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‘Twas the Dark Knight Before Christmas: 25 Great Yuletide Batman Tales

by  in Comic News Comment
‘Twas the Dark Knight Before Christmas: 25 Great Yuletide Batman Tales

A first glance, Batman just doesn’t seem the type to get too caught up in holiday cheer. But make no mistake: under that imposing bat-emblem beats the heart of sentimental softie who can’t help but catch the spirit when he’s saving the day during Christmas time.

With the exception of perhaps Will Eisner’s The Spirit, no comic book superhero has a more rich and colorful history of top-quality stories set during the holiday season than the Dark Knight, a time-honored tradition spanning the character’s fabled 75-year history that even crosses over into his film, TV and animated incarnations.

With tales spanning from heartwarming to melancholy, poignant to uplifting, somber to downright delirious, CBR takes a fond holiday tour through the best of the Batman stories of Christmas Past (and hey, by the way, DC Comics: how about putting a collected volume of these Bat-treasures under our tree next year?). (Editor’s note: This story was updated on 12/24/16 with four more Batman holiday classics!)

“Christmas”

“Batman” #9, 1942
Batman’s enduring tradition of Christmas-themed crime capers was kicked off, as might be expected, by writer Bill Finger — long unsung as the key co-creator of much of the Bat-mythos alongside Bob Kane — who borrowed ingredients from a diverse array of writers like O. Henry, Damon Runyon, Cornell Woolrich and Charles Dickens to flavor his holiday tales.

Finger’s first entree — illustrated by Kane and Jerry Robinson and entitled simply and appropriately, “Christmas” — paid tribute to the latter author’s famed “A Christmas Carol.” While bringing holiday toys to a Gotham orphanage Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson take an interest in the plight of young Tim Crachit, who despite being mocked by his fellow waifs believes fervently in two things: the existence of Santa Claus, and that Santa will reunite him with his absent father — who Batman and Robin discover to be an inmate who claims he was framed for murder (named Bob, naturally). The Dynamic Duo set out to find the real killer and free Bob, and also manage to turn a mob signalman posing as a street-side Santa straight in the process.

“The Loneliest Men In the World”

“Batman” #15, 1943
Former crime beat newspaperman Don Cameron conceived a crackerjack Christmas yarn in which, feeling especially blessed at the holidays, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson decide to share the seasonal spirit with a trio of Gothamites who have the Christmas blues: a swanky nightclub’s underappreciated doorman, a popular but isolated radio comedian and a solitary lighthouse keeper. But after outfitting the Batplane with sleigh-struts and festive decorations — a spectacular visual treat from artists Kane, Robinson and George Roussos — the Dynamic Duo stoke the ire of anti-sentimental underworld boss Dirk Dagner, who sets out to undermine their mission of mercy while lining his own pockets.

“A Christmas Peril!”

“Batman” #27, 1945
In another tale evoking but not aping Dickens, Cameron and Robinson introduce Batman and Robin to racketeer Happy Hogsby, who’s brutally muscling in on Gotham’s Christmas tree trade — Hogsby’s not even phased when confronted by the Dynamic Duo because he’s bankrolled by Scranton Loring, a coldhearted teenage multimillionaire known as “Young Scrooge.” As Batman and Robin attempt to thaw Loring’s heart by exposing him to the hardships and misery his business associates are creating, his Santa-lookalike uncle stumbles upon an even more menacing conspiracy and Loring finally glimpses the real meaning of Christmas.

