Friday, December 19, 2014

Animated Discussions: A Very Animated DC Christmas

The past couple of years, the Friday before Christmas has been a holiday recommendation, both of them from writer Paul Dini. Aside from a single Christmas themed issue of Simpsons Comics, and an issue of Detective Comics featuring Joker driving around with a tied up Tim Drake, I couldn't find anything else Christmasy from Dini (although you really should check out those two books). I was getting ready to shift last week's Krampus! piece to this week, when it occurred to me I had one more holiday piece that would feature some Paul Dini: a look at DC Comics animated Christmas episodes!

The earliest example of a holiday episode in the modern animated DC Universe (I'll be passing on the 60s Batman cartoon that did have a Mr. Freeze Christmas episode, just due to time for watching and time fro writing) is the classic "Christmas with the Joker." While aired about two months into the airing of Batman: The Animated Series, it was actually the second episode produced, so it has certain markings of those early episodes, very specifically it was one of three episodes where Clive Revill voiced Alfred, before Efrem Zimbalist Jr. took over and held the role for many a year.

Since we're still so early in the series, "Christmas with the Joker" isn't a very experimental episode. It's fun, clever, and well executed, but it's a pretty darn traditional episode. Joker breaks out of Arkham, Joker has a crazy scheme, Batman and Robin stop said crazy scheme. But the details are great. Joker has hijacked the airwaves and is airing an old time Christmas special starring, well, him. He's kidnapped Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, and Summer Gleeson (a reporter character who I think the producers hoped would catch on, but never really did), and has them tied up as his very own Christmas family. The interaction between Joker and Gordon when Joker removes his gag, which is a candy cane wedged in his mouth, briefly is pretty darn funny. But the stakes are high. Joker plans on blowing up a bridge and crashing a train, which Summer's mother is on; this isn't a whimsical thing with Joker. It's deadly serious.

The episode has great set pieces. Not just the exploding bridge and train sequence, but there's a battle at an observatory and a factory with killer nutcrackers. There's also some wonderful character beats involving batman. When asked to watch It's a Wonderful Life, he replies that he could, "never get past the title," but it's clear the episode's writer, Eddie Gorodetsky, gets Batman when Robin tells him that it's the story of how much one man can matter to a city, to which Bruce has not much to say. More telling is how hard it is for Batman to let go and believe that Christmas Eve will be quiet. This is actually a theme from a classic Batman Christmas story, Mike Friedrich and Neal Adams's, "the Silent Night of the Batman."

When Batman returned to animation with the New Batman Adventures, the first episode was an adaptation of the Batman Adventures Holiday Special, the episode entitled "Holiday Knights." Instead of writing at length about it, you can go and check out the recommendation I did for the comic a couple years ago. It remains one of my favorite Christmas comics ever.

In 2008, a very different animated Batman came to the airwaves. Batman: The Brave and the Bold was a much lighter Batman show, with crazy plots, huge set pieces right out of the 50s comics, and every episode teamed Batman with another hero. Early on, the series did its Christmas episode, "Invasion of the Secret Santas!" which featured Red Tornado as the guest hero. In the episode, Red Torndao, a robot, tried to understand the Christmas spirit, while he and Batman fight Fun Haus, a villain who is clearly a Toyman riff, since Toyman wouldn't have been available to the show since he is a Superman villain, and Superman and his cast were unavailable to Brave and the Bold at the time.

The episode itself involved robot Santas running amok, an evil toy, and some holiday hilarity as Red Tornado tries to Carol and Batman winds up saving kids from a runaway sled. It's a good episode of Brave and the Bold, as it highlights so much of what makes the show different and fun from Batman: The Animated Series. The comedy is much bigger, the villain is more over the top, but Batman himself remains this solid straight man in the middle of the wackiness. Batman says crime doesn't take a holiday, so neither does he.

