The Most Wonderful Stories of the Year

Dec-18-08

Ah, do you smell the chestnuts roasting on the open fire? Is Jack Frost nipping at your nose? Do you hear yuletide carols being sung by a choir? Are folks near you dressed up like eskimos?

If you answered yes to those questions, then it must be Christmastime in your land! Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, there’s no denying that the holiday has a tremendous importance in much of the world, especially in America. It’s become the one day of the year where most of the country shuts down, so if you’re not out there celebrating Christmas, you’re probably pretty bored on December 25th. It’s also hard to avoid the decorations, the songs, and the Christmas episodes which air in so many television series. Comics, never an industry to pass up a trend, has also published Christmas stories, dating all the way back to Christmases in the Golden Age of Comics.

Yes, there’s Superman, trying to help Santa by shoving him down the chimney. It seems that, if Superman is successful, he’s likely to destroy this poor family’s chimney. Perhaps Santa’s bringing them a new Hydro-Thermal heating unit, so they don’t need that chimney anymore. I’m also thinking that Santa may end up with some broken bones. But, the point is, that Christmas has been showing up in comics since the medium was invented. Look, even that current comics curmudgeon Batman had the Christmas spirit back then!

Some readers may be confused by this cover, and the odd drawing of Batman’s face. What he’s doing is smiling. I know. I’ve never seen it before either. Apparently he’s amused by making the old man and the little kid lug around all those toys, while he gets to mosey along, completely unencumbered. And people said Superman was a dick.

Throughout the Golden Age and some of the Silver Age of comics, it wasn’t unusual to find at least one Christmas story in the titles of your favorite heroes during the holiday season. After all, many of these books had more than one story an issue, and continuity wasn’t very well maintained. However, when Marvel started tracking continuity in their comics during the 1960s, it became more difficult to do Christmas stories on a regular basis. After all, a year’s worth of comic stories might only take 2-3 weeks for the hero featured within them, if that long. If Marvel started printing Christmas stories every December, it would seem like their heroes were celebrating Christmas every month! DC soon encountered the same problem when they began to track continuity more closely. However, both companies realized that there was an audience for holiday stories, and if they couldn’t tell them in the regular books (which they would still do, just not that often), they’d publish special books just for that purpose. That is indeed what they did, and both have published Holiday Specials with some regularity ever since.

So, over the years, both companies have published a wide array of Christmas stories. Many of them have been quite good, and some have come from some unusual sources. In 1980, before he became the well known writer and artist that he is today, Frank Miller wrote and drew a Batman Christmas story for that year’s DC Christmas special. It’s a very short tale (as most of the Christmas tales were) and was entitled “Wanted: Santa Claus-Dead or Alive!” Sadly, while not a bad story, this one’s not nearly as exciting as the name suggested it might be. It mostly focuses on a department store Santa who has a checkered past and wants to go straight, but gets pulled into a heist on Christmas Eve. The story has a happy ending (as most Christmas tales do) and even includes the tease of a Christmas miracle. It’s nice to read it, just to see a time when Batman was portrayed as somewhat grim, but not a total psycho. It’s almost impossible to reconcile this portrayal of Batman with Miller’s later work on the character though.

Miller was obviously a fan of drawing people in Santa outfits, since he went back to that well in Daredevil, during his “Born Again” storyline. In that story, Turk, a minor punk that Miller had created for his run on the book, steals a Santa suit, hoping to get some money from strangers who would think he was collecting for charity. When an insane Matt Murdock sees this, he confronts Turk, only to be knifed by the punk and almost killed. Ah, now that’s the Frank Miller we all know and love!

The list of holiday stories is long and varied. Have any of them stayed in your memory?

Short answer? No. Not a single one. I mean, I have vague memories of Christmas-themed things, but I can’t place any of them or give specific details. I do know that this book is mixed in among my myriad longboxes:

It was an oversized issue that had a bunch of very short stories in it, some reprints of older material, lists of holiday stories from Marvel’s early days and even a page of Christmas carols rewritten with X-men-based lyrics. Exciting, no? There was a tale about Punisher redistributing drug money to the needy. Thor fighting some trolls while his dad lied about being Santa. And Captain Ultra (WTF?) fighting off Plantman in order to save everyone’s Christmas trees. LAME.


And I can’t believe that John didn’t mention the GLX-Mas Special that came out a few years ago and featured the Great Lakes Avengers a presented by Dan Slott. I know John is a big fan of the GLA. Sadly, there wasn’t anything aobut this comic that really stood out as “memorable” or even “good.” Wait, I take that back. MODOK makes an appearance. That’s always memorable (but not always good).