“The Search For Santa Claus”

“Batman” #33, 1946
The author of this inventive, twisty holiday charmer has been lost to the vagaries of Golden Age credit record-keeping (it feels Finger-esque) but it’s a dandy, illustrated by future Batman cover star artist Win Mortimer. As Christmas approaches, three aging boardinghouse tenants share their hard luck tales. One spent 25 year wrongfully imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit; another was once a matinee idol until his glamorous looks faded with age; the third only just escaped from being committed to an insane asylum by his greedy, fortune-stealing nephews. Batman cleverly appeals to each man’s sense of their former lives, persuading them to each play Santa Claus for three worthy holiday events — but the nephews of the asylum escapee Jim Jocelyn are seeking to put a final end to their uncle before he can reclaim their ill-gotten millions and seek out each of the Santas with murder on their minds. When Batman and Robin are lured into an inevitable deathtrap, the Dark Knight offers a holiday threat for the ages to a Kris Kringle-attired captor: “I don’t know who you are — but I’ll find out if it takes me all of the Christmases of my life.”

“A Christmas Tale”

“Batman” #39, 1947
This Yuletide yarn by Finger gifted readers with a plethora of brightly wrapped goodies, not the least of which is the central villain, a noir-style bombshell Catwoman, rendered quite Jane Russell-esque by Bob Kane and Ray Burnley, despite her hair being miscolored as blonde. The Feline Fatale has mysteriously cat-napped several beloved kitties from their heartbroken owners, none of whom are wealthy enough to make a case for ransom. Instead, the Dynamic Duo discover that Catwoman has a use for each purloined pussycat in a clever crime. Not only does the story feature the first-ever use of her soon-to-be-signature whip by the villainess, Batman and Robin bust out their all-white snow gear to thwart her plans, and the Caped Crusader even ends up under the mistletoe with the bewitching thief as she makes a major play for his heart — but no Christmas kiss is worth the cost of his conscience.

“A Parole For Christmas”

“Batman #45, 1948
In this pulpy crime noir thriller with a festive twist by Finger and lavishly illustrated by Charles Paris, model prisoner Eddie Rogers is released on a 24-hour holiday pass to reunite with kid brother and the girlfriend he longs to propose to, but he feels unworthy for deceiving them — they think he’s been working on a top secret Navy project during his absence. When a gang of thugs mysteriously tries to murder Rogers, they’re thwarted by Batman and Robin, who’re shocked to discover that the now comatose convict is a dead ringer for Bruce Wayne. Hoping to uncover the plot against Rogers, Batman assumes his identity and spends an awkward Christmas Eve homecoming singing Christmas carols with Eddie’s idol-worshipping brother Timmy while his gal pal Laura lures him under the mistletoe. Framed for a new crime, Batman-as-Eddie is hauled in by the cops and his prison history is revealed, breaking his loved ones’ hearts — but Batman’s undercover foray into lockup may hold the key to solving the plot against Eddie and delivering a merrier Christmas reunion.

“The Duo Is Slumming”

“Batman,” Episode 66, 1966
While the legendary “Batman” TV series of the ’60s woefully never offered up a full Christmas-themed episode, the show did offer a nod to the holiday season in the second episode of a two-parter featuring Maurice Evans as The Puzzler (plugged into a story intended for The Riddler when actor Frank Gorshin had a scheduling conflict) that aired on Dec. 22, 1966. As Batman and Robin — played as always by a straight-faced Adam West and Burt Ward — scale the wall of yet another Gotham high-rise, the latest “celebrity” to make one of the show’s signature window cameos turns out to be none other than Santa Claus himself (played by the squeaky-voiced veteran character actor and Western sidekick Andy Devine), who offered to leave presents for the Dynamic Duo if they’d let him know where the Batcave is. Looking directly at the audience, Batman admits, ever grammatically correct, “If you can’t trust Santa, whom can you trust? We can’t tell you here, Mr. Claus, but we’ll telephone you at the North Pole on the Batphone.” A pleased Mr. Kringle replies, “Good, good — I’ll get to the Batcave if I have to slide down the Batpole instead of a chimney.”

