Overview: DC once again brings the holiday spirit to their universe, with a dozen tales to bring warmth to the coldest heart (except maybe Sgt. Rock and John Constantine). Unlike last year’s somewhat cynical and overly action-focused offering anthology, with the exception of Steve Orlando and Vita Ayala’s lovely Green Lanterns story for Epiphany (Three Kings), this year features a wealth of name-brand creators contributing a varied and almost universally satisfying bunch of stories (despite a slightly lackluster cover this year). At $10 for 84 story pages, it’s actually a better deal than your standard $2.99 ($0.15 per page) or $3.99 (almost $0.20 per page), giving us a solid $0.12 per page bargain. And since the vast majority of those pages are worthwhile stories, it definitely gets our recommendation!
1. The Reminder (parts 1 and 2, bookending the main part of the book): written by Jeff Lemire and art by Giuseppe Camuncoli featuring Bibbo, Constantine and Superman as the framing device for the issue.
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): At Bibbo’s bar, Clark Kent and John Constantine give our salty seadog barkeep his annual headache as they come in and complain about the state of the world, especially Superman’s inability to fix everything. Bibbo, offended at his pal Superman’s reputation being denigrated, kicks Constantine out, and sits Kent down to hear some stories that give hope.
After all the tales are told, Kent walks out, thanking Bibbo for giving him hope that everyone, by doing their best, can make the world just a little better. Superman bumps into Constantine outside, who gives him another dose of Scrooge-like pessimism. Clark almost leaves in a huff, but thinks better of it and invites the magician home for Christmas. At the Kent apartment, Jon and Lois make him welcome, though not his smoking, to which he gives an only half-sincere “Bah humbug.”
Analysis: Returning DC writer Jeff Lemire gives our book a nice opening and closing. This reviewer might have thought it was perhaps a bit less meaningful, but he had the pleasure of reading a Showcase comic from the 1990s this year, featuring Bibbo and his friendship with Superman. As a result, the old sea dog’s affection for Big Blue struck a warmer chord with that history in mind, and the capping pages at the end of the book give us a beautifully rendered portrait of a Kent Christmas, with Lois and Jon nicely rendered by veteran artist Camuncoli.
2. Twas the Night Before Christmas: written by Denny O’Neil, art by Steve Epting and colors by Dave McCaig featuring Batman
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): Years ago, an old lady and her grandson are turned away at Christmas from a party in the bitter cold. The next morning, the boy is found by the police, but his grandmother has frozen to death. Now, in the present, Batman roars the Batmobile through the streets, Alfred at the wheel, as Batman lays out the situation of two parents kidnapped in a blizzard. He leaves, saying it’s time for a visit from old St. Nick.
Inside, the boy has grown into a man, the kidnapper, haunted by an evil ghost of his grandmother, telling him to murder the mother and father at midnight. The father’s parents were the ones who pushed granny out in the cold where she died. Batman arrives through the chimney, a sooty and terrifying vision of justice. He knocks the gun away from the man’s hand and saves the parents, and the man tells his abusive grandmother’s ghost to leave him and never come back, but ends the story by saying goodbye.
Analysis: Master Batman writer Denny O’Neil gives us a slightly underdeveloped story with absolutely stunning art by Steve Epting. The page where Batman comes out of the chimney alone almost sold the collection – it’s terrifying and exciting at the same time, masterfully colored by Dave McCaig. O’Neil’s writing is solid, and the voice for Batman and Alfred especially excellent, but the concept of the ghost haunting the kidnapper, and the resolution are a bit unsatisfying. But there’s enough craft even in the incompleteness that the story works quite well.
3. You Better Think Twice: written by Mairghread Scott and art by Phil Hester featuring Green Arrow and Black Canary
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): At St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Star City, Green Arrow and Black Canary suit up as Mr. and Mrs. Claus for the children. Dinah has a bit of a Scrooge-like attitude, but Ollie says that Santa is about more than just consumerism – he’s fairness, generosity and magic. A toy truck is held up nearby, so the heroes spring into action, quickly knocking out the robbers. Canary is still cranky, remembering her own time in the foster care system, but the kids come spilling out at the sound of commotion, and her heart melts when a little girl asks if she helped Santa find them. The day ends with Arrow and Canary distributing the presents cheerfully to the ecstatic kids in the snow.
Analysis: Mairghread Scott gives us a tight focus on Green Arrow and Black Canary, playing their romantic banter, sparring relationship, fighting skills, and heroic hearts in a lovely balance. Phil Hester’s art is angular and spiky, but still cartoony and fun, giving the story warmth and a great action scene highlighting Dinah’s skills and the fun of Ollie’s arrows brilliantly. The story makes good use of the current continuity of the characters, as well as calling back to the lighthearted but heroic historical relationship between the two in such books as Denny O’Neil’s Green Arrow Annual #1 from 1989. An excellent, if fluffy, piece.
