Comics Ate My Brain

December 24, 2008

Christmas on the go

Filed under: Christmas, meta — Tom Bondurant @ 3:06 am
Every Christmas I try to post something profound, or at least something obvious said in a somewhat clever way. Not so much this year, however. This year we have been scrambling simply to keep ahead of Christmas. Let’s put it this way: tomorrow morning the LCS opens at 8 a.m. and I still won’t have time to go there.

Among other things, Christmas emphasizes how the divine was visited upon the mundane, so all this clamor and confusion may seem a little perverse. Indeed, I am more than ready for just settling down to a long winter’s nap. (I was ready for it at about 3:00 this afternoon, in fact.)

Nevertheless, in the spirit of the holiday, I am sure everything will work itself out in the end. I am looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and sharing the season with my family. I do feel another Santa-as-superhero post coming on, but that will probably have to wait until next year.

Meanwhile, feel free to click on the “Christmas” tag to see my previous holiday offerings, and I’ll talk to you next week. Until then, Happy Holidays to one and all!

December 22, 2007

And to all a good night

Filed under: Christmas — Tom Bondurant @ 3:30 am

(Click to blockhead-size)

Well, here we are again, at Christmastime. I’ve been trying to think of a good post for the season, but they all come out too preachy or too melodramatic. (This might not be much better, actually.) The Best Wife Ever and I are busy as usual, and just like in those awful Lifetime movies, that makes it harder to get into the proper spirit.

However, I suppose that if you can actually plan around Christmas, that may also make it easier to compartmentalize the holiday into its own little packet of time — say, 24 hours from the evening of December 24 until the evening of the 25th, when you look around at a wrapping-paper-strewn family room and realize someone’s going to have to clean all this up….

Better, perhaps, to let Christmas come suddenly, in the dead of night, as it did to Luke’s shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem. Better perhaps even to have it highlight the complications of our lives and work with them, and through them, so we see its practical effects.

Still, I don’t think of Christmas as a panacea. Not everyone learns a life lesson, and not every rough place is made plain. After all, the innkeeper doesn’t give up his own bed for Joseph and Mary — instead, he finds room for them out back, with the livestock. It’s not very Lifetime-movie of him.

However, the Christmas message isn’t quite “be happy with what you have,” either. Christmas is about faith, hope, and change. The last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the earth. “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” The change is gonna come, for behold, its agent is here.

This holiday season has been stressful, to put it mildly, for more than a few of my friends and family. The stresses are all different, as are the methods for dealing with them. Some are losing (or have lost) loved ones. Some stresses are work-related. Some are just the logistical demands of the season. Christmas isn’t going to solve all of their problems, and in fact may make enduring those problems more difficult. Again, though, the message of Christmas isn’t ignorant bliss, it’s the promise of a better world. The real gift of Christmas is the pause to honor Christ’s birth. In that pause we not only rest, but may also contemplate that better world about which he taught.

Therefore, this holiday season, my wish for you is for that opportunity to rest and find the peace you need. A better world depends on each of us.

Happy holidays, blogosphere! See you next week.

December 21, 2006

Just a little stocking stuffer

Filed under: Christmas — Tom Bondurant @ 1:35 pm
Don’t know if I’ll have time to do a proper Christmas post here. A new Grumpy Old Fan goes live today, and it’s been an absolutely crazy week pretty much since Monday morning.

Still, this came to me as I was nodding off last night and getting up today….

Ralph D. the stretching gumshoe
Had a very twitchy nose,
And if you ever saw it …
… Yeah, it was a little gross.

None of the other heroes
Ever took him seriously
Until his buddy Barry
Got him in the Justice League.

When a nut killed his wife Sue,
DC came to say
“Ralph, we’ve got a job for you,
“Here’s what’s left of Doctor Fate.”

Now Ralph’s a grim detective,
More fun when he was hap-py;
Ralph D. the stretching gumshoe,
Hope you see Week Fif-ty-three!

Talk to you Wednesday, if not before. Happy Holidays, blogosphere!

December 19, 2006

New comics 12/13/06

It’s good that I’m warming up to Justice League of America (#4 written by Brad Meltzer, pencilled by Ed Benes, inked by Sandra Hope). It’s bad that it’s taken me three issues to do so. I really want to like this book, but I can’t think of any highlights from issues #1-3 except some creepy Red Tornado sex, Vixen getting clocked, Black Lightning fighting a couple of villains solo, and all the sitting and picking and good-natured ribbing in the Batcave. This issue and last, at least Green Lantern, Black Canary, and Not-Speedy got to do some fighting, and this issue featured two big villain reveals. However, I can’t shake the feeling that a number of other writers would have front-loaded issue #1 with this kind of stuff, and used flashbacks for the character pieces. I don’t have any real complaints about the art, by the way; and I thought I would. Benes tends to pose his figures when they’re not moving, but this helps his action scenes, so it works out. Again, this has the makings of a fine Justice League, although it’s getting there in fits and starts.

