Hello, and welcome to Cover Story: digging as little into comic books as we can. Ah Christmas, that special time of the year that’s just universal enough that comic books have to address it in some manner, but is also far too common to allow for much originality or repetition. If ever there was a time tailor-made to produce weird and flawed covers perfect for spotlight on Cover Story this is it. This list will only be contained to comics published by DC or Marvel as beyond that would end up far too massive a list to cover; the crazy Christmas comics from Image, IDW, and friends will probably be the subject for future lists unless there’s just a massive Hanukkah cover explosion somewhere down the line. With that in mind let’s dive into the shallow end and get the cover story on the top 13 superhero Christmas covers.
This is probably a bit of weird one, but it wouldn’t feel like Christmas if the incredibly oblique DC quasi-hero the Phantom Stranger wasn’t decorating his tree in the midst of a plain red background. In case you’re wondering what this comic actually IS, it was part of a tie-in series to DC animation’s Justice League Unlimited cartoon series at the time, in which Phantom Stranger never appeared once. The art is by Ty Templeton, an incredibly talented artist who has an amazing gift for mimicking other mediums as seen in his work on the Batman Adventures and Batman ’66 covers. He does a great job rendering what a Bruce Timm Phantom Stranger might look like here, keeping an emphasis on the character design from the ‘70s. I’m a huge Phantom Stranger junkie so there’s no way he wasn’t making it on this list, but I do like how incredibly weird and dopey this cover is given he’s a character that could beat up the Spectre if he wanted. All his godlike power and he celebrates Christmas with paper ornaments that you know he cut out and made himself. It’s actually kind of really sad given that despite being friends with all those heroes I’m betting none of them are making their way to the crimson dimension in which he’s decided to celebrate the season.
Another fudge on the idea of “superhero Christmas” but it’s a DC/Marvel comic so I’m counting it. Marvel’s never really been as big on dedicating whole comics to genre experimentation like DC was, but in the ‘80s they started really doubling down on it for whatever reason. This was the era they came out with the Marvel Presents prestige series that featured the death of Captain Marvel, the Marvel New Universe, Vanth Dreadstar, and Bizarre Adventures, a magazine sized comic with an emphasis on written stories and weird continuity, including the first appearance of Stephen King’s Lawnmower Man. That’s the particular realm of weirdness we’re jumping into with this amazing cover, courtesy of Joe Jusko and Rob Carousella. This is easily Jusko at his least Frank Frazetta-esque and most Alex Ross-y but it really works, especially the jokey glee of sending skeletal Saint Nick down the chimney. This cover predates Nightmare Before Christmas too, so it’s entirely possible this is the inspiration for Jack Skelington and friends, though it’s admittedly much more in tone with a Goosebumps cover, probably one of the “Say Cheese and Die“ stories.
The Peter David years were a weird time for Hulk. Honestly, I don’t think there’s ever been an author so weirdly, almost disturbingly fascinated by the gray Hulk as Peter David is. Though considering he’s also the man who eventually gave us Mr. Fix-It, we should count “Hulk v. Santa” as a pretty sane entry into the gamma behemoth’s canon. Also as some of you may have guessed that’s not actually Santa that Hulk is fighting, which is a real shame because having Santa actually exist as a real being in the Marvel Universe like he does at DC and Vertigo would be amazing. It’d also be pretty impressive that Santa in the MCU was as big as the Hulk and presumably hung around department stores during the holidays as a form of procrastination no doubt. Weirdly though, faux-Santa isn’t the villain one might assume, it’s the Wrecker as indicated by the crowbar. Instead, the apparently most requested Hulk villain is Rhino, but dressed as Santa. I’m sure it makes sense to somebody.
Ah the Golden Age, it was a simpler time when Superman was still a complete jerk. I’ve already dedicated a full top 25 places to Superman being a soulless monster to his supposed friends and family and while this didn’t make the list, it probably should have because wow is Superman a dick in this cover. I think what really sells him as a complete jerk rather than a friendly aide to a comically stuck Santa is that massive grin on his face. Artists of the Silver and Golden Age have always had a weird time getting Superman’s expressions right, usually portraying him with the opposite expression of what he should be feeling and this is one of the worst cases of it. I think he’s supposed to look amused by the silly situation, but going by Santa’s terrified face and the fact Superman is punching him in the stomach with super strength, it looks a lot more like he’s laughing at his own naked villainy. I’m not sure “Superman acts a like dick on a cover” is big news anymore, but it’s kind of comforting to know that it’s always been there.