“The Silent Night of the Batman”

“Batman” #219, 1970
By the time the 1970s rolled around, Batman had already evolved through many incarnations, standing at the threshold of the enduring “Avenger of the Night” phase ushered in by a restorative, dark and foreboding vision of legendary artist Neal Adams, who with frequent inker Dick Giordano and writer Mike Friedrich also revived the long-absent tradition of brooding, poignant Christmases in Gotham City. In this short, largely dialogue-free tale that makes brilliant use of Adams’ cinematic visuals, The Batman is lured from his planned Christmas Eve patrol to enjoy the some holiday cheer with Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD — joining them in caroling, no less — while a series of moving, intimate vignettes unfold across the city that demonstrate that when the spirit of Christmas is combined with the shadow of the Batman, even holiday desperation can result in happy endings.

“Silent Night, Deadly Night”

“Batman” #239, 1972
Fabled Batman scribe and editor Denny O’Neil would prove to be one of the most reliable holiday tale-spinners. His debut outing, with journeyman Bat-artists Irv Novick and Giordano, finds the Caped Crusader tracking a criminal whose M.O. includes assaulting bell-ringing street corner Santas and making off with their charitable kettles. After a brawl in an Xmas tree lot in which he almost strangles Batman with a string of lights, the thug named Tim begs the crimefighter to let him show him the reason why he’s sunk to such depths — he’s desperate to provide for his young, sickly niece Betsy, and blames his former boss for the layoffs that led to his hard times. Blinded by bitterness, Tim cold-cocks the unsympathetic Batman and sets out to even the score with his elderly ex-employer, and the Dark Knight is left to brave a blinding snowstorm with Becky in tow, hoping to reach Tim before his rage leads to murder.

“Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas”

“Batman” #309, 1979
Writer Len Wein taps into the despondent quality that can pervade the holiday season in a tale ably illustrated by John Calnan and Frank McLaughlin. When muggers rob lonely, struggling Gothamite Kathy Crawford of her last five dollars, pushing her into a spiral of despair that seems to only have one way out, and after swallowing sleeping pills, she calls police headquarters to give a final goodbye. Luckily, Batman’s on the scene — having just dropped off a generous gift of pipe tobacco for Commissioner Gordon — and sets out to save Kathy. But the Dark Knight’s gargantuan, seemingly mindless foe Blockbuster is also rampaging through the city — and Kathy’s assailants: when the creature tries to return her stolen purse, he finds her increasingly lifeless body and feels compelled to help her. But ironically it’s Batman, convinced that Blockbuster only further threatens her, who may stand in the way of the Christmas miracle Kathy needs.

“Wanted: Santa Claus — Dead Or Alive!”

“DC Special Series” #21, 1980
Six years before Frank Miller would deliver his now-definitive re-interpretation of Batman in “The Dark Knight Returns,” the rising star would take his first artistic crack at the character in a gem that spoke to his gritty urban strengths, penned by Denny O’Neil and inked by Steve Mitchell. The story finds Batman on Christmas Eve intent on tracking down the scheme behind a getaway boat docked in Gotham Harbor, with the trail leading to aging heist artist Boomer Katz who, though reformed and working as a department store Santa, finds himself forced by a hood named Fats into a plot to rob the store’s receipts. Rendered in Miller’s then-emerging moody, noir-tinged style, Batman is on the case — with a little help from the spirit of Christmas.

“The Batman’s Last Christmas”

“The Brave and the Bold” #184, 1982
In an inventive, emotional tale from writer Mike W. Barr and the brilliant longtime “Brave and the Bold” artist Jim Aparo set at a time when DC’s parallel Earths concept was in full flower, the Huntress — AKA Helena Wayne, the super hero daughter of Earth-2’s Golden Age Batman and Catwoman — is feeling blue without her late parents at the holidays, so she journeys to Earth-1 to visit her “Uncle Bruce” AKA the Bronze Age Batman. After she helps Batman take down a mob bagman disguised as Santa Claus, the criminal files loaded into his sack indicate that gangster Spurs Sanders was secretly bankrolled by none other than millionaire Thomas Wayne — Batman’s father! When their investigation reveals audiotapes that appear to back the allegations, Batman is so distraught he visits his parents’ gravesite and vows to abandon his crime-fighting crusade. It falls to the Huntress — and her thwarting of mob hit on the Santa bagman, who Bruce Wayne discovers is also a devoted dad — to make Batman realize the greater reasons for serving as Gotham’s guardian, and put his detective skills to work to clear his father’s good name.

