Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"Wanted: Santa Claus - Dead or Alive!" by Frank Miller

dc-holiday-special-1980-12Since it's Christmas, I figured this week's blog should be Christmas-themed, and what goes better with Christmas than Batman?

If you've been around comics long enough, no doubt you're familiar with the works of Frank Miller. One of comics' greatest - and most controversial - creators of the Modern Age. He's known for his game-changing masterpieces like Batman: Year One, 300, and Sin City, but his earliest work tends to get overshadowed (unless you're a big Daredevil fan, that is). A lot of people mistakenly think Miller's first Batman story was the landmark Dark Knight Returns, but that's not correct. Back in 1980 he penciled a 10-page short in an obscure Bronze Age title DC Special Series (issue #21, to be exact) called "Wanted: Santa Claus - Dead or Alive!"

dc-holiday-special-1980-14To describe this simply as "a Frank Miller Batman comic" really isn't accurate. Miller only provided the pencils for this short. He was inked by Steve Mitchell with colors by Glynnis Wein (though it was later re-colored by Richmond Lewis for the compilation book "The Complete Frank Miller Batman"). The story was written by Dennis "Denny" O'Neil - one of DC's most prolific writers, and one of my personal favorite Batman scribes.

The short is quit typical for a Batman story, especially of the Bronze Age. On Christmas Eve, Batman confronts mobster Matty Lasko, asking him why he's arranged to have a boat in Gotham Harbor that night. After a quick scuffle with Lasko and his goons, Batman learns the boat is for an ex-con named Boomer Katz. He then goes undercover to find out Katz's current location and learns that he's working as a department store Santa Claus. Batman concludes that Katz must be doing this as a way of pulling an inside job robbery, and sure enough his hunch is right. That is, until the Christmas spirit overtakes Katz who then refuses to commit the robbery. His co-conspirators aren't having it, and force him at gunpoint to let them into the store. Batman arrives and ambushes the goons, one of whom escapes with Katz. It ends on what is supposed to be a Dickens-esque note whereby a shining star from a Nativity scene reveals the location of the henchman  just in time for Batman to get the drop on him and save Katz's life. There's even a Biblical quote in the last panel.

wantedaIf you were to read this today without knowing the creative team behind it, you'd probably think "Wanted: Santa Claus - Dead or Alive!" was just another Bronze Age Batman story. And for the most part you'd be right, in my opinion. Though the story and dialogue definitely have Denny O'Neil's signature, the line art looks nothing like the blocky Frank Miller style we're familiar with from Dark Knight Returns, Ronin, or Sin City. Someone better educated in the styles of the time can probably speak to this better than me, so I hope they will in the comments section.

super-star_holiday_specialHowever, that's not to say it isn't a good-looking, stylized comic. While the overall look is rather "standard" comic book-style, I did notice a few interesting, though subtle, features to the art. Miller doesn't layout the panels of every page in a rigid, evenly-spaced format. There's a few borderless panels which really make the action pop on pages 3 and 7. Additionally, page 8 has no gutters between the panels at all, and they're all trapezoidal shaped, rather than straight rectangles (page 10 has a similar look). This is interesting, because Miller's most famous works are known for their grid-like layout to the pages.

If you're a Frank Miller fan or just a Batman fan, "Wanted: Santa Claus - Dead or Alive!" is worth adding to your collection. Believe it or not, DC Special Series #21 isn't all that hot of a back issue. You can pick it up at a comic book store, a convention or on eBay for about $10 or less. Though the version I'd recommend is the re-colored version from "The Complete Frank Miller Batman," but that book is out of print and quite the pricey collector's item these days.
Merry Christmas, everybody!

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