Frank Miller’s First Batman

Considering the many options for classic Christmas comics this season, I recalled Frank Miller’s first Batman story, “Wanted: Santa Claus—Dead or Alive!” My first encounter with this story was in that leatherbound reprint collection from 1989 that bundled this story, together with Dark Knight and Year One, as The Complete Frank Miller Batman, but was unaware until researching for this post where the story originally ran. I can now tell you that it originally saw print in DC Special Series #21 (Apr. 1980), a “Super-Star Holiday Special.”

I thought I might have a copy of this one—one of those comics I picked up in later years as a back issue somewhere (probably online at Lone Star or Mile High) that I might not have ever even read; I would have to go looking and find out. And sure enough, there it was. Outside of a couple stories that were reprinted elsewhere later (including the Batman one, obviously), I can’t remember if I read the others before filing them away, whenever I bought ‘em. (Still battling senility, folks.) So they’re like new stories to me now! Being able to read a classic comic with mature eyes is itself like a Christmas present for me these days, so this should be fun.

This sixty-four-page special has Christmas-themed stories featuring a wide range of characters: Batman, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Jonah Hex, and Sgt. Rock, along with most of the DC horror hosts, such as Cain and Abel and others. As mentioned, it’s got Frank Miller’s very first Batman story, written by Denny O’Neil. Other writers include Bob Rozakis, Robert Kanigher, Paul Levitz, and Michael Fleisher, with art by Dick Ayers, Romeo Tanghal, Dick Ayers, José Luis García-López and Dick Giordano. On the comic racks during the Christmas season of 1979 and all yours for just a buck.

The opening page introduces the issue’s (nearly) overarching theme: the Christmas Star. Or, as it is perhaps better known, the Star of Bethlehem. “Come along now with the world’s greatest heroes, to follow that star—and your world too may never again be the same!”

“The Fawn and the Star”

First up is the Jonah Hex tale, “The Fawn and the Star” by Fleisher, Ayers, & Tanghal. It’s the day before Christmas and Jonah is somewhere in the Colorado Territory, tracking some bounties, the Tull brothers. It’s not quite dusk, but there’s already a big, bright ole star visible in the sky.

As he’s tracking, he comes across a little girl named Holly begging her father not to kill a fawn with an injured leg. The father wants to kill the deer for their family’s Christmas dinner the next day, but Hex intervenes, wraps the fawn’s injured leg and promises to find an alternative meal for the family. Hex then has a flashback to a pet racoon he had as a ten year old that his own father wound up killing. He then picks up the trail once more for the Tulls while also keeping an eye out for some game to replace the fawn, as the father did warn that he would kill it if Hex failed to return by sun up. With the sun down, tracking becomes difficult, so on a whim he follows the big star in the sky, which eventually leads him to the Tulls. Hex winds up killing the pair with some dynamite, which will get him his bounty, but he laments not being able to catch any game to save the fawn. Then he comes across the Tulls’ provisions, which is enough to fulfill his promise of an alternate meal to Holly’s father.

As he rides off at the close of the story, Hex thinks, “If’n Ah was a religious man, Ah’d say it wuz thet lucky star up thar whut led me tuh the Tull brothers an’ thet knapsack full’a vittles!”

Frank Miller’s First Batman

Next up is the inspiration for the whole post: “Wanted: Santa Claus—Dead or Alive!” It’s Frank Miller’s first Batman story, working from a script by Denny O’Neil, appropriately enough.

It opens with Batman noticing that someone has stolen the Christmas Star from a nativity scene. Such is the state of crime in Gotham City. Batman isn’t looking to recover the star though, as he’s “got a bigger problem.” He crashes a Christmas party being thrown by a local crime boss named Lasko, looking to find out why Lasko arranged for a boat to be waiting in Gotham Harbor that night. After a bit of formula violence and intimidation, Batman style, Lasko tells him that he did it as a favor for an old cellmate named Boomer Katz.