“Batman Returns”

Theatrical Film, 1992
Filmmaker Tim Burton has expertly blended themes of seasonal depression into his uniquely off-kilter filmography more than once, and moviegoers got the first taste of the auteur’s mingling of holiday trappings and moody expressionism in his second blockbuster Batman film starting an even broodier Michael Keaton in the Batsuit (with story and screenplay work from the first film’s scribe Sam Hamm and Daniel Waters of “Heathers” fame). In Burton’s vision of Christmas time through the funhouse mirror-prism of Gotham City, a pervasive sense of loneliness and alienation plague both the hero — Bruce Wayne, longing for a soulmate to share his unique existence — and his enemies — Danny DeVito’s grotesque Penguin, raging both for and against mainstream acceptance, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s dowdy, downtrodden Selina Kyle turned slinky, empowered Catwoman, rebelling against the world’s marginalization of her womanhood. Everything’s made all the more against the holiday backdrop sprinkled with delicately falling snowflakes and punctuated by the haunting choral voices on Danny Elfman’s evocative score.

“Christmas With the Joker”

“Batman: The Animated Series,” Episode 38, 1992
Like most episodes of the rightly acclaimed early ’90s animated TV series, there’s something delightfully dark, weird and subtly twisted at the core of what was conceived as children’s entertainment — and even more so with this Joker-centric episode set during the holidays, which also happens to be a legitimate laugh-riot (writer Eddie Gorodetsky would later go on to script major sitcom hits including “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory”). After escaping from Arkham in the star position on a rocket-powered Christmas tree, the Joker — brilliantly voiced dripping in mirthful malevolence by Mark Hamill — takes over the airwaves with his own homicidal holiday special — clad in a bright Andy Williams-style sweater, naturally — and explains that since he doesn’t have a family to share the season with, he’s kidnapped a brood to make his own, including Commissioner Gordon, TV newswoman Summer Gleason and Det. Harvey Bullock. Dick Grayson’s plans for a quiet Christmas Eve introducing Bruce Wayne to the splendors of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (“I could never get past the title,’ muses Bruce, voiced by the iconic Kevin Conroy) are thwarted as Batman and Robin race against time — and Joker’s deathtraps — to rescue their allies before midnight strikes.

The Batman Adventures Holiday Special

One-shot, 1995
The creative highs of “Batman: The Animated Series” inspired a similarly high-quality monthly tie-in comic, “The Batman Adventures,” which in turn spawned a particularly magical one-shot featuring a quartet short seasonally-themed stories that allowed many members of the animated team — Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Dan Riba, Glen Murakami, Kevin Altieri and Ronnie del Carmen — to get into the comic book act.

In “Jolly Ol’ St. Nicholas,” cops Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya go undercover as a department store Santa and his helper elf hoping to bust a shoplifting ring that turn out to be a gang of street urchins — and they turn out to each be limbs of the shape-shifting Clayface, prompting last-minute shopper Barbara Gordon to get into action as Batgirl; Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn indulge in a holiday shopping spree courtesy of a mind-controlled Bruce Wayne in “The Harley and the Ivy;” Mr. Freeze’s crime — stealing an experimental snow-making machine and blanketing Gotham in a wintery Christmas Eve blizzard — proves to have an unexpectedly sentimental motivation in “White Christmas;” in “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” the Dark Knight races against the countdown to midnight to stop the Joker’s year-end killing spree; and in “Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot,” Batman and Commissioner Gordon, Gotham’s most steadfast defenders, take a brief moment to indulge in a cup of holiday cheer.

