Who’s ready for some holiday cheer? If you’re counting down the days, here’s 11 stories to count down with (really more like ten and a half since one of the stories is just kind of a loose framework). And rather than a book in which the DC universe is represented by Batman guest-starring Superman and maybe Wonder Woman if you’re lucky, this book really branches out with a focus on the Flash, Swamp Thing, Teen Titans, Deathstroke, and of all the weird surprises, the Atomic Knights (a group so obscure that the last time we saw them was practically as a footnote during Final Crisis in 2008, and before that not since 1964).
I’ll be honest with you: when I came to the first page of this story, I kind of flinched. It looked dated and weird and was written by Dan DiDio, which didn’t exactly catapult my confidence. And yet, I have to say, as someone who really eats up schlocky saccharin Christmas stories, this one was like a tasty pastry with delightful fruit filling. It feels weirdly out of place: a bizarre “other” landscape, characters that practically don’t seem like they belong in this comic universe, and a storyline that’s both high concept and pure crack simultaneously.
Or maybe I just really miss my dalmatian
So what do we have in this book that is Bat-related?
The book opens in a bar on Christmas Eve with a story called “The Reminder” by Jeff Lemire (with art by Guiseppe Camuncoli and Cam Smith). Grouchy John Constantine is getting some swill and barking about Peace on Earth, but surprisingly, there’s another fellow at the bar: Clark Kent–and he’s in a bit of a down mood himself.
Enter Bibbo the bartender: because all drunken barroom Christmas stories are required to have gruff bartenders who dole out just the precise wisdom for people who lack perspective on this loneliest of holidays for too many broken souls.
Bibbo tears into Clark for expressing that Superman doesn’t really do enough for people. It’s kind of cheesy, but hey, it’s Christmas! You gotta roll with the happy holiday cheer here.
We leave our barflies to then take a spin with lots of other DC heroes and their Christmastime adventures, starting, of course, with the Bat.
“‘Twas the Night before Christmas” is a very short story that feels like it missed the cut for the DC Horror Special. Denny O’Neil and Steve Epting (on art) give us a sort of Christmastime setting, but otherwise it feels crammed in, features a ghost, and doesn’t amount to much. It looks fabulous. Dave McCaig’s colors perfectly complement the somber tone of the story.
Unfortunately the story is as pale as the ghost of one would-be-murderer’s vengeful granny. Batman saves the day of course (with Alfred chauffeuring for no particular reason–though that much is amusing. And then it just sort of ends. Feels almost literally like a final page of conclusion material was just lopped off for space considerations. It’s a disappointing way to start the book and made me a little nervous, but fortunately there are better gifts to come.
This job is waaaay overplanned, trust me
Next on the docket is story about Green Arrow and Black Canary called “You Better Think Twice”, written by Mairghread Scott and with art by Phil Hester (pencils) and Ande Parks (inks). Pretty straightforward story about Black Canary being a little grinchy and some orphans warming her heart. Was not a fan of the art for this, but the colors by Trish Mulvill made it fun. It was especially a welcome light tale after the darkness of the previous Bat-story.
To give us emotional whiplash perhaps, this is followed by perhaps the darkest story in the book: “Going Down Easy!” by Tom King (with beautiful art by Francesco Francavilla). This story takes place during WWII and features Sergeant Rock. It’s basically eight painful nights of a standoff with a Nazi officer captured by a Jewish soldier in the dead of winter. Let’s just say they don’t exactly bond over any shared humanity here. Seriously grim stuff, but written so well I kinda have to give it points, though again, not much of a cheery holiday story to be had.
Some solutions are easy and obvious!
Flash is featured next in “Hope for the Holidays” which is a return to bright colors and a pleasant story from Joshua Williamson. Again, pretty straightforward tale of passengers trapped in an airport due to weather conditions and a little girl’s plea to the Flash to deliver her parents’ Christmas presents. Nothing surprising here except a well-balanced story with fun characters (Barry and Wally are a joy in their interactions). There’s also a minor villain in the Rainbow Raider (oh my), but Williamson really does make it all work. I can totally see this story as a cartoon episode, especially given artist Neil Googe’s big energy, simple paneling, and big-eyed characters!
Deathstroke is next in “A Wilson Family Christmas”. This story captures the joys and frustrations of the most dysfunctional family Christmas with the Wilsons. I’m not a big fan of Deathstroke, but I did like this story: it’s neither too cynical nor too much treacle for those of you who need more balance in your holiday fare. Priest provides a story that’s got at least some of the hallmark violence you would expect with a Deathstroke tale, but keeps it from tipping too far, and Tom Grummett (pencils), and Scott Hanna (inks) make this a very enjoyable, well-rendered read.