4. Going Down Easy!: written by Tom King and art by Francesco Francavilla featuring Sgt. Rock
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): Over the course of eight winter days during World War 2, Private Hammerman, a member of Sgt. Rock’s Easy Company, captured a Nazi officer by himself, a mile away from his comrades. Hammerman is hit by shrapnel by a random artillery shot. He holds his rifle on the Nazi, telling him he’s already dead, given the severity of the wound, which usually kills in a few hours. However, he says this on the third day. On the fourth day, the Nazi tries to fight Hammerman for the gun, but the private fights him off. The next day, the Nazi offers a cease fire, so perhaps they can both escape. Rejected, the next day, he asks Hammerman why he persists. The private responds that you have to have faith, to which the German scoffs, since he’s already killed so many Jews who had faith. Hammerman reveals that he is also a Jew, and all the dead Jews the Nazi’s murdered have him on their side. On the seventh day, Hammerman has seemingly died, and the Nazi picks up the rifle, and strolls away, singing. Behind him, he hears Hammerman singing a Jewish prayer, drawing his pistol, and the two shoot each other. The next day – the eight, last day – Sgt. Rock finds them. Hammerman, with the shrapnel and bullet in him, should be dead, but Rock sees a flicker of light in his eyes as he asks if they got the Nazi. The story ends with Rock lighting a cigarette, saying that it’ll take a miracle to last the war, but the enemy can have faith that Easy Company won’t go down easy.
Analysis: The classic DC character Sgt. Rock, symbol of the darkness of war and the brightness of a soldier’s spirit in the face of it, serves as the setting for Tom King’s dark but ultimately haunting Hanukkah story. The miracle of Hammerman surviving for eight days echoes the miracle of the oil burning in the temple for eight days, when both should have been extinguished in mere hours. Tom King uses this structure as he often uses an external framing device, like a formal meal in The War of Jokes and Riddles, or the five days of Bane’s assault in I Am Bane, to give the story a beautiful rhythm. Francavilla makes the final image of the lighting of the cigarette a beautiful, flaming reminder of the promise of Hanukkah, that faith is not meaningless, but a light to set the world on fire.
5. Hope for the Holidays: written by Joshua Williamson, art by Neil Googe and colors by Ivan Plascencia featuring Flash
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): As Wally West sits in Titans Tower in Manhattan, opening Barry Allen’s present on Christmas Eve, Barry, the Flash, fights Rainbow Raider at the airport in Central City. Barry has to hang up on Wally to finish the job, to great applause. He is puzzled by all the people, but is informed that snow has shut down the planes. A little girl asks him to deliver her presents to her parents, and he has a better idea. Far, far away, the girl’s parents are worried about her, and miss their daughter, when they hear a knock. Opening the door, they find a beaming girl carried by the smiling Flash. Barry delivers every single passenger stranded, and is reminded by the incident of the importance of family. He decides to spend the night at Titans Tower with Wally, eating ice cream and drinking coffee together.
Analysis: Josh Williamson shows again his gift for a satisfying, perhaps slightly saccharine, but perfectly judged moment of family love with this short story. The love of the girl and her parents, and the affection between Barry and Wally, are incredibly nicely judged, and Neil Googe’s energetic and incredibly appealing pencils are a perfect match for Williamson’s story of general (if perhaps a bit generic) holiday kindness.
6. A Wilson Family Christmas: written by Christopher Priest and art by Tom Grummett featuring Deathstroke
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): Year ago, Deathstroke’s former training master and current wife Adeline is on the phone with her husband of 17 years as their eldest son, Grant, drives the car, and their youngest son Joey in the back seat. The brothers bicker, mimicking their parents, as Addy rips Slade a new one about not being where he promised. We see Deathstroke (currently a secret from his family), holding up a Santa as Wintergreen searches through the toy bag searching for a toy with a nuclear trigger. Still on the phone, Adeline hears that Slade is on a mission, and demands to help. Wintergreen can’t find the toy Slade gave to Joseph, who promptly donated it to charity, leading to their current predicament, made worse by attacking snowmobilers. Over the phone, Slade hears Grant driven off the road by a deer, pushing him into extra brutality to get to his family. The Santa catches a stray bullet, dying instantly, as Wintergreen finds the correct toy. Taking one of the attacker’s snowmobiles, they dash recklessly to Adeline and the children’s aid, proving to Wintergreen that Slade does love his family. He makes Deathstroke remove his costume, since it’s still a secret. Slade arrives to Grant’s disrespect, which he counters with threats of a whipping, Joseph’s affection, which he ignores, and Adeline’s gun, which he answers with a necklace Christmas present. Joseph realizes it’s midnight and wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, ending the story with Tiny Tim’s “God Bless Us, every one!”
