Monday, December 01, 2008

The First Day of Comic-mas: A Dragon in a Pair o' Bandages

Most contemporary Christmas stories pivot around one or more of three well-established dynamics: (1.) exploring Santa Claus mythology, (2.) converting an anti-Christmas rascal, and (3.) saving Christmas itself from impending doom. Consider Fred Claus, the latest Vince Vaughn opus released on DVD. Regarding Santa lore, Fred Claus answers the heretofore unasked question, "What if Santa Claus had a brother?" Variations of this inquiry common in contemporary storytelling include, "What if Santa Claus had a child," "What if Santa Claus needed a successor," and "What if Santa Claus was institutionalized for claiming he was, well, Santa Claus?" Further, Kevin Spacey plays an efficiency expert determined to end Christmas -- like the Grinch that tried to steal it, or the Scrooge that tried to ignore it. I don't envy Christmas its rogues gallery. Fortunately, in Fred Claus' case, an ailing Santa still fulfills Spacey's childhood wish (which is, ironically, a Superman cape) and fills him with the Christmas spirit . . . and not a moment too soon, as Spacey's plans to halt the holiday are nearly fulfilled, if not for a last minute miracle.

Sound familiar? That's what I mean. Every secular Christmas story retains at least one of those characteristics. Heck, if it didn't, audiences would be reduced to watching happy people celebrate a peaceful holiday. We can't have that, can we?

Christmas comic books are no exception to these rules. In fact, the comic book, a medium dependent on visual iconography and conflict-driven storytelling, is the perfect forum for a contemporary Christmas story. (I've mentioned this before.) The comparisons are palpable -- Christmas has its make-believe heroes, complete with magical origins and supernatural abilities, determined to deliver good will to the world. That Santa delivers toys and doesn't battle mad scientists is just a footnote. Rudolph's red nose is just a turn on the color wheel from being a magic green ring.

So, for the next twelve reviews, I'm going to take a look at some of these comics and see how they hold up to tradition and expectation. In true A Comic A Day fashion, I've never read these comic books before; like a child on Christmas morning, I really don't know what to expect.

Which is why I've decided to begin, like everything else in my comic book collecting career, with Erik Larsen, with his beloved Savage Dragon. Contrary to what my blog might lead you to believe, I haven't read every issue of Savage Dragon; in fact, I have a few significant holes in my Dragon collection. Sometimes, at three bucks a pop, one just has to discriminate when staring at the new release shelf week after week. Also, despite my love for his work, I've acknowledged, like many fans, that Larsen's work has been inconsistent in recent years, thanks in large part to his role as publisher for Image Comics. Fortunately, this holiday issue of Savage Dragon predates that erratic work and reflects the best of post issue #100 Dragon -- featuring Dragon and his family battling Chicago's freakish underground. Specifically, in this issue, Dragon's former fellow cop Rita is missing; coincidentally, Santa has disappeared, too, and some of his elves have offered their services on the hunt for Rita if the finned-one can save Christmas. While practice-flying the sleigh, the villainous, jet-sled riding Seeker arrives, and as Dragon defeats him, his friends find Rita and finish off her captors. It's a happy ending, albeit a bit typical for Dragon, what with both of his hands blown off.

Don't worry. They'll grow back.

That's the thing about Savage Dragon -- the outrageous is totally normal, and with Larsen's recent foray into cutting edge Presidential politics, in every way, from Rita's long-standing struggle with side effects from a Martian shrinking ray, to Barack Obama congratulating Dragon on his return to the police force. Interestingly, Larsen doesn't actually show Santa in this issue (browse through some Dragon back issues for the only Santa appearance that suits the series), and in fact Saint Nick's abduction is reduced to a fleeting, tongue-in-cheek caption on the last page, but this dismissive tone is satirical to the very point I posed in the beginning. When Santa's helper first appeared, Dragon expressed his disbelief. Then, with Christmas in peril, the reader gets a sneak peak at the North Pole, a glimpse at how some of "the magic" works. Then, finally, Christmas is saved.

Sound familiar?

I confess, I haven't seen A Miracle on 34th Street in its entirety. I haven't read A Christmas Carol. But I remember that time the gray Hulk battled Rhino as a mall Santa Claus. I remember when a Scarecrow-gas victim dressed as Santa and went on a killing spree in Gotham City just for the fun of it. I remember the first episode of The Simpsons, and every Christmas episode since. While literature and film have established the traditions of holiday storytelling, one need not indulge them considering the strength of the Christmas spirit. From Ebenezer Scrooge to the Savage Dragon . . . the essence of selflessness is the gift that keeps on giving.

Savage Dragon #106 was published in December 2002 and is by Erik Larsen, with lettering by Chris Eliopoulos and coloring by Reuben Rude.

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