Even for Marvel’s superheroes, the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year. While most regular folks might celebrate gift-giving and tree-trimming, Marvel’s heroes and villains usually celebrate with deeply bizarre adventures that feature a shockingly high number of encounters with the real Santa Claus. Whether they’re saving Christmas or simply making the most of a snowy winter’s day, these yuletide adventures have resulted in a number of utterly bizarre images from the streets of Earth to the heights of Marvel’s cosmos.
Now, CBR is looking back at some embarrassing, hilarious and downright disturbing pieces of art from Marvel’s holiday specials. In this hardly comprehensive list, we’ll be pulling some cringe-worthy covers, panels and pin-ups from the depths of Marvel’s catalog. Although it might seem unlikely, every single one of these pieces appeared in an official Marvel Comics publication. While some of these pictures cast iconic characters like Iron Man or Wolverine in intentionally awkward seasonal situations, some shine a light on more unlikely characters or obscure aspects of the Marvel Universe. While the technical and artistic skill of the illustrators who drew these pictures is never in doubt, these pictures hold hilarious details that take on new meanings with outside context.
15. IRON MAN’S COZY NIGHT
On Whilce Portacio’s variant cover to 1997’s Iron Man #4, Tony Stark is ready for a cozy winter’s night in. For the most part, the cover is the visual equivalent of a warm cup of cider and the smooth jazz of a Kenny G Christmas album. Although his chestplate is covered by the wreath, Stark is clearly wearing his part of his Iron Man armor underneath his bathrobe. While his torso is ready for battle, the sliver of leg visible underneath the barcode suggests that he’s wearing, at most, very short pants as part of a truly puzzling ensemble.
After the past few years of that era’s Iron Man stories, it’s hard to judge Tony too harshly. Since 1995, Iron Man had betrayed the Avengers, been replaced by his time-traveling teenage self and seemingly died fighting the villain Onslaught. In the relative peace of the rebooted “Heroes Reborn,” Stark earned some relaxation time.
14. THANOS AND GAMORA’S YULETIDE
In the pages of 1991’s The Infinity Gauntlet, Jim Starlin, Ron Lim and George Perez cast Thanos as a fierce cosmic foe who posed an existential threat to the rest of the Marvel Universe. That doesn’t mean Thanos is completely heartless though. In Starlin and Lim’s short Thanos story from Marvel Holiday Special 1992, the Mad Titan celebrated a “Pre-Christian Yule with shards of modern Earth’s Christmas” with his adopted daughter Gamora.
As part of his efforts to give the future Guardian of the Galaxy a somewhat normal childhood, Thanos put up a Christmas tree and gave Gamora a doll in an uncharacteristically warm image. When an assassin attacked Thanos later, Gamora threw the doll at the alien to save Thanos’ life. In the ensuing battle, it was heavily burned. Years later, a Grinch-esque Thanos burned the doll and the tree in a moment of characteristic villainy.
13. DEADPOOL’S EXTRA POINTY TINSEL
Before Deadpool was the motor-mouthed antihero beloved by millions, he was more of an out-and-out villain. In 1999’s Deadpool #34, by Christopher Priest, Paco Diaz Luque and Gus Vazquez, the Merc With a Mouth regaled readers with the story of his last job as a true villain for the Kingpin. As Wade Wilson recalled, he was tasked with killing someone who worked as a mall Santa Claus.
During a “routine assignment,” Deadpool tried to execute his mission by strangling the Santa with barbed wire. Even by Deadpool’s hyper-violent standard, that makes for an especially harsh image. While Deadpool’s target survived that particular attack, the Santa’s visceral scream added a dollop of real violence to the cartoony artwork. Even though Deadpool had second thoughts about strangling someone in a Santa costume, Bullseye killed him later in the issue.
12. WOLVERINE’S LITTLE FRIENDS
Wolverine just can’t get away from small supernatural creatures. From the Cassidy Keep Leprechauns that helped the X-Men defeat the Juggernaut in the 1970s to the Nightcrawler-esque Bamfs that infested the Jean Grey School in the 2010s, Logan’s serious life has been put off-kilter thanks to numerous encounters with supernatural imps. In this Alex Saviuk pin-up from Marvel Holiday Special 1993, a strange group of elves is trying to make Wolverine give up his cigar habit.
While that’s a noble goal, this picture raises a few important questions. For one, who are these elves supposed to be? Santa’s helpers at the North Pole don’t usually look like tiny versions of himself. These could even be the Cassidy Keep Leprechauns decked out for the holidays. It’s also worth noting that Logan’s Christmas tree is topped with a miniature version of Spider-Man’s mask, perhaps in a testament to their unlikely friendship.