Analysis: This reviewer finds it hilarious that ordained minister Christopher Priest has written perhaps the most cynical and screwed up family in the Wilsons, but also ends the story with the most sincere and explicitly Christmas message of the anthology. It’s a huge delight to see Tom Grummett, of Chuck Dixon’s run on Robin, get work here on this brilliantly crafted little story of misery during the holidays. While the relationships between Slade, Adeline, Grant, Joseph, and Wintergreen aren’t substantially developed past what we already know from Priest’s stunning run on the Deathstroke title, it’s a piece well worth the purchase price alone, giving the collection a bit of hard-earned cynical tragedy to prevent all of the sugary sweet heroic tales from going sour.
7. Driver’s Seat: written by Max Landis and art by Francis Manapul featuring Superman and Lois Lane
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): Years ago, in Metropolis, Lois Lane finds herself T-boned by a pickup truck. Meanwhile, a man robs a bank with a jet pack, but is caught by Superman. Superman interrogates the man while flying, learning that he hasn’t hurt anyone in the robbery, but invented the jet pack himself. He convinces the man to turn away from his new life of crime, take his punishment, and when he gets out, sell his jetpack to help his family out when he is released from prison. Superman then gets the call from Lois about the car accident.
On the ground as Clark, he comforts Lois, who tells him that the car was her graduation present 12 years ago. She says she wasn’t ready to say goodbye to it. As they drive to Lois’s aunt’s Christmas celebration, Clark is deep in thought. The morning after the party, Lois wakes to find a note from her husband, saying “The Roof.” She finds him in full Superman costume (plus Santa hat), holding her old car’s driver’s seat and steering wheel. He then takes her on a last ride in the seat, flying into the sunrise, and they gaze into each other’s eyes.
Analysis: WARNING: If you did not purchase this comic digitally through Comixology or another service, this story was not included. The print version did not contain it, which is a great shame, as Landis weaves a lovely little story, largely told wordlessly through Francis Manapul’s absolutely lovely art. The final sequence, showing Superman and Lois’s love for each other, is completely beautifully done, and perfectly rendered in just a few panels of glorious color.
8. Silent Night: written by Dan DiDio and art by Matthew Clark featuring the Atomic Knights
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): The Atomic Knights face a strange threat from the mysterious plant-sympathizer Javins, who befriends the terrifying Trefoils. However, she sends the Trefoils with a message of peace to the knights, ending in a parade of knights and plants walking together in love and understanding.
Analysis: DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio pens this bizarre story, with solid art by Matthew Clark, about one of DC’s stranger properties. With hints of a Poison Ivy like character, and an enormous Dalmatian assisting the Knights, this story is definitely targeted at those who love the imaginative. Unfortunately, it’s the lone true failure for this reviewer.
9. Holiday Spirit: written by Shea Fontana and art by Otto Schmidt featuring the Teen Titans
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): On Christmas Eve, the Teen Titans battle mysterious ghosts. Starfire, our narrator, muses on her belief that Christmas and the other winter holidays are foolish, as her teammates run off to celebrate after their battle. Feeling alone and alien in her new world, she sits on a bridge, but hears a scream. She rescues a man jumping to his death, and he tells her he feels so guilty about his dead son’s last Christmas wish. As Starfire tries to help him, a ghost exits the man’s body and proclaims that it is the Ghost of Christmas Past. She calls the rest of the team, and Wally fills her in on the spirit. They find the massive ghost leaving a trail of despairing humans in its wake. As the teens confront it, it attacks each of them in their emotional vulnerabilities. However, Starfire reminds each of them that she cares for them, and will not abandon them as the Ghost threatens. Together, they banish the spirit, and save the city. They end the day together in the San Francisco Teen Titans Tower (not the one seen in the Flash story, in New York), and Starfire reflects that she wishes to join the tradition of fighting winter’s bleakness with the holiday celebrations.
