You know how the story goes: the bad man, though maybe he wasn’t always a bad man, is visited and guilt-tripped on Christmas, and the spirit of the holiday makes him change his ways. Ever since Charles Dickens first wrote A Christmas Carol, there’s been a horde of such stories in all mediums, of all genres, and for all ages. Maybe it’s permanent and he will always hold the holiday. Maybe it’s just one day.
For American kids of all ages, the most famous example is the Grinch. For me as a kid, there’s two key stories. One was Pinky and the Brain where in the entire episode, the Brain has been a dick to Pinky about his letter to Santa, only to learn on the cusp of victory that the letter was asking Santa to help his best friend Brain. Shamed, he gives up victory for a merry Christmas. The other key story was on a video of Cosgrove Hall’s Wind in the Willows Christmas episodes. A kid is missing, and Mole and Ratty find he’s in the company of the sinister Sarf London gangster weasels… who’ve been kind to him all day and are mortified to be caught, desperately arguing they were “about to erupt in an uncontainerable paraticism of violence” if the heroes hadn’t arrived.
There’s been an equally long tradition of ripping the piss out of these stories. The snarky historical sitcom Blackadder explicitly did a reverse Scrooge, where a ghost accidentally teaches kind-hearted Ebenezer Blackadder how much better it is to be a scumbag. An early episode of South Park has the spirit of Christmas turn a bad man good but that bad man is Charles Manson, who even sings a song about it.
British comics do Christmas stories every year, which means we’ve seen both straight takes on the Scrooge tale and mean piss-takes. Judge Dredd has been ruining Christmas for almost as long as it’s been acknowledged in his stories: see “A Merry Tale of the Christmas Angel” in 2000 AD prog 450, where the Judges’ nice Christmas offer of presents to the mutants is a sting operation. In Marvel UK’s Transformers, there’s a popular story called “Stargazing” where a kid fails for eleven pages to get Starscream to care about Christmas and the villain only does something nice to humiliate an Autobot.
For a decade, one such British anthology comic was Sonic the Comic. The fact Sonic the Hedgehog is from the planet Mobius where there is no Christianity was not going to stop Sonic the Comic from doing Christmas stories, and that means a Christmas Carol tale with the evil Doctor Robotnik was inevitable.
Sonic the Comic is one of only two continuities, both British, to use Sega of America’s concept that the evil and obese Ivo Robotnik used to be a kindly skinny man called Ovi Kintobor before a lab accident turned him evil. This will be important later. The vast bulk of its strips were written by Nigel Kitching and Lew Stringer, with art by an embarrassment of riches: among others you had a pre-Marvel Richard Elson, the late great Nigel Dobbyn, and Mike McMahon of Judge Dredd and Slaine fame. Stringer was already an old-school comics veteran at this point, with a decade working on comedy strips for Marvel UK, Buster, Oink!, and others. He did the bulk of the Christmas tales – the one we’re discussing is one of two he wrote in the same issue – and on #93, he decided to do a five-page Christmas Carol story with Robotnik, with Andy Pritchett on art and Steve White colouring.
But “Season of Goodwill” is doing something interesting. This is not a parody but a completely straight, earnest story about the failure of the Scrooge redemption, where the trope is not allowed to work.
“Season of Goodwill” opens with the heroic Freedom Fighters having a nice Christmas party complete with crackers, silly hats, and a slap-up feed. Things aren’t going well – Sonic is trapped in another dimension and temporarily replaced in the Freedom Fighters with Shortfuse the Cybernik (an angsty squirrel trapped in battle-armour) – but today, they’re having fun. Tails tempts fate by saying “even Doctor Robotnik wouldn’t do anything bad on Christmas Day, right?”
On page 2, Robotnik is indeed planning to do something bad on Christmas Day: he’s built a satellite that will fire a heat ray, melt the snow in the Happy Valley Zone, and cause a flash flood that will leave everyone homeless. Robotnik conquered the planet in #9, so he’s doing this to his own conquered subjects. Why? Sheer pettiness. “How dare the citizens of my planet enjoy themselves without my permission?”
Before he can fire, Robotnik is surprised by the manifestation of Father Christmas himself! Father Christmas reminds him he used to be a good man before his accident, which rattles the dictator – he doesn’t want to be reminded of those days. The villain is told he has a chance to do a good deed for Christmas by destroying his satellite. But what, Robotnik asks, will he get out of being good? “Why… peace of mind!”