I know there are some others that I’m forgetting. Comics have a way of trying to drill home those “true meaning of the holiday” messages as often as they can. I’m sure there’s a Spider-Man story about helping out a little kid in a hospital or something about the Justice League helping an orphanage fight the evil utility man who keeps turning off their heat. And I know for a fact that there have been about four dozen modern comic interpretations of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Bah Humbug, J. Jonah Jameson!

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Tick’s Big Yule Log Special. It’s a glorious flip book. One side features a story where Tick and Arthur are hired to play mall Santas and get caught up in an evil elf’s revenge plot. The other side of the book shows us how Arthur tries to teach the Tick the true meaning of Hanukkah. Brings a tear to my eye every time.

Of course, my favorite bit of holiday comics lore has no tie to the season or really any particular day for that matter. It’s something that has been around for decades and still shines as one of the greatest catchphrases in modern pop culture: Luke Cage’s “Sweet Christmas!” exclamation.

Sweet Christmas, indeed.



How to make your lame villain scary

Oct-30-08

Both Marvel and DC have something in common; their superhero universes contain a lot of lame villains. Oodles. Marvel tried to correct the problem in the 80s when they introduced Scourge, a character who seemed to exist only to clear out some of the deadwood in the Marvel criminal community. However, not only did Scourge miss a ton of losers, but many of the ones he killed have seen their gimmicks and names passed to new thugs, so their legacies (such as they are) live on. Perhaps seeing that this attempt at eliminating pathetic evil-doers didn’t stick, both Marvel and DC seem to have settled on revamping many of their villains and making them, as the kids say, bad asses. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. Herewith are our recommendations for turning the Ringer into next year’s villain du jour.

1. Less blood, more threat: The most popular way to make a villain seem scary is to have them go out and rack up a body count that borders on genocide. Popular thinking seems to believe that, if your victims don’t number in the triple digits, you’re small time and might as well go back to fighting Captain Ultra. Alternately, you don’t have to kill a lot of people, if you kill just a few, but really gruesomely. Now, gruesome can have its place, but often times today’s comic writers seem to simply be trying to outdo the last gruesome death that saw print, and consequently, the deaths themselves mean little.

Let’s be clear: a huge body count is absurd, and it’s one of the things that’s pushed the Joker from menacing to maddening (for the readers). You don’t need to murder a stadium of sports fans to make a point, and how many villains are interested in doing that anyway? It makes your villains seem like crazy comic book villains if they’re going after huge masses of people. Most readers can’t relate to that sort of crime; none of us really expect to get blown up with lots of other people in a mass venue. That’s where people feel safe. Instead, keep your villains relatable; if they’re killing people, have them break into the house in the middle of the night, or catch someone walking home from the movies (perhaps after seeing a Zorro flick). Then you’re hitting your reader somewhere they’re more familiar and you’re more likely to dredge up some scares in them. Of course, this will work even better if you follow tip #2:

2. Let your reader get to know your victim: The better the reader knows the victim, the more impact it will have when your villain offs them. Of course, you don’t want to have Terra Man kill Lois Lane just to make him scarier, but you can introduce other characters for Terra Man to kill or threaten. The reader doesn’t have to spend a lot of time with the character; it can be a simple page or two, as long as you use that space to effectively convey enough of a piece of the victim’s personality so that the victim can be seen as a person, and not just as a piece of meat to be ground up by your villain.

3. Strip your villain back to basics: Often times what makes a villain even lamer is when writers try to give them more gimmicks and more toys in an attempt to make the villain more threatening. Unfortunately, this often backfires, and the villain comes off looking worse than ever. Let’s use the Ringer for example. For those who don’t know, the Ringer is a Marvel villain who’s gimmick was…well, rings. He had all kinds of different rings which did different things, and every time he appeared, it seemed he had a new set of rings that could do even more useless tricks. I would get rid of all of them and stick with one of his original gimmicks: constricting rings. Instead of having the Ringer tossing exploding rings across Times Square, have him sneaking through the dark alleys. He finds a victim, slips out of the shadows, and quickly slides a constricting ring around the victims throat. Then he watches as the poor person suffocates at his feet. Or perhaps he wants the victim for some future purpose. One ring around the body, which constricts enough to prevent the person from taking a deep breath (driving most of the fight from them) and then another around the wrists to bind the victim and make it easy for Ringer to capture them. That’s much more threatening than anything the character has ever done in the past.

