Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Since the theme of this week's reviews was "Christmas stories in comics," this presented me with a dilemma. The medium plays host to many simple, sentimental Xmas-stories, but few of them have any symbolic depth. I'm not aware of any pro-Christian comics that have the symbolic depth of, say, C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, and the satirical, anti-Christian comics are usually superficial, along the lines of Justin Green's BINKY BROWN.

Most of the aforementioned Xmas-stories are about candy canes rather than crosses, but they don't do much more than rehearse the usual routines. Superman meets Santa. Wonder Woman meets Santa. The (Golden Age) Sandman gets a hoodlum to play Santa and change his ways. The Spirit won't fight crime on Christmas Eve because "the spirit of Christmas" takes care of it for him. (I wonder if that worked for Jewish people, like Will Eisner himself?) Many of these provide simple pleasures, but no complex ones. The "myth-comic" selected this week is an adventure-oriented parody of Christian themes, but for a comic to be a null-myth, it has to demonstrate at least the potential for symbolic complexity, but done badly.

Oddly, Bill Mantlo-- the same writer who wrote the "Son of Satan" story extolled this week-- also wrote the perfect "bad Santa" story-- or at least, perfect for my purposes.

I'll pass quickly over the business conflicts that caused the expulsion of Howard the Duck's creator, Steve Gerber, from the title. Bill Mantlo inherited the feature because of these behind-the-scenes occurrences, but my only concern here is whether or not Mantlo did a good job in presenting the character of Howard and his generally ironic universe. Even putting aside the resentment of readers who might've championed Gerber over Mantlo, it seems evident that Mantlo's version did not win any hearts and minds, for when the HOWARD feature was switched to Marvel's black-and-white line, theoretically to reach a more adult audience, the magazine only lasted a paltry nine issues, after which Howard's publication at Marvel became increasingly checkered.

Though artist Gene Colan continued to draw Howard's adventures in several of the b&w stories, Mantlo's version of the character undercut Colan's art in that his stories were neither funny, nor satirical, not even touchingly sentimental. The cover above is by Jack Davis more or less captures the lameness of Howard-the-magazine. What's all that funny about an angry duck sitting on a store-Santa's lap while presumably reading from his Xmas want-list? It might have been a little funny if Howard had been fawning, or if someone had caught him in such an embarrassing posture.

The story is essentially another "disbelieving-protagonist-meets-the-real-Santa" tale, and the "Carol" of the title is a little girl who's become disillusioned in Christmas because of her family troubles. The duck is pulled into Carol's orbit in a fairly hackneyed manner, after which both of them are almost flattened by a crashing sky-sleigh. Occupying the sleigh are the Big Claus himself and one of his elves, who is, like most elves, a sardonic type to balance Santa's jollity.

Howard reluctantly helps Santa gas up his sleigh, but then both he and the girl must take a ride to the North Pole workshop for reasons I won't bother detailing. Once there, Mantlo decides that the perfect way to celebrate the Christmas spirit is to-- launch a screed against nuclear power? Yes, Santa was a dope who let himself be talked into using nuclear power in his workshop, by a reptilian fellow called "the Pinball Lizard"-- though the Lizard is only the story's subsidiary villain; a henchman of a nuclear madman named "Greedy Killerwatt." 

I won't dwell on the obvious awfulness of these pun-names, except to say that Harvey Kurtzman at his worst would never have deigned to use either one-- particularly since the reference to the "Pinball Wizard" of the 1975 film TOMMY was about four years out of date. Worst than that, though, is that Mantlo's anti-nuclear screed isn't even true to the scientific knowledge of the time. Santa's elf claims that he tried to talk Santa into using clean solar power. Where was this completely problem-free solar power in 1979? Maybe on Marvel-Earth it existed, but even there, I doubt how much efficacy solar power would have had at the freaking North Pole.

As seen in many other null-myths, real symbolic play takes a backseat to speechifyin' and preachifyin'. There's no spirit, Christmas or otherwise, to be found in such pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness.

No comments: