Christmas Comics Cavalcade: The 1994 Marvel Holiday Special

ChristmasComicCavalcade

I’ve covered the Marvel Holiday Specials here. They are some of my favorite Christmas comics, owing much to my memories of buying them and reading them around the holidays.

I’ve gone on at length about how much I loved those comics as a kid and still find a lot to love about them now. One of them always eluded me though. I’d never been able to locate a copy of the 1994 Marvel Holiday Special.

…until a few months back when I finally stumbled over it at a clearance sale.

1994 was a weird time for Marvel. Most of its top-tier creators had long since flown the coop for creator-owned success at Image Comics. In 1994, there wasn’t much to be excited about at Marvel. Somewhat ironically for a comic company that liked to advertise itself as The House of Ideas, Marvel had turned away from the new and started to focus more on its storied history to find one of its greatest successes of the 1990’s – a graphic novel series written by Kurt Busiek and lavishly painted by Alex Ross titled Marvels.

I’m no comics historian, but even I could see that ’94 started a trend at Marvel Comics where creators began to mine Marvel’s past for differently angled stories while keeping attempting to stay firmly grounded in the Nineties. In fact, the lead story in this holiday collection, “Catastrophe on 34th Street” is an X-Men tale penned by Kurt Busiek that very much digs into this vein of nostalgia for the company’s past.

“Catastrophe on 34th Street” begins as SO MANY of these superhero holiday stories begin… with the protagonists kind of hanging out and just not feeling in the holiday spirit. Busiek hilariously brings readers up to speed as to what’s going on in the X-Men books that would make Beast and Iceman so morose 

…and that’s so, so on brand for the X-Men, which as a collective always had like 14 crazy ongoing stories going at once with never a resolution to half of them anywhere in sight.

Answering a television report of a monster tearing up New York City and kidnapping street Santa Clauses, the heroes find themselves drawn into a fight with a lava monster who they realize is very familiar

…this shifts the narrative into a flashback to the “original teenage X-Men” days, before Beast was blue-furred monster and when the boys fought this particular baddie before.

Again, these were the kinds of stories Busiek was telling over at Marvel in the 1990’s and it’s expertly done. One of the nice things about these pages is the way inker Neil Vokes hints through artist’s James Fry’s style at the differences between the grim and gritty modern X-Men and the cleaner, more streamlined Silver Age versions of the characters.

Even things like the Editor’s Note daring readers to find Lava Man Metoxo’s first appearance bring a reader back to simpler time in comics.

“Catastrophe on 34th Street” is a bit of an oddity as it’s a 24 page tale but the extra length is welcome and this checks out as a pretty good Christmas tale.

Next story, “A Midnight Clear” is the one I was most excited about reading because of the creative team of John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake.

These guys were the authors of a great run on DC Comics’ supernatural superhero The Spectre at this time. Mandrake’s not a guy I’d ever thought I’d want to see do any work on a true blue superhero like Captain America… and I’m sorry to say, it’s not a very good story.

It’s full of dumb coincidences (there’s a hostage situation at the cabin… where Steve Rogers’ grandfather lived during The Great Depression? Also, that old cottage also happens to have a secret passage used by The Underground Railroad that Cap can sneak through?)

Mandrake’s style is dark, foreboding and not exactly what I think of when I think Captain America. I can appreciate it as a different take but it’s a weird one for a Christmas book… and in fact, barely touches on the holiday. Maybe this was a repurposed story of some kind?

The next story “Losin’ the Blues” is a Thing tale written by Greg Wright and drawn by Mike Manley. Manley was a superhero artist I remember liking as a kid; he had a run on Batman during the KnightQuest storyline and he seemed like the only guy outside of Joe Quesada who could draw the complicated Azreal Batman costume passably to my 12 year old eyes. 

This story was published at a time for The Thing where Marvel didn’t quite know what to do with him. The thingspent much of the first 25 years of Marvel’s history as one of the company’s most recognizable mascots… but as interest in The Fantastic Four dwindled in the 1990’s, so too did The Thing’s luster. As an example of this, I noticed that ol’ Ben Grimm is drawn with a couple of red slash marks on his face which I believe were put there by Wolverine in some kind of rage battle and a bid to make The Thing a bit more of an intimidating character. Here however, the “scars” look like an artistic afterthought and certainly nothing in “Losin’ the Blues” really connects to anything going on in the regular FF comic beyond that.

The story also doesn’t acknowledge Ben Grimm’s Jewish heritage, but I don’t know if this was a part of how Marvel saw The Thing in ’94. Given his creative heritage, it’s a nice nod but something I doubt many people thought about until later in the decade.

Next is The Eternal Game which… I guess I could bend over backwards and say there is some holiday commentary in this story on the idea of loneliness and how it relates to the ways we appreciate the holidays but it’s pretty much just a straight Silver Surfer story with a plot by J.M. DeMatteis, script by Mindy Newell.

Not every Christmas story needs to have Santa Claus and decorations, I guess. You’re mileage may vary on this one, except that I know we can all agree that Rick Leonardi can draw one HELL of a Silver Surfer.

Actually, the next one-pager Spider-Man story, Star of the Show kind of fits the “true Christmas story” bill.

Written and colored by Karl Bollers with art by the superior Gray Morrow, it’s cute and I’ve always liked the detail that sometimes pops up in Spider-Man comics that Spidey is often is the guy who puts the star at the top of the Rockefeller Christmas tree in the Marvel Universe. Is it mean to say that despite how nicely drawn the crowd is, I wish that Spidey was a bit better?

Since this was the 1994, we end with another X-Men comic, a parody told in poem form of The Night Before Christmas. This story features some fun Sal Buscema artwork on the characters. Karl Bollers also wrote and colored this one.

…and that’s it! When I compare the ’94 Holiday Special to the previous releases, it comes up a bit short. The lead story is a lot of fun, as is the Spider-Man one-pager but there’s a few rougher stories in here that didn’t flip my switch.  After this year, Marvel would shift its holiday efforts over to a Spider-Man themed holiday special so this comic is kind of the end of a brief era for the company’s yuletide stories.

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