'tis the season for jolly big anthology comics full of Santa and sentiment. DC's entry this year is adorned with a simply gorgeous cover hinting that one day soon we're going to lose Dustin Nguyen to Hallmark. A tip of the elf's hat, too, to publication designer Travis Lanham for a striking logo, merry title page and likely all kinds of subtle touches that go unnoticed by me.
The 80pp holiday grab bag (I have no idea what a 'grab bag' is, but Marvel used the phrase a lot in the Seventies in connection with festive anthologies, so who am I to argue?) features 16 shorts, none of which are outright clunkers and some of which are instant classics. Even if something doesn't tickle your tinsel, the format means there's something new along in a page or four.
Let's have a quick wander through the book.
Batman in Silent Knight (Jay Faerber/Peter Nguyen)
The Caped Fella chases a bad Santa and meets a bunch of other bad Santas in a wordless tale (Silent Night, geddit?) with an ending that makes no sense. A few words might have helped. The art's nice, in a gloomy way.
Superman in Man of Snow (Arie Kaplan/Nick Runge/Gabe Eltaeb)
Frosty the Snowman goes Golem courtesy of a telekinetic Tiny Tim. Quirky fun, but dock a point for rolling out the sick kid at Christmas.
Flash in The Flash Before Christmas (Amy Wolfram/Daniel Leister)
Wally West zooms around the DCU, doing good while trying to get presents bought. I know how he feels. Extra entertainment comes via a panel of the JLA Christmas do which got me overexcited: Look, it's Martian Manhunter in a story which shows Donna Troy and Dick Batman as JLA members in good standing, setting it after Blackest Night, which means the Martian Manhunter will be back from the dead before we know it. Oh all right, it's just J'onn in a non-continuity short, but if you can't dream at Christmas, when can you?
The Doom Patrol in The (Beast) Boy Who Hated Christmas (Sterling Gates/Jonboy Meyers)
Back when Beast Boy really was a boy, there wasn't much joy at Christmas. Well, he was an orphan - perfect for a Christmas tale. There are no real surprises here so far as where things are going is concerned, but the characterisation is excellent. And much as I'm loving the current DP book, the old logo and Elasti-Girl's costume are so much better than today's. I like Jonboy Meyer's exaggerated art, apart from his too-wide Robotman. Chuck Pires' colours are a firework display of fun. Good stuff.
Superboy in Party Gift (Ralph Soll/Rodney Buchemi/Greg Adams)
Bad guys gather but who the heck invited them? Don't expect the page one logo to give you a clue in a story which left me a little puzzled, due to my being unable to interpret modern Bizarro-speak. Still, I enjoyed the villain gathering, and the art is luscious.
Martian Manhunter in Reason for the Season (Fred Van Lente/Nick Dragotta)
Back in his earliest days on Earth, detective John Jones catches a crook and learns that Martians and humans aren't so different. With a smart script by Van Lente that respects the superb work John Ostrander did on the Nineties Martian Manhunter book and wonderful illustrations - pencils, inks and colours) by Dragotta, this is a Christmas cracker. When J'onn does come back I'd love to see this team in charge.
Angel and the Ape (Andrew Pepoy)
An untitled single-pager sees our heroes collecting for charity. Pepoy gets in, gets out and leaves us with a grin on our face. Sweet.
Sgt Rock in A Peace on Earth (Billy Tucci)
The Rock of Easy Company encounters an enemy soldier at Christmas and there's goodwill from both men. Tucci produces some memorable images here, aided by Hi-Fi's barely-there colour palette. A perfect Christmas strip, based on a true story . . .
Enemy Ace in Stille Nacht (Seamus Kevin Fahey & Sean Fahey/Howard Chaykin)
. . . it's a shame that it's followed immediately by another DC war character, Enemy Ace, in an equally fine piece apparently inspired by the same event - the 1914 Ypres Christmas truce. Backseat Editor here would at least have placed them at opposite ends of the book. This is a superb character piece focusing on the ever-melancholy Hans von Hammer, faced with a tough decision on Christmas Eve. I don't know the Faheys, but let's see more from these lads. Chaykin is, of course, a comics legend and he underlines his reputation for power-packed pages here while capturing the thoughtfulness of von Hammer.
B'wana Beast in The Hunt For Christmas (Beau Smith/Gary Kwapisz)
The African hero, currently comics-dead, tackles poachers aided by his animal chums, with a hymn providing the narration. Not my cup of cocoa, but it's good to see a Christmas short not swathed in snow. And where the heck has Kwapisz, one of my favourite Conan artists, been for the last few years?
Captain Marvel in Home for Christmas (Steve Horton/Afua Richardson)
Another vignette, competent enough, of orphans and truces as Cap fights Ibac, then doesn't. The art on this single pager is squeezed even more by Richardson's decision to use fat borders and add in about an inch of unnecessary black space. And it would've been nice to see the two foes properly, rather than having them in the distance at all times.
Deadman in Unbearable Loss (Scott Kolins)
The orphan quota gets a boost with this story of the Scarecrow's surprisingly Milfy mom and a homeless tyke. Deadman gets to be Clarence the suicide intervention angel, though writer/artist Kolins makes him a heckuva lot less cute, Kelley Jones skeletal, in fact. It's not a look I like, and it makes you wonder why Scarecrow Mom Karen isn't scared to death the second she sees him. There's a fresh layer added to Scarecrow's origin here, with new (well, to me) revelations about his childhood, in this heartwarming bauble.
Red Tornado in A Night Before Christmas Story (David Tischman/Adam Archer/Sandra Hope)
Reddy gets personality shock! Like Wally West, the android JLA-er just wants to get his Christmas shopping sorted, when life intervenes. But whereas circumstances drag Wally off course, it's Reddy who calls a halt to the shopping when, exasperated by the lack of Christmas spirit around him, he takes surprising action. I love this strip for its originality, as Tischman gives us a new angle on an old hero and Archer and Hope tell the story attractively. This tight four-pager is such a treat that it's only now I notice that Reddy never even appears in costume.
Huntress in Naughty or Nice (J Torres/Hubert Khan Michael)
Our heroine spies on the neighbourhood and sees people learn to get along. Pleasant enough, though Michael's Huntress money shot might have worked better without Tom Smith's nighttime colour choice.
Ragman in Seeing the Light (Rob Levin/Brian Ching)
The story of the Maccabees is placed side by side with the struggles of Ragman to clean up Gotham. He's mopey, but invited to find hope by lighting a menorah. Fabulous art, a sincere narrative but this felt more like a lecture than a comic strip, with Ragman's misery tacked on for the sake of the story.
Adam Strange in Auld Lang Syne (Shannon Eric Denton/Nick J Napalitano)
This is the Wally West story again, with an oddly brunette Adam's attempts to get to Rann for New Year impeded by various Earthbound perils. Napolitano's art is chunkily cheerful, while Denton gave me the biggest laugh of the issue courtesy of a dirty old broad.
And it's good to end a Christmas comic with a smile. Overall, this is one of the better seasonal offerings of recent years, so Christmas kisses to editors Adam Schlagman and Eddie Berganza.