Christmas With The Super-Heroes searched for the holiness of Superman and friends

Christmas With The Super-Heroes searched for the holiness of Superman and friends

You already know the 12 Days Of Christmas, with its drummers drumming and partridges and gold rings, but we here at The A.V. Club like to take everything one step further, for your reading pleasure. Hence, 13 Days Of Christmas, a collection of essays on a handful of beloved holiday classics and a few that have sadly fallen through the cracks. Up today, a 1988 anthology covering the holiday season with DC’s best-known superhero characters.

The best novel I’ve ever read about the mythology of superhero comics, and what that mythology means to comics readers, is Joseph Torchia’s The Kryptonite Kid. The book is written in the form of letters to Superman from the hero, a lonely, suffering first-grader named Jerry Chariot. The big adult role models in Jerry’s life are the drunken, abusive father who makes his home life hell, and the strict, judgmental nun who does the same for him at school. Superman offers Jerry what he desperately needs, and what he doesn’t get from reality: a powerful grown-up friend who loves him and would never use that power to hurt him. (He also offers Jerry, whose sexual identity has taken just enough shape for him to communicate to the reader that he’s gay, an image of masculine physical perfection.) Jerry has trouble with the nun at school because his open, inquisitive nature makes it impossible for him to switch his brain to autopilot and parrot back Catholic dogma for her. (She thinks he’s being a smartass when he’s simply being alive.) But he believes in Superman with the total devotion and suspension of disbelief—in a word, with the faith—that he can’t bring to his religious studies, and with good reason: Superman shows him a better time than Jesus ever has. After too many unanswered letters, he finally throws himself off the roof of his house, meaning to flush out Superman by forcing him to manifest, or let Jerry die.

The Kryptonite Kid was published in 1979, by which time the kid who kills himself by taking his comic-book heroes too seriously was a firmly established figure in urban folklore. From an adult or even adolescent vantage point, it’s easy to snicker at the idea of a child of any age so dense that he thinks Superman is real, but this probably reflects a failure of memory as much as anything. Jules Feiffer, who is nobody’s idea of a simpleton, has written about how entranced he was with Captain Marvel, only to be forced to deal with the “great disappointment in the word ‘Shazam!’ As it turned out it didn’t work for readers. Other magic words were tried. They didn’t work either. There are just so many magic words until one feels he’s been made a fool of.”

I don’t remember ever thinking that comic-book characters were real, but I did cling to a literal belief in Santa Claus long after a realistic-minded child therapist might have recommended shock treatment. For a good Southern Baptist child—which roughly translates into “a perpetually terrified child”—this was almost as tricky as believing in Superman, or even the Inferior Five. For a certain kind of Protestant family in the rural South, routinely skipping church but claiming to believe in the centrality of religion to their lives so as to pass for culturally normal, Christmas could feel like a minefield. You had to navigate the holiday just right, so you got to enjoy the fun and the presents that guilt-racked parents and relatives showered upon you, while at the same time never enjoying it so much that you lost sight of the fact that Jesus died for your sins. You’d feel pretty stupid in the next life if you wound up burning in eternal hellfire because you’d played with your Tonka trucks with an abandon that was too wild and remorseless. Long before South Park officially broke the news on this, a lot of kids had Jesus and Santa mated in their minds, as inspirational magical figures who inspired love and shared a holiday, but who also, if the perfect balance were not maintained, might cancel each other out.

Christmas With The Super-Heroes #2, a “DC Special” from 1988, consists of six original stories featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and, as Sherwood Schwartz used to say, all the rest. It’s a sequel to another comic of the same name from the previous year, which consisted of reprints of Christmas stories from 1968 (“The Teen Titans’ Swingin’ Christmas Carol!”) to 1984, which, in turn, may have been inspired by a giant-sized reprint collection from 1975. I don’t know when the originals that appear in the 1988 comic were first commissioned, but between the time they were published and the time the “classics” that appear in the reprint comics first appeared, comics—as was announced in the headlines of seemingly hundreds of articles about what was going on in the era of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen—stopped being just for kids. And so Santa Claus, who’s a prime player in the earlier Christmas comics, never makes an appearance in the 1988 book, once you get past the whimsical cover illustration of the heroes (including the sainted Plastic Man) pitching in at the North Pole workshop. But religious intimations and Jesus imitations abound.

Superman leads in “Ex-Machina,” written and penciled by Paul Chadwick, whose Concrete was already establishing him as the leading exemplar of self-consciously humanist comics about guys who could crush your head with a fist. Supes—who, as drawn by Chadwick and inker John Nyber, looks disconcertingly like Robert Z’Dar, star of the Maniac Cop series—discovers a sad old man sitting in his car by the side of the road on a wintry night. The old man (Supes’ empathic humanism never extends to asking him his name) has car trouble, and after four hours of trying to flag down a ride, no one has stopped to help, so he settles inside, fishes a gun out of the glove compartment, and makes ready to blow his brains out. 

Superman stops the old man, using heat vision to warm both his weary old bones and his engine block, and even offers him sweet counsel on why he shouldn’t be so disheartened that nobody would stop to help him. (“It’s the curve. They wouldn’t see you until they were upon you. Those that did see you must have been afraid to brake—this road is pure ice. And responsibility fades fast when you’re speeding down the road.”) The old man has other woes. He has a degenerative condition, he just put his wife in a home, and he and his daughter haven’t spoken in years. “It was who she married. Actually, I didn’t object so much as my wife. But when you live with someone, you try to present united… uh…” Now that he’s living alone, maybe he can make a new start of things. His wife sounds like a real bitch.