4. No more primary colors: We’ve discussed a lot about art the last few days, but I need to mention it again. If you want a scary comic, you need art that provokes an atmosphere. It’s not just about the pencilling and inking, but you also need a strong colorist, who can keep the colors muted and provide a spooky setting, without making the book a bloody, dark and impossible to read mess.

5. Allow them occasional victories: Many villains are considered lame because they never win. Of course, when we’re reading this sort of story, we know the villains will lose in the end (unless you’re reading current DC) and that’s part of the tacit agreement we, the readers, make with the creators. However, it’s important to note that, unless you want your villain to be a laughing stock, you need to give them a win every now and again. It doesn’t have to be a big one, but if they never manage to bring any plans to fruition, they’re certainly not going to be scary. Perhaps some of their early plans succeed because the hero doesn’t know about them, or perhaps they even beat the hero a few times, when the hero isn’t expecting them or their abilities. In the end, it’s just important that they sometimes succeed, so the reader doesn’t know if they’re actually going to pull off the plan that will spell the end for a threatened supporting character. If the villain sometimes wins, they become credible, and then they can start to become scary.

There’re some ideas. Agree? Disagree? Have some of your own?

Yeah, I have a suggestion. Don’t ever again write a post that mentions both Terra Man and Ringer. That was the most frightening thing I ever read!

The one point you make that I feel the strongest about is #5. If the villain isn’t a credible threat, they’re never going to be taken seriously. Look at someone like Green Goblin. On paper, he’s ridiculous. But what was the first big thing he did as a villain? He offed Spider-Man’s girlfriend. Instant archenemy.

And I think #4 is an important rule. I mean, really, who’s scared of Shocker in his yellow quilted shirt? Or a giant orange Armadillo? Or Wizard in his fancy purple and red ensemble with the giant helmet (or, for that matter, the Leader and his giant cranium tucked into an orange and yellow turtleneck)?

If we’re talking about turning villains more towards the scary side of things in terms of tone and method, then I think there are three other points that need to be made:

6. Intimidation works. A strong baddie is an imposing baddie. And I don’t mean that he has to be huge or have some sort of magnificent power that cancels out the sun. Perfect example: Galactus is NOT scary (especially his movie version…ooooh, a cloud!). No, I’m talking about their mere presence sending a chill up someone’s spine. The foe could be old and frail, like Cassandra Nova or have a really bizarre look, like Emplate, and they would be more effective than Turner D. Century in his spiffy suit. This criteria is one of the reasons why Doctor Doom, Ultron and Red Skull have remained on the scene for so long. Plus, it helps to keep the main threat hidden for as long as possible in order to build up the suspense. Show a creepy hand or part of a horrific visage every now and then, but keep the big reveal until absolutely necessary. Evolution is a viable course to follow too. Take Annihilus for example. When he was first introduced, he just looked like a dude in a giant metal bug costume. However, his latest incarnation shows him in a more insect-like form and, I have to admit, he’s a bit skin-crawly now.

7. Go off the deep end on occasion. There’s something to be said about being organized and rational. Perfection involves a certain type of horror. However, that perfection can be elegantly offset with the occasional psychopathic outburst. Tear apart a puppy with your bare hands. Push a stranger off a bridge. Randomly erupt and beat the beejesus out of one of your henchmen with a nearby computer keyboard, cackling wildly as letters and numbers careen off his scalp. Divine madness goes a long way towards building a scary reputation. That’s one of the few things I’ve respected in good portrayals of the Joker.

8. Have a grand scheme. Anymore these days, villains are just out on personal vendettas which, while they have their place in history, do not build up a broad depth to your villainy. None of the bad guys seem to have any plans beyond eliminating so-and-so. What then? Now, I’m not saying we should go back to the days of simple bank robbing or awkward planning to poison water supplies with special fish, but there has to be a rational beginning and end to the rampage, aside from ending up in jail. To be effective, you have to follow through. An exception to this rule is taunting. A great villain needs to be able to taunt without remorse…kidnapping loved ones, stalking alter egos, harassing coworkers and implying even worse plans. That stuff always works. Not to say it couldn’t be augmented with some unrelated evil plotting.

Scary is in the eye of the beholder. And I feel that there are very few villains in today’s comics that fit the bill. Most of them are just glorified punching bags. The most recent example of a good revamp that I can think of is Dr. Light. DC definitely made him a creepy dude. Of course, a swift kick to the nuts remedied that. Taking a previous example, I’m not sure we could ever morph Turner D. Century into a formidable foe, but I think the rules we’ve set out are a clear checklist for avoiding the pitfalls that created Mr. Century in the first place.