Thursday, December 15, 2005

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Christmas meant annuals.

This was in Britain, when I was a kid, of course. In America, annuals are a summer phenomenon, and one that’s generally always a disappointing, