Marvel Holiday Special 1991

I’m sure that there are a variety of ways to measure the outsize place of Christmas among contemporary American holidays. Spending, obviously. TV specials perhaps. Holiday-specific music.

Personally, at least, I could also add the amount of once-per-year paraphernalia that I pull out of storage for a while, then put back away for 11 months before repeating the process, year upon year. The lights. The little tree. Christmas music CDs. Santa hat.

And Christmas comics.

This may be the least typical of my various personal Christmas traditions. I have as many as two dozen Christmas-related comics, either as individual floppies or as part of collected editions. It seems like I may as well pull them off the shelf at Christmastime, if ever. In recent years it has begun to feel a bit like I’m doing so mainly for that reason, more than for enthusiasm to read the stories again; I have read most of them so many times, and Christmas seems to roll around again a little bit sooner each year at this point.

Still, like the little tree, like my 20-year-old string of colored lights, it’s now part of Christmas to bring them out. Perhaps especially in the case of one Christmas comic, which I have had even longer than those lights… I realized this year that the first of several Marvel Holiday Specials released in the 1990s is now a full quarter-century old.

Cover of 1991 Marvel Holiday Special

Wraparound cover art by Art Adams. Purely decorative; no such scene appears in any interior story.

Good lord.

I can only have gotten interested in Marvel maybe six months before this was published. Other than some issues of the Transformers comic which I began collecting a couple of years earlier, there might not be even a dozen comics that I have carted around as long as this one.

Nineteen ninety-one, dear heaven. I was 13. This basically marks the beginning of what I have taken to thinking of and may always think of as “contemporary.” I was a child for the entire 1980s, whereas I acquired substantial adult agency over the course of the 1990s, and I suppose that its music and shows and other culture also felt like the first to be “my generation’s” and the last which weren’t so claimed by a subsequent generation.

Still, I have gradually adjusted to the fact that the beginning of that decade was a hella long time ago. Of which fact this Holiday Special is about as good a reminder as any.

Maybe even more so than a 25-year-old issue of The Fantastic Four which I examined a few years back, this feels like a historic artifact now. Just the relative timing impresses me. In 1991, a 25-year-old comic book was from the late Silver Age: stuff I could barely even dream of owning except in reprint form. The oldest comics I was collecting when I began burrowing into back issues were maybe a dozen years old. And they felt old, in a way that this doesn’t feel to me.

I know all the same that it is old. So much demonstrates this it’s hard to know where to begin, but perhaps the color is the most obvious. I can only imagine how this might look to a contemporary teenager, but one who knows something about comic book coloring might start leafing through these pages and think “what the hell, was there some kind of production accident? All the coloring is just flats.” (Technically, it isn’t… I can spot exactly a couple of gradients on the cover, but that’s pretty much it.)

“Flats” being a term introduced, after the advent of computer coloring, to describe the initial solid-color base upon which colorists layer shading and highlights and digital texture and all the wonders of Photoshop. I presume that in 1991 and earlier, no one used the term this way because for the most part coloring ended with “flats.”

I don’t know the exact technology as of 1991, but possibly it still involved something like the venerable process of producing colored pages solely as a guide for someone who physically cut cyan, magenta and yellow artwork out of red ruby lith or something. Certainly it was not a computer-aided process. That was on its way fairly fast, but in 1991 Apple was releasing the Mac Classic II. You weren’t doing much with Photoshop 1.0 on that, or on any other machine.

For the same reason, the interior is all 100% hand-lettered, except for a few text pages which could have been typeset with Quark XPress I suppose, but don’t really look any more sophisticated than the pre-computer letter columns etc. going back to the early days…

Meanwhile, as the most obvious, immediate indication of how long ago this comic appeared, the production is closely rivaled by the costumes.

This kind of calls for an asterisk, however, as more than one story in the 1991 Holiday Special is set in earlier eras (maybe 1,000 years ago in the case of a Thor yuletide story). Even this, though, just emphasizes the relative elasticity of “old.” The opening X-Men story is set a whole 16 years earlier, ending right where 1975’s Uncanny X-Men #98 begins.

