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Maggie's World 012: It's a Gift!

“Here we sit in this dumpy little house, waiting for Christmas to come!”

My family’s holiday celebrations didn’t feature the gloom that Donald Duck and his nephews faced in Dell’s Four Color #178. To add to the fun, ours invariably featured comic books as part of the tradition. While other families had their own rituals (Hanukkah gift-giving, carol singing, treasure hunts, midnight church services)—and mine shared some of those, too—one of the joys of the season was sharing comic-book stories.

Comic book publishers in the 1940s were quick to adopt a variety of approaches to the end of the year. If the issues were reprinted minus issue identification and repackaged, Fawcett could repurpose (a term not then used, I bet) content already used and sell it again in “a great big present for every boy and girl.” The Fawcett packages let readers sample the heroic output of the entire line, so my copy of Gift Comics #1 (which hit newsstands about the time I was born) has scrubbed the indicia from stories from Captain Marvel Adventures, Whiz Comics, and Master Comics. House ads trumpeted a variety of Fawcett’s action-adventure titles, and the issue was a trove of tales that would have kept a kid occupied for the rest of Christmas Day.

Shazam ™ & © 2013 DC Comics

Clearly a success, Fawcett cut the page count over the years, but continued to supply a colorful collection calculated to delight kids. While I was still in my crib during the sales of Gift Comics #1 in 1942, I do recall being fascinated by Xmas Comics #5 (1950), which featured a green-flocked Christmas tree as part of the cover image. As a bonus for today’s collectors, the contents were less scrubbed by then, with contents of my copy coming from simple rebinding of complete issues of Captain Marvel Adventures from July, Whiz Comics from August, Bill Boyd Western from August, and Nyoka the Jungle Girl from April.

Every kid who celebrated the fun of comics at holiday time has his or her own treasured memories. When comics are a part of your life, it’s natural that they’re also a part of your holiday celebrations every year.

Returning to that Donald Duck story, a never-before-seen Duck gripes, “Those stupid people buying presents for each other seem to have fun! And me—I’ve never had any fun!”

In the case of the Don and Maggie Thompson household, there was fun aplenty. There were invariably packages under the tree that contained a variety of comics and art treats. (My major gift from Don one year was a Planet Stories pulp-cover painting by Kelly Freas, and there were a number of other original art gifts over the years.) So many of the wrapped delights under our Christmas tree, of course, had a comics flavor.

But even before the gift opening, we had another annual tradition that I treasure in memories to this day:

Christmas Eve, we’d set a (horrendously early) alarm, the jangle of which meant it was OK for Valerie and Stephen to emerge from their bedrooms to clown around and wish us the proverbial Merry Christmas. But then. Then. While Santa/Don was downstairs, letting the dogs out and back in, preparing Christmas-morning punch (a combination of ginger ale, rainbow sherbet, and—um?—orange juice), setting out a variety of cookies and cold cuts, plugging in the tree lights, and lighting candles, I would snuggle with the kids upstairs— and part of that snuggling involved sharing a variety of Christmas comics.

Because part of the delight of collecting comics is the ability to revisit treasures of the past, and I’d begun my comics collection in childhood with the magnificent work of Walt Kelly and his fellow Dell writers and artists, including many who produced classics for the bountiful characters of the Walt Disney Universe. So the kids and I could annually savor once again such treats as “How Santa Got His Red Suit” (Walt Kelly, Dell Four Color #61, December 1944, Santa Claus Funnies) “Santa and the Angel” (Oskar Lebeck and Morris Gollub, Dell Four Color #128, December 1946, Santa Claus Funnies), “Christmas on Bear Mountain” (Carl Barks, Dell Four Color #178, December 1947, Donald Duck), “A Christmas for Shacktown” (Carl Barks, Dell Four Color #367, January 1952, Donald Duck).

I suppose that is to say that many of my views of entertainment focused on the genre we call “Funny Animal Comics” in the 1940s. When Scrooge McDuck finally shares his Christmas with his nephew’s family, it means delights for all. “Boy!” Uncle Scrooge exclaims, “Am I havin’ fun! Wow! Here, Don, have another peanut!” Riches, indeed.

And there was fun left over for a later generation. At DC, for example, Sheldon Mayer’s Sugar and Spike began featuring Christmas covers annually, starting in 1960—and his annual Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer series brought giggles to young readers. (I pause here to note that I never much cared for the Rudolph tales; nasty friends coupled with an occasionally critical Santa were not part of my view of the best of popular culture.) By the mid-1960s, of course, the most vocal comics readers were focusing on super-heroes, and the tales they followed largely focused on Christmas (when they focused at all) with the holidays as little more than a passing environment. Maybe there’d be a final panel showing a Christmas tree, but Santa, reindeer, and the rest played little part.

The Spirit © Will Eisner Studios, Inc.

Interestingly, by the way, among those devoted to Christmas aside from those Dell/Western Printing creators, there were a number of wonderful “spirit of Christmas” stories written or drawn (or both) by Jewish contributors. Let’s note, then, the contributions of Will Eisner and his crew (including, I’m betting confidently, in a Christmas tale of the poor little rich girl Darling O’Shea, Wally Wood and Jules Feiffer). Indeed, in my favorite holiday comics, it’s the spirit of the season that has resonated most with me over the decades.

So what makes a good Christmas story? Maybe it’s sharing with the world a feeling of joy and gratitude. Maybe it’s an analysis I’ll have figured out by next year. In the meantime, treat yourself and your friends to another peanut—or whatever brings joy to your world.

Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!