Christmas Comics Cavalcade: Comico Christmas Special

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On this Christmas Eve, let’s look at Comico Christmas Special, a one shot published in 1988. Comico was a independent publisher in the 1980’s perhaps best known for being the home of Matt Wagner’s Grendel, although the company published a wide variety of titles during their fifteen year history including The Rocketeer and several licensed properties.

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Indeed, Rocketeer creators Dave Stevens provided the atmospheric cover.

All the stories in this collection are written by Doug Wheeler, a comic artist and writer who is best known for his tenure on DC Comics’ Swamp Thing after Rich Veitch left the book due to creative conflicts with editors. Besides this comic’s yuletide connotations, I wanted to take a look at this book because it’s a pretty broad, sweeping look at the holidays from one specific point of view. Whatever there is to be said about the artists in this book, it’s clear that this is entirely a Doug Wheeler joint. So what did he have to say about Christmas? Well… quite a lot, actually!

The first story in the book, Living for Christmas, pairs Wheeler with Ken Holewczynski, an artist I had never heard of, but he has a minimalist style almost reminiscient of woodcut pictures. This simple style meshes interestingly with Wheeler’s futuristic story that’s something of an inversion of the Ebeneezer Scrooge trope: Here we have Mr. Altman, a wealthy man who keeps himself in suspended animation 11 months out of the year, only to be “thawed” for a chance to enjoy the Christmas holidays.

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The premise aside, this is not a great story. The entire plot hinges on a ridiculous coincidence and it’s hard to believe that someone who loves Christmas as much as Mr. Altman would completely miss the point of them for so very long. I guess that’s something of a trope in and of itself, but I just thought it was a bridge too far.

The second story, Too Many Santas, is drawn by Bernie Mireault. Mireault’s most well known for his street-level superhero The Jam and Wheeler again plays to his collaborator’s strength, while still fitting in the science fiction themes he carries through most of the work in this special. Jason’s a kid who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus whose lack of faith is put to the test when the true nature of Ol’ Saint Nick is revealed to him by one of “Santa’s helpers”

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Too Many Santas tries to straddle a line between “charming” and “scary” and I’m afraid it veers far too often over to scary, especially in Mireault’s admittedly good but creepy interpretation of the many Santas. Of course, it’s fitting with the ultimate resolution of Wheeler’s story, but I don’t know this was the best artist/writer fit for the tone Wheeler seems to want.

The Stiflemix Diaries is yet another futuristic tale, this time drawn by Tim Sale. Time has proven Sale to be perhaps the biggest talent associated with the Comico Christmas Special, as he would go onto work with great success at DC Comics in a series of Batman comics (coincidentally also rather heavily associated with the holidays). Sale’s loose, expressionistic style is on full display in this tale of rebels looking to instill some holiday cheer in a dystopian future where any and all celebration of Christmas is relegated to December only.

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This is perhaps the most ambitious story in the book. Wheeler’s working backwards from a premise we all have thought about from time to time (People seem to be getting ready for Christmas earlier and earlier every year!) and brings it to an insane conclusion. As with Too Many Santas, there’s a real sarcastic, bitter note to The Stiflemax Diaries.

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The Noel Liberation Brigade’s cause is ridiculous and the people associated with the cause are either stupid, selfish, violent, or oblivious. Still, it’s a skewed, interesting take.

Wheeler seems to work on two levels with the five stories in this book: sarcastic or sincere. He seems to make peace with those two tones best in One Winter Day, with art by Bill Willingham. Today Willingham is best known for his revisionist spin on the fairy tale genre in DC/Vertigo’s Fables but he was a key player in Comico’s initial output with his creator-owned Elementals series.

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This is my favorite story in the book which perhaps betrays some of my own bias. It’s the only story in the one-shot that is not science fiction related. Instead, it’s a slice-of-life story about a kid shoveling snow during Christmas vacation in Erie, Pennsylvania. As someone who only recently became an owner of a home with a decent-sized driveway I’ve come to understand the horrors of endlessly digging oneself out of a snowstorm and Wheeler’s teenage protagonist has the right combination of annoyance and cleverness to make a story about shoveling snow an engaging read.

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I’m more familiar with Willingham’s writing work but but he seems to be heavily channeling John Byrne in his pencils on this story. It’s a good one though, displaying the fracturous nature of family relationships at the holidays in a fun way.

Finally, Traditions Everlasting veers us back into the realm of sincere science fiction, featuring a tale of aliens visiting a post-apocalyptic Earth. This four page story has the best pedigree of all the comics in the one-shot, with pencils by Steve “The Dude” Rude and inks by Al Williamson. It is as gorgeous as you would expect that paring to be, with really great designs for the main alien characters. All of them should, by nature, look the same but Rude and Williamson find artistic ways to distinguish them from one another.

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One of the aliens discovers artifacts of the doomed human race’s belief in Santa Claus and in turn, begins to believe in Santa himself.

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…and while Living for Christmas perhaps veers to much into the saccharine, Wheeler’s sincerity is leavened by the seriousness of the story’s context. Humans are gone but we did have a capacity for good which sadly was overwhelmed. Perhaps that goodness can live on.

I thought this was a rather fun outing, definitely a far cry from the fake Avengers Christmas I looked at earlier this month. Although I wish there had been a bit more variety in the sarcastic tone in place throughout most of the book, stories like One Winter Day and Traditions Everlasting really do capture the spirit of the season. I don’t see the stories in this comic being collected anytime soon so if you come across this book, definitely pick it up.

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