Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Two things: 1) I read Klaus #1 recently and 2) why aren’t there any good Santa Claus comics?
Mark, I hope you’re not trying to lure me into hating on a Grant Morrison comic for 2,000 words this holiday season. Anyone who reads my reviews regularly already knows that I’m filled with piss, vinegar, and cynicism, so it wouldn’t be very surprising to see me trash something from one of the most revered writers working in the comics industry today. But it’s almost Christmas and just after that we’ll be looking at a brand new year, and this comics critics heart is growing three sizes today. Rather than focus on that first point, I think I’m going to tackle the second because I think it both leads to more good cheer and some more interesting topics of conversation.
That first half still has to be addressed though, and you’re not wrong. Klaus #1 was something pitched and promoted at a pretty high level, especially considering it came from a smaller publisher like Boom! Studios. Not only did it have Morrison’s name attached, but he was saying it would be to Santa Claus as All-Star Superman was to Superman. That’s no small claim considering All-Star Superman is the definitive Superman story for one of the greatest characters in Western literature. What Klaus actually turned out to be was a perfectly readable, gritty reinterpretation of the claymation movie Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I may gather with friends to drink and watch that holiday standard every year, but it certainly wasn’t demanding a revisit and the first issue of Klaus does nothing to justify the hype.
I get why this letdown may have lead you to ask, “Why aren’t there any good Santa Claus comics?” I look at what’s currently available and this questions isn’t surprising, but I hope you won’t scoff if I smile with a twinkle in my eye and respond, “Yes, Virgini… Mark, there are good Santa Claus comics.”
Before we dive into the issue I’ll offer as proof of good Santa comics, I’d first like to tackle why this and others are so hard to find. You might have heard of an old adage before called Sturgeon’s Law. It was originally coined in reference to science fiction, but has been much more widely applied since. In essence it says that 90% of everything is crap. I think that even if the math isn’t an exact fit, it captures a real truth of different genres and media. If you take all superhero stories, probably about 90% are crap. If you take all comics, probably about 90% are crap. There’s a lot of people making a lot of stuff and much of it is crap due to a wide variety of reasons.
This doesn’t mean superheroes or comics or anything else is bad; it just means that we should focus more on the things that are worth our time and encourage one another to keep upping our game and aiming for excellence instead of mediocrity. Take a look at Batman or Superman comics for example. There are loads of the things, not just over time but each month. If you go to your local comic store, I bet you could find at least a dozen Batman comics on the new release wall and a hundred different collections on the back wall. Most of those might be crap, but there are also going to be some really excellent Bat-books worth your time. Right now I’m a fan of Grayson and Batman. Even if other stuff like Batman and Robin Eternal makes me want to gouge my eyes out, that doesn’t mean we ought to throw it all out.
If you get even more specific and want to look at Christmas-themed Batman comics, you’ll still find some top-notch picks for what’s great. It’s the law of large numbers applied to Sturgeon’s Law, if enough of these are published there are bound to be some good ones. I’m a really big fan of Li’l Gotham #3. The entire Li’l Gotham digital comic by writer, artist, and colorist Dustin Nguyen and co-writer Derek Fridolfs was fantastic. It imbued the Batman mythos with a long-missing sense of joy and wonder through a series of self-contained, holiday-themed adventures. Yet it’s #3 that stands out to me as the gold standard of this under-loved Batman comic.
This Christmas-themed tale focuses on Batman and Nightwing as they track down Mr. Freeze after he has kidnapped a busload of children. When the dynamic duo finally catch up with the villain, they learn his motives are not the least bit nefarious. He has encased them in a winter wonderland (one they appear to be enjoying a great deal) to “keep them safe from the harshness and cruelty of Gotham City.” Freeze is doing the wrong thing, but at least it’s for the right reasons. Batman doesn’t ultimately stop Freeze with his fists, but reason, telling him that “every kid deserves parents” in a chilling moment. Freeze releases the children to Batman’s custody and agrees to return to Arkham peacefully.
