Christmas arrives with endless loops of Mariah Carey’s Christmas songs in department stores and streaming services fighting over Christmas movies. Unlike the ritual of watching Christmas movies, comic books at Christmas come and go. Some merely set the story at Christmas or use Christmas themes and characters, while others go the extra mile to provide a Christmas message.
In the Golden Age, it was impossible to avoid Christmas issues. By the Silver Age of the fifties and sixties, the tradition disappeared like Father Christmas in a green suit or eating sugar plums in the festive season. The seventies and eighties brought a resurgence of the issues. For all the lumps of coal, a few choice Christmas comic books have appeared in the last few decades. That said, let’s look at some of the best comic book Christmas stories.
1. ‘The Merry X-Men Holiday Special‘ (2019)
Holiday specials usually take an anthology approach with different stories featuring different characters. The ‘Merry X-Men Holiday Special’ takes the idea to another level by combining it with an advent calendar. The anthology features 25 stories, taking us from December 1st through to Christmas. Most contain a different member of the X-Men, but four stories feature Jubilee and her son to provide a little continuity to the brief, one-page installments and end with a satisfyingly bumper 25th story.
X-Men favorites appear throughout the anthology, but what is particularly good is these are not merely stories where the X-Men fight villains dressed as Santa (there is a surprising number of comic books that do little else for a Christmas special). Each installment takes an element of an X-Man’s power or personality and fashions it into a Christmas story. Some are funny, like the comical help that ‘Hotclaws’ Wolverine provides to a family trying to shovel snow. Some are sentimental, such as a reflective moment with Kitty Pryde remembering the victims of the Genosha massacre. Out of all of the stories, the funniest and most heartbreaking has to be Glob Herman’s mistletoe moment.
2. ‘Harley Quinn Holiday Special‘ (2015)
In 1982, Richard Pryor starred in a film called ‘The Toy’ in which a wealthy businessman pays for Pryor to be a live-in friend to his son. It’s a strange premise for a film and continues to be weird when applied to a Harley Quinn comic.
When Harley falls asleep under a family’s Christmas tree after breaking into their house, a small girl mistakes Harley for her Christmas present. It seems like an honest mistake and totally in keeping with the madcap adventures we expect from Harley. The girl’s father pays Harley five thousand dollars to play along and be the little girl’s toy. However, the father wants Harley to be a bad toy because the girl has been uncontrollable, and the father is trying to give the girl (who has recently lost her mother) everything she wants. Sounds like solid parenting.
The story is fun, with a typical amount of Harley anarchy. And before you know it, Harley goes full-on therapist. The other two stories change up the artwork and deliver comic strip chaos with a good selection of Christmas characters.
3. ‘Wolverine‘ #49 (2007) ‘Better to Give..’
At home in the wilderness and surrounded by danger, Wolverine is out of a place in a New York department store. He is immediately besieged by an assistant from the perfume counter interested in getting together later. Instead, he runs into a billionaire heiress who has come for a private visit with the store Santa.
As Wolverine goes off shopping, the heiress gets kidnapped by a terrorist group of elves called Black Christmess. The group opposes the excessive consumerism of Christmas and is holding the store hostage. In the face of the petty greed of shoppers, Black Christmess is planning to teach everyone the meaning of Christmas. In the middle of this, Wolverine is a John McClane replacement with claws, cutting his way through elves to rescue the heiress and stop the bombs.
Lawrence Campbell’s visuals provide a great combination of heroic silhouettes with the dark and gritty reality of Christmas in New York. Rob Williams delivers a collection of genuine characters in a story with an expected but effective twist and tragic ending. It’s so not Christmas, that it is Christmas.
4. ‘Detective Comics‘ (2007) #826 ‘Slayride’
Chased by heavily armed gun dealers, Robin crashes his motorbike. Attempting to escape from trouble, he jumps into a car, offering to provide assistance. The first moral of this story is don’t trust the kindness of strangers. Because in a Batman comic, Robin in jumping into a car with The Joker. The story is a brilliant set piece that is as enthralling as it is horrifying.
A car ride with The Joker involves a combination of pleasant conversation and psychological terror. As The Joker speaks to Robin as a close friend, he proceeds to terrorize pedestrians and threaten to rundown children. The situation provides an insight into the unpredictable and terrifying personality of The Joker and his ability to out-think any member of the Bat family while also remaining wildly erratic. Tim Drake, as a Robin, shows his mental resilience and inventiveness. He’s a sidekick who doesn’t need the support of Batman.
5. ‘The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special‘ (1991)
Christmas cheer and violence don’t often go together (unless you consider Die Hard to be a Christmas movie), but if anyone can make it work, it’s Lobo. The front cover runs the disclaimer that the story is “More Offensive Than Christmas Usually Is”. The comic book lives up to the hype, with the Easter Bunny hiring the intergalactic assassin to take out Santa Claus. Except this isn’t the usual jolly Santa; Lobo is facing Kris ‘Crusher’ Kringle.
The story reinvents Santa as a tyrant who purposefully underfeeds his workforce of elves to keep them small and fierce. Santa’s annual gift-giving is reduced to a PR exercise to maintain the integrity of the company and allow Crusher to maintain his elaborate lifestyle. When Lobo makes it to the big guy, Crusher doesn’t disappoint. He has less of a big belly full of cookies and more of a stacked upper body honed from combat. The story is everything we want from Lobo, combining a disrespectful attitude with a good measure of violence.