Batman #660 (written by John Ostrander, drawn by Tom Mandrake) improves significantly over Part 1 of “Grotesk,” mostly thanks to Johnny Karaoke and his Geisha Girls. A lot of this feels like a fill-in from the pre-Infinite Crisis “Batman is a jerk” period, but back then, Johnny would have been a gangster and Batman’s internal monologue would have sounded like a Tom Clancy paragraph. Instead, right from the first page Batman and his swirly cape are intimidating a hapless scientist, with Ostrander and Mandrake doing their best O’Neil/Adams homage. Mandrake’s work here is less rounded than his ’80s Batman, but it’s still very atmospheric and choreographed well.

After only two issues, it seemed like the Spectre stories in Tales Of The Unexpected were settling into a pattern involving Allen’s frustration and the Spectre’s ironically bloody punishment. #3’s lead story (written by David Lapham, pencilled by Eric Battle, inked by Prentis Rollins) is more like a tour of unpleasantness, with more than one potential recipient of the Wrath Of God. This allows Lapham to tell a “Twilight Zone”/EC Comics-esque story about the consequences of poor moral choices, and for whatever that’s worth, it’s a good change of pace. The art is still an eruption of grue and violence, and nobody comes off looking very well, but I suppose that’s the point. However, if the Spectre series improves that’s just gravy. I will continue to get this book for the Dr. 13 backup, written by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. It is the level of crazy to which I suspect Shadowpact only aspires, featuring all kinds of obscure DC oddballs thrown at the Doctor in nonstop pulp style. Chiang deserves a regular book, and if it’s a Dr. 13 series, so much the better.

JLA Classified #30 (written by Howard Chaykin, pencilled by Kilian Plunkett, inked by Tom Nguyen) offers the penultimate installment of this particular arc, as the real villains behind the border conflicts start to emerge. It’s been a good run, even more so because I didn’t think Chaykin’s style would mesh with the Justice League.

Green Lantern Corps #7 (written by Keith Champagne, pencilled by Patrick Gleason, inked by Prentis Rollins) begins a new arc involving Guy Gardner and an insectoid rookie, the Dominators, and a Durlan ex-Lantern. Most of it is Guy and the rookie trying to convince the Durlan to come out of retirement, as it were. For some reason I like Gleason and Rollins’ work here better than I have previously, but I can’t quite say why. I also thought Champagne’s script was good, using both Guy and the rookie well. The ending was unexpected, and is a promising setup for the rest of the arc.

Firestorm #32 (written by Stuart Moore, pencilled by Jamal Igle, inked by Keith Champagne) says goodbye to the current creative team with an understated New Year’s-themed epilogue. Most of the focus is on Jason, as you’d expect, but the issue balances the supporting cast well. No one’s status quo changes all that much, and a couple of characters who might well have vanished after “In My Father’s House” look like they’ll be around for a while. It’s a good issue, and one that (ironically) could be the proverbial Good Jumping-On Point. You’ll have to wait an extra month for #33, though.

52 #32 (written by You Know, Those Guys, breakdowns by Keith Giffen, pencilled by Patrick Olliffe, inked by Drew Geraci) spotlights Ralph Dibny in Nanda Parbat, encountering a couple of Great Ten members and finding enlightenment. Otherwise, the Teen Titans are recruiting, and the outer-space heroes are girding their loins for battle. It’s more exciting than it sounds.

By now I’m sure you’re sick of me talking about the DCU Infinite Holiday Special, but here we go, one last time. These specials are usually mixed bags, and this year felt like it should have been called Brave New Holiday (saaay…!) or something similar. Most of the stories are ads for new (or newly relaunched) DC books — Batwoman, Flash, Shadowpact, Shazam! — or fairly new books like Supergirl and Green Lantern. This confirmed for me that I won’t be reading Trials of Shazam!, because this story was too confusing and depended too much on that miniseries’ plot. The Shadowpact story was cute, and the Flash story was inoffensive, although the latter gave the impression that Wally West is dead, which I didn’t think was the case. I appreciated the Supergirl story bringing back the “Metropolis Mailbag” Christmas tradition, but once it got going it turned dark and never really recovered. The Batwoman story was good, the Green Lantern story was a bit trite and suffered from either loose John Byrne layouts or loose Keith Champagne (him again! he wrote it too) inks, and the last story was delightfully oddball. I don’t know that I’d pay $5.00 for this, but it has saved me from spending anything on the Shazam! maxiseries.