Which brings up to “Silent Night, Atomic Knights” as I mentioned earlier. Not even sure how to describe this one. It was similar to my experience of watching that not-DC superhero movie that just came out recently: just weird and fun and a little heart-warming–and difficult to describe. Men in suits of armor riding giant dogs! Trefoil battles! A cranky old fart that kind of looks like Santa Claus if Santa was a scrooge! You just have to experience it yourself.
Teen Titans (featuring Starfire in the more leading role) comes next in “Holiday Spirit”. A giant joy-sucking ghost of Christmas past uses people’s bad memories of previous Christmases to torment them, targeting the teens once they try to intervene. It’s up to Starfire, being alien and having no memories of Christmas, to save the day! Like the Flash story, this would make a great holiday cartoon. Shea Fontana write a lovely story with a fresh take on an old concept, and while I’m not a crazy fan of Otto Schmidt’s art which uses very loose lines and not a lot of individuality in the faces, it’s bold and the action tracks really well.
“Echo of the Abyss” is probably my favorite story in the whole book. Partly because I just love Swamp Thing whose compassion for even the stupidest of people warms my own misanthropic heart. But also because Scott Bryan Wilson just writes such a great clean story. Here’s another one that’s somewhat high concept as it mixes outer space/borderline science fiction elements, but it’s got a light enough touch that it’s not burdened by the expositional narrative required to get the reader up to speed.
A crew trapped in space under quarantine, a crew member losing his marbles as they face potential starvation, and a simple bit of Christmas greenery produce a tale that’s feels a lot like “The Thing” if the creature in that frozen wasteland had come to deliver a message of goodwill instead of, you know, exploding out of people’s chests and crawling away with their heads.
Nic Klein on art nevertheless captures the terror of Swamp Thing manifesting, which is always a delight when you don’t know exactly how people will react. Some especially creative panel layouts also make this story a standout. It feels dark and heavy, but it ends so well.
Especially love how he keeps some of his mistletoe details
Next up: more Batman!
Batman and Wonder Woman team up for my third favorite story in this collection, “Solstice”. In a spare story from the excellent team of Greg Rucka and Bilquis Evely, these two heroes put in overtime for the solstice with one fighting crime in the city and the other assisting with humanitarian efforts.
Largely a visual story, the pictures speak well enough for themselves
I love the mostly silent juxtaposition of the two heroes going about their business, and then they come together at the end of the night just to have a moment of peace and to light a fire of hope. It’s very simple, it’s very lovely, and it’s a nice way to close out the internal stories.
We do return to Clark and Constantine in the bar and that ends predictably with Bibbo tossing Constantine out for being a negative nelly, and lecturing Clark as well. Clark, of course, gains, the necessary perspective to hold his head up on his way out, and, naturally, he’s not just going to leave the ol’ Hellblazer out in the snow. I wanted a little more from this story framework, but it was okay, I guess. I feel like Constantine has been out of character for years now, so it’s hard to find a writer that captures him well. Clark in this, however, is just right.
And in case you thought that was it, fear not, intrepid readers, for there is a bonus Batman story in the back as well. It’s seriously old-school, but as they say: oldies are goodies. And if you have never read this one, it’s well worth a gander:
- You just sometimes enjoy corny Christmas schlock. This is a feel-good book emphasizing peace on earth and goodwill toward all. You know you need more of that in your life.
- And for you brooders, there’s at least a couple of tales in here to keep things salty for you.
- You like your specials to feature a true variety of DC characters beyond the usual mighty triumvirate of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.
- You especially would enjoy a visit from the Ghost of Christmas past in the form of a classic Batman tale from Neal Adams and Dick Giordano: “The Silent Night of the Batman”.
Seriously: who doesn’t love Batman caroling?
There’s something for everyone in this DC special that is surprisingly free of Harley Quinn or really any kind of emphasis on the villainy of this universe (though I suppose featuring Deathstroke and a Nazi skirts the line). With several Bat-related stories, this has some fun stuff for the Batfan, but also great unexpected tales of Swamp Thing, the Atomic Knights, and even Sergeant Rock (in spire of the aforementioned Nazi). If you want a fun pick-me up book, this will make for a nice holiday travel read: something to throw in your backpack for that trip by plane or train. Appearances by Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and more will keep you in the spirit of the season!