The scene then shifts to the neighborhood of Crime Alley, where Batman enters a soup kitchen in disguise, looking for info on Boomer Katz. It doesn’t take long to learn that Boomer has taken a job as a department store Santa. Batman immediately figures that Boomer, a convicted heist man, plans on looting the store and escaping town via the boat. Well, Batman is half right. Boomer is going to help rob the store, but under threats from another crook named Fats. The truth is that Boomer has caught the Christmas spirit, having enjoyed his time playing Santa so much so that he decides at the last minute not to disable the store alarm, as he previously agreed to do for Fats. But Fats and his criminal cohorts, Al and Louie, then force him at gunpoint to get them into the store after it’s closed.

Batman hears fired shots just as he’s approaching the store, spurring him into action. Santa Boomer had tried to escape but took one in the shoulder. Al is now pursuing him while Fats and Louie hold the store manager and gather their loot. Batman makes quick work of the two thugs upon his arrival and frees the manager, but tracking down and saving Boomer is going to be more difficult. That is until a minor Christmas miracle in the form of starlight makes it suddenly easy.

Miller’s art is still magnificent to behold, even at this early stage. But his depiction of Batman would evolve and change, somewhat radically. The most notable thing, for me, in that last panel is that Batman has a proper head and neck. By the time we get to Dark Knight Returns in 1985, Miller’s Batman doesn’t seem to have a neck—that Batman cowl just seems to flow directly down into his shoulders.

As far as design and overall atmosphere though, Miller is pretty much already there. His work was popping off the printed page even then.

Fun Fact, as long as we’re talking Dark Knight Returns here: There was a lot of chatter generated on social media about a month ago regarding Miller’s cover illustration for Dark Knight Returns, whether Batman is facing forward or has his back to us. For the record, I always thought he had his back to us.

Horror Hosts Celebrate the Season

Then, in a section of the special that is untitled, we get a number of quick Christmas-themed tales courtesy of DC’s Horror hosts by Rozakis, Tanghal, and Adkins.

It opens with most of our hosts arguing: Cain (House of Mystery), Abel (House of Secrets), and the witches Mordred, Mildred, and Cynthia (The Witching Hour). Destiny (Secrets of Haunted House, along with Weird Mystery Tales) is also present but staying out of the squabble, at least for the nonce. The gist of the arguing is over who tells the best stories, naturally. They decide to settle the matter by telling Christmas stories and seeing who tells the best one.

The first one here comes from the witches, who tell of a mother and her two young children lost at sea, all of whom are very afraid until they spy the light of the Christmas Star breaking through the fog-filled sky. At first, they believe the light of the star to be coming from a lighthouse. Upon reaching shore however, they realize the light on the lighthouse is out. Then the Christmas Star reappears in the sky and they realize that the star’s light is what led them here. The witches end the story in their formula fashion, noting that the clock had just struck midnight, “The Witching Hour!”

Cain then counters with a story of a pawnbroker consumed by greed named Jeremiah Podash. We see Podash put the squeeze on a poor widow, paying her $20 for a diamond ring worth at least $400. Then a white-bearded gentleman enters the pawn shop, looking to unload “the largest diamond in the world!” In exchange, he demands everything in Podash’s stock. After some token haggling, the deal is made. Then Podash re-opens the jewelry box and discovers the huge diamond has been replaced by a lump of coal. After hearing Podash’s complaints, our white-bearded gentleman retorts, “And coal is what diamonds are made of, Mr. Podash! All you’ve got to do is squeeze it for a few million years . . . you do know how to squeeze, don’t you?”

Our gentleman then changes into his traditional Santa Claus clothing and flies off on his sleigh, wishing a Merry Christmas to all. Note that this was the only story in this special not to invoke the Christmas Star.

After saying nothing all night, Destiny steps in at this point to tell his own story, which he claims “will easily be the best of the three!” His story is about some kind of future astronaut who’s convinced the Christmas Star is some kind of UFO and he’s flown off into space to investigate it. But he pushes his craft faster than the vessel can handle, past light speed, causing it to explode as it breaks through the time barrier. Thus, the exploding vehicle becomes the celestial phenomenon we would come to call the Christmas Star. In his own way, the astronaut fulfilled his mission.

