemia.
I can’t think of any comic that expressed the spirit of heroic sacrifice and giving that is shadowed in every story since the manger birth more than 2000 years ago. I hope that it will touch your hearts as much as it always does mine and remind us of the Savior who gave so much for us…
The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special (1991)
Reviewed by Michael Deeley
Writers: Keith Giffen & Alan Grant
Artists: Simon Bisley, Lovern Kindzierski (colors)
Publisher: DC Comics
A mother and father on an alien world face the terrifying prospect of telling their kids they can’t afford any Christmas gifts. They know their kids are going to mutilate, kill, and partially eat them. Luckily, a storybook is delivered to their doorstep. It tells the story of Lobo hired by the Easter Bunny to kill Santa Claus. What follows are pages filled with gruesome violence, elf corpses, torture, mass murder, and an utter disdain for anything remotely decent.
A true holiday classic.
I’ve found the Lobo comics from the early 90’s to feature his best stories. “Infantcide,” “Convention Special,” and “Blazing Chain of Love” are all ruthless, unrestrained exercises in violent parody. Lobo’s popularity stemmed from these stories that held nothing sacred. Their unapologetic attitudes also helped make them funny as hell. Not many people even try to make jokes about killing kids. Fewer still are funny.
“Paramilitary Christmas” doesn’t just send “The Main Man” on a mission to kill jolly Saint Nick. It portrays Santa as a cruel slave driver. He’s a heartless, kinky bastard with a pet gorilla and wields a mean pair o’ knives. He gives almost as good as he gets. The old bastard has it coming.
Somehow violence drawn by Simon Bisley is more disturbing than any other comic book violence I’ve seen. Not even the copious amounts of blood in “Battle Royale” made me as queasy as this slaughter. It’s like Bisley’s work takes place in a hellish dimension where flesh takes on hyper-realistic qualities in vaguely defined locations. It has the look and feel of a very bad dream from which you can’t/don’t want to awaken.
This special inspired last year’s “Authority vs. Lobo,” also drawn by Bisley. Frankly, I think this is the better comic. The violence is more violent, the humor is edgier, and the attitude so in your face, it’s punched through your skull.
Dead kids, a dog eating an elf, slashed Santa, and some bad, bad penguins. A must-read for all comics fans!
Merry Fraggin’ Christmas!
Amazing Spider-Man #314 (available in reprinted form in the Spider-Man Visionaries: Todd McFarlane TPB)
Reviewed by Dave Wallace
“Down and Out in Forest Hills”
Writer: David Michelinie
Artist: Todd McFarlane
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Way back in 1989, huge waves were being created in comics by a man named Todd McFarlane. It would have been impossible then to gauge the influence that this man would have on comics in the 90s and beyond (sometimes in a good way, sometimes very, very bad…), but his breakout work on this title – Amazing Spider-Man – got a lot of people talking. I’ve chosen the Christmas issue of Michelinie and McFarlane’s modern classic run because the team were the first to be responsible for drawing me back to comics in recent years, and this – despite the team’s many and varied faults – wins their run a certain place in my heart. Plus, the original comic features numerous ads in a loveable 80s style – Top Gun shades and all – for video games that I remember coveting as a youngster growing up in that era. And a little bit of nostalgia never hurts! So, “Down and Out in Forest Hills” depicts Peter Parker and Mary Jane evicted from their plush Bedford Towers condo on Christmas Eve, with nowhere to stay and all their money tied up in litigation over the doomed apartment. As the Parkers search for a place to stay, Pete decides he doesn’t want to have to lean on his Aunt in such times of crisis: that moving back into his childhood home in Forest Hills would be too much of a step backwards. As we see Peter exhaust all possibilities for finding a home on Christmas Eve – with not even a lowly stable to house them in all of Manhattan – a couple of straightforward crimes unfold, and Spidey has to spring into action.
Whilst I was weaned back onto comics by David Michelinie’s writing during this run, it’s fair to say that broader reading habits since then have enabled me to see that his scripting and dialogue was solid, but hardly anything special. The plotting of this issue is straightforward and unsurprising, and even what Spider-Man action there is is nothing exciting to write home about. However, where Michelinie does score highly is in conveying a real sense of the heart of these characters, and the story will please longtime Spidey-fans as it focuses on key members of Spidey’s cast at Christmas. Pete himself is the loveable, bumbling good egg that he has always been, and Mary Jane was always a strong female character under Michelinie’s pen, who can more than hold her own in banter with her husband. His writing of supporting characters is great fun too, as how can one not love J. Jonah Jameson’s Christmas spirit at the office party (“Enjoy! After all – It’s deductible!”), Flash Thompson’s matured role as a teacher of young kids at his local gym, or the stoic figure of Aunt May shielding her pain at Uncle Ben’s death (yet again) from the young lovers.
As for the art… Well (for my sins, and I don’t want to upset purists here) Todd McFarlane still renders my favourite version of Spidey, bar none. I appreciate and love the hugely creative work that Ditko and Romita did in the early years, the simple classic approach still echoed today by Romita. Jr; I can enjoy the bright bounciness of Mark Bagley’s work on the Ultimate title; but the artist who really brought the superhero element of Spidey to life in all his quirky poses, breathless web-slinging and spaghetti-webbing is still McFarlane for me. Having said that, rereading this issue after a few years makes you realize just how uneven his work could be in other areas. If you dig McFarlane’s trademark muscular and super-heroic Spidey in all his gnarly and twisted glory, you’ll probably like this – but if you’re a stickler for dead-on anatomy or high realism sans caricature, it’s probably best avoided.
My choice for this Christmas selection is hardly the best seasonal story ever told, not the most heartfelt or original tale and certainly not even the best issue from this period in Spider-Man history. However, it sticks in my mind as a good example of a comic which integrates the Christmas theme into the title’s longer-running storylines whilst still feeling fairly festive. The story’s conclusion provides a surprisingly mature outlook on the festive season as a time to consider the feelings of those near and dear to us as well as our own, and to count our blessings rather than dwell on what’s not going quite right in our lives. As such, for all its flaws, it’s a nice Christmassy tale from a lauded run in comics history that just about stands up to rereading 15 years later.
Happy Christmas to all readers of SBC! See you in the New Year!