Suspense and an impostor both crop up in Fantastic Four: The End #3 (by Alan Davis with inks by Mark Farmer), as we check in with Galactus, the Watcher, the Black Panther, and various Marvel alien races. I still can’t tell where the story’s going, but I am a sucker for Davis/Farmer art.

Finally, there’s The Spirit #1, by Darwyn Cooke with inks by J. Bone. It hits all the appropriate notes, gently updating the character and his cast for the 21st Century. As many others have noted, Ebony White benefits the most, commenting most effectively on our hero and pretty much getting the last word. However, I have two problems with this issue. First, Cooke portrays Commissioner Dolan’s hyperactivity by having him in multiple places in the same panel. I read this issue with an eye towards letting the Best Wife Ever weigh in on this, and I know she would have been confused by such a device. Second, much of the plot hinges on something the kidnap victim does which seems like it should be painfully obvious to the Spirit, but which completely escapes him until it is too late. I guess this fits into his general regular-schlub aspect, but I did expect him to be a little more on top of things. Anyway, it’s a fine start, and I certainly haven’t been put off the book.

December 15, 2006

Infinite Christmas, One Year Later

Filed under: Christmas — Tom Bondurant @ 7:22 pm
Hey, Chris, Steven, and anyone else frustrated by the not-so-puntastic title of DC’s Infinite Holiday Special, I did my own version of “Infinite Christmas” last year around this time. It’s the sequel to Christmas On Infinite Earths, naturally. It ends up a bit sappy (it’s a Christmas piece, after all), but I hope it does justice to the pun.

Check it out, won’t you?

December 18, 2005

Infinite Christmas

Filed under: Christmas, crisis — Tom Bondurant @ 9:05 pm
Fans of a certain age — let’s not be coy, my age — remember the event twenty years ago that was supposed to set everything straight. In Christmas on Infinite Earths, the Anti-Santa sought to stop Christmas from coming, but was thwarted by a vast assemblage of heroes from across time and space. Who could forget the opening scenes of issue #1, as onetime toy deliverer Jack Skellington was obliterated by the Anti-Santa’s wave of all-consuming ennui?

We thrilled to revisit classic team-ups like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman (the “Season’s Finest”), and witness new alliances like Clarence the Angel and Charlie Brown, Emmett Otter and the Little Drummer Boy, and Clement C. Moore (or was it Henry Livingston?) and David Sedaris. The sight of Santa wielding both Ralphie Parker’s Red Ryder BB Gun and Linus van Pelt’s security blanket came off surprisingly well; and even though they were villains, it was still disturbing to see Scrooge, the Grinch, the Bumble, and a group of Martians lose their time-traveling battle to stop the 31st Century Santa-Bot from freeing the Anti-Santa. Finally, lest we forget, it was the Herdmans‘ and Misfit Toys’ emotional plea to the Angel Gabriel that convinced him to intervene, thereby giving Santa the fighting edge he needed over his evil opposite.

Seems like Christmas preparations start earlier every year, but this year March had Countdown to Infinite Christmas, a one-shot which killed Yukon Cornelius and introduced four summer-spanning miniseries. Aside from fueling speculation that Buddy the Elf would become the new Cornelius, it was all a big buildup to the current holiday apocalypse. Along the way, Santa’s army of helpers got turned into killer cyborgs and put everyone on the “naughty” list; a weird spatial anomaly opened up over the North Pole; a duplicate Scrooge was revealed; and Clarence was seduced by Eclipso, who in turn was defeated by the Nutcracker. Yeah, I didn’t understand that last one either.

So now Infinite Christmas is here, revealing the original Saint Nicholas’ plan to restore the holiday to its religious roots and have folks “keep Christmas all year ’round.” I have to say, Geoff Johns and Phil Jiminez certainly treat Nick reverently, even if objectively he is the villain of the piece. Although the chaos he kicked off was entertaining, the Anti-Santa wasn’t much more than a scary plot device.

It’s also tempting, in the face of rampant Christmas commercialism, to applaud such a back-to-basics approach. Nostalgia is essentially a rebellion against the perpetual march of time, and the fact that Christmas comes at the end of every year just makes nostalgia for its traditions more powerful. Who wouldn’t want to have a few more child’s-eye holidays, when two weeks of vacation could start with a leisurely walk home from school under slate-grey clouds fat with snow — when the wind wasn’t cold but bracing, and your only responsibilities were to keep your nose clean and your questions to yourself until the morning of December 25?

And yet the most powerful aspects of Christmas, anticipation and hope, are always with us. Early Christian public-relations gurus knew what they were doing when they scheduled Christ’s birth celebrations around the winter solstice, because the darkest time of the year is perfect for ushering in the light.

A slightly twisted version of that approach is on display in Infinite Christmas. We know that Rudolph, Santa, and Frosty will become friends again. We know the reindeer will reunite (and in their absence, Earth-2 sleigh-pullers Dunder and Blixem can help pick up the slack). We know that as with every new year, change is inevitable, but perhaps only incremental; and nothing we can’t handle.

When I was a kid I got excited over a few weeks of vacation from school. As I grew up I learned to keep hope alive all year. Even if I don’t have a long vacation anymore, Christmas still gives me a bit of a break. Like the song says (watch out for the auto-play music past the link):

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

Happy Holidays, blogosphere!

(P.S. The GLX-Mas special was brilliant.)

December 30, 2004

New Comics 12/29/04

Filed under: adam strange, batman, Christmas, crisis, legion, star wars, superman, teen titans, weekly roundups — Tom Bondurant @ 8:16 pm
Had a good Christmas; thanks for asking. In terms of comics-related items, I got the first Kitchen Sink collection of Superman Dailies (1939-40), the Spider-Man 2 DVD, the DC Encyclopedia, and Looney Tunes Vol. 2 on DVD. The Best Wife Ever and I spent Christmas Eve here in town with my parents. We escaped a lot of the nasty weather which plagued the Midwest last week, and had a beautiful drive to Chattanooga to see the in-laws on Christmas morning. My sister now lives in the Chattanooga area, and she gave birth to her second child on Monday morning. Also, my cousin got engaged on Christmas Eve, so there was good news from every corner.

Got back into town Tuesday night and got up Wednesday morning to take care of some household errands. All the traveling produced that kind of weird disconnect from the normal timeline, so I had to remind myself that it was Wednesday and the comics shop was open. Without further ado….

Teen Titans #19 (written by Geoff Johns, art by Mike McKone and Marlo Alquiza) offers a rather predictable end to the “Titans Tomorrow” arc, because it involves the main problem with alternate-timeline stories — the reset button. In these types of stories, there is always some procedure the heroes must accomplish which will Set Things Right and prevent the Bad Timeline from coming into existence. Now imagine that this was a parallel-universe story, in which the Titans somehow landed on another Earth, ten years in the future. The challenge wouldn’t be to perform the proper procedure, and thus press the reset button — instead, the challenge would simply be to survive. What’s more, the Bad Earth would still exist, and thereby contain the seeds of a story where the Bad Titans would come to our Earth. At the end of this story, Bad Superboy actually says he doesn’t know how long it will be before the timeline ceases to exist. There is so much wrong with that sentence….

Circular logic is also involved in the very premise of the story. The Bad Titans’ future seems to depend on their being thrown 10 years into the future, and splitting up when they returned to the present. I feel like I need a dry-erase board to make some sense of the story, and it’s why this should have been a parallel universe … GAAH!

Anyway, for those paying attention to DC’s 2005 projects, I’m sure this will have ramifications further down the road. The issue itself is about par for the series, logic notwithstanding — the art is typically good, and the dialogue is expositional without being a drag.

The reset button gets a workout in Superman/Batman #16 (written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Marino). Seems that whenever one of the Big Two dies, the two get shifted to another alternate timeline where they are both alive, but still in dire peril. Arguably, this exploits death a lot more cheaply than in, say, Identity Crisis. Ultimately, the two figure out what they need to do to Set Things Right, but because the story isn’t over yet, Things Aren’t Quite Right. I will say that the cliffhanger is an intriguing twist, but I’m not sure how much it’s in character.

The art is beautiful, and the coloring (by Laura Martin) really complements it. Especially following the stretched-out, stylized Michael Turner art of the Supergirl storyline (which itself followed the lumpy, stylized Ed McGuinness opener), this is a fantastic-looking comic. Too bad it’s in service of such a lightweight, inconsequential plot.

