Robot Reviews: The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories

The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book StoriesEdited by Craig YoeIDW, 176 pages, $34.99

When I was a kid, the word "treasury" promised delights beyond measure, and Christmas was the time when treasuries—of comics, fairy tales, Christmas stories, and other delights—showed up under the tree.

Craig Yoe's The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories is a throwback to those days when a big, fat, colorful book was the centerpiece of the Christmas swag. It is very much a baby-boomer book, chock full of colorful stories from the 1940s and 1950s, but most of the material has aged pretty well and there are some solid classics in there. Of course there are some clinkers, too, but that's the way of anthologies.

Most notable among the good stuff are several stories by Walt Kelly. His Santa tales are a far cry from Pogo, with a massive, good-natured Santa surrounded by cherubic elves, while his winsome animal stories are more familiar but all sweetness and no bite. The most imaginative of his stories is "The Great Three-Flavored Blizzard," a classic fairy-tale type story in which weather problems threaten Christmas (no snow, no sleigh) until an elf and the Easter Bunny solve the problem by using ice cream for snow.

John Stanley, the longtime Little Lulu writer (and sometime artist), is another well known creator who is well represented in these pages. His work is more uneven: In the slapstick "Santa's Problem," three bumbling polar bears try to help out at the North Pole, with calamitous results, and in "Santa's Return Trip," one of Santa's elves (all of whom could be extras from a Little Lulu story) ends up getting wrapped as a gift by accident. The art in these stories is confident and professional. "The Helpful Snowman," on the other hand, is awkward and poorly drawn, with the slightest of stories.

There are some other well known names here as well, including Richard Scarry, who retells "The Shoemaker and the Elves" in a charmingly simple style, and Klaus Nordling, who wrote and drew a very fifties-style tale about pirates at the North Pole.

Most of the stories ooze period charm, but a few stick out rather oddly among the sugarplums and stockings. Al Fago's "Atomic Mouse in The Night Before Christmas," in which Atomic Mouse delivers a sound drubbing to a faux Santa, seems incongruously violent in this book, especially as it follows a more straightforward adaptation of Clement Clark Moore's famous poem. Dan Noonan's "Teddy Bear in Toyland" is another weirdly violent tale in which disgruntled toys knock out a guard at the local arsenal and steal a sack of guard uniforms so they can bust out of Toyland and avoid ending up under some kid's Christmas tree.

The strangest story in the whole book, though, is Nordlings hashish dream of a tale, "Joe and Jennifer in The Wonderful Snowhouse." This starts out as an absolutely typical 1950s kid story with a generic boy and girl and a talking snowman, but things get weird right way when the snowman, rather than telling them where to get a Christmas tree, suggests that they are very tired and should take a nap in his house, a small dome made of snow. Like the Tardis, this house is bigger inside than out, with tunnels that lead to a roomful of confused Santas, a frozen pond, and a homesick fortuneteller. The space stretches out in dreamlike ways, people pass through walls, and in one scene, it actually looks like little Joe is smoking a joint. Even the ending, in which the gypsy's stove melts the house and the children flee, leaving the snowman in a crumpled heap of slush and soggy accessories, feels kind of surreal. Had this been published 15 years later, it would have fit right in to the psychedelic era; as it is, it works as both a strange kid story and fun for the grownups.

The book also includes a highly compressed, Classics Illustrated-style rendering of "A Christmas Carol" that looks like it owes a debt to the classic 1951 movie starring Alistair Sim, and another realistic version of the nativity story (it's odd to see St. Matthew listed as the writer of a comic). These are OK in an eat-your-peas sort of way—here, read your classics and then we'll have more elves.

The book itself is big and beautiful, quite suitable for a holiday gift for young or old alike. The paper quality is probably far better than the originals, and the page size is certainly bigger, which lends the comics a certain clarity but also a harshness—the colors come across as too pure and gaudy in some comics, and the smears and registration errors are very noticeable in places. In one story, the art seems to have bled through or transferred from one page to the next, although it's hard to see if that is an artifact of the original or a problem with the reproduction in the current book.

There is one thing this book lacks, and that's context. Editor Craig Yoe has presented each story exactly as it originally appeared, which means that bylines are absent except in the table of contents, and the original publication data is only on the copyright page. It would have been nice to have a brief introduction to these comics, putting them in context and telling a bit about the creators.

But that's a minor point. This is a really, really nice book, and the stories are simple enough for children yet, in many cases, smart enough for adults as well—at least, for adults who have a fondness for vintage comics to begin with. The bright colors, cute kids, even cuter animals, and good-natured stories make this the comics equivalent of cookies and milk, comfort food for the holiday season.

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