Now, there are two obvious ways this can go. The first is that Robotnik does a good deed even if he regrets it afterwards. Maybe he doesn’t outright do it, maybe he’s about to destroy his satellite or the comic implies he was going to before it turns out Shortfuse blew it up anyway. The second is the piss-take: Robotnik stays rotten or tries to trick Saint Nick in some way, he learns nothing, Shortfuse blows the satellite up anyway, Robotnik goes “bah!”, and we end on a pun.
Lew Stringer is not doing that. Lew Stringer’s playing the Scrooge story straight, without his usual gags and puns. (Overt gags, that is, as we still have the sight of Robotnik folding his arms and sulking like a bratty toddler) Father Christmas is even doing Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, as he refers to Robotnik’s past as Kintobor, focuses on today, and will refer to what’s to come – more on that later. We can even stretch things a lot and say the Freedom Fighters are our Cratchit family, celebrating despite bad times, and I guess Shortfuse is Tiny Tim.
However, the Scrooge story is failing. Robotnik will not play ball but not because he’s inherently evil due to his lab accident – in a soft retcon, he has the capacity for goodness if he chooses it. Instead, he rejects the offer of redemption because he wants power, and the ability to rain down violence and suffering is how he wields that power.
Here, it’s key that Father Christmas is presented as quite an impressive figure. Pritchett draws a variation of the Victorian era Saint Nick: taller, cloaked, a staff, and the beard doing the full Alan Moore. He speaks seriously for the most part, and has great powers of foresight, the inability to be perceived by machines, and “cannot be touched in anger”. Robotnik is forced to listen to him and is rattled by Father Christmas’s knowledge of his Kintobor past. This is not a naïve or foolish being, the doctor is not refusing a bumbling nice person, this is someone of power, and if he says Robotnik can be good if he wants to, it must be true. And Robotnik does not want to be good if it means giving up his venal gains.
Shortfuse detects the satellite and blows it up anyway, but that’s on page 4. That’s not the punchline. That’s on page 5, where Robotnik faces consequences for his refusal to follow the plot of A Christmas Carol. That’s where he sneeringly asks if he’ll get a present now as Father Christmas got what he wanted anyway but is told: “what I wanted was for you to make the right choice and you refused.”
On his way out, Father Christmas does Christmas Yet to Come. Robotnik is warned that if he doesn’t change, “your empire will fall within the next few months!” And it will: in #100, Sonic will successfully depose Robotnik. The name is plain on this grave.
Robotnik dismisses this warning. “I’m in charge! I’ve got power! I’ve got… I’ve got… “I’ve got… no friends on Christmas Day….”
“And for the first time, Robotnik realises the true cost of his ways!”
Out of context, this panel – Robotnik looking sad he has no friends – is hilarious, but in context it’s a devastating moral judgement. (And also hilarious) For all his power, he is a lonely man. The Happy Valley Zone people were having fun with each other. The Freedom Fighters have been invited to a Christmas party by a friend and enjoy each other’s company despite their current losses. Robotnik, as a result of his own actions, is alone, unmourned, and unloved. And in the end, as a direct result of him refusing to give up a fraction of power, he will lose the power he covets and has thrown human contact aside for.
On a longer timeline, this is even grimmer. Father Christmas calls this “the destructive path” and after years of constant failure to retake power, in Stringer’s last story Robotnik throws a fit and decides he’s just going to kill everyone. (“You people had your chance to be my mindless Badniks and you blew it!”) In Nigel Kitching’s last story, the failure of that plot has caused Robotnik to slip into a severe depression and want to kill the world as an elaborate suicide.
And this enraged act in Stringer’s story? It starts… on Christmas.
This is a complete coincidence and not planned at all, but what a coincidence!
Even without the long timescale, we’ve gone from the desperate powerless heroes – the Zone they’re in abandoned due to Robotnik – having fun with friends to the powerful man alone. Even without the explicit promise of victory for good, the heroes are equally explicitly winning.
In the world of the traditional Christmas Carol story with its traditional morality, and in our own world, there is no darker punishment for refusing to be better than sitting in the dark knowing you’ve got no friends on Christmas Day.