As any aficionado of seasonal entertainment can tell you, there’s a very familiar shape to basically any Christmas stories that have been written in the past century or so. The story will begin with its central character being downhearted and dispirited, and traditionally cynical when it comes to the appeal of this time of year. Then, the crux of the story will happen, whether it’s ghosts or meeting elves and/or Santa himself, or some kind of romantic entanglement, and this event will completely turn the character’s viewpoint around; by the story’s end, of course, they’ll have seen the light, and declare that – just as the song says – it really is the most wonderful time of the year.
I don’t point this out to complain, or demand that the trope gets retired. (It’s the holidays! We demand repetitive tradition at this time of year, dammit!) Instead, I bring it up because one of the highlights of 1985’s Ambush Bug Stocking Stuffer #1 is watching creators Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming try their best to completely undercut this idea, by giving the book’s title character the saccharine happy ending, only to immediately turn the idea on its head on the same page, purposefully cheapening what would — in the hands of other, lesser, creators — have been a particularly sweet little moment.
Trying to explain the plot of the Stocking Stuffer is made complicated by two factors. Firstly, it’s wrapped up in the arcane mythology of the first Ambush Bug miniseries that finished just months earlier: Who is Cheeks and why is Ambush Bug haunted by him? What’s with the Jonni DC bit? Is “How to Write Comic Books” a proper running gag? (In order: a toy Bug believes is his child, don’t ask, and yes, respectively.)
Secondly, it’s almost nonsensical by design, a fourth wall-breaking satire of comics and the comic book industry that’s built as much around its own asides and in-jokes as it is the central storyline of Bug looking for his missing “son.” He finds him, sort of; that’s the happy ending that gets destroyed literally three panels later by the reveal that he’s simply mistaken another toy for the one he thinks of as his kid.
“Don’t worry about it, elf! I have thirty cases of them back at the workshop,” Santa exclaims, upon being told that one of the toys has dropped off his sleigh.
What the comic is actually about is, really, Giffen and Fleming going to war with the funny book business as it existed in the mid-1980s, only to suddenly remember that it’s supposed to be a Christmas special midway through. Sure, there are seasonal references to the time of year in the first part of the book — the possibility that toys have come alive and turned murderous is described by a police coroner as “the end of retailing as we know it!!!” at one point, while a stereotyped Italian toy store owner exclaims, “I tell them a-go lay down! It’s-a Christmas! ‘Ay! I need-a da cash!” — but it’s only in the book’s back half, after an aside where Bug realizes the comic is extra-long (“But we can’t possibly be funny for 40 pages!”) that the joys of the season properly kick in.
It’s worth the wait; ignoring the embarrassing “Season’s Greetings From Around the World and Beyond” — Giffen’s attempts to draw in different artists’ styles is fine enough, but oh boy does Robert Loren Fleming write some questionable dialogue in retrospect — the book really kicks into gear after the faux discovery that there are more pages to fill. There are skits revolving around advertising execs discussing how to promote the comic (“We already have advance sales orders on the book, right? And the sales are incredibly high, right? So we’ll push the book like crazy and then all take the credit for those magnificent sales!”), multiple parodies of elements in It’s A Wonderful Life, a take on the hot toys of the moment and the ways they were advertised to kids, and best of all, a reboot of Santa Claus for the hard-bitten 1980s.
It’s the one-page Santa! gag — “He’s through listing! Let the naughty beware!” reads the introductory text for the new Kris Kringle, “fresh from his milestone appearance in New Teen Titans Annual #8” — that brings together all the jokes that work throughout the comic together into perfect harmony. It’s a joke that allows its creators to indulge in a practiced, but well-earned cynicism not just about their chosen profession, but their chosen publisher (“Another all-original concept from the new DC” runs the text on the bottom of the fake ad for a conceit intended as utterly derivative; it’s not just that it’s Santa, but the gag makeover references Marvel’s then-sales monolith X-Men, with the tagline, “they should never have called him mutie!”), while also giving them the chance to overload it with nods to Christmas nostalgia. “I’m sick of milk and cookies! I’m sick of the North Pole! So up your chimneys!!” Santa yells at the reader, with a caption declaring, “Yes Virginia! There is a Santa Claus!” The number of references on one page would be surprisingly high, if it wasn’t appearing in an issue of a series built around piling on as many referential gags as possible.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that Santa! is the strongest page in the entire issue; the idea of an over-the-top reboot of a familiar concept would go on to be the basis of, say, 40% of all jokes in shows like 30 Rock decades later, which somewhat belies the feeling of nostalgia and reference to a Christmas from the past that everyone recognizes that permeates the entire thing. Even as Giffen and Fleming try their very best to undermine and unpick the cliches and traditions of the holiday season, their efforts are filled with the one Christmas trope even older than cynicism transformed into sentiment: the desire to return to go home for the holidays, and the conflicted feelings that arise upon discovering that not everything is as it was remembered to be.