That’s not the end of the story though. As the rest of the inmates go about decorating their cells, Freeze is left alone to contemplate his choices. That is until he hears something coming from outside his cell, the sound of caroling. Bruce Wayne has brought his entire family, including Alfred, Dick, and Damian, along with the band of school children to sing “O, Holy Night” to Mr. Freeze. It’s a small act of kindness, but one that reverberates through the bars of his cell to warm an otherwise lonely night.
I understand this story may play more than a bit to the maudlin, but it really captures some of the things that make both Batman and the holidays great. Batman’s mission, in its best possible version, isn’t about vengeance, but sacrifice. He gives all of himself to help prevent others from suffering the same trauma he went through. The goal isn’t to punish, but to save. That’s why he gives up his Christmas Eve to not only rescue all of these children, but to offer a ray of hope to a tormented man. That works so well in this setting of snow because it aligns with one of the better themes of Christmas; it is the season of giving. That group caroling outside of Arkham Asylum couldn’t create a better picture for why even those of us who don’t attend church may love this holiday. It may sound downright silly, but Batman really understands what Christmas is all about.
There are plenty of other excellent examples of famous comic book characters with great holiday-themed issues as well. One of the most famous Superman stories of all time falls into this category: Superman Annual #11, better known by its title “For The Man Who Has Everything.” It’s no surprise that a comic created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons turned out to be great, but this is really one of my favorite Christmas comics. In it Superman is attacked by Mongul who paralyzes him with a plant called the Black Mercy. It provides Superman with the illusion of a perfect life. He is a family man on a Krypton that was never destroyed, spending time with his wife and son, working as a scientist. It is a peaceful life and reveals a lot about the Man of Steel. This isn’t the last time Moore would focus on this aspect of Superman, as it is a central point in another classic tale “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”.
In the meanwhile, Superman’s friends Batman and Wonder Woman arrive to give him their gifts and are forced to battle Mongul instead. Eventually, Superman realizes that the Black Mercy may be giving him what he wants, but it’s not real. So he’s able to free himself of its influence and help save the day. Unfortunately, both of his friend’s gifts are rendered moot as Batman’s is destroyed in the action and Wonder Woman’s replicates something Superman already has. It doesn’t matter at the end of the story though. Superman has been shown the value of the life he has, even in comparison to the one he might desire. It’s a clear example of someone receiving what they need instead of what they wants. The world is not perfect and it still requires Superman to forego an ordinary life, but he has friends and a purpose, and that is more than enough to enjoy the moment.
Having taken a look at those great stories, I think we can dig into why there aren’t many excellent Santa Claus comics and why the one I have in mind works so well. That issues is Fables #56. If you’re not familiar, this Santa Claus story is set in Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham’s Vertigo series about a New York City filled with fairytale creatures who fled their homelands to make a new life. It is Santa’s first appearance in the series, and while it’s no surprise to see him in this incredibly diverse world after 55 issues, it still feels special.
Santa Claus interacts with a variety of the best-known Fables here, including the troublesome Jack Horner, the cubs of Bigby Wolf and Snow White, and the haunted frog prince, Flycatcher. His interaction with Jack is all in good fun, shoo’ing off the scheming Fable and his harebrained scheme to sell Santa’s Naughty or Nice list, but the rest of this issue is something very special.
One of the strengths of Fables #56 comes from the fact that it doesn’t need to explain or accept Santa Claus. His appearance is a “no duh” moment. In a world with the Three Little Pigs, the North Wind, and Baba Yaga, how could the fat man in red not be around? He simply is and his existence and function make sense. There’s no use explaining a truly iconic figure and Fables #56 doesn’t waste any time doing so. Instead, it explores his place in the universe through the eyes of a child.
Snow and Bigby, arguably the main characters of Fables, have 7 children together and those cubs know that if one of them catches Santa Claus depositing his presents, they will be able to ask him any question, but at the cost of all their presents for that year. Ambrose, the most gentle-hearted and scholarly of the cubs, draws the short straw and agrees to keep watch. He manages to catch Santa, but doesn’t ask the agreed upon question. Instead he asks, “I want to know how you do it?”
