It starts with Santa Claus being blown up.
It ends with one of the most garish gifts in the DC Universe.
It features six super-heroes behaving criminally stupid in an Agatha Christie-style caper that climaxes with a ridiculous deus ex machina simply because the story had only so many pages and just had to end.
So why is “The Man Who Murdered Santa Claus” such a fun story – and yes, even important?
Appearing in “Justice League of America” No. 110, cover date March-April 1974, written by Len Wein and illustrated by Dick Dillin and Dick Giordana, this holiday story opens on a gruesome note.
A rent-a-Santa is blown to smithereens in front of Superman and Batman on Christmas Eve.
In the rubble lies a key and note taunting our heroes: They have until midnight to find the matching lock or an entire neighborhood will share Santa’s fate.
You don’t have to be the World’s Greatest Detective to guess the identity of the villain du jour. He’s not even trying.
It must be the Penguin.
OK, so maybe I flunked out of junior detective school.
Anyway, our heroes put out the emergency call to their fellow Justice League members. Here’s where the story features the first of many off-kilter moments:
Green Arrow and Black Canary, we are told, “are interrupted in the midst of a more personal celebration.” (Emphasis DC.)
“Of all the lousy times for the JLA to call!” Ollie grouses as Dinah adjusts her hair.
Now you tell me, Good Reader, is this a coloring error? Canary is in civilian mode, yet her hand gestures indicate she’s putting on and adjusting her blonde wig to answer that SOS.
Either that or she was diving for a zipper treat, and man, the Comics Code Authority was really asleep when this issue slipped through the transom.
This is an incredibly suggestive panel for the era.
But we don’t have any more time to dwell on that because Hal Jordan – Green Lantern – takes a massive slip ‘n’ fall in the shower.
This is a man who can take on Sinestro, the Black Hand and the weaponers of Qward yet he isn’t smart enough to put down a bath mat.
After his power ring “surrounds him in a healing aura,” the ring streaks out into the night and recruits John Stewart, the alternate Green Lantern of space sector 2814, to answer the emergency call.
This is an overdue gift and one reason why this story is significant: The first African-American hero to ever join forces with the Justice League.
Marvel had broken ground with the Black Panther in the “Fantastic Four” in 1966, but DC’s diversity was nonexistent.
John Stewart was DC’s first black superhero, first called to duty in “Green Lantern” No. 87 in Dec. 1971.
The credits block for this JLA story includes the note expressing “special thanks to Green Lantern fan Duffy Vohland.”
Vohland rose up in comics fandom to become a Marvel editor, and Paul Kupperberg shares some poignant memories of him here. He sounds like a sweet character, and I can imagine he suggested to Wein that he use John Stewart.
For the rest of this post, I shall refer to John Stewart as Sub Lantern, just because it cracks me up.
The rest of the team is wary of the newcomer in their midst, but the clock is ticking.
Batman and Red Tornado narrow the hunt down to a rundown building in St. Louis.
The search for the villain and the bomb is interrupted when our heroes fall through a trapdoor.
And here I must reveal my secret identity as Captain Obvious and point out that Superman, Red Tornado and Sub Lantern are all capable of flight.
They just, umm, forgot. Sure.
Our heroes are eliminated one by one in a style reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” only with bouncy balls. Seriously. One swallows Batman.
In one room, the team faces deadly poison gas. Black Canary steps forward to use her Canary cry to save her comrades.
That’s right, she uses the power of sound to block gas.
That makes about as much sense as Batman tossing a Batarang at the sun and taking credit for the night.
The Key’s triumph over the Justice League is interrupted by surprise appearance of the Phantom Stranger. He saved each hero from their particular doom. Also, the story is running long and we need to wrap this up.
The Key, what else, turns a key, dooming the tenement neighborhood. The JLA manages to evacuate the residents and Sub Lantern demonstrates an uncanny ability to parse the Green Lantern code of conduct.
He tells his temp comrades that while the Green Lantern oath forbids constructing new buildings, he simply rebuilt all the old ones as good as new without the rats and roaches and leaky radiators.
This seems like a difference that is no difference. I bet the Guardians will want to talk to him about this.
In all the ado, Phantom Stranger slips away, again, without saying if he would consider the JLA’s offer of becoming a member.
Not considered for membership: John Stewart.
Back at the satellite, the team surprises Red Tornado with a new costume.
It’s just hideous.
Should’ve gone with socks.
Happy Christmas, y’all.
As you can see, “The Man Who Murdered Santa Claus” is the kind of story that makes no sense and yet in spite of its odd moments – or maybe because of them – it’s one of my favorites from the ’70s. Even if he was running low on logic, Wein packed enthusiasm and surprises in his stories. Dick Dillin and Dick Giordana are my favorite artist combo from this period and their work is stellar.
There is one more reason to treasure this issue. This is “Justice League’s” first 100-Page Super Spectacular – a blip in the comics publishing world in the mid-’70s, but what a treat for readers.
In an era before graphic novels, trade collections and digital comics. DC’s 100-Page Super Spectaculars were stuffed with Golden Age reprints. For many readers, this was their first exposure to DC’s rich heritage.
“Justice League” gave a home to Justice Society stories. This adventure, “The Plight of a Nation!” from “All-Star Comics” No. 40, was the first original tale I read of my favorite super-team.
You can love a hero, a team, a company but a publishing format? I never would have thought so, but then DC’s 100-Page Super Spectaculars weren’t a bargain, they were a gold mine.