The thing that stands out in "Invasion of the Secret Santas" to me are a series of black-and-white flashbacks to a young Bruce Wayne on Christmas Eve. Bruce receives a Christmas present from his father, a nutcracker, which is not what the young Bruce wanted, and so he throws it away and runs off in a pout. It's notable for a few reasons. One, it's the first time in this series we see an unmasked Batman, even if he's only eight, and the first time we see Alfred. The series usually kept Batman in the field, so both Bruce Wayne and Alfred appear very rarely, The Nutcracker is almost directly lifted from "To Kill a Legend," a story from Detective Comics #500, only there it's a toy train, not a Nutcracker. I like the fact that Bruce wasn't always this perfect kid, and it's a nice touch. My only problem with the flashbacks is that it ends with his parents taking him to see a movie to try to cheer him up from not getting the Swashbuckler action figure. The movie is a swashbuckling movie, and I doubt anyone who knows Batman would be surprised it's The Mark of Zorro. The flashbacks end with Bruce still being mad as they walk down the alley, and well, the are two flashes of light. I'm generally not in love with the idea that Bruce had any part, even inadvertent, in his parents' death. Still the episode ends with Batman finding a very special Christmas present from Alfred in the Batmobile, something that brings the episode full circle, and is a nice Christmas touch.

Before I discuss my favorite DC Comics animated episode, I wanted to touch on one that's only tangentially related to the topic. Freakazoid! was a cartoon that aired on the WB network alongside Superman: The Animated Series, and was created by the same guys who created the Batman and Superman cartoons. It was a crazy cartoon with a hero who would make the Creeper say, "I think he's a bit much." But good lord was it funny!The first season episode, "In Arm's Way," features Freakazoid Christmas chopping on Christmas Eve, while arch criminal Arms Akimbo (a former model whose arms are stuck, well, akimbo) sells Oops Insurance (protection) to local business owners. If you've never see Freakazoid!, well, this is a fun episode, but they all are really.

Now, my favorite DC Comics animated episode doesn't even feature Batman. The episode is "Comfort and Joy," from the second season of Justice League, and it's written, not shockingly, by Paul Dini. After saving an alien world from being destroyed, we follow five members of the Justice League on their holiday adventures. I admit, the episode is filled with Christmas messages about the joys of family and friends, about giving to others, and about different manners of celebrating. It's a Christmas special in the way of holiday episodes of the 80s, and I love that. I am a complete sucker for these kind of things, and the fact that it's done so well makes it all the better.

One of the stories follows Green Lantern and Hawkgirl as the two explore their burgeoning romance by seeing how each of their cultures celebrate. Lantern shows Hawkgirl all the great snow traditions he has, like sledding, building snowmen, making snow angels, and snowball fights. After a particularly rousing super powered snowball fight Hawkgirl brings Lantern to a world that looks like the Mos Eisley Cantina's nasty brother and shows him how she celebrates, which is starting a bar fight and wailing on everyone in sight. It's cute, and does a great job of showing the relationship between the two characters, ending with a very sweet moment.

The Flash story has Wally visiting  an orphanage in Central City and promising to get the kids the present they want, a DJ Rubba Ducky, a rapping animated duck. We get some crass consumerism, as Wally can't find one, and when he finally does, he runs afoul of the Ultra-Humanite, who is destroying the Central City Museum because he feels the art isn't up to his high standards. When the Rubba Ducky is destroyed in the fight, Humanite agrees to repair it and he and Flash present the to to the kids, improved to tell the story of The Nutcracker as opposed to making hip-hop farty noises. And when Flash brings Humanite to jail, he leaves him a small Christmas tree. It's a sweet story of two foes coming together in the Christmas spirit and about how everyone deserves a holiday that is full of peace.

The third story is by far my favorite, the story of Superman taking Martian Manhunter to Smallville for Christmas. It's a very simple, quiet story. There's no action in the superhero sense. Superman is hilarious with Ma and Pa Kent, acting like a great big kid; they wrap his presents in lead foil to keep him from peeking. They give J'onn a sweater as a present that he bulks up to wear. And he goes out at night and sees the Christmas joy that the people of Smallville feel. J'onn became a favorite character of mine thanks to the John Ostrander monthly from the early 00s and his portrayal on Justice League, and this episode does a marvelous job of portraying the stranger in a strange land aspect of the character. There's also a cute nod to his love of Oreos from the Justice League International era. The episode ends with J'onn sitting in a window in his native Martian form, singing a beautiful sing in Martian, while petting Streaky, Supergirl's cat. It's a lovely moment, one that expresses the universality of having a place to be in times of celebration.

This is a good time to settle in with a cup of cocoa and enjoy a very super Christmas season, and each of these episodes are available on DVD, and many can be found on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

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