Throughout the year, television producers and advertisers strive to build family ties with viewers. Successfully involving viewers in a larger sense of family breeds loyalty and secures ratings and sales. What's the subliminal message? "You're family. So buy our stuff!"
The construction of family ties between networks, advertisers, and viewers dates back to the earliest days of television. Viewers and industry professionals alike began considering the implications of the intrusion of a live picture medium into the private homes of viewers. In a bid to secure those family ties, favorite television shows adopted the strategies already used by radio. They celebrated the holidays with their viewers.
The comic book industry uses this strategy as well, putting out holiday-themed issues fairly regularly. Comic strips had special holiday features even before televisions made it into family living rooms. The master was Will Eisner. His special Christmas
Spirits are to this day unmatched for their humor, humanity, joy, and general artistic awesomeness.
"Year after year, as a spectator, I witnessed people around me pausing in their scrimmage of survival to give a gift and at least offer lip service to the perpetuation of the monumental idea of goodwill toward each other," wrote the eloquent Eisner, a Jew, in his brief introduction to Kitchen Sink Press's 1989 collection of Christmas
Spirits. Eisner's service in WWII did not destroy his love of human beings; on the contrary, it strengthened his optimistic outlook: "The majority of people accept kindness and love as virtues," he wrote, "and I have come to believe that this lies deep in the inner recesses of human character – war, massacre, and holocaust notwithstanding."
No wonder we love Will Eisner so much. He loved us! And in his view, this was the very soul of Christmas. The Christmas
Spirit stories, he wrote, "are stories for the season when for a fleeting moment humankind unites in a mighty surge of compassion and miracles can occur."
The best of the holiday-themed comics, and there are a lot of them, inherit Eisner's legacy. Crime fighters take a holiday because criminals reform themselves under the spell of the season. Children, lost and frightened, are consoled. Loneliness is met with compassion, families draw close in warmth and love, the selfish among us learn the pleasures of giving, the poor and desperate meet good fortune, and aggression is soothed with gentle kindness. Light shines into the darkness. Such is Eisner's view of what Christmas can be, and even that resolute curmudgeon Wolverine can only say "Humbug, Bub," for so long in a season when hearts open up.
Of course, Christmas is not the only celebration of the light that comes to conquer darkness. The comics have also celebrated the Viking Yule, most notably in
'Twas a Mid-Winter's Night in Marvel Comics' Holiday Special 1991. In this perfect little fable, the gods of Asgard, including the noble Thor, defeat an evil wizard and save a longboat full of Viking raiders. There is a profound moment in this comic when the great span of the cosmos converges with the darkened hearth of a young bride and groom in overwhelming illumination, reminding us that everything, visible and invisible, is connected. Writer Tom DeFalco and artist Sal Buscema illustrate one of humanity's oldest religious truths: it is just at the hour when everything is darkest that hope is born.
Hope is a big favorite with holiday-themed comics, and 2008, the year of Obama's "audacity of hope," left a strong mark on DC Comics' DC Universe Holiday Special One Shot (Feb 2009).
The Man in Red,
Somewhere Beyond the Sea, and
A Day Without Sirens all feature strong themes of hope.
A Day Without Sirens, starring Jim Gordon, Batman, Oracle, and Supergirl, is wonderfully reminiscent of Eisner's Christmas
Spirits. As a running gag in Eisner's strips, The Spirit would refuse to fight crime at Christmas, insisting that he preferred to leave the task to the Christmas Spirit. In Joe Kelly and Mick Bertilorenzi's
Day Without Sirens, the city once again needs no crime fighters. But something less magical (although no less fantastic) is behind the miracle.
Miracles are another very popular holiday theme. In
The Vessel (DCU Holiday Bash 1997), Green Lantern is helped by a miraculous intervention when he confronts the thugs who have stolen the vessel of the eternal flame from a synagogue on the eve of Hanukkah. In
A Blackhawk Christmas Tale (Blackhawk #268), Blackhawk and a family of Jews fleeing Nazi pursuers are saved by a Passover-like miracle. In
Wanted: Santa Claus – Dead or Alive!, a miraculous star helps Batman save a department store Santa from his would-be murderer. In
Star Light, Star Bright…Farthest Star I See Tonight!, Superman visits the Legion of Super-Heroes on Christmas Day (2979 AD) and drags them off to find the Star of Bethlehem. The mysterious star leads them to a dying planet which they save. (These two stories were published in the Super-Star Holiday Special of 1980, and republished in DC Comics' 2000 collection A DC Universe Christmas.)