Superman #212 (written by Brian Azzarello, with art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams) finds our hero in “The Vanishing,” the pocket dimension into which Lois has vanished (along with presumably millions of other people). There the couple is reunited, although Clark Kent is left out in the cold. (Let’s just say he clearly doesn’t enjoy himself as much as Supes and Lois do.) I will say that this issue’s use of Clark has left me curious about the nature of the Vanishing. I always enjoy the exploration of Clark and Superman as separate people. Although the issue has a real dream-sequence feel, the plot is still advanced, and there is even some indication of the villain pulling the strings. This was one of the few Azzarello/Lee issues that didn’t feel off somehow, so yet again I hold out hope for the arc’s resolution.

Batman #635 begins the tenure of writer Judd Winick and artists Doug Mahnke and Dustin Nguyen with a story picking up from “War Games'” underworld shakeup. So far it’s a good start. The central mystery looks to be the identity of the Red Hood, and the inevitable possibility that it is someone close to Batman. Although the Shocking Mystery Mastermind is a tired device, some nonlinear storytelling helps keep the suspense from getting overinflated. Winick also includes both hot business-on-business action and an “Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag” joke. The issue’s opening slice-of-life moment did make me compare Winick unfavorably to David Lapham’s Detective Comics #801, but Winick doesn’t dwell on that sort of thing. Mahnke and Nguyen, who previously drew Batman in JLA, also acquit themselves well here, with moody, expressive art that is also expansive and easy to follow.

I continue to enjoy Adam Strange (#4), written by Andy Diggle with art by Pascal Ferry. This issue reintroduces the Omega Men, who had their own title in the ’80s which I never read. I was aware of them through their guest-spots in New Teen Titans and Green Lantern, so I can say that Diggle writes them pretty much as I remember, and more entertaining to boot. Ferry’s art is good as always, although it was hard to figure out at times the position of that Thanagarian woman’s body. (I take it she was supposed to be sexy, but I’m not quite sure what she was doing.)

Star Wars: Empire #28, written by Ron Marz with art by Adriana Melo, focuses on Boba Fett as he searches a derelict Star Destroyer for a particular keepsake. If you like Boba Fett outwitting traps and blowing things up, this is the issue for you. I am not so much a Boba fan, so this was a little dull. The art was fine for the most part, done in a sort of rough-pencil style which suited the hazy ghost-ship proceedings. My one problem was at the end, when we meet Boba’s employer. He has the widow’s peak and distinctive profile of Grand Moff Tarkin, but he’s clearly not meant to be Tarkin. Nobody does such a good likeness without a reason, but this likeness seemed unnecessary.

Finally, I bought Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s Legion of Super-Heroes #1. For many fans of the Legion, this was the elephant in the corner of the comics shop. How one receives it probably depends on one’s own history with the Legion. Again, I was never much of a fan growing up, and certainly didn’t follow the soap-operatics of the ’70s and ’80s. I first started reading the book regularly in 1989, with the “Five Years Later” restart. Although I enjoyed this issue, and think it portends good things for the series, I do wonder about its general premise. Waid has set up this version of the Legion as somewhere between a group of freedom fighters and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. They are a youth movement with super-powers, who have taken up adventuring as a reaction to the extreme boredom that centuries of peace, progress and tranquility inevitably bring. It might therefore follow that the society against which they rebel would be oppressive, but so far Waid hasn’t shown us too much of that — at least not on Earth.

To his credit, both Waid and Kitson have taken great pains to make the Legion look and sound like teenagers. Kitson in particular made me think I was looking at the cast of “Hair” with superpowers and costumes. This Legion is very much in a hippie frame of mind, although Waid has said they are more like the historical re-enacters of their time. Anyway, starting to ramble now, so I will just say it was a good first issue, and I will be back for #2.

December 24, 2004

The Twelve Shows Of Christmas

Filed under: Christmas — Tom Bondurant @ 4:30 pm
Back in the good old days of kid-hood, every Christmas brought another round of TV events. You had your stop-motion Rudolphs and your cel-animated Frostys and your “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!”; and every now and then there would be something new, maybe with Opus or Garfield. Of course, age brings more responsibilities, and by the time I got into law school we students were pooling our resources to tape the shows we had to miss while studying. It made for some fun parties at the end of the semester.

Good times.

Because ’tis the season for lists of a dozen related items, here are my Twelve Shows Of Christmas. Every year I make a concerted effort to watch the top five.

12. Batman: The Animated Series, “Christmas With The Joker” (first broadcast November 13, 1992): On Christmas Eve, the titular villain takes over a TV studio and forces the Dynamic Duo to run a gauntlet of holiday cheer in order to rescue his hostages. A battle with giant toy-shaped robots is the centerpiece, but it does work in a message more appropriate for the season — ultimately, Dick convinces Bruce to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, because it’s about one man’s importance to his hometown.