Analysis: Shea Fontana’s arc for Wonder Woman following Greg Rucka was a pretty significant disappointment. However, here she provides a really solid grasp on Starfire’s personality and conflicts, as well as showing how she can be a powerful leader of the group. Hopefully the main Teen Titans book will take a few cues from this, and give Starfire more of a leadership role in coming storylines. Otto Schmidt, from the Green Arrow book, provides gorgeous visuals, especially contrasting Starfire’s light with the dark grotesquerie of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
10. The Echo of the Abyss: written by Scott Bryan Wilson and art by Nic Klein featuring Swamp Thing
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): On the Space Station Archer, six months into a radiation quarantine, six crew members live their lonely lives. One of the crew members, Ciampo, holds up some defrosted mistletoe, and tries to get the other five to celebrate, but the news of a nuclear standoff on earth has depressed them. Ciampo storms off in despair, dropping the plant, which morphs creepily into Swamp Thing. The other crew members are also trying to keep the frightening state of their food reserves from Ciampo. However, he already knows, and in his nihilistic desperation, he plots to destroy the space station so they all die quickly, instead of slowly of starvation and murder. However, Swamp Thing stops him, saying that his stress pheromones affected the mistletoe and called the hero into space. Ciampo is terrified, thinking Swamp Thing is a hostile alien, but the hero restrains him from hurting himself or the ship with a root net on the wall, and tells him to live, and not die.
The crew find Ciampo on the wall, and he has calmed down. Swamp Thing has given them a huge supply of vegetables and fruit, and left a Christmas tree in the mess hall as a symbol of hope.
Analysis: Wilson and Klein pen a shorter story (only six pages instead of the eight most of the stories use), but it’s quite effective. In the darkest of science fictional situations – marooned on a space station, possibly the last humans to ever live, running out of food, the hero Swamp Thing, though terrifying in aspect (his arrival through the mistletoe is splendidly creepy and horrifying), is ultimately kind and hopeful. The resolution is quite warm, despite not knowing if humanity will launch their nukes or not.
11. Solstice: written by Greg Rucka, art by Bilquis Evely and colors by Romulo Fajardo Jr. featuring Wonder Woman and Batman
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): On December 22nd, the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, Wonder Woman and Batman think about their task as heroes. Diana brings an enormous tanker of water to a starving land, helping people displaced by war. Bruce saves two ballet-attenders who are mugged. At the end of the day, Diana invites Bruce to share a ceremony of making light on the longest night of the year, reminding them both that the light always returns after the darkness, a safeguard against being consumed by their close relationship with the dark.
Analysis: Rucka’s story here, a meditation on the relationship between Batman and Wonder Woman, is a lovely follow up to his work on the main Wonder Woman title for a year. It feels like it could be a follow up to the sadly truncated story of Diana’s first meeting with Batman and Superman in the Wonder Woman Annual earlier this year, and like Tom King’s use of parallels between Batman and Superman, or Bruce Wayne and Bane, in the Batman title, it allows the reader to see the mindset of two of DC’s greatest heros in their private moments. Bilquis Evely, one of the absolute best artistic finds of DC’s Rebirth, reunites with Rucka on Wonder Woman, and proves why she’s a talent to watch closely. Both Batman and Wonder Woman show their power and their kindness in instantly recognizable ways in this short story, and the ending with the fire burning into the eternal night of the solstice is an extremely lovely image.
12. Encore Holiday Classic: The Silent Night of the Bat: written by Mike Friedrich and art by Neal Adams featuring Batman
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): In Gotham, on Christmas Eve, the Bat-Signal calls Batman to the GCPD, where Commissioner Gordon tells him to take a night to celebrate the holidays. Batman is skeptical that crime will take a break, but joins in a Christmas carol with the cops. As he sings, a boy steals a present from a woman walking on the sidewalk, but when he opens it with his friends, he sees it’s a Batman toy, and the profile of the Bat-cowl on the wall reminds them to do the right thing. He returns the box to the woman and runs off. Meanwhile, a man plans robbery using a pistol, but he bumps into a blind charity worker wearing a Batman costume to raise money for the blind. The sight of a Batman (with a Santa beard!) causes the robber to throw his gun away in shame. A girl, lonely, seems to contemplate jumping off a bridge, but the profile of the bridge on the water, so similar to a bat in flight, stops her just long enough for her lover, a soldier, to find her and sweep her into his arms.
Batman finds himself waking from a nap at the police station, where no calls have come in all night. Not knowing why the night was so calm, he swings off into the morning.
Analysis: This story is only available in the print version. In message, it’s very similar to Scott Snyder, Ray Fawkes, and Declan Shalvey’s short story in last year’s Batman Annual #1 – a moment of peace for the ever-watchful Batman (the two stories even share the same name – “Silent Night”). The art and writing are classic – deservedly remembered today. The way Adams worked the symbolic images of Batman into the ways crime is stopped is a beautiful representation of why Batman is so important – like Superman, he inspires us to fight out inner darkness, to seek justice in our actions large and small, and hold out hope for something better.
Final Thoughts: With just a couple of weaker stories, this holiday anthology brings A-list talent and an abundance of cheer and craft to brighten the dark winter days for DC fans.