Retro Review: The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special #1 (1991)
Retro Review takes a look at influential issues of DC Comics and measures their artistic integrity against their cultural and symbolic importance to the DC Universe and comic books in general.
The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special #1 (1991)
Written by Keith Giffen and Alan Grant
Pencils and Inks by Simon Bisley
Colours by Lovern Kindzierski
Letters by Gaspar Salladino
Published: December 1991 (DC Comics)
Santa Claus has been depicted in a number of different ways throughout the various Christmas stories in which he appears. From the jolly St. Nick to which we are accustomed, to a more administrative role in an increasingly commercial-industrialized North Pole, the set up of Santa’s workshop – and indeed his place within it – gets tweaked and parodied depending on the needs of the story. Sometimes, Santa isn’t even portrayed as particularly nice; in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer he treats Rudolph just as poorly as Donner and the other reindeer. But even at his most ornery or jaded, Santa is still portrayed as a bringer of joy to the world.
That is, until his appearance in The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special #1, written by Keith Giffen and Alan Grant. If you are a fan of Santa Claus and Christmas, be forewarned: this story will ruin both for you.
The special follows Lobo, aka the “Main Man”, as he is hired by the Easter Bunny (and backed by several other holiday characters) to kill Santa Claus, who has become too powerful thanks to the dominance of Christmas over other holidays. Lobo takes the contract and fights his way to the North Pole with Dawg, his canine accomplice, where he proceeds to brutally execute all of the elves on his way to Santa himself, who challenges him to a knife duel. Santa is, of course, no match for “the Naughtiest One” and is soundly beaten before having his head cut off. Lobo proceeds to take control of Santa’s workshop, using it to build weapons of mass destruction which he then “delivers” to everyone on the naughty list; an act Lobo views as insurance against future competition.
Those familiar with Keith Giffen’s work on Lobo are likely less horrified than the rest of you. The hyper-violence of the book and it’s highly irreverent tone are staples of what made Lobo such a prolific character through the 1980’s and 90’s, and though it may be difficult to believe, this special succeeds in recreating the magic of Lobo’s solo title by once again – somewhat miraculously – positioning his caricaturish violence and mayhem as anti-heroism. The Santa Claus depicted in The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special is not the jolly character Coca-Cola created. In fact, he is portrayed as the brutal dictator of the North Pole – commander of a vast slave nation forcibly malnourished to elf-size. His annual gift-giving is merely a public relations ploy to deflect attention from his abysmal human rights record. From this perspective, the sacrilege of a contract kill on Santa becomes slightly easier to swallow, at least in terms of story.
Simon Bisley’s art, on the other hand, captures the true horror of what Giffen and Grant’s script proposes; his scratchy, harsh lines contribute to the aggression and violence sewn into every page of the book. Similarly, his figures are not pretty. From Lobo himself, to the elves, to Santa Claus, to the murderous depraved couple that bookends the story (before killing their own children), the shapes and forms of the people Bisley brings to life are tortured and grotesque. In a way, they seem to physically manifest the worst parts of their histories and personalities, be that aggression, desperation, or outright malice.
Equally, he shines in his depiction of violence – something which he gets to do a lot of within the special. It’s odd to say without sounding as disturbed as and violent as Lobo, but it is almost impressive how many different gruesome deaths Bisley works into the issue. Dismemberment is rampant – including Dawg ripping the arm and head off of an elf and Lobo beheading Santa Claus – as is mutilation; we see in brutal detail the effects of high-velocity rounds on elf crania, of devastating punches on Santa’s eyeball, and of the slicing and ripping of a knock-down, drag-out knife fight. Violence is also where Lovern Kindzierski’s colours come out to play as well – where most of the issue deals in muted tones and heavy shadow, it is in the book’s most depraved and violent moments where the brightly coloured and vibrant panels emerge. There is special irony in the vibrant Christmas motif that is a pile of murdered green-clad elves drenched in their own crimson red blood.
The art supports Giffen and Grant’s premise that the world and people in it are not at all well, even – or rather, especially – at Christmas time. The book is gross exaggeration of the greed, commercialism, and politics that infuse the modern Christmas season. The couple at the book’s beginning are in a desperate state because the husband has lost his job days before Christmas and can’t afford gifts for the children. But rather than fear the children’s disappointment, they fear their wrath. It is a genuine fear that, in the end, drives them to murder their children. One can only imagine the horrific acts of violence and rage of which these children are capable if their parents’ only recourse is murder, but in the context of Lobo that level of exaggeration is completely earned. Lobo himself was created to pastiche the excessively gritty and violent comic book characters of the 1970’s (particularly Wolverine and the Punisher). In Lobo, Keith Giffen created a character with nothing and no one to fight for – violence without reason – in order to be a parody of the Bronze Age of Comics. That same brand of excessive violence, cynicism, and subversion that pervades the Paramilitary Christmas Special hearkens back to what made Lobo successful in the first place.
In essence, if you were writing a Lobo Christmas special, this is the book you would have wanted to write. Too often, holiday issues of comic books forsake the characteristics of their eponymous heroes or villains in order to accommodate the pre-existing paradigm of the aforementioned holidays. What is common throughout all of the best-written and most successful holiday specials, however, is a respectful balance between those potentially conflicting mythologies. One could make the argument that The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special tips the scales too far in the direction of the title character, and yet it feels as though Giffen and Grant stumbled across the ideal pairing. Lobo’s outrageously over-inflated breed of hyper-violence and cynicism make him an ideal lens through which to deconstruct the Santa mythos and have a good hard look at the brutal corporatism behind the Christmas holiday. Replace the toiling, downtrodden elves with children in developing nations and suddenly the book is less about tarnishing Santa’s reputation and more about social justice in a capitalist society.
Strangely, The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special is a book with a conscience. A noisy, rude, thoroughly offensive conscience.
The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special #1 is available for digital download on the DC Comics website.
– One of the stranger inclusions in this book is a very small, nearly throwaway panel in which it is revealed that Santa Claus may or may not have had a few sexual fetishes. You’ll know it when you see it.
– Lest you think that the Easter Bunny comes off as heroic for toppling a dictator, he is just as tarnished by this book; a drunken, jealous coward, to put it simply.
– I love that “The Naughtiest One” can be added to Lobo’s long list of nicknames.
– This book was turned into a very short film back in 2002 as part of the American Film Institute’s director’s projects. It was made on a shoe-string budget (under $3 000, if I remember correctly) and featured some departures from the original script, but stands as the only live-action interpretation of Lobo.