11. Seinfeld was never much for appropriate holiday sentiment, so it gets one entry for three episodes. In “The Pick” (first broadcast December 16, 1992), thanks to Kramer’s photography skills, Elaine’s Christmas card exposes a little too much, earning her the nickname “Nip.” When my mail arrives every December, it’s hard to shake the image of Elaine shoving George’s head into her chest and yelling “Here’s your Christmas card!!!”

Another indelible image is Kramer as a department-store Santa in “The Race” (December 15, 1994). When he starts spouting Marxist doctrine to the kids on his lap, they scream, “Santa’s a Commie!”

Finally, “The Strike” (December 18, 1997) gave us Festivus. The holiday “for the rest of us” throws out all the frills in favor of releasing all the stress, tension and (yes) grievances of the previous year. What other holiday has feats of strength?

10. A Christmas Carol: IMDb lists 38 different productions containing the words “Christmas Carol,” all of which are variations on the original Dickens. Watch any one of them, because they’re all pretty much the same, whether they star Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray, Bugs Bunny, or Mickey Mouse. Oh sure, the acting might be a little better with George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart, but you’ll still have some old dope being taught a lesson by four ghosts so he’ll be a decent person towards a sympathetic family. I’m partial to the George C. Scott one, myself; but I’m surprised there hasn’t been a Lex Luthor Christmas Carol. He could be visited by Deadman, the Phantom Stranger, and the Spectre….

9. It’s A Wonderful Life (released theatrically December 20, 1946): We’ve all heard the phrase that “God has a plan for everybody,” but sometimes don’t we think that God’s plan for us is to be a cautionary tale for others? George Bailey suffers a few bad breaks and is ready to jump off a bridge when the Spec– er, Clarence the guardian angel shows up to show him that things could be a lot worse. Nothing like having God call your bluff, is there, George? Didn’t you read the Book of Job? In the end George has a merry Christmas and Clarence gets his big promotion. This is another often-copied plot, but here you really should stick with the original.

8. “The Year Without A Santa Claus” (first broadcast December 10, 1974): For many years this was the lost Christmas classic that no one seemed to want to re-run — and then, for Christmas 1993, my law school buddies and I spotted it on the schedule and warmed up our VCRs. It was the highlight of our holiday TV party — and then, just four years later, it was tarnished with the taint of Batman & Robin. Still, it’s a pretty decent attempt to give Santa a couple of arch-villains.

7. “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” (first broadcast December 14, 1970): Another Rankin-Bass stop-motion extravaganza, this one detailing Santa’s origin. I haven’t seen this one in a while, but doesn’t he fight a frost giant? I think Ewan McGregor plays the young Santa. Rankin-Bass did another ’70s-era special, “Jack Frost,” which was on the ABC Family channel a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say, Jack Frost looked to have a much rougher time of it than Ewan-Santa. There were robot dogs in “Jack Frost.”

6. “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (first broadcast December 6, 1964): Watching the 40th-anniversary edition of this show last week, a few things struck me. First, obviously Rudolph is a mutant in the classic X-Men mold, sworn to help a world that hates and fears him (at least they do at first). Second, for a mutant Rudolph doesn’t have the most impressive power. It would have been nice if that nose could have shot a beam of destructive energy, too — although I doubt they would have called it his “nasal blast.” Third, Hermie the elf is clearly of a different genetic stock than the other elves. My money’s on his father being Charlie-In-The-Box.

Now for the top five.

5. Everybody Loves Raymond, “The Toaster” (first broadcast December 14, 1998): For Christmas, Ray gives everybody chrome toasters, personalized with “Merry X-Mas, We Love You,” and the names of his family — but the only people who don’t appreciate it are his parents. If you like the show, it’s a classic. His parents ask why he’d engrave a toaster, and he yells, “I thought it would be nice! I thought you’d like it — you … psychopaths!” They respond, “Well, we’re the ones who have to get these gifts.” It’s a clever look at the familiar “it’s better to give than to receive” lesson, and it shows the anxiety any well-meaning giver faces when he’s not sure his gift will be appreciated.

4. Mystery Science Theater 3000, “Santa Claus” (first broadcast Christmas Eve, 1993): Mike and the ‘bots riff on the truly trippy Mexican Santa Claus movie. In it, the Devil sends Pitch, a rather flamboyant henchman, to Earth to corrupt children and … make Santa’s job harder, I suppose. There are many scenes at Santa’s space-based castle, floating high above the North Pole, where Santa commands all manner of weird, body-part-shaped surveillance equipment — a listening device made out of an oscillating fan and a plastic ear; a super-snooper with a big eyeball, and giant red lips for the main speaker. Santa talks about meeting the Baby Jesus on Earth and delivering toys together, but their team-up never materializes. However, Santa gets a last-minute assist from Merlin the Magician, who it turns out stocks Santa’s utility belt.

