Hello, Legions of the Unspoken! I had the chance to have a great conversation with Paul O’ Connor of Longbox Graveyard about the merits of the 70’s and Bronze Age vs. the 90’s! Scroll through some cool covers of both decades, and then you’ll find the podcast! Take a listen and comment with some of your thoughts! Thanks again Paul! Transcript coming soon!
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!
Hey, folks! I hope you have enjoyed the last couple of weeks as Sparky Ryan brought you the history of the Marvel UK incursion into the states from the early 90’s. I had a great time with some of those books back in the day, and his work was a great trip down memory lane, but now your good 90’s comics aficionado and pal Dean Compton is back, and I am back just in time for one of my favorite elements of this blog…THE SUPER BLOG TEAM UP!!!!!
If you weren’t around last time or haven’t had the chance to look at the Super Blog Team Up subpage here, the SBTU (I ain’t gonna keep typing that out folks; I ain’t getting paid by the word. Hell, I ain’t getting paid at all!) is a quarterly gathering of sorts where many blogs publish on the same day about the same topic. At the bottom of my random meanderings, make sure you click the links and take a gander at what all the great folks have shared in SBTU. We all work really hard, and we all appreciate every view and comment we get. Except for the ones from spammers. It’s really sad how excited I will get when I get a notification for a comment, only to find it is poorly written spam imploring me to spend some money on something to filter out spam comments. As an aside to this aside, I think I’d like spam comments better if their grammar was correct.
But I have digressed so far that one might believe this not to be a blog about comic books at all! You’d be sorely mistaken! As I was saying about SBTU, the concept is that all of these blogs look at the same subject on the same day. This time, the subject is Team Up, Tear Down, and from the second I heard that, I could not help but think of the team up that never should have happened, but somehow tore down every preconceived notion one would have about this comic working or being good. I am talking about the time comic book hell froze over. I am talking about Punisher Meets Archie…
The dread was punctuated with the entire “why are they doing this?/oh my god, they’re ruining everything/they don’t know what they’re doing” mentality that seems to permeate every fanboy’s good sense at some point. This time, though, our cynical malaise seemed justified (to the max, as we would say in the 90’s) because how could this be readable, let alone good? I mean, it’s Punisher Meets Archie, for Christ’s sake!
The answer to the question of how could it be readable or good can be found on the credits page:
Indeed, that is the fine talent of the late John Buscema and the late Stan Goldberg combined with one of the best inkers of all time, Tom Palmer, to bring you this tale. You see, the first element of this endeavor that would have doomed it to disaster, would have been seeing the character drawn in a style dichotomous to what we usually see with them. Punisher in the Archie style would have made all the Punisher fans angrier than Hulk driving a compact car while he is stuck in rush hour traffic. Now try getting that image out of your head!
Conversely, seeing Archie done up all grim and gritty would have made Archie fans feel angry and betrayed as well. I’d come with some metaphor or simile for the anger of Archie fans, but based on their choice of comic fare, I am unsure that they get angry. I mean, nothing in that world can’t be solved with just a waltz down to the choklit shop, right?
So that solved one problem, but the elephant in the room would have to be how one would mesh such strikingly disparate worlds without compromising the integrity of either, or in Punisher’s case, without compromising what was left of the integrity of an emotionless and psychopathic mass murderer who was being used as a guest in seemingly every book at Marvel to increase sales. We talked about his ubiquity here at The Unspoken Decade when we covered Darkhawk. I mean, who could possibly bridge this chasm?
According to both of the publishers involved, enter Batton Lash:
Batton Lash concocted a premise that would work for both universes, and the only caveat that any Punisher fan might have a quarrel with is the fact that Punisher is working with the feds in order to bring in our villain, and he has agreed to bring this quarry in alive.
Being the gigantic Punisher fan I am, I understand their point. Frank Castle ain’t known for playing nice with the feds. It’s basically the real world equivalent of teaming up Kruschev and Kennedy. That’s something that just won’t and should not work; however, if one thinks about it, Punisher is always compromising. I have seen numerous Punisher team-ups with Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Captain America where Castle agrees not to kill anyone (one example being The Omega Effect). I think too often, folks think Punisher=murderer, and while yes, he is indeed a serial killer, what one should really think is Punisher=Force of Nature. While Punisher would greatly prefer to murder his adversaries, it is much more important for him to achieve his goals. This means making temporary alliances, such as the ones I named earlier (or even the times he makes temporary alliances with criminals, such as in Punisher: P.O.V. ) in order to get done whatever it is that Punisher needs to get done at that time. That’s what makes him a force of nature to me; he allows nothing, not even compromise, to stop his forward progress.
So to me, this isn’t a big deal, although again, I get why some Punisher fans cannot sign off on it.
The twist of the story, though, is almost 100% an Archie gag, and man, it is a good one.
