Rudolph before Rudolph – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 1959-1960
Every year millions gather around their televisions, tune into CBS and watch the most venerable of Christmas classics. It’s a tad mind-boggling, but Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer this year celebrates its 50th year delighting children of all ages. Five-Oh, people. In an age when network viewerships have fractured and scattered to the four winds, it’s a genuine Christmas miracle that a hokey, old-timey stop-motion special can still draw solid ratings. This is surely a testament to its irrepressible Rankin/Bass charm, and, to an extent, the potency of the age-old story of a misfit underdog (or deer) made good.
But, lest we forget, Rudolph didn’t have his advent in 1964. He was around a number of years before he teamed with Hermie the Elf and Yukon Cornelius to battle the Abominable Snow Monster. And yes, a part of that legacy was a slew of yearly DC comic books.
Created in 1939 for a Montgomery Ward giveaway, Rudolph went through a number of different iterations before he settled into the hour-long merrymaking so familiar to us all. There was the Gene Autry-crooned song. There was the 1944 animated short, in which some reindeer wore clothes while others walked around starkers. And there was the annual tradition of a comic from National Periodical Publications. There were Rudolph comics published regularly from 1950 to 1962, and Rudolph got a bit of a revival in the 1970s in the oversized treasury format, after the TV special had hit the ground running and given a whole new impetus to the character. The comic we have before us today is the 10th in the original lineage, and it’s interesting to see both the differences between and similarities with the televised doings we’ve committed to memory.
The biggest difference is that there’s no elf sidekick here — alas, no Santa’s helper who wants to become a dentist. Instead Rudolph is accompanied in his (mis)adventures by Grover, a small woodland critter in mittens and a cap who’s a mixture of Hermie, Thumper, and the Green Lantern Ch’p. Both he and Rudolph are excited to tell Santa that — guess what — someone wants to make a TV special about Jolly Kris Kringle. What a crazy idea! And though Santa doesn’t want any part of it, that doesn’t stop adoring does from looking to get a piece of potential star Rudolph “Valentino” the Red-Nosed Reindeer:
Perhaps the biggest similarity between this comic and the Burl Ives-infused Rudolph is that Santa Claus is a real jerk here. Not only does he totally dismiss Rudolph and his youthful desire for a bit of fame and fortune, he also wrongly accuses him of neglecting his full-time sled duties. So he replaces Rudolph on his gift-delivering team with Rudolph’s arch-nemesis, Baddie Bear. Yes, the character is named Baddie Bear. And apparently at this stage of his career Rudolph has “throw the presents out the back” duties instead of leading the team, but whatever.
Anyway, Baddie is big, stupid, a tattle-tale and a bully. But little does he know that, like a skunk, Rudolph’s body has natural self-defense mechanisms!:
Rudolph’s nose is red-hot? Makes sense, I guess?
The plot unspools accordingly: Baddie isn’t keen on flying, lashes out by disguising himself as the Abominable Snowman (not a Snow Monster, but close enough) and stealing Santa’s list, which prompts Mr. Claus to cancel Christmas — this Santa isn’t big on overcoming obstacles either, it seems. So off Rudolph goes to recover the list, which he does, but not before both his and Baddie’s lives are imperiled:
So Rudolph is adrift on an ice floe — never seen that before. Fear not, however, as he’s rescued by, I kid you not, a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine. Oh, and Santa, piloting not a reindeer-driven sleigh, but a helicopter that looks like the thing that used to land in Tranzor Z’s head:
Merry Christmas to one and all!
Let’s just list the similarities here: Awkward moment with female reindeer. Santa’s a dick. Santa’s willing to cancel Christmas if everything isn’t OCD perfect. Abominable Snow-Something. Ice floe.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The comic closes with a number of Christmas-themed games, low-tech diversions for a lower-tech world. Remember when all you needed was a coin to play a game — that and the patience to read rules that look like the legalese in a sweepstakes offer?:
So as you watch the crimson-beaked reindeer enchant the world tonight with his Yuletide hijinks, perhaps for the 50th time, remember this comic, one of many that gave life to Rudolph before he was truly the most famous of all. Rudolph before Rudolph.