Monday, December 22, 2008

The Fourth Day of Comic-mas: The Fantastic Four Calling

Now that we know how the Punisher's Christmas went (in a word, badly), how does the rest of the Marvel Universe celebrate this merriest of holidays? Well, if the 2005 Marvel Holiday Special is any indication, they celebrate it together; after all, before any civil wars or Skrull invasions, the Marvel Universe began with a family, the Fantastic Four. Appropriately, the Storms star in two of the three tales in this issue, sandwiching a New Avengers story that boasts more heart than necessary. But every issue begins with its cover, and I just have to say . . .

Stuart Immonen offers a crisp, festive image of Spider-man and the Fantastic Four decorating a Christmas tree, the Thing hoisting it up, and Reed stretching to its top with a luminous star . . . but Johnny is garnishing the shrub with . . . flame? Uhm, most folks do their darnedest to avoid setting their trees on fire! His sister is adorning the branches with . . . invisible ornaments? Er, sure -- the next time I bring a tree home, I'm going to leave it be and tell everyone to enjoy my decor courtesy the Baxter building. Of course, Spidey is stringing up with patented web-balls (oh, grow up people), which is fine considering the source, but generally a web-covered tree isn't one you want, unless the nursery offers a pre-purchase bug extermination. So, long story short, while the illustration definitely captures the Christmas spirit, it practices very little practicality. Of course, superheroes are used to crises, so what's a scorched tree compared to, say, a city-wide Santa-napping epidemic?

Such is the plight of Marvel's first family, as the Mole Man's Moloids kidnap mall Santas around the city in an attempt to find their missing master, who uttered St. Nick's name before his sudden disappearance. While Reed, Sue, and Johnny are content tracking down the Moloids' lair for a good old fashioned Christmas clobbering, Ben embraces the spirit of the season and pursues a more civil solution. His detective work uncovers the Mole Man's grandmother, who reveals that the villain's grandfather dressed as Santa during the holidays -- a grandfather with distinctly arched, Namor-like eyebrows. The Thing recruits the sea king to help him appease the Moloids, assuring peace on earth for all above and below the earth . . . but what of Mole Man himself? The catalyst of this tale rests on a splash page gag that fell flat with me, since Christmas comics are usually throw-away one-shots anyway.

The following story, a New Avengers story, embodies the other side of that coin, as a wayward Stark Industries scientist uses an old Ultron husk to create a real-life Santa -- a Santron -- with dangerous results. Before the fight before Christmas, the Avengers banter with ongoing gags about kissing Spider-Woman under the mistletoe and refusing B-listers like Gravity their invitation to the party, then Santron comes down the chimney. Spidey and Ant-Man concoct an awesome scheme to trick the Kringle-bot into submission, and its memory banks reveal its creator -- enter the overwhelming, unnecessary holiday-infused origin, in which that Stark scientist scorns Santa's falsehood and invests her own tangible alternative. What the story took a page to explore, a single caption of emotional inner monologue would've accomplished just as effectively. Ah, well, if the holidays are about anything else, it's overindulgence.

Which explains the third story, which uses a more traditional storytelling technique, namely the rhyming scheme of a carol or nursery rhyme, to tell the same tale we'd just read two times already -- the villainous act justified by the holiday spirit, thus excused by the superheroes that made everything okay. In this case, the Fantastic Four thwart their old, presumably reformed foe the Hurricane in the midst of his stealing toys for his poor kids; again, the Thing asserts compassion, but the tale makes little effort to offer that any of the heroes actually compensated the store for the few items that caught the eye of the Hurricane. Now, that's one way to beat the Black Friday crowd: just break in to your local department store on Christmas Eve!

Of course, these criticisms are intended with as much good humor as these yarns themselves; watching our favorite superheroes celebrate the holidays humanizes these icons. Whereas we geeks fantasize what it's like to be like them, in this case we get to watch them act like us, stressed about shopping and Christmas parties, frustrated by the plights of those less fortunate, generally wishing the best tidings for all around us. If only everyone had family that could make themselves invisible from time to time . . .!

Marvel Holiday Special #7 was published for February 2006 by Marvel Comics and is by Mike Carey, Mike Perkins, Laura Martin, Dave Lanphear, Jeff Parker, Reilly Brown, Pat Davidson, Christina Strain, Shaenon Garrity, Roger Langridge, Al Gordon, and Sotocolor's J. Brown.

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