Perhaps the greatest gift of all: three of the four stories would later be adapted for television in 1997 for the “Holiday Knights” episode of the follow-up animated series “The New Batman Adventures.”

christmas-riddle-art-1

“Christmas Riddle”

Batman & Robin Adventures #3, 1996
In another comic book entry crafted in the animated series’ style, writer Paul Dini once again demonstrates his ability to punch up a classic Bat-villain’s caper with a clever Yuletide theme, aided and abetted by artists Ty Templeton and Rick Burchett. When the Riddler, disguised as a performing Santa in a holiday show, commandeers Gotham’s most enduring and aristocratic club along with a TV news crew, he threatens to reveal the greatest puzzle of all: the secret identities of Batman and Robin, who he claims have to be among the club’s elite membership. And as he exposes the Riddler’s real agenda, a long-ago connection to the club haunts the Dark Knight’s memories.

“Favorite Things”

“Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight” #79, 1996
Future superstar writer Mark Millar wrote his one-and-only Batman solo story (illustrated by Steve Yeowell and Dick Giordano) with a compelling holiday hook: The Dark Knight never expected that his own Wayne Manor would be the scene of a common home burglary while he was out on patrol. Realizing exactly what was taken, Batman launches himself on a violent tear through Gotham’s mean streets and back alleys on the trail of the thieves, contending with the Joker-worshipping street gang the Joy Boys and an overzealous GCPD SWAT team during a hostage crisis along the way. And when the true reason for Batman’s single-minded pursuit comes to light, the poignancy of the combined power of family and Christmastime becomes readily apparent.

just-another-night-art

“Just Another Night”

DCU Holiday Bash #1, 1997
At only two pages in length, this gem is perhaps the shortest Batman holiday narrative ever crafted — but also one of the most satisfying. It’s also completely without dialogue: journeyman Batman artist Jim Aparo gets the “Story by” credit, and it reveals just how masterful a storyteller he was, as illustrator Kevin Nowlan’s finishes given Aparo’s art a faithful but fresh and contemporary feel. On Christmas Eve, with Tim Drake on a holiday trip with his father and Batman as consumed as ever by his mission, faithful Alfred goes about his usual duties as if it were any other day — until he discovers that even in Bruce Wayne’s world, Christmastime is a special occasion.

“A Slaying Song Tonight”

“Batman Black & White” #3, 1996
Dennis O’Neil’s most recent contribution to Batman’s Christmas mythos paired him with Vertigo favorite Teddy Kristiansen, and despite being rendered in black and white it’s a colorful outing indeed. As a demented Santa Claus toting a machine gun in his sack stalks the snowy streets of Gotham, the Benning family reminds their young daughter Ginny that the Batman’s only a made-up urban myth after she insists she’s spotted the Dark Knight standing vigil on the rooftops. Batman is indeed watching over them, however: after the father testified against a notorious death merchant, a hit was placed on his head — and as he surveys the sea of warm humanity indulging in holiday warmth, the crimefighter can’t help but feel apart from the norm. But as the assassin moves in for the kill, both the Bennings and Batman are about to learn how real the spirit of Christmas can be.

“Christmas”

“Batman: The Long Halloween” #3, 1997
Although it’s just one part of the epic storyline comprising Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s masterful tale of the mysterious ritual murderer known as Holiday, the Joker’s crazed, creepy slink through Christmastime — randomly looting a family’s Yuletide haul, menacing Boss Maroni in search of his rival serial killer and turning up as the vicious surprise under the tree at the home of D.A. Harvey Dent, all while self-narrating in a demented blend Dr. Seuss and C. Clement Moore — is a singular portrait of the Harlequin of Hate reveling in all his Grinchian glory.