11. CAPTAIN AMERICA’S SHIELD SLED
By any measure, Captain America’s shield is one of the most important objects in the Marvel Universe. Since the shield’s unique blend of vibranium and adamantium has never been duplicated, its nigh-indestructible properties haven’t really been duplicated. Beyond that, the shield’s symbolic value is truly immeasurable, inside or outside of the comic book world.
Despite all that, Captain America let a random group of children use it as a sled in Marvel Holiday Special 1992. In this Kerry Gammill pin-up, a fully-costumed Steve Rogers looks on as the kids ride down a snow-covered hill with his signature weapon. Since the shield is strong enough to withstand a direct blow from Thor or an energy blast from Ultron, Cap probably doesn’t have to worry too much about some stray rocks scuffing his shield.
10. BLADE’S NAUGHTY LIST
Even though Blade hasn’t appeared in as many comic books as you might expect, Marvel’s most famous vampire hunter still starred in a seasonal adventure in one of his short-lived solo titles. In 2006’s Blade #4, by Marc Guggenheim and Howard Chaykin, he took on the Animus, a supernatural creature that jumped from person to person, possessing them.
As Marko Djurdjevic’s cover shows, one of the people the Animus possessed was a mall Santa Claus. While he’s got years of experience under his belt, Blade can only let out an exclamatory gasp when confronted with the odd sight of a sharp-toothed Santa. Even though Santa usually likes milk and cookies, this Santa looks hungry for blood with his razor-sharp fangs. While the mall Santa was more of a demonic threat with a mostly normal appearance, the slightly misleading cover’s Santa looks like a vampire with his extended canine teeth.
9. DEADPOOL AND SPIDER-MAN, SWEATER BUDDIES
Even though Spider-Man is dedicated to using power responsibly, he’s found himself partnered up with the totally irresponsible Deadpool in the pages of Spider-Man/Deadpool. After the Merc with a Mouth ruined the Avengers’ holiday gathering with a tasteless joke, he and Spider-Man spent Christmas Eve together in 2016’s Spider-Man/Deadpool #12, by Nick Giovannetti, Paul Scheer and Todd Nauck.
After talking down the ancient Roman god Saturn, Spider-Man and Deadpool exchanged gifts. Both of the heroes gave each other the same gift, a sweater featuring the pair in a pose and outfits inspired by the movie poster for 2003’s Bad Boys II. While Deadpool cast himself as Will Smith’s cool character on the sweater he gave Spider-Man, Spider-Man did the same thing on the sweater he gave Deadpool. While ugly sweaters have become one of the holiday season’s trendiest fads, these sweaters look particularly strange over the heroes’ skin-tight full-body uniforms.
8. SANTA’S INFINITY WAR
A few years before the Infinity Gauntlet became the centerpiece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was wielded by one supremely unlikely character: Santa Claus. In Brian Reed and Val Semeiks’ story in Marvel Holiday Spectacular 2009, Santa was driven mad by the omnipotent power of the combined Infinity Gems and attacked Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Professor X and the rest of the Illuminati, an group of power heroes that held the items that powered the Gauntlet.
Santa turned to the heroes after his reindeer were revealed to be shape-shifting Skrulls. The Marvel heroes agreed to let him use the Gauntlet to deliver toys around the world on Christmas Eve. Despite his jolly reputation, Santa succumbed to the Gauntlet’s charms. After Namor disarmed Santa with a well-placed snowball throw, Iron Man gave Santa some spare robotic reindeer he had lying around, which he probably should’ve done in the first place.
7. SANTA VENOM VS THE SPIDER-MEN
While Marvel’s holiday specials usually feature a variety of heroes, the publisher’s 1995 holiday offering focused exclusively on characters from the world of Spider-Man. Underneath its seasonal greetings, Adam Kubert’s cover for 1995’s Spider-Man Holiday Special serves as a snapshot of one of Spider-Man’s most infamous eras.
Today, the holidays are criticized for being too commercial and full of excess. The same thing could be said about Spider-Man comics in the mid-1990s. Venom had an oddly prominent place on the special’s cover and in that era’s Spider-Man comics, where he spread his especially toothy grin across a variety of titles. Since it was released in the middle of “The Clone Saga,” this cover also features two Spider-Men, Peter Parker and his clone Ben Reilly. While Reilly’s Scarlet Spider was fairly popular, the exhaustive saga that temporarily made him Spider-Man is widely considered to be a low point in Spider-Man’s history.
6. PUNISHER’S SILENT NIGHT
For a character who isn’t particularly jolly, the Punisher has starred in an unusual number of holiday specials. One of Frank Castle’s most festive moments happened on Mike Deodato Jr.’s cover for Punisher: Silent Night #1. On the cover of that 2005 special, Marvel’s least kid-friendly character dressed up as Santa while a child sat on his knee, tugging at his fake beard.
While it might seem like a normal take on a traditional Christmastime scene, this cover has several details which make it quietly horrifying. The Punisher’s handgun holster is clearly affixed to his belt, where it’s well within reach of the child. Instead of carrying toys, Santa’s bag has been stuffed with a dead body that remains barely visible next to Castle. Although this moment doesn’t appear in the comic, the Punisher still dressed up as St. Nick and chased criminals in a reindeer-driven sleigh in the issue.
5. SQUIRREL GIRL SAVES X-MAS
Over the past few years, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has transformed its title character a perennial D-lister into one of Marvel’s most important rising stars. When Squirrel Girl still couldn’t be taken seriously, she spent the mid-2000s as a member of the Great Lakes Avengers, a team of unintentionally comedic heroes. While that team was operating as the Great Lakes X-Men, the group starred in 2006’s GLX-Mas Special, by Dan Slott, Ty Templeton, Matt Haley and others.
On Paul Pelletier’s cover to the special, Squirrel Girl is dressed as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer while her teammate, Big Bertha, is dressed as Santa in this festive scene. Along with Tippy-Toe and her other squirrels, Doreen Green seems to be tasked with guiding Bertha’s sleigh. Despite the presence of most of the Great Lakes heroes, they all seem oblivious to the avalanche cascading down the mountain right next to them.
4. SANTA ULTRON
While evil versions of Santa Claus are hardly exclusive to the Marvel Universe, this trope can make some of Marvel’s scariest villains seem lovable. In Jeff Parker and Riley Brown’s “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santron,” Ultron, the Avengers’ mechanized menace, took on the role of Santa in a deeply strange but heart-warming tale.
In the Marvel Holiday Special 2005 short, a discarded Ultron robot tricked Virgie Hanlon, a young woman who became obsessed with Santa after being mocked for her childhood belief in St. Nick. Although Ultron made her rebuild his body, Virgie’s Santa obsession turned the android into Santron, one of the few robots with a full beard and moustache. After Spider-Man tricked him into eating a cookie, the Avengers were able to defeat their festive foe. Although she was freed from her Santa obsession, Captain America reassured Virgie that Santa’s spirit lived on in good tidings.
3. IRON MAN VS SANTA
Dozens of superhero holiday tales have revolved around the idea of someone committing crimes while dressed up as Santa Claus. For the most part, 1990’s Iron Man #254, by Bob Layton, seems like another one of those kinds of tales. Layton’s cover features a fairly standard image of a costumed Santa firing a blast at Tony Stark, but it also contains one of the best, worst puns in Marvel’s history, “Ho-Ho-Homicide.”
That cover makes a promise that the rest of the comic barely fulfills. Nathan Lemon was a student at the Taskmaster’s school for supervillains. After killing two of his classmates, the Taskmaster made Lemon the new Spymaster. But, in order to fully graduate, Lemon had to steal an ornament from Tony Stark’s Christmas tree. Although the Spymaster infiltrating Stark’s holiday gathering disguised as Santa, Iron Man simply gave the ornament to the Spymaster as a gesture of goodwill.
2. HULK’S CHRISTMAS WARNING
In the early 1980s, Marvel produced a few licensed comics for the Dallas Times Herald newspaper. In 1983’s Spider-Man: Christmas in Dallas, by Jim Salicrup and Alan Kupperberg, Spider-Man went down to Texas for a festive adventure. That issue also featured an advertising section with one of the strangest images of the Hulk ever produced by Marvel.
Nestled among ads for local restaurants and comic shops, the above image appeared without any further context. Between the Hulk’s brutish, almost caveman-like face and the ominous holiday greeting “Ho, Ho, Ho: KIDS,” the image is pure nightmare fuel that makes the Hulk seem legitimately unnerving. While it was probably just put there to fill up an empty slot on the page, the Hulk’s expressionless face and vice-like grip on an ecstatic child add an eerie hint of menace to Spider-Man’s trip out west.
1. SANTA’S SECRET EMPIRE
In 2017, Marvel made international headlines for its crossover Secret Empire, where Captain America became a Hydra sleeper agent thanks to some reality-altering shenanigans. While Marvel received heavy criticism for turning such a morally pure character into a Hydra the publisher escaped criticism when a robot Santa attacked New York in Hydra’s name in the Marvel Holiday Special 2006.
In Scott Gray and Roger Langridge’s sotry, “How Fin Fang Foom Saved Christmas,” the titular ancient alien dragon and Wong, Doctor Strange’s partner, teamed-up to save Manhattan from a Hydra attack. After yelling “Ho-Ho-Ho-Hail Hydra,” a seasonal variation of Hydra’s catchphrase, the robo-Santa put all of New York on the naughty list. Although Fin Fang Foom vanquished the robot with a fire-filled sneeze, a Hydra-hailing Santa isn’t the most comforting image in the wake of a year that included Secret Empire.
Season’s greetings and happy holidays from the whole CBR gang!
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