Story #2: “The Man Who Murdered Santa Claus!”

Writer: Len Wein
Artists: Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano
Colorist: Glenn Whitmore
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Special Thanks: To Green Lantern Fan Duffy Vohland
Originally Published In: Justice League of America #110 (March-April 1974)

Yesterday Santa was wanted dead or alive.  Today he’s murdered.  I guess whoever found the big guy chose dead over alive.  It was probably a bounty hunter that didn’t get what he wanted for Christmas as a kid.

Sad.  Very sad.

This story opens with the death of Santa Claus.  Or at least a guy dressed as Santa Claus that was about to thrill and delight a bunch of orphans.  Superman and Batman were on the scene to help Mr. Claus and once the dust settles and they get their bearings the World’s Finest team find the now deceased Santa clutching a key and a note containing a threat to detonate a bomb in a major city.  The call is sent out for the rest of the Justice League to get their collective butts to the JLA Satellite whirling 22,300 miles above the Earth. There are a handful of Leaguers that can’t make it for various reasons including Hal Jordan who slipped in the tub and hit his head.  Luckily the ring taps Green Lantern reservist John Stewart to fill in for Jordan and soon he joins Red Tornado, Black Canary, Green Arrow, Superman and Batman to figure out what dastardly villain is behind Santa’s death and the upcoming Christmas bombing.  After examining the note Batman figures that the city in peril is St. Louis, Missouri and soon the team is searching for the door that will be unlocked by the key Santa was holding when he died.

John Stewart uses his ring to allow the key to act like one of those buzzer things you get at Red Lobster when you have to wait for a table once it comes near the door it will unlock and Red Tornado eventually finds the door in question.  Soon the entire team descends on the building and enter ready for action.  One by one all of the Leaguers appear to die in an act of self-sacrifice as the villain of the piece, The Key, watches from a command center.  When the last League member buys it The Key monologues on how the trap was set up to get back at the League for defeating him.  Seems The Key is dying and wants to take out the JLA before he assumes room temperature.  He would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for that pesky Phantom Stranger.  Seems the mysterious one pulled the heroes out of death’s clutches at the last moment and hid them.  The JLA may be alive but a good chunk of St. Louis might not be if they can’t contain the bomb that is still going to go off.  There is a hurried evacuation and John Stewart not only contains the blast but reconstructs the buildings just as they were before the big boom.  Later the Red Tornado is called back to the Satellite to receive a present in the form of a brand new and better looking costume.  Superman says, “Merry Christmas to everyone!” and the story comes to a close.

It was hard to read this story as a blogger wanting to celebrate the season and not as someone writing a review or discussing the issue on a podcast.  I wear both of those hats on a regular basis and have done so for some time now so it is hard to read something and not see both the good and the not so good of a story.  However in the interest of Christmas and in the interest of keeping this posts somewhat brief I am going to forgo the more critical thoughts and focus on the fun parts of this story.

Well, as fun as a story that begins with Santa getting blown up real good can be.  Despite the rather dark beginning this was a straight forward and fun Justice League adventure.  There is a problem, the team assembles and then runs off to take on whatever bad guy is starting a ruckus.  The scene where we see why Flash, Atom, Elongated Man and Aquaman can’t react to the summons is kind of amusing because it is almost as if the heroes were purposefully avoiding the call.  Frankly I can’t blame them.  During my vacations I wish I could just turn off my phone and ignore it so I can enjoy my time off.  It is nice to know super-heroes feel the same way.  This scene is made even funnier by the fact that Green Arrow apparently had the champagne on ice and the Barry White on the stereo so that he and Black Canary can get a little bit of love started when their communicators go off.

I actually feel bad for the guy.  That has to suck.  I’d be put out if the world was imperiled just as I was going to have some alone time with my wife.  Then again I get annoyed when they call me in an hour early to work.

It was neat to see John Stewart as the Green Lantern of this story and his presence made for two great character moments.  The first was when the kids came up and asked for some spare change and John nearly whips up some money with his power ring until Green Arrow says, “Hey, the Guardians wouldn’t like that.”  It may seem like a throwaway sequence but it struck me as one of those hard lessons that John has to learn as a hero.  There are things that even a powerful super-hero can’t do.  John promises that he’ll find a way to give them a hand and towards the end of the story he does by repairing the building destroyed by The Key’s bomb exactly as they were, “minus the roaches, rats and collapsing ceilings.”  It’s a tad sappy and maybe unrealistic but I liked that Wein threw that in because it had that Christmas miracle feeling to it.

The one part of the story that stood out to me as a reader was the fact that this whole plan was put in motion because The Key was dying.  That’s a dark element to include in a Christmas story.  I never once bought for a minute that the Justice League members were in any kind of danger when they supposedly sacrificed themselves because…well…this isn’t the sort of story where DC would kill off a good number of their heavy hitters.  The Key, though, is a pretty minor villain in the grand scheme of things.  He could die without any major merchandising repercussions.  It gave the story a depth that I don’t think it would have had otherwise.

I also dug the fact that a court in the DC Universe (or Multiverse in this case) ruled sending The Key to the Phantom Zone as unconstitutional.  I am normally put off when a writer takes some of the more whimsical elements of older comics and puts them under the cold light of modern sensibility. Deconstructing the super-hero genre has been a popular past time since for several decades now and I think to a certain extent it takes the fun out of super-hero stories.  In this case it works mainly because I didn’t see it as the Len Wein of the seventies trying to break down the Silver Age Justice League stories.  It was a complete throwaway concept actually and only served to allow The Key to be placed in a normal penitentiary where he could find out that he was dying.  The only reason I am devoting an entire paragraph to it is because I tend to fixate on the minutia.

I also liked the fact that he continued to wear his funny hat through his incarceration.  If that is a hat.  I guess I am showing my ignorance on the history of The Key.

I liked this story more on this go round than in previous readings.  Before I couldn’t get past certain elements, especially the presence of the Phantom Stranger, but this time I had a grand old time going through it.  I had completely forgotten that this was the issue where Red Tornado gets his more traditional costume.  The stripes on the pants would change a bit as the years went on and would look less like something you would find at a circus, but I think it is awesome that he got this costume as a Christmas present.  It not only made the new costume special but also served as a nice way to end the story.

No one had the heart to tell Red Tornado that they bought the pants at a clown's garage sale.

More to follow…

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