So Punisher heads for Riverdale in search of the mookiest doppelgänger in the history of mooks, doppelgänger, and mooky doppelgängers. Of course, this leads to trouble due to our mook’s resemblance to Archie. Also, call Guinness and let them know I just set the record for more uses of mook in a paragraph.
Could it really end this quickly? Nope. This is a crossover folks, and you don’t need ‘ol Dean Compton to let you know that crossovers can’t end this fast, especially not when there are 48 PAGES! NO ADS! to fill! So in what is the biggest swerve since Vince Russo ran WCW (WARNING: WRESTLING JOKE), Archie was only shot by a water gun. In true Archie fashion, though, this instance leads him into a disagreement with Veronica!
So, in true Archie fashion, having already asked one of the ladies out, Archie goes with his second choice, Betty.
I feel really badly for Betty here; who likes being second best? Betty is a pretty lady; she’s nice, she’s funny, and she’s smart. Why does she just wait for Archie to call her AFTER he has ruined his chances with Veronica? Betty should play second fiddle to no one, and neither should anyone reading this. Learn from Betty, folks!
Punisher in the meantime, heads for Riverdale, very unaware of it and very prepared for it to be a cesspool. Even his super genius partner, Microchip, apparently has never heard of Riverdale, despite it being a suburb of New York and how, with a name like Microchip, he is required to know EVERYTHING. That’s one of the few things I learned from 80’s movies.
Of course, it takes little time for Archie’s doppelgänger to insert himself into Archie’s circle in Riverdale, and of course, what would an Archie comic be without Veronica (or possibly Betty) making Archie jealous via the most emotionally devastating weapon in the history of mankind:
THE DATE WITH ANOTHER GUY!
Emily and I often watch this show, American Greed, on CNBC that focuses on how folks scam rich people, and we both find it shocking how easy rich folks get scammed. Like, it seems that the only thing required to scam a rich person is to know one and to then ask them for money.
Mr. Lodge is no exception, as it seems that Melvin just SHOWS UP and tells him of his business exploits, and Lodge cannot unlock all of his safes and vaults fast enough. Also, doesn’t it seem like acquiring a business would be small potatoes to Mr. Lodge?
Speaking of safes and vaults, wouldn’t you like to see Uncle Scrooge and Mr. Lodge have a crossover? I have seen Mr. Lodge do regular swimming in one of those old timey swimsuits that are always hilarious, but I bet he could swim though coins just like Uncle Scrooge.
BAM! There’s the premise! They can have a coin swimming race. You. Yes, you. Call Archie and Disney and let them know about my idea and tell them to GET IT BOOKED.
Still, fun times are happening, at least until Punisher shows up and has the emo Punisher moment he always has that we all love him for. It is the one shred of humanity that makes us feel compassion for everyone’s favorite skull-chested psychopath…
Punisher’s last shred of humanity causes him to pass over a malt, which would have led him to those guys in the corner, something I believe would cause even Riverdale denizens to take notice. Alas, Pop’s dedication to the dollar and fear of government overrides his sense of danger, and those shadow punks take Archie, who is apparently upset that his second choice for a date dared not to wait for him to see if he called her. Well, Archie is about to have bigger troubles anyhow.
I wonder what Pops is hiding that he doesn’t want to be audited. Maybe Riverdale ain’t so squeaky clean after all!
While Archie’s life is in danger, the faux Archie shows up at the dance with Veronica. He quickly shows the biggest difference between him and Archie is that he’s such a giant dick that perennial dick Reggie Mantle is put off by him. If Reggie Mantle thinks you’re a creep, you must be a creep on a galaxy level. Or at the very least, the type of person Punisher likes to kill catch for the feds.
Man, Betty is awesome. She’s the only one who wonders where Archie is and what’s going on. Archie is making our crossover complete, as Punisher follows the criminals who kidnapped him. Get ready Archie, because you are about to meet The Punisher.
Yes, Archie, The Punisher.
That may be the image that makes the book. Also, Punisher would probably have had an easier time differentiating Melvin and Archie if he had, you know, OPENED HIS EYES.
Of course, no matter how ominous that panel may look, Punisher at some point decides that pointing a gun is just a smidge safer if one opens their eyes, and he realizes that Archie is not his prey.
Archie manages to get away with an assist from his pal Jughead, which I love. In the face of imminent death, Jughead and Archie are best friends, and he finds a way to help his pal. We’d all like to be that person; perhaps you can find the Jughead in you. I have done so via massive consumption of fast food. You’ll have to find your own path, however.
For real though, this is an incident that exemplifies what I spoke of when I sad that Batton Lash showed us these characters together without violating the integrity of either set of characters, and this little bit with Jughead helping Archie speaks volumes to that.