Jim Aparo and Mike Barr’s run on DC Comics’ Brave and the Bold is one of the best comic runs from DC you could hope to get your hands on and this cover is a great example of their skill. This came out in the early ‘80s so it carries with it a lot of the ‘70s inflection and trappings that marked the development of Silver Age stylistic effects. Right off the bat (pun intended) you’ve got this incredibly eye-catching cover complete with supremely engaging word balloons. It’s a cover cut directly from the school of “you’ve got to read this one!” but with less of the insanity that punctuated previous decades and a greater emphasis on character to drive the mystery and suspense of the cover. The visual of Batman hurling off his cape and cowl remains one of the most striking scenes in comic books overall and the rendering of his parents graves, the snowy ground, and that perfect foggy moonlit night all aid a deliberate chill to the winter setting. Adrienne Roy does a superb job with color balance here, creating a three-way background split between the yellow graves, violet sky, and white snow, inducing a very eerie palette to draw from. There are a few flaws like Huntress just crouched in the background with nothing to do and Bruce’s “angry” face being an inhuman contortion, but overall solid work from a great team.
Given that in his bizarre lifetime the Punisher has been beaten up by Eminem, surgically turned into a black guy, become an angel, and been resurrected as a Frankenstein, I guess it makes sense he’d eventually become a Castle Claus at some point as well. In all honesty this is a really nice cover that I wish reflected the tone of the actual story in this comic a lot more. Punisher’s look of utter exasperation at his situation is perfect and I really like the subtle touch of having a goon’s hand sticking out of his bag of toys. I’ve always maintained the Punisher should either exist as an anti-villain or something closer to comical exasperation as he tries to be a hard-bitten vigilante in a world of gamma beast, super soldiers, and Norse Gods and this cover is the latter version perfectly. Actually, given his exposed uniform and gun I can only assume this was him trying to evade whatever hero was valiantly trying to end his latest killing spree by posing as a mall Santa but he just didn’t have the heart to really commit to the disguise. Seriously, his face is totally saying “yeah, prison is the better alternative.”
First things first: I have no idea what the Marvel Newspaper Network is nor why this Spider-Man cover was attached in some vague and undefined manner to the Dallas Times Herald. None of that really matters though because the Kingpin is pretending to be Santa Claus, which is the greatest sentence I’ve ever uttered. Honestly, as much as I like Born Again/Frank Miller Kingpin, I kind of prefer him as the mob stand-in Spider-Man bad guy he started as. This ridiculous, lumbering bald mobster trying desperately to be threatening to a guy who had super strength and routinely fought alien slime and living lightning. I am seriously surprised this is the only cover I could find featuring Kingpin Claus given it’s a combination that seems almost too perfect to be by accident. Invader Zim once said that the one thing humans can’t resist is a fat man with presence and if there’s any fat man with more presence than Santa Claus it’s probably the Kingpin. Seriously, if Marvel just released this image tomorrow as a preview for the plot of their new live action Spider-Man movie I would totally be on board.
Ah, it wouldn’t be Christmas without Robin messing everything up. It’s actually kind of bizarre how many covers there are in which Robin ruins everything or gets himself killed or the like. The Boy Wonder was originally introduced because at that moment in adventure fiction, the early ‘40s, making the hero a father figure was a really popular move owing to most kids’ dads being away at war or lost in the depression. So you’d think Robin would be a more charismatic and, dare I say it, Mary Sue self-insert character but nope, he’s dumb as a post most of the time. In all honesty the boy blunder didn’t become the boy wonder till around the mid-60s when Burt Ward’s version of the character on the live action show gained mass popularity. In any event this cover is amazing on just a plethora of levels. Firstly, I note Batman and Robin spend their Christmas in the same featureless monochromatic void as the Phantom Stranger and Superman but mainly I’m wondering why Robin was left to put the star on the tree. I mean not only is Batman much taller and rife with gadgets that could do the job for him but they have a butler. I can only assume this was all some elaborate prank and the fact the latter “fell” out from Robin was just Batman having some incredibly dangerous fun with his young ward. It’d certainly make sense with how hilarious he’s finding Robin’s tumble into the tree.
I’m glad we managed to get Santa being held at gunpoint over the course of this list, it’d have been a real shame if that never came up. In case you’ve never read any of DC’s two amazing Jonah Hex comics, this kind of bizarro shenanigans is actually exactly the kind of thing he tended to get up to in his books, mainly owing to the fact he spun out of DC’s Weird Western Tales alongside El Diablo. I can’t imagine what circumstance contrived for Jonah to force this guy to be Santa Claus at gunpoint, but according to the DC Wikia the guy in the Santa hat is Woodson Hex, Jonah’s abusive father, so I can only assume this is the kind of hilarious Christmas prank the two pull on each other every year. I do really like the idea that Hex isn’t just going to mercilessly kill Father Christmas (more pun) because he doesn’t want to somehow traumatize the room full of small children they’re next to. I do wonder what grizzly but quiet fate befell the less fortunate Santa whose feet are in the foreground, but let’s not taint the magic with such thoughts. The Jonah Hex comics always did a good job keeping Hex walking the thin line between cold, heartless killer and a bit of softy, so having him keep the Christmas magic alive at the barrel of a gun is a pretty great embodiment of that balancing act.