Last panel of X-Men story from 1991 Holiday Special

The last panel matches the opening page of X-Men #98… including Dr. Doom on ice skates, an apparent “Easter Egg” which I have never seen explained

Meanwhile, even if it was retro at the time this comic was released, Wolverine’s original yellow-and-blue costume was actually on its way back within a year or so… as far as I know it has long since been superseded. Same with Thor’s costume, which was contemporary at the time this issue was published even if his appearance within was set in another time.

The Fantastic Four’s original configuration is always recognizable, even with costume updates, but the Human Torch’s appearance is notable. In 1991, basically every artist who drew the Torch was following the convention established back in the 1940s of stripes on a red form… it was another several years before artists finally began to question this model-sheet approach and dare explore their own ideas of how to draw a man wreathed in plasma, instead of some other artist’s rendering of an android covered in flames.

(Of course, a Christmas comic is a very appropriate place to consider the establishment of visual conventions… the visual form of Santa Claus featured throughout this issue may have been less than six decades old at the time it was published.)

Meanwhile, changes… I’m pretty certain that whatever Ghost Rider may appear in Marvel stories today looks different from the then-new Ghost Rider in 1991. And even Captain America… unchanged for more than half a century Captain America… has finally been modestly but noticeably and perhaps permanently “updated” as a result of feature films.

Spider-Man seems to be about the only genuinely “timeless” Marvel character design…

Returning to Captain America, meanwhile, the 1991 Holiday Special is a fascinating if little-noticed example of the troublesome interplay between this character’s history and relative time. In the story “Precious Gifts,” Captain America accidentally meets the older sister of his WWII sidekick “Bucky” Barnes.

Twenty-five years later, what was a gentle little “filler” story becomes a prime example of the complexity of Captain America’s chronology. Almost unique among Marvel’s major characters, Captain America has a fixed real date in his history: he was active during World War II. The period of suspended animation which brought him into the Silver Age Marvel Universe mostly solves this problem, by giving him a historically flexible “second origin,” since the year when the Avengers found Captain America in a block of ice can be 1963 or 1979 or 2005.

Except that the good Captain has had many encounters with WWII-era acquaintances who didn’t experience suspended animation or some other age-defying phenomenon. Captain America and his archfoe the Red Skull both have a suspended-animation era in their histories—good thinking Stan Lee—but try to resolve the chronology of C.A. and the Carter Sisters as of 2016 and you’re pretty much screwed.

This Holiday Special story is reaching the same point. Presuming that Bucky was born around 1930, his older sister might have been in her early 60s in 1991. Now, add 25 years… she’s near 90. She might still be alive, but the Rebecca Barnes seen in this story grows more unlikely with each year.

As a result, I’m guessing that the existence of a living sibling of Bucky has been completely forgotten even with the character having returned from the dead (via a story that wisely builds in its own suspended animation time) several years ago…

For what it’s worth, meanwhile, the other stories in this Holiday Special are decent. I think the obligatory Spider-Man story is among the best of all the material published in this title’s run, and I could say the same for Walter Simonson and Art Adams’s Fantastic Four story. (Though the continuity is hell. You can come up with a scenario which places the original quartet in Four Freedoms Plaza on Christmas Eve, and includes Ben Grimm in the form of The Thing and Alicia Masters cuddling up with Johnny Storm… but it isn’t easy.)

As a final note for this indulgent essay, it’s particularly amusing to me that this and the following Holiday Special included text-article recaps of past Marvel holiday* stories. The 1991 article begins with the Giant Super-Hero Holiday Grab Bag, published for a few years beginning in 1974… a mere 17 years before this comic.

Text article from 1991 Marvel Holiday Special

Ghosts of Christmas Comics Past. Drawing by John Byrne maybe?

Dude I’m old.

Oh well. Revisiting this article does at least reacquaint me with its summary of the 1975 Grab Bag‘s Luke Cage story… which really sounds like it simultaneously embraced and subverted schmaltzy Christmas-story conventions in a way that nothing has improved upon since… I wonder how much that issue goes for online…

* I might as well note that we mostly mean “Christmas,” here. This issue did feature a Thor story set in a pre-Christian Scandinavia, though even it was clearly written to play up the Yule elements which have become part of modern Christmas… later Holiday Specials include a couple of Hanukkah stories, though I recall that at least one of those explicitly plays off of the outsized cultural presence of Christmas. So, yeah, for the most part these are Marvel Christmas Specials, which is fine with me. I observe Christmas but I’m also an atheist so I don’t f’ing care.

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