Sometimes, perhaps a little bored with Christmas and stories of Santa, comics writers branch out a bit. DC Comics' DCU Holiday Bash! 1998 includes the Black Lightning tale
'Twas the Night Before Kwanzaa. There's nothing that notable about the story, but the black-and-white art is terrific. The same issue collects the very funny Green Lantern/Green Arrow story
The Present. The title acquires a double meaning, as the two save the mall where Green Lantern is shopping from the destructive schemes of a deeply troubled teenager. Green Arrow disarms the young man by explaining the Buddha's Four Noble Truths to him, thereby confounding him so much that his brain freezes and he offers no resistance when Green Arrow takes his weapon away.
The Marvel Holiday Special of 1994 includes the fascinating story
The Eternal Game, in which the Silver Surfer is confronted by Brahman, the Hindu concept of ultimate reality which plays at manifesting and re-unifying (leela). The Surfer is left pondering the questions of ultimate reality, and gains new perspective on his loneliness. This is the most speculative, and remarkable, of the holiday comics.
Let's face it, though. I like the jokes the best, and these comics can be really funny.
Wreck the Malls With Bouts of Folly in The Tick Big Yule Log Special No. 1 (1997) features phenomenal pen-and-ink art, wisecracks, parody, inventive crime fighting, and the classic line, "It's against superhero code to impersonate a deity." (This quickly devolves into a spat over whether Saint Bernards are deities.)
The Marvel Holiday Special 1993 delivers Hanukkah belly laughs with Doc Samson in
Revisionist History. Samson tries to tell the story of Hanukkah to a group of eager Hebrew school students, but the kids aren't convinced the story is all that interesting. Samson can't handle the inquiring and relentlessly literal young minds, and winds up telling a story in which Captain America, Wolverine, and Hulk are fighting the evil robot Antiochus IV and his ugly creatures from the pits of heck. He still can't bring the story home, though, since the kids can't understand why the heroes wouldn't just plug in the lamp, or replace the batteries. The children wind up in tears, and Samson is, one presumes, banned from the school for life.
What could top the classic O. Henry Christmas story told Hanukkah-style? If you recall, in O. Henry's
The Gift of the Magi, Della sells her beautiful hair to buy Jim a chain for his prized pocket watch, while Jim sells his prized watch to buy Della a set of combs for her beautiful hair. That's a Christmas gone horribly wrong! What if it happened eight times? Jim and Della sank into a haze of loving appreciation, but the outcome was not so nice for Krusty and Glenna. The first few nights, they took the irony pretty well, but by the eighth night, well, you can read it for yourself.
The Gift of the Maccabees appears in The Simpsons Winter Wingding #1, 2006.
I can't close out this appreciation without mentioning two of my favorite Christmas comics. Jingle Belle: Santa Claus vs. Frankenstein (2009) from Top Cow is hilarious. You will be amazed to discover that Santa Claus and Frankenstein are both real, and you'll love how these creatures of magic and fantasy conspire to expose the all-too-real machinations of the politically correct. Beware the Mom who screams out for censorship, or any curb on civil liberties, "for the sake of the children." Paul Dini is the comics version of the ACLU and
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart creative team all rolled together, and he's just one person!
Image Comic's 2006
The Last Christmas from Duggan, Posehn, Remender (et. al.) is a terrific page-turner, ridiculous and over-inflated, and yet truly cautionary with a certain sense of scary realism woven throughout. We've been too close to nuclear catastrophe too often to ignore what life might be like for those who survive. What role would there be for faith in a world destroyed? It might be more important than ever.
If the results are any indication, comic book editors, writers, and artists tackle the opportunity to tell holiday stories with the eager anticipation of the child who has picked out a gift for her parents. As Will Eisner reminded us, the holidays allow magic to break into the flow of our ordinary lives, bringing signs of something miraculous, even sacred. The comics, at home with fantasy, accomplish wonderful things with the miraculous. We readers pause, and perhaps we even wonder what it all means, before going on again with the business of regular life. When work and school call us back and the outward trappings of the season are put away, let's do Eisner proud and reward his confidence in us. Keep a little faith, a little hope, and a little charity. They can move mountains.