You can’t celebrate Christmas without Batman and Frank Miller and Santa getting shot – Wanted: Santa Claus — Dead or Alive!
Frank Miller’s first dalliance with Batman was certainly no harbinger of what was to come. The man who would go on to write and draw the seminal The Dark Knight Returns and script the deft origin of the Caped Crusader in Year One had his first brush with the character back as the calendar turned from 1979 to 1980, in a throwaway story in DC Special Series. Though it has been reprinted multiple times, it hasn’t been quality that has sent it back to the press. Because of what Miller did in later years with those two great works (he, it should be noted, went on to forge some, how shall we say, not so great works) everything under the Miller/Batman banner got elevated, including one-off bits in anthologies. He only contributed pencils in the 10-page effort that was his Bat-debut, and his visceral style — one that, when married with Klaus Janson’s inks, would help define both Batman and Daredevil — was still forming. He was still a kid. Which makes reading it something akin to going through the Faulkner’s Mosquitoes, in that you have to squint real hard to see any hints of what was around the bend.
I actually have that original issue of DC Special Series (#21) around here somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s squirreled away in an unmarked box along with other miscellaneous books (which don’t even warrant a “Misc.” written in black marker), and by the time I found it next Christmas would already be here. So that I could yammer about it today, I went out and pulled my old faux-leather-bound The Complete Frank Miller Batman tome off the shelf, blew away the dust, and cracked it open. (It’s because of that lush binding that you’ll see some blurring at the edges of a couple of scans. Apologies.) And here we are.
(A confession: I used to pour over this gorgeous book incessantly when I was a kid. It was in my book bag when I went to school. It was on the floor next to my bed as I slept. I could quote chapter and verse of the aged Batman sparring with the government-stooge Superman and Jim Gordon’s descent into big city corruption. But I can’t once recall EVER reading the little reprint in the middle. It might as well have been entitled “The Batman Story In This Book Everyone Skips Even Though It’s Short.”)
Of course, the rush to yak about this premier Miller foray into the Gotham streets lies not so much in his presence, but the subject matter. Yes, as the “Wanted: Santa Claus — Dead or Alive!” title would indicate, this is a Christmas story. A Christmas story with a department store Santa (where have we seen that before?). A Santa who has also run afoul of the law (Ibid.). And stark, over-the-top Christian imagery. IT HAS EVERYTHING.
The story, written by Denny O’Neill and inked by Steve Mitchell, centers around a reformed criminal working as Kris Kringle for the holidays (not the first job I’d think of if I were his parole officer), but one who can’t escape his past. He’s roped in by crooks to get them into the store so they can go wild robbing the joint. All this is just a setup so we can get to the OH GOD THEY SHOT SANTA part:
AVERT YOUR EYES. OH, AND MERRY CHRISTMAS. (Frosty the Snowman, teller of horrifying Christmas stories, would be proud.)
Batman has been on the trail of the thieves for a while, and when he confronts them he uses the merriest method possible to subdue his quarry:
Yes, Batman eschews the batarangs for miniature Christmas trees. Again, and sincerely this time – MERRY CHRISTMAS.
All this is fine and dandy, but the big payoff is a bit much. You see, in the first panel of the story we have Batman coming across a burgled Nativity scene, where someone has stolen the star. This large display is right outside the store, and when Batman emerges to find the fleeing crooks, who are dragging the poor befuddled Santa with them to finish him off, there’s — MIRACULOUSLY — a brightly shining star illuminating the hiding cons:
So the star led the Three Wise Men to the manger in Bethlehem, and reappeared almost 2000 years later to help Batman find common criminals. It helped Magi deliver gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, and helped Batman deliver his fistacular war on crime and guns (the latter seeming much more important in the last week) to a would-be murderer’s jaw. Huh. Biblical signs work in mysterious ways.
There’s really nothing to this plot — not one of O’Neill’s finest, and he did have some finest — and the only reason it hasn’t been relegated to dim memory is its status as an early exemplar of Miller’s developing craft. You can see some of it above, with the angles and action that would one day pull in readers beyond the usual comic-buying demographic. He was still hemmed in here, though, by the conventional. Well, conventional in whatever sense that Santa crooks and miniature tree throwing stars and astral miracles are conventional. But the big successes weren’t long in coming.
As stated above, this story has been reprinted multiple times, including in a trade entitled DC Universe Christmas. Maybe you can track it down in time for the holidays. In case you, you know, want to chuck A Christmas Carol aside and read something else to the kids gathered at your feet. Make sure to show them the pictures, though! Especially Santa getting shot! Nothing beats casual Christmastime gunplay!