6. ‘Hellboy Christmas Special‘
A dying woman mistakes Hellboy for Father Christmas. It seems like an honest mistake. Hellboy is very red. Santa dresses in red. She lives alone in a cold and haunted house. As her dying wish, she asks him to promise to deliver a box to her daughter, who disappeared into a graveyard five years ago. Now, that sounds like a Hellboy story.
Hellboy investigates a cemetery, encountering a rat and statue who warn him from entering into a crypt. Unafraid, Hellboy ventures further, traveling into an underworld of the undead and into battle with monsters. The quest produces a fairy tale of deception and redemption, with all the supernatural destruction we expect from a Hellboy story.
Mignola’s Hellboy takes up most of the anthology but is followed by a couple of other stories that combine the Christmas spirit with spirits of a less benevolent kind. With a good dose of Tim Burton festivities, the anthology is a good mix of the horrific with the heart-warming.
7. ‘Hitman‘ #22 (1998) ‘The Santa Contract’
Leaning into the format of The Joker origin story, a Christmas nightmare is created as an over-enthusiastic worker delivering bonus checks in a Santa costume knocks Bob, a lonely and disgruntled nuclear power plant worker, into an open vat. You’d really think health and safety in Gotham would make sure chemical vats in nuclear power plants were closed.
When Bob emerges from the vat misshapen but exhibits super powers, he wants to be a superhero. Except his radioactive touch causes other people to melt. When a co-worker labels him a supervillain, he takes the Santa suit and goes on a rampage to make everyone else suffer at Christmas. To cover up the accident and reduce the power plant’s liability, the owner hires Tommy Monaghan and Natt to remove the rogue Santa.
The story illustrates the challenges and difficulties of the festive season. Bob’s reign of terror is paralleled by Tommy and Natt’s enjoyment of the holiday, but what really makes this Christmas story is the use of rhyme to tell a shocking story of destruction.
8. ‘Spider-Man and Deadpool‘ (2016) #12
The odd-couple team-up comic, ‘Spider-Man and Deadpool,’ ran for fifty issues but is rarely discussed, which is a shame because the Christmas issue really delivers. Combining Spider-Man with Deadpool often minimizes Deadpool’s trademark asides. This Christmas issue replaces Deadpool’s fourth-wall-breaking comments with his offensive humor as he attempts to give Clint Barton an ‘I killed the Hulk and all I got was this lousy t-shirt’ t-shirt only to be opened by Kate Bishop. As a result, he gets kicked out of the Avengers Christmas party and meets Spider-Man, who wasn’t even invited (Oh, the irony).
As the Avengers continue their Christmas festivities, Spider-Man and Deadpool deal with the return of the god Saturn, who is none too happy to have his holiday turned into a family-friendly vacation. Saturn’s response is to create mayhem and destruction. At one point, he beheads people wearing Santa suits and uses their heads to decorate Christmas trees. It’s a decorating choice that probably (hopefully?) won’t catch on. When Deadpool and Spider-Man are unable to defeat Saturn, they help him see the holiday differently while also reminding us all of the importance of taking a break at Christmas.
9. ‘Batman: Noël‘
Comic book holiday specials usually give the impression of being slightly rushed—a few extra pages asked of an overworked creative team to pad out some seasonal greetings. Lee Bermejo’s artwork alone makes ‘Batman: Noël’ a standout Christmas comic book. And that’s not to mention the brilliant storytelling.
Bermejo has taken Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ as inspiration. Without recreating the three ghosts and Scrooge’s repentance, Bermejo has taken our knowledge of the characters and applied it to the world of Batman. The impressive roster of guest appearances makes the story feel like a whole novel.
The stakes are high. The life of a man and his son hangs in the balance. But more than that, the soul of Batman and his view of the world are at stake as he deals with his own sense of responsibility and loss. It’s the most serious Christmas story on the list but has action and a heart-warming message that might even leave you with a tear in your eye.
10. ‘Marvel Holiday Special‘ 2005
Marvel spent a couple of decades producing annual holiday specials. Each is an anthology of stories from different corners of the Marvel comic book universe, bringing together a whole spectrum of characters (at one point, Wolverine is asking Spider-Woman for a kiss under the mistletoe, but I am not sure what that is all about).
The 2005 Holiday Special features three stories. ‘Moleman’s Christmas’ is a testament to The Thing looking for a non-violent way to end the abduction of department store Santas by Moleman’s moloids. ‘Christmas Day in Manhattan’ doesn’t quite match the use of rhyme in ‘Hitman’ #22, but it has a good try and tries to provide a Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ style to the artwork.
The standout story is ‘Yes, Virginia, There is a Santron’ because of its use of Ultron in a Christmas format. And because the Santa version of Ultron, when it is given autonomy, immediately shouts, “Merry Christmas to all. Except the Avengers. The Avengers must die! It is an inspiring combination of Christmas wishes with a distinctively Ultron approach. As good as Santa Ultron (or Santron as it is called) is, it is overshadowed by Captain America’s rousing speech delivered late in the story to round off the inspirational Christmas message about the importance of childlike faith and wonder at Christmas time.
Got a favorite Holiday special or comic book story set at Christmas time? Let us know in the comments below!