Happy holidays, Legions of the Unspoken! Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, the Solstice, Festivus, or a holiday of your own creation, I hope you find yourself surrounded by good friends, good food, and good fun. On the other hand, if you find yourself bereft of companionship or, say, in the company of a drunken relative who you’d gladly string up with some tree lights, I hope this article can bring you some semblance of holiday cheer. No matter the season, we here at The Unspoken Decade strive to find something in the realm of 90s comics to be jolly about.
I find the notion of a superhero Christmas story inherently silly, but to be fair, my previous exposure to them is limited to the X-Men cartoon Christmas special. (It’s not a bad episode of what truly is a great show, but it isn’t helped by 1. focusing entirely too much on Jubilee and 2. devoting a fair amount of screen time to Gambit and Jean Grey bickering over how much to season Christmas dinner, one of the only instances in that cartoon in which Jean Grey using her powers didn’t cause her to immediately moan loudly and pass out.)
The comic we’ll be looking at, 1992’s Marvel Holiday Special, is thankfully lacking in both Jubilee and telekinetically-thrown vegetables. What it’s not lacking in is a good mix of funny, heartwarming, and melancholy stories, some of which integrate their superhero subjects into a holiday setting better than others. For instance, if someone had told me that a Thanos Christmas story would be one of the more emotionally affecting moments in this book, I would have been perplexed, but we’ll get to that. First up is Wolverine in Zounds of Silence!
This story opens with several pages, sans dialogue, of Wolverine fighting a bevy of big baddies, from cyborg soldiers to a giant dinosaur. Then, in an ending I enjoyed no less for seeing it coming a mile away, it is revealed that Wolverine’s trials are the product of a child’s imagination, an action figure slipping from his grasp as the child is pulled away by an irate parent. This story put a smile on my face until I noticed what a state they left the vendor’s stall in:
Another fun story in this collection comes courtesy of Spider-Man, who, as usual, is running late to meet Mary Jane. He finds her just in time for them to watch the lighting of the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, a ceremony that is, of course, interrupted by a villainous grinch. Electro shuts down the power to the tree and threatens to make Christmas be neither merry nor bright unless he receives a payoff.
I would say he has no holiday spirit, but the argument could be made that by demanding a wad of cash, getting into the Christmas spirit is exactly what Electro is doing. Spider-Man employs his own methods in an attempt to turn Electro into a holiday spirit, slinging insults and ornaments at his foe in equal measure. The giant tree’s topper and a dose of Electro’s own voltage put an end to the crisis, and Spider-Man is free to return to his evening of paying for being Spider-Man.
Seriously, I do not understand the appeal of this relationship for Peter Parker. Every time I have ever seen him with Mary Jane, she is giving him a hard time for making the world a safe place for kids to enjoy comically large candy canes. Maybe it was one thing when he was keeping his web crawling ways a secret, but past that, you knew what you were getting into, lady.
Of course, I don’t blame the character so much as the well-worn trope of the lady character whose sole job it is to get annoyed with her fellow for doing whatever it is he has do, affecting everyone from Mary Jane Watson to Skyler White on Breaking Bad. (If you ever doubt that lady characters get the short end of the stick, check out the amount of vitriol directed at the latter because she didn’t want her husband to be a meth kingpin.) But that’s a discussion for another time. For now, let’s just get back to puzzling over that child kissing rather than eating his candy cane.
The Punisher is up next, and while I scoffed at the idea of a Punisher Christmas story, it works much better than it might by not having the Punisher experience some sort of schmaltzy softening. Christmas does serve as the setting for the story, but it’s still just Punisher being Punisher. No saving orphans or handing out gifts to doe-eyed street urchins here. He does take a decidedly less fatal route than usual to solving his problems, but only because of a bet rather than some sort of forced holiday epiphany.
Punisher wants his pal Microchip to fix up his van to take down some drug dealers, but Microchip will only acquiesce if Punisher can take down a ring of Salvation Army bucket thieves by non-lethal means. There may not be anything sentimentally Christmas-y in this story, but we do get Punisher in a Santa suit.