For as beloved as Mark Waid’s Flash run is there was certainly a lot of weirdness sprinkled in among the iconic moments and canon defining sequences, like that time Wally was conscripted to work for the IRS or this bit of weirdness. In all honesty I have no idea what’s happening here, but it sure is Christmas whatever it is. I actually tend to like the blend of tropical aesthetics and Christmas ephemera, but here it’s just exceptionally weird and off-putting, mainly owing to the fact I’m not sure if these crooks are just wearing false beards or if they’re meant to have plastic Santa masks. It’s actually pretty off-putting if you look at the cover for more than a few seconds, which is true of a lot of other details like the fact the sun has turned into a big turquoise rock in the sky. I’m also not exactly sure what part of Midwestern Central City these crooks are supposed to be in given this is set in December but then again there’s the distinct possibility these are all just one guy and we’ve got a Multiplex situation on our hands. Either way this is still a pretty fun cover if only for what an insane loop it’s throwing the audience for.
And now: a Christmas nightmare. Seriously, there is no version of events where Batman and Robin emerging from jack-in-the-boxes as some kind of human spring puppets is not the most horrifying image imaginable. Firstly, those spring are terrifyingly small, making it an incredibly hard pill to swallow that they’re legs are just hidden instead of “chopped off so as to be attached to the spring like the world’s worst centaurs.” Still, if these were just spring-loaded robotic torsos of Batman and Robin it wouldn’t be that nightmarish, especially since Batman tends to make robots of himself pretty often. No, what’s really creepy is if you start to think about how this situation came about in any great detail like was this a special treat for just this family? If so, were they just lying in wait inside those boxes, patiently waiting for the moment their unsuspecting victims came up to them and triggered their Christmas-y torment? I get the sense this is meant to be Batman trying to give back and help his community, but for someone who’s a billionaire I feel like there were better ways to spread the joy of Christmas than turning himself into a toyettic abomination and then scarring some children for life.
More Ty Templeton with another amazing Batman & Robin Adventures cover. Aside from capturing Bruce Timm’s aesthetic perfectly with just enough of his own bent that it feels like original work rather than a copy, this is just a glorious image for a cover and probably the perfect Riddler cover. Riddler remains one of the most bizarre Batman villains to endure as unlike similarly goofy classic foes like Penguin or even Joker who have had to adapt to be darker for the modern era Riddler remains a bit of a goof. Even in incredibly recent comics like Batman: Zero Year his overall goal tends to remain “prove I’m smarter than the guy who dresses like Dracula every night.” It’s an inherently dopey goal, but one that’s stayed more or less static throughout the characters entire existence so a story that revolved around him just trying to ruin Christmas seems at about exactly the right pettiness level for his brand of obsessive villainy. I do really wonder whose Christmas tree he’s gleefully burning down given that he doesn’t know where Batman’s tree is and since it’s not a super large tree it has to belong in a home rather than as a city celebration. Maybe he’s burning his own tree in an Oscar the Grouch-esque declaration of his hatred for the yuletide season.
So here’s a fun bit of trivia: even though Santa Claus doesn’t exist in the Marvel Universe Jesus totally does. In fact, he once popped up and saved Ghost Rider from Satan in one of the strangest and greatest Ghost Rider stories ever written. So it makes sense that Johnny Blaze would eventually decide to travel back in time alongside the MCU’s resident rock monster to witness the birth of Jesus first hand. Did I say “makes sense?” I meant “defies all logic but who cares because it’s amazing.” Seriously, I could not think of a more insane pitch for a Christmas story than sending a literal demon from hell and a superhero so Jewish Jack Kirby put him on a Hanukkah card back in time to break up whatever shenanigans the three wise men were getting up to. I especially like that they got to work in the “silent night, deadly night” title pun, proving that joke is way older than any of us give it credit for.
As I haven’t read this issue I have no idea why this unlikely duo has traveled through the veil of time the first Christmas ever, maybe Ghost Rider hoped Jesus could absolve his deal to Satan or Ben Grimm was just vehemently anti-Christmas this year, but I do love that they’re stomping all over the integrity of the timeline right from the start, so I feel like altering history is probably their goal in some manner. If that is the case, it’d mean that the Marvel Universe version of the Christmas story involves a rock monster, time travel, and flaming skeleton bikers, which is proof positive whatever alterations they made only got us closer to being the greatest timeline ever.