In Your Face Jam: X-Mas With The X-Men

Wed, December 11th, 2013 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Brett White, Contributing Writer

Sleigh bells ring...

As evidenced by my Thanksgiving column wherein I extolled the virtues of "Uncanny X-Men" #310, I really enjoy spending the holiday season with Marvel's merry mutants. Maybe that's because the season, specifically my number one holiday jam Christmas, is all about home and family. I'm a guy that got into comic books because of the '90s X-Men cartoon, and they've been a part of my life ever since. When this season comes along, my mind can't help but drift towards a few comic book holiday classics, along with Rudolph, Frosty, Charlie Brown, and the vastly under-appreciated "A Garfield Christmas." So in keeping with my self-imposed X-themed holiday x-travaganza, let's talk about "Uncanny X-Men" #341.

But let's get a few things out of the way first. Of all the holidays around, Christmas is a (lower-case) juggernaut. It's unstoppable and it's everywhere. I know from experience that it's entirely possible to transform one's life into a purely holiday affair for a month; I've listened to nothing but my extensive library of Christmas music for the past two weeks and I've watched close to thirty Christmas specials/sitcom episodes/movies as well.

I take this holiday very seriously.

I'll make a possibly bold claim here: comic books don't. Holidays are a touchy subject in superhero comics. As present as they are in the readership's existence, they can't be as present in monthly superhero comics. Holidays mark the passage of time, which is something that comics actively fight against in order to keep their seventy-five year old protagonists from going geriatric on us. Because of this, we're lucky if we get a holiday issue of an ongoing series once every five years. Sure, the big two put out anthologies celebrating the season every few years, but we all know how seriously comic book fans take stories that don't feel like they "matter" (remember: I don't agree with that).

Even though I know all of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" by heart (really, I know the Alvin and the Chipmunks version, as performed by David Seville -- oh, the things I admit to!), I'm not as well versed in the Christmas comics out there. Unlike television and film, comics don't trot their seasonal classics out on an annual basis. Is this because there isn't that many? The eggnog that runs through my veins this time of year (sorry for that "Alien"-esque visual) has forced me to read through every Christmas-themed comic book I come across. This has mostly bummed me out.

There are a lot of Christmas comics that just aren't for me. A lot of them involve ironic detachment and an aversion to sincerity -- two things I think the holiday season actively combats. A lot of them are also needlessly violent. I've seen a lot of elf decapitations in the past week thanks to comic books. I get that a lot of people don't hold Christmas as near and dear as I do (note: Brenda Lee's "Marshmallow World" is currently filling my office with the sounds of the season), but I want to read as many comics that hold the holiday with the saucy, hearty, Bing Crosby-infused reverence that I hold it in. I want a one-to-one ratio of reindeer eviscerations and heartfelt gift exchanges.

Romance was in the air

That's why, after reading a lot of too cool for yule Christmas specials, I had to come back to "Uncanny X-Men" #341. The issue hit my local mall's Waldenbooks around Christmas 1996, serving as another low-key entry in Scott Lobdell and Joe Madureira's run on the book post-"Onslaught." Just like in "Uncanny" #310, the team was recovering from a string of bad incidents. Professor X had been taken over by his dark side, Onslaught, and anti-mutant presidential candidate Graydon Creed was assassinated in front of the entire country. Things were stressful. Instead of dwelling on that stress, Lobdell and Madureira gives us a tale filled with seasonal spirit -- and ample amounts of punching.

The issue starts out with a splash page showing off the X-Men at the ice skating rink at 30 Rock in Manhattan, which pays tribute to the first page of a previous Christmas issue, "Uncanny X-Men" #98. Comic book creators take note: if you want to get me on board with a comic, setting it at 30 Rock (my favorite location in Manhattan) at Christmas (the most wonderful time of the year, as Andy Williams crooned) is a great first step. It doesn't get much more Christmas than this. There, a small group of extremely mid-'90s X-Men and friends (Gambit, Rogue, Bishop, Joseph, Cannonball, Beast, and Trish Tilby) plot out their Christmas Eve activities. Gambit and Bishop decide to each fly solo, since brooding was the biggest signifier of cool in pop culture at the time. Joseph (who was thought to be an amnesiac Magneto) takes Rogue on an elevated carriage ride, while Cannonball decides to do some last minute toy shopping before joining up with Beast and Trish for dinner.

In addition to the snowy New York City setting, a few more cozy Christmas tropes pop up in the issue. Mind you, Christmas tropes are my absolute favorite tropes. So while a smart character like Sam Guthrie deciding to go toy shopping on Christmas Eve only to be met by a "Danger Room with kids" is incredibly unoriginal, it feels more like a tradition than a trope. Since Christmas is a holiday built around history, ritual, comfort, and tradition, Christmas stories are the only ones where I take a "more the merrier" attitude towards tropes.

Two more tropes are unwrapped during Joseph and Rogue's storyline. The human driver, as Joseph's powers levitate his horse and carriage over Manhattan, displays a lot of goodwill towards his fellow man. When Rogue offers apologies if they've scared him, the driver tells her that he's come to his own conclusions regarding mutants, and he's seen the good things they do. "What I'm saying is, it's an honor to have you in my cab," he says. That's one Christmas trope that works well with the X-Men's central minority metaphor. Good job, "Uncanny X-Men" #341.

The other trope is that of the perfect Christmas gift. Ever since Odie gave Garfield a homemade -- by a dog, mind you -- backscratcher, I've been very aware of this trope. Here, Joseph uses a bunch of continuity-filled faux-science mumbo jumbo to basically get rid of Rogue's powers for a second, thus allowing him to kiss her on the forehead. Now, I could be super cynical and question all the "science" involved, but that's not what this holiday is about. It's partly about furthering real, honest human connections. When you see the look on Rogue's face, as illustrated by Madureira, when Joseph kisses her forehead, and immediately afterwards, it's perfect. It's all heart, it's all sincerity, it's all Christmas.

A tale of two Christmases

There's even a meta commentary on the proceedings, another grand Christmas trope, when Joseph and Rogue's magic carriage ride floats outside the window of a certain comic book editor at 387 Park Avnue South, who's complaining that "Scott and Joe haven't' even started the next issue!" And with that, Marvel editor Bob Harras entered into the 616 Marvel Universe.

I have to mention Cannonball's cover-worthy fight with Gladiator of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, even though it's not as outwardly Christmas-y as I'd like from an otherwise spot-on celebration of the season. But Cannonball does get to deliver another seasonal sentiment as he thinks back on his family back in Kentucky and feels thankful for the family he's built for himself within the X-Men. As "The Golden Girls'" phenomenal season 2 Christmas episode taught me (I told you all that this holiday love runs deep), family includes friends as well. The fight itself is awesome and demonstrates why Cannonball is one of the best characters in the Marvel Universe. There's a whole other article waiting to be written on this, so I'll sum it up here: Cannonball gaining his confidence after getting a rocky start on the X-Men and taking on Gladiator was basically the best Christmas gift every Cannonball fan got back in 1996.

I love Christmas, and I love comic books. Too many Christmas comic books, or at least too many that I've read lately, decide to comment on Christmas and maintain emotional distance rather than fully embrace the holiday for everything it should be. Yeah, there are a lot of aspects to the holiday that should be skewered and criticized -- but there's also a lot that should be lifted up. "Uncanny X-Men" #341 touches on a lot of the holiday's emotional and familial strengths, and that's why I love it. I want more holiday comics that feel like this, because I need to bust them out every year alongside "A Muppet Family Christmas."

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

TAGS:  in your face jam, christmas, x-men, marvel comics, scott lobdell, joe madureira

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