3. MST3K, “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (first broadcast December 21, 1991): When one of the first riffs is “Big John Call is Santa Claus in ‘O Little Town Of Death-Lehem!”, you know you’re in for a treat. When Martian parents fear that their kids will grow up soulless, an expedition to Earth is mounted to kidnap Santa and bring his magic to Mars. Even infused with an inexplicable, incongruous love of the Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House, “SCCTM” still holds up. There’s the invention exchange (a wish-squisher vs. misfit toys like the EZ-Bake Foundry), “Let’s Have A Patrick Swayze Christmas,” Crow’s red nose, and Tom Servo’s snow-globe head. Joel observes that the sets look like “cheap versions of the Lost In Space sets.” What’s not to love?

2. A Christmas Story (released theatrically November 18, 1983): If the good people at Turner could put this on its own 24-hour cable network, I’m sure they would. Although the high points — the triple-dog dare, the major award, “Oh … fudge,” “I can’t put my arms down,” and “You’ll shoot your eye out!” — are perhaps too familiar, they all work together to create an endearing pastiche of classic, almost archetypal, holiday moments. Ralphie’s belief in Santa is just part of his specialized, even jaded, outlook on the world of kid-dom. This allows the movie to present its Norman Rockwell-esque scenes with both an ironic undercurrent and a child’s-eye view. It doesn’t so much end as run out the clock, much like each Christmas season; but fittingly, it ends on a note of quiet triumph.

1. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (first broadcast December 9, 1965): This is the only essential holiday special for me, and to me it is as big a part of Christmas as Handel’s Messiah. It is the patriarch of modern Christmas-themed mass media entertainment, and the standard to which other holiday programs should aspire. As the fateful day approaches, Charlie Brown is depressed — not because his parents don’t like his gifts, or he might not get the Red Ryder BB gun, but because he feels alone, friendless, and lost in the maddening competition the season seems to have become. Almost all of the people he encounters are consumed by parties, decorations, presents, and other superficial aspects of the holiday. “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” he cries.

Linus answers. “Sure, Charlie Brown. ‘There were in the same country shepherds….'”

Charlie Brown learns, and by his silent example shows his friends, what is at the center of the Christmas holiday. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” preaches without being demagogic or condescending, and the comparatively understated “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” which closes the show still packs as emotional a punch as the end of It’s A Wonderful Life. The difference is that Charlie Brown is living the existential angst George Bailey had to be transported to an alternate universe to see. When the kids start singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” it’s like they’ve given our hero a big hug — which is the least we can hope for, or give, not just at Christmas, but any time. Accept no substitutes.

Happy holidays, blogosphere! See you in about a week!

December 16, 2004

Elfworlds, Part 2

Filed under: Christmas — Tom Bondurant @ 6:40 pm

“Nyquil comes in two colors — red and green. It’s the only thing on the planet that tastes like — red and green. And red and green are what? Christmas colors! That’s right, Nyquil makes a dandy egg nog!”

— Lewis Black, “The White Album”

Sorry, Shane, for contributing to your cold. As it happens, I’ve been sick too, and I’ve just spent a good part of the past two days on that incubator for communicable diseases, a commercial airliner.

Anyway, I had some time to think, so I came up with more fantastic Santa situations. I’m sure the Nyquil helped with these.

2a. Addendum to the Superman Origin: Naturally, in the Silver Age, the reindeer would all be fellow refugees from Kring-El’s home planet, shot into space either as an experiment or on the last chunk of habitation to survive.

Back to the list….

8. The Silver Age Marvel Comics Origin: Kriss Kringle was a wealthy toy inventor who nevertheless hated children and liked nothing better than pricing his creations just out of the average child’s reach. All that changed when he suffered a horrible accident and lost the use of his hands. Seeking a cure in the farthest reaches of the North, he was gored by a reindeer and left for dead. However, he was nursed back to health and given an artificial heart by an ancient tribe of elves. Kringle then saved the tribe’s kindly leader from an assassination attempt, and so discovered that the reindeer’s wound had given him fantastic powers. Regardless, the powers disfigured Kringle, and he grew a beard and gained 75 pounds in order to hide his deformity. Ultimately, though, Kringle realized that his selfish days were over, and swore to bring joy to the hearts of billions.