At this point, all the hosts revert to arguing. Just before it devolves into a fistfight, the Phantom Stranger (who played something of a host role at times in his own Phantom Stranger comic) shows up with Madame Xanadu (hostess of Doorway to Nightmare) to calm everyone down and remind them that it’s Christmas, a time of peace and goodwill.

“The Longest Night”

Next we get a Sgt. Rock tale, “The Longest Night,” by Kanhiger, Ayers & Tanghal. Rock and Easy Company have to clear the Nazis out of the town of Santa Maria to make way for General Patton’s tanks to pass through without trouble. But they’re not even sure how to find Santa Maria as the story begins, particularly after a Nazi sniper shoots out Rock’s compass. Ultimately, they decide to use the bright star in the sky to navigate, which they assume to be the North Star. “Long as I keep it behind us,” Rock says, “east is on our right.”

But then their path crosses a bunch of pilgrims, who are also on their way to Santa Maria, where they intend to pray at a shrine there. Despite Rock’s warnings that their candles will draw the attention of Nazi soldiers, the group refuses to turn back. So Rock commands Easy Company to continue on double-time, so as to reach Santa Maria before the pilgrims and prevent a potential massacre.

Rock & company reach the town, shoot some Nazis, and save a few civilians. A well-thrown grenade by Rock finishes the last of the Nazis, but it also knocks over a statue of Virgin Mary, which a local boy tells him was the shrine. Rock laments this and wonders what he’ll tell the pilgrims, then learns they’re already here, “been here for hours! Prayin’ for a miracle . . . while their candles went out in the dark!” Then a great light appears in the sky, which the nun leading the pilgrims declares to be the Christmas Star. The local boy calls it a miracle, with the nun adding, “Faith needs no shrine! Our hearts are shrines—and our love can light the world!”

“Star Light, Star Bright . . . Farthest Star I See Tonight!”

Concluding this holiday special is the Legion of Super-Heroes in “Star Light, Star Bright . . . Farthest Star I See Tonight!” by Levitz, García-López, and Giordano. It begins with Superboy arriving in the 30th century to pay a visit on his Legion teammates to celebrate Christmas. Bristling at how the future tech seems to compromise his ideas of an old-fashioned Christmas, Superboy comes up with the idea of tracking down the Christmas Star, a quest which his teammates agree to—with a bit of grumbling from some corners.

But instead of the Christmas Star, Legion navigation computers bring them to an unknown planet. And the life on this planet is facing some ecological challenges. Though the planet appears impossible to save in the long run, the Legion does manage to create shelter space that will keep life going until the United Planets can evacuate the native creatures to alternate worlds. After succeeding in this task, Phantom Girl observes that the Legion’s presence here is what made the survival of all these creatures possible. Superboy then remarks, “That’s what Christmas is supposed to do, Phantom Girl. It’s caring . . . helping . . . and maybe a brightly shining star in the sky that science says is impossible.” And looking up in the sky, Superboy sees the star.

Summing Up

Most of these stories conform to Christmas formulas and aren’t very innovative. But I wouldn’t call them bad either—how you take them might have more to do with how much Christmas Spirit you happen to be feeling this season. If you’ve caught the spirit of the season, you’ll probably enjoy them. If you’re a Scrooge, you’ll hate ‘em.

But let me offer some objective kudos here. Whatever else, I appreciate the genre mix. They could have gone all superhero for this one, but instead they included western, war, and horror characters. (One could even make the case for the Legion story being sci-fi.) The only thing missing is a Sugar and Spike tale. I appreciate the effort to diversify the atmosphere.

Then we have the art. The two superhero stories we do get here feature art from two of the best to ever pick up a pencil: Frank Miller and José Luis García-López. Miller was great, as noted, and García-López’s work is never less than gorgeous; just sumptuous to the eye. And he’s inked by Giordano, who always does beautiful work. Probably the best inker/finisher to ever pick up a pen.

Regular readers here know how much I value writing, but truly, the art on these two stories alone would be enough to get this one a positive review. And if you’ve caught the spirit, you’ll likely enjoy everything this special has to offer.

Enjoy the holiday season, everyone!

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