Superman is too polite to point that out to him; instead, he tells the nameless man that anyone who’s lost a parent would be thrilled to have him back—“This I know”—before using the back of the old man’s abortive suicide note to write down directions to Ma and Pa Kent’s house and sending his new friend on his way. 

This is more action than readers get in the Batman and Wonder Woman stories. In fact, the Batman story isn’t really a story at all, so much as a meditation on the mortality and mythos of Batman. It was written by Dave Gibbons—four words that, when laid end to end, will always look like a typo to me—and illustrated by the estimable Gray Morrow, whose work here is hard to judge, because it looks as if someone went a little crazy over the finished pencils with a black magic marker. To the degree that the story has a point, and that point ties in with the Christmas theme, it seems to come down to using the star that guided the three wise men to link the birth of the Christ child with Batman’s self-creation. (This is something of a mini-tradition with Batman Christmas stories, as Christmas stars played important roles in Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano’s 1972 “Silent Night, Deadly Night” and the 1979 O’Neil-Frank Miller story “Wanted: Santa Claus Dead Or Alive.” But they both had plots.) Gibbons’ script may be most notable for a time-transition device: As the star twinkles in the sky, an omniscient narrator notes, “For some, His birth brings a light that may never be quenched. But not for all. For some, the dark has no end.” Cut to an un-Christian Native American, sitting outside a cave, casting a resentful, craven look back into the unknowable darkness. DC Comics: Keepin’ the Christ in Christmas, all you politically correct bastards!

Eric Shanower’s Wonder Woman story, “Gifts,” offers a softly feminized take on Paul Chadwick’s inspirational humanism. It stars Sharon, a middle-aged minister who comes to visit her old college friend Julia for the holidays and pours out the news that her husband of seven years has been cheating on her and wants a divorce. She’s so humiliated and depressed that she isn’t certain she wants to continue with her calling. However, Julia’s daughter Vanessa—who either wears a coonskin cap throughout the story or has a hairstyle God never intended Eric Shanower to draw—has also invited her pal Wonder Woman to spend Christmas with the trio. “I’ve read much about the Christian religion,” Diana tells Sharon, by way of small talk. “What are your duties?” The Christian minister and the Amazon warrior who gets her marching orders from the gods of Olympus compare notes on their respective missions and conclude, as Sharon puts it, “We have similar résumés.” 

That night, while preparing and eating dinner and joining in with the carolers who gather outside the house, “The four women glow with the light of companionship.” (Honoring the tradition of not leaving too much to DC readers’ imagination, this line is accompanied by a drawing of the four women, well, glowing.) But before dawn, Sharon rises and wanders into the dark living room to find Diana tearful and in need of a hug. She has been reflecting on how she “came to this world… to teach humankind to live in peace and harmony,” and though she punched out a lot of Nazis, you only have to sneak a peek at the morning newspaper to see that she’s fallen a little short in her ultimate goals. In other Christmas stories, the superheroes use their strength to shed a little light on those in trouble; here, the sight of the mighty Diana admitting to self-doubt is enough to bring Sharon around, so she greets Christmas morning renewed in her commitment to her faith and her vocation—so much so that, Julia tells her, she sounds “like some kind of super-hero.”

While the heaviest half of Christmas With The Super-Heroes is about fixing the Big Three heroes of the DC Universe as a Holy Trinity of comic-book saints, the rest of the book benefits from the lighter possibilities afforded by a bunch of weirdoes and second-stringers. John Byrne turns in an Enemy Ace story, a visual tour-de-force devoid of dialogue that’s a relief after the prolix sermons that precede it. In “Roll Call,” illustrated by Colleen Doran and Ty Templeton from a script by Bill Loebs, Green Lantern and the Flash adopt an embittered old millionaire who they find wandering the streets oozing curmudgeony ill will, and draft him into the (literal) role of Santa. The story is nothing special, but it’s partially redeemed by the opening glimpse of the heroes at Justice League headquarters, bitching about how much it sucks to pull monitor duty on Christmas Eve. (There’s also a perhaps-unintended earth-shaker at the end, when the Hal Jordan Green Lantern wishes the Barry Allen Flash a Happy Hanukkah. This was probably just an awkward stab at seasonal multiculturalism, but it inspired more than one Internet debate over which of these guys is supposed to be Jewish.)

The best of the stories is the Deadman feature, written by one of the great unsung superhero comics writers of his day, Alan Brennert, the man who once had Batman tersely instruct Robin to “go find some clues” so Batman and Catwoman could have a little quiet time together on the roof of a mall. It fits the mold of the superhero helping out a lost soul on Christmas, but what saves it from stickiness is that the lost soul is one of the most baroquely weird of all the DC heroes, and his savior is one of the dullest of all the caped crusaders, now ennobled by obscurity. A beautiful blonde woman finds Deadman feeling sorry for himself at Christmas and helps him snap out of it by reminding him of the importance of his mission, “even if no one knows what we’ve done. Even if no one knows we exist. Even if no one remembers we ever existed.” 

Taking her leave, she reveals—to the reader, though not to Deadman, who doesn’t get it—that she is the wandering spirit of Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Supergirl, three years after she got wasted in Crisis On Infinite Earths, the big-deal miniseries whose greatest reason for being was to waste her. Much of Christmas With The Super-Heroes demonstrates what a gooey mess can be made from mixing superhero comics with religion, but Brennert’s Deadman story hints that, in the right hands, the mythology of superhero comics can be religion enough, even at Christmas.

Tomorrow: A Dickens Christmas classic gets Americanized.

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