Archie does exactly what America’s favorite whitebread teen would do, or also what most sane folks would do, and that is telling the cops that Punisher is loose in Riverdale and that some mob guys have kidnapped him.
Hopefully, you have not been as big an idiot as Mr. Andrews has when he has called the police in the past.
Why are Archie and Jughead winking like they got over on the cops? I mean, not only are the cops obviously not going to help, but you asked them for help. You didn’t fool anyone.
I do enjoy the touch here where Archie’s concern is for his parents, not himself. Again, Lash shows us Archie’s character simply and naturally.
Also, that is the worst undercover cop ever. He looks like every stranger I was warned about in elementary school, and he would fool no one into believing he is not with the fuzz.
Of course, once we see Punisher interact with Riverdale’s finest, we see that maybe they don’t know much about policing, possibly because they have no crime.
Riverdale cops don’t put up with anything. They hadn’t even run the tags and they were already demanding that Microchip get out of the van! Where’s Occupy Riverdale to deal with this?
Archie goes to the dance where his doppelgänger is, and that’s when we see some gunplay and some great infiltration skill displayed by Punisher. Also, Archie and his pals are sharp, except for Jughead, who has more courage than brains, it seems.
Punisher gets emo again during his infiltration of the school, and he also stumbles upon the reason that Betty tolerates so much from Archie. Graffiti.
Melvin proves he is not Archie in another way, but the really fun thing is the little Easter Eggs stuck in everywhere. One of my favorites is a conversation between Katy Keene and Millie the Model!
But let’s not make light of Veronica sticking up for herself, or the cluelessness of Mr. Weatherbee. How can folks really confuse this guy for Archie once they are up close?
Punisher’s infiltration works like a charm, maybe too charming, as Miss Grundy basically offers to marry Frank Castle on the spot, while Flutesnoot gives Castle the cover he needs to continue to monitor this dance, as Riverdale High is expecting a new gym teacher.
Also, the caterers now have guns and are after Melvin, but you’ll have to read that to find out how that happens; I can’t give it all to you, folks!
Miss Grundy knows what she wants when she sees it! You have got to like that! Miss Grundy is also a woman who would never let you down and definitely carry her fair share in a relationship (probably more, as my beloved Emily does. Check out some of her work under the Archives!)
Punisher and Archie finally find themselves able to sort out their identity crisis, and they pool their resources, which leads to what s, in my mind, the funniest moment in the book. Archie’s War Journal. To think of it is to chuckle, but to read it is to laugh until one’s ribs ache.
There’s lots more, but if I keep going, I am just going to wind up ruining the entire book for you! The last image I shall leave you with is one of the best Easter Eggs in the book, that being the Spider-Man/Shield crossover!
Note that I said Shield, and not S.H.I.E.L.D. Shield, for anyone who doesn’t know, is an old patriotic Archie character, and I believe he is the first patriotic superhero, predating even Marvel’s Sentinel Of Liberty, Captain America himself! At this point of the 90’s Shield had been in limbo since the end of DC’s Impact Comics line (which we will definitely be covering here at The Unspoken Decade and soon!). I don’t known when the next time after Archie Meets Punisher we would see him, but I do know it would be a while. We also have Sonic the Hedgehog, which Archie licensed and published. If memory serves, it was quite successful for quite some time, and it had appeal to multiple markets, as kids like my cousin would buy it, even though they did not care for comic books in general, because it had Sonic, Tails, and all the characters from that universe in it.
It only happens in balloon form, but it happens, kids. It totally happens.
To find out how Archie, Punisher, and the gang save the day, you’ll just have to read the rest yourself. Normally I have no qualms about spoiling comic books published twenty years ago, but in this case, I don’t want to reveal all of the magic.
There’s a true art to combining franchises that is usually done in a heavy-handed manner and appears clumsy. Take a gander at the first Aliens vs. Predator movie if you need to reminded. Actually, don’t. I don’t want to ruin movies forever for you.
In this case, the amalgamation of the Archie/Punisher universes is done so effortlessly that one almost instinctively knows that this was a lot of hard work, as nothing so slick could ever be easy. Lash, Goldberg, J. Buscema, and Palmer are to be commended over and over for taking these two wrongs and making them into something right.
I also cannot help but believe that this was the genesis for Archie publications like the Afterlife with Archie zombie stories or the recent death of Archie in Life with Archie. Hell, without this comic book, we might not even have had the adult Archie stories in Life With Archie that preceded his demise.
I think this is the first time in a long time that Archie Comics stretched what an Archie comic could be, and while it may not have paid immediate dividends, it did impact the line in the future. For Punisher, not so much, as he dove right into another crossover right after this one. In fact, despite my saying that was the last image earlier, here’s one more. Check out the rest of the Super Blog Team Up at the links under the pic, and thanks for dropping by the Unspoken Decade!