The explanation is inspired, playing on magic, revealing the essence of Santa Claus’ charm, and providing a window into an absolutely heartbreaking scene. Santa tells Ambrose that he is everywhere at the same time, making a single trip down every chimney in the world simultaneously. That’s not just a clever magical twist to make Santa function in our world, it also distills how he works as a character. Think back to when you believed in Santa and you’ll no doubt remember trying to stay up late and listen for his footsteps. I know that he sparked my imagination at a very young age, thinking of this immaculate altruist climbing down chimneys and dropping off presents for all of the good girls and boys. That wasn’t a unique experience though. Anywhere his legend is celebrated, that experience is shared from the United States to Mexico to France to China. The experience of wonder at receiving gifts from a jolly fellow who believes you deserve them is something really special as a child, and it’s something that is very real whether or not Santa actually is.
That’s far from the most important part of this story or Santa Claus though. As he tells Ambrose how his powers work, we see all of the gifts he is providing. There is coal for Jack Horner and nicely wrapped presents for well-behaved Fables like Boy Blue and Rose Red. Then there’s his gift to Flycatcher. It’s a scene that will break your heart and remind you of the true power of Santa Claus and giving.
If you’ve never read Fables, Flycatcher is the sweetest, most lovable character in the series. He’s the kind of fellow who might eat a fly, but would never mean to hurt one. When Santa comes to visit him, he had recently remembered that his wife and children had all been slain in the Homelands. These traumatic memories had transformed him once more into a frog. Santa Claus, at “some cost”, has brought his late wife to see him one last time. She can only stay long enough for one kiss, but it is enough to bring Flycatcher back to human form and allow him to say goodbye. The scene is nothing less than heartbreaking.
Neither Santa nor Flycatcher is happy about what has just happened. Flycatcher screams at Santa and then weeps into his coat, as the Saint Nick only looks on in sad wisdom. This isn’t what either of them wanted, the pain and horror of acknowledging you will never see the most precious person in your life again. But it is what Flycatcher needed. As the series progresses, he goes from being a janitor to a powerful prince that swings the tide against the same Adversary that murdered his wife and children. That transformation begins here with a single, terrible gift.
That’s the thing about gift giving. It isn’t always an easy act. Giving requires sacrifice and that’s at the heart of Santa’s interactions with both Ambrose and Flycatcher. He gives them things they need, but that they do not want. For Ambrose it is simply the sacrifice of a toy for knowledge that will inspire his future exploits. For Flycatcher it is a final goodbye that will push him toward far more terrible trials. The choice of these gifts come from a place of wisdom though. Santa Claus is omniscient and he chooses to give what he does because he truly does understand what he is doing.
When we look at Santa and why we love him, it may start as curiosity about getting what we want as children, but it becomes about the sacrificial act of giving as adults. Trying to find the perfect gift for your parents, siblings, or significant other is a challenging act that requires a great deal of thought and knowledge. Choosing between what they want and what they need requires even more than that, it requires wisdom. That’s why I love Fables #56, and why I’d say that it’s not just a good Santa comic, but a great one.
Despite the lack of Santa stories in comics today, there must have been at least enough over the past decade to provide this 10% of excellence. Having to remember it was a gift in and of itself, a nice reminder of why I enjoy the holidays (and comics) just in time for me to fly home for Christmas.
That’s why I’d like to point out one final thing that I’m grateful for, and that’s you King Baby. I’ll admit that I don’t always want to do these columns, sometimes they feel like a chore after a twelve hour workday, but I think I need to write them. Talking comics with you is a constant reminder of why I love this medium and how much joy it has brought to my life. Pondering these questions every couple of weeks and trying to deliver a satisfactory response pushes me to work harder to understand comics and enjoy the great ones we have. So I hope this answer makes for a satisfactory response, and that it might lead you to a few top-notch Christmas comics this season, both with and without Santa Claus.
Merry Christmas, Mark Stack. Thanks for the question.