9. The NFL Films Crossover (I’ve been renting Super Bowl highlights from Netflix for the past few weeks): “Nine reindeer, each on nine different missions, but with one singular purpose. Find Santa Claus — and punish him.”

10. Marketing Santa The DC/Marvel 2004 Big-Event Way: “This issue — An Elf Dies!”

11. The J. Michael Straczynski Origin: Beats me. I’m up to issue #12 and the main character still hasn’t met all his reindeer yet.

12. The Jolly Old Elf Returns: In a gloomy future, somehow George W. Bush is still President, Rudolph is missing, and Santa hasn’t been heard from in 15 years. However, when the Heat-Miser’s grip on Christmastown pushes the man known as Kriss Kringle past the point of sanity, Santa comes out of retirement in a big way. Hunted by the police on millions of breaking-and-entering charges, Santa and his “Sons of the Claus” decide to show the world the true meaning of Christmas … with extreme prejudice. Sample quote: “There’s nothing wrong with this toy that I can’t fix — with my hands….

December 13, 2004

Elfworlds

Filed under: Christmas — Tom Bondurant @ 10:28 pm
While not everybody knows that Clark Kent is Superman, I’m pretty sure that even the uninterested know the details of Santa Claus’s yearly ritual. Santa is practically a superhero himself. He has a specialized headquarters, minions, advanced equipment, a dedicated mission, and even a love interest. Depending on how you look at it, he even has a “Kriss Kringle” alter-ego. However, like the Phantom Stranger, nobody can quite agree on his origins. Therefore, I offer some possibilities.

1. The Star Trek Origin: Santa is the Earth representative of a galactic organization dedicated to improving the quality of life on hundreds of planets by rewarding its good children and giving the metaphorical lump of coal to the bad ones. The North Pole toy factory is only a facade — the real work is done in a cloaked starship in geosynchronous orbit. His deliveries are accomplished through advanced alien technology, although he makes “personal appearances” where appropriate. The organization for which Santa works has nothing to do with Christianity; it merely uses the holiday as local color. With a few tweaks, this could also be the Green Lantern Origin.

2. The Superman Origin: The infant Kring-El was sent to Earth from a doomed planet and raised by a kindly couple. He enjoyed a happy childhood, but his parents died when he was a young man. While Earth’s yellow sun made him fast, strong, almost omniscient, practically immortal, and virtually indestructible, it also made him overweight and unable to survive outside cold weather for more than 24 hours at a time. Thus, Kring-El set up shop at the North Pole, enlisted the aid of a legendary race of crafts-minded little people, and devised a plan to do something good annually for the world’s deserving children. The flying reindeer come from a formula devised by Kring-El’s super-intellect.

3. The Wonder Woman Origin: Kriss Kringle’s mother was a lonely 17th-century woman whose husband abandoned her following a miscarriage. Distraught, she fled into the vast northern woods, where she was taken in by a race of elves. Upon hearing her story, one elf made her a baby doll, hoping to ease her pain at least a little. Seeing the doll, the elves’ shaman had an idea, and took the mother and her doll to the wood-spirit the elves worshiped. The spirit was also greatly moved, and endowed the doll with life. The young mother raised Kriss with the help of the elves, and taught him about the rewards a life of giving could bring. However, soon the encroachment of humans forced the elves out of their traditional home. The wood-spirit helped them by showing them magically how to make reindeer fly. This facilitated their move to the North Pole, where they remain to this day.

4. The Dr. Doom Origin: Driven to avenge the unjust death of his mother, young Kriss Kringle devoted his life to the twin pursuits of science and sorcery. Along the way he conquered the indigenous elf population at the North Pole. For a while he ruled with an iron fist, but had a Grinch-like change of heart and turned his energies to more generous ends.

5. The Completely Unoriginal Origin: The entity we know today as Santa Claus is, in fact, an angel who rebelled against Heaven, but could not serve in Hell. (This is, of course, pretty much the same origin with which Alan Moore endowed the Phantom Stranger in Secret Origins #10.) He feels humanity’s frustration with a God whose ways are too mysterious, and so has chosen to use the biggest Christian holiday as a vehicle for a more immediate punishment and reward system.

6. The Grant Morrison Origin: I have no idea what this would be, but he’s about the only living creative type I’d trust to make some sense out of the Mexican Santa Claus movie, (memorialized by “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” of course) where S.C. and Merlin fight the Devil.

7. The Batman Origin: Following the deaths of his parents, young Nicholas dedicated his life and his vast inheritance to helping the poor. Working through the local church, he became a Bishop; and after his death was made a Saint. His story inspired a legend of gift-giving which endures across the centuries. Seriously.

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