Friday, December 12, 2014

Recommended Reading for 12/12: Krampus!

It's Christmas time, so it's time to think about those favorite Christmas characters. Rudolph, the reindeer who saved Christmas. Frosty, the snowman who came to life. Santa Claus, the jolly giver of gifts. And of course, the Krampus. What's that? Some of you don't know the Krampus? Well, google him. Or better yet, read this article by Tick writer Benito Cereno, who likens him to Christmas's Batman. Or if you want something in the video way, check out the Venture Bros. episode, "A Very Venture Christmas." I'll wait.

OK, now you've been primed with a general idea of who the Krampus is. In all fairness, today's recommendation would have been all the introduction you'd need, but part of what makes it exciting is knowing exactly what you're in for. Krampus!, written by Brian Joines and with art by Dean Kotz,  was a five issue mini-series released through Image Comics last year, revolving around the holiday adventures of the Krampus, liberated from his imprisonment by a society of multinational Santas to serve as their black ops agent. If that concept doesn't sell you, I don't know what will, but I'll do my best to try.

The set up for the series is that the skeleton of the actual St. Nicholas has been stolen. The skeleton serves as the power source for the Secret Society of Santas Clauses, and without their powers, the Santas must find someone else to hunt the skeleton down. Enter Krampus, who has been imprisoned since the holiday became more about reward than punishment. They offer Krampus his freedom if he can track down the skeleton. They totally Suicide Squad him, attaching a bomb to him to blow him up if acts too naughty, so frankly the Santas are kind of dicks. But still, the Krampus is on the loose and ready to hunt down the wicked and punish them.

Krampus himself isn't a bad guy. He isn't a villain, or even a bad guy. He just has a function, which is to punish wicked children, and he wants to do what he was meant to do, and nothing more. He's not some Machiavellian mastermind. He demonstrates moments of empathy as well as his trademark punishment. He's a tough green demon looking guy with a sinister German accent who flies around on a huge wolf named Stutgaard; there aren't a lot of job opportunities if you fit that particular description. He is more human looking than the traditional depiction of Krampus, or at least less monstrous, lacking, for example, the freaky long tongue, which not only allows for his face to be more expressive, but makes for a more empathetic character; while it's easy enough to empathize with non-human aliens, full on monsters are harder, especially when they talk about punishment. A lot. Giving Krampus a more streamlined look allows his emotions to play out on his face, which is useful when he's the focus on the story.

The whole concept of a Krampus based series had me interested, but flipping through issue one and seeing all the different versions of Santa had me sold. The back cover has a group shot of all the Santas with their name and country of origin, and it's Santas from all over the world. Each of them have distinct personalities, and fortunately they don't fall into terrible stereotypes. It's easy when you have an international coalition to have everyone take on the worst aspects of their culture. Now, I won't say Beach Bum Santa from the Pacific Islands would have worked from, say France, but he doesn't say cowabunga at any point, so credit is given for that. The two principal Santas are the modern Father Christmas of England, the current leader of the society, and Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa, who was the first Santa. There actually is a whole subplot involving the political divisions within the Society, which allows Joines to explore the personalities of the different Santas without relying on tons of random exposition.

The cast of the book also includes new takes on other classic winter themed characters. Old Man Winter, who controls cold and the season, lives in a giant ice castle, and his son, Jack Frost, is a hipster kid who is trying to escape his fate of taking on his father's role. But the character I enjoyed most, and who gives you the best impression of the odd sense of humor in Krampus!, was Doc Holliday. Yes, the Doc Holliday, the dentist who fought with the Earps at the OK Corral, who was given immortality by the Yuletide Spirit because she thought he was Doc Holiday, who is now a supernatural bounty hunter who has been hired to hunt the Krampus. He also has singing skeleton horse, Mari Lywd, who belts various pop hits. So, yeah, there's not much more to say about that weirdness other than... weird.

The action of the series follows Krampus as he hunts down the bones of St. Nicholas. It's an action movie/detective story motif, as Krampus follows hints and clues down blind alleys, all while being pursued by killer nutcrackers and violent sugar plum fairies. The mystery, like the bones, are a Mcguffin, since the villain is a character who doesn't get mentioned more than casually before he appears, and is revealed halfway through the series as it is. But the whole point of the mystery is to get Krampus out and about, meeting all these characters and fighting monsters. And it succeeds in that, making for a fun action series.

The villain, Mos Gerila, was a Communist era former Santa who was cast out of the Society after the fall of communism, when he predecessor, Mos Craciun, was freed. He has a whole insane plot about world domination and being the only Santa. Having a villain who is the holiday equivalent of James Bond's Blofeld makes for a good counterpoint to Krampus; sure he wants to take out his reeds and punish naughty children, but he's not talking about making the world bow to him for presents by putting it under a permanent deep freeze.

The series ends with most of the loose ends tied up, but with one final page sting that shows there's much more story to tell, something that Joines and Kotz say they'd like to get back to some day. So if you're looking for a holiday comic this year that's quirky, action-packed, and like no one you've read before, you should give Krampus! a shot.

The trade paperback of Krampus! arrives at comic shops this Wednesday.

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