Punisher tracks down the organizer of the bucket raids and sticks to the letter of the bet with Microchip, using a combination of tactics, such as standing there and smiling while the dude throws everything in his office at him and spraying himself with a solvent that will paralyze him when it comes into contact with his skin. Microchip argues that his methods violate the spirit of their bet, but Punisher, well, just doesn’t give a fuck.
I’m honestly not sure how Microchip expected him to take the guy down. To be fair to Punisher, he does actually try asking him nicely to turn himself in, but that goes about as well as you’d expect. It’s commendable of Microchip to attempt to get Punisher to be less murder-y, but the showdown went about as non-violently as he ever could have hoped, and he totally owes Punisher those van upgrades in my opinion.
Perhaps my favorite segment in this collection involves a character that I, as someone relatively new to comic book fandom, have had very little exposure to, Doc Samson. Samson visits his former yeshiva to tell the kids the story of Hanukkah, but because small children are pretty much assholes, he is forced to spice up his tale with some of his super-powered colleagues. This story had me chuckling from start to finish, and there’s not much I could add to it that would make it funnier than it already is, so here’s a few pages sans snarky commentary to give you a taste:
I say that these kids are assholes, and they are, but they also remind me a little of myself when it comes to the kinds of stories I enjoy these days. It’s funny how, once you started reading comic books or genre literature, it’s difficult to go back to stories where, like, people just talk and do regular things. I think as fantasy, sci fi, etc. get more popular, we have become far accepting as a society of the idea that these genre works can have just as much depth or show us just as much about the human condition, only with the added bonus of dragons and zombies and people who can shoot lasers out of their hands. If given the choice, why wouldn’t you read those stories instead?
The most bittersweet story in this comic comes courtesy of an unlikely source, Thanos. (I was certainly not expecting this tale to hit me right in the feels, but I suppose it’s because it’s unexpected that the emotion was so affecting.) While cleaning out an old headquarters like he’s having a garage sale, Thanos comes across an old doll he gave to Gamora when she was a child and reflects on memories long past.
Sometimes while reading I get caught up in frivolous background details, and in this case, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Mad Titan himself procured Christmas presents for a small child. Did he thumb through the toy section of the Sears catalog? Did he send one of his robot minions to Macy’s? What criteria did a godlike being use to decide what a five-year-old girl would like to play with?
This is fun stuff to ponder, but it can lead you down a rabbit hold that leads to some weird places, and the next thing you know, you’re contemplating how he had “the talk” with Gamora or who bought her tampons for the first time. I’m probably the only one who went off on that particular tangent, and Christmas can be scarring enough as it is, so I’ll just get back to the story then, shall I?
Thanos recounts how a creature with a vendetta attempts to take him out, only for Gamora to throw her doll and distract the would-be assassin long enough for Thanos to off him instead.
Thanos says that he should have known from her sentimentality that Gamora was going to make a bad assassin and orders that the doll be incinerated with all the rest of the stuff he does not have time to take to Goodwill. He acts as though he is indifferent to Gamora turning against him, but his manner betrays him. He is clearly lying both to himself and the minion with whom he apparently shares intimate memories.
Christmas is such a dichotomous holiday, existing both as “the most wonderful time of the year” and the loneliest. Sometimes all the things we get only make what we’ve lost stand out in stark contrast, and being surrounded by loved ones only highlights who isn’t there. The idea that even a creature of unimaginable strength and power is susceptible to these feelings is both comforting and humbling, and ultimately there is great beauty in the notion that the ability to care for others cannot be wished or willed away.
So learn a lesson from Thanos this holiday season and give all the love there is in your heart to those who deserve it most. Don’t forget to include yourself on that list too! This is one of the few times of year most people actually get some time off to recuperate, so treat yourself to something fun!
Since few things are more fun than 90s comics, be sure to come back tomorrow for Dean’s article on some more holiday Punisher stories. That’s right, our gift to you this festive week is even more of your favorite heroes and their holiday hijinks! It’s been a real pleasure to take a close look with you at some of the best comics the 90s had to offer, and I can’t wait to do it again in the year ahead. See you then!