“Slayride”

“Detective Comics” #826, 2007
Tim Drake’s Robin takes center stage in a taught, terrifying tale crafted by writer Paul Dini with artists Don Kramer and Wayne Faucher. Crashing his motorcycle while pursued by a crew of illegal gun dealers, the Boy Wonder is duped into accepting a ride from a passing good Samaritan who turns out to be a Santa-capped Joker, who gasses him, binds him into the passengers seat with Christmas lights and forces him to ride along on a homicidal high-speed rampage through the streets of Gotham. Amid the grinning goul’s murderous antics and sadistic mind-games, Robin must keep his cool and search for the right moment to turn the tables.

“Invasion of the Secret Santas”

“Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” Episode 4, 2008
Cartoon Network’s animated series raised eyebrows with its retro-feel and willingness to celebrate the sometimes awkward, frequently cheesy team-up traditions of the Bronze Age Batman comic that inspired it — but with cleverly conceived and slyly self-aware episodes like this holiday outing, it became easy to embrace. Written by comics scribe Adam Beechen and directed by Brandon Vietti, the episodes find the android superhero Red Tornado (voiced by the versatile Corey Burton) on a Charlie Brown-like quest to understand the very human concept of the Christmas spirit while also aiding Batman in bringing down the Toy Man-evoking villain Fun Haus and his army of marauding playthings. The Dark Knight is frequently distracted by flashbacks from his own Christmases past, but as he reminds his synthetic cohort, “Crime doesn’t take a holiday… and neither do I!”

“Batman: Noel”

Original Graphic Novel, 2011
The beautifully styled artwork of Lee Bermejo is the hallmark of the lavishly illustrated volume — which was also written by Bermejo, inspired by his longtime love of the works of Charles Dickens. An unseen narrator spins the hardboiled tale of a grim, relentless Batman stalking through Gotham’s bleak wintery cityscape and his quarry of the moment, a seemingly hapless small-time crook named Bob who insists he’s only turned to crime to put food on the table for his sweet-natured son. From Bob’s perspective, he’s the put-upon Bob Cratchit of the scenario, and Batman’s the merciless and unyielding Scrooge who needs to learn the error of his ways, a lesson he believes will come through a series of startling Dickensian visitations beginning with the late Jason Todd filling the role of deceased partner Jacob Marley. More of the Dark Knight’s intimates and enemies appear in familiar roles representing ghosts of various Yuletide eras throughout, and Bermejo manages to twist and turn the “A Christmas Carol” trope in fresh and surprising directions, punctuated by some of the most uncharacteristically upbeat art of his career.

good-boy-art-2

“Good Boy” and “The Not-So-Silent Night of the Harley Quinn”

Batman DC Universe Rebirth Annual #1, 2016
For Batman’s first post-New 52 annual, DC delivered a cornucopia of Batman stories set against a wintry backdrop, including two new holiday-themed stories that emerged as instant classics.

“Good Boy” manages to somehow take a nostalgic element from the Bat-mythos — in this case, Ace the Bat-Hound — and puts a modern, violently tragic spin on it, yet still tells a story with a warm Christmas spirit. Written by Tim King and with arresting artwork by King’s Batman collaborator David Finch, Ace is reimagined as the sole survivor of a trio of masked German Shepherds made warped and vicious by the Joker, who left them to turn on one another. But Ace is given a chance for redemption in the form of Alfred Pennyworth, who over several months patiently restores the dog to a happier state. Batman doesn’t seem to notice, but when he embraces Ace as his own at Christmastime, even Alfred is caught by surprise.

silent-night-of-harley-quinn-art-2

“The Not-So-Silent Night of Harley Quinn,” pays rollicking homage to 1970’s “Silent Night of the Batman” and is even drawn by the original story’s legendary artist, Neal Adams himself, from Paul Dini’s slyly satirical story. The sort-of-reformed Harley sings her own seasonal favorites for Batman during a Batmobile ride to Brooklyn, even as her particular pervasive spirit saves the holiday for several citizens of Gotham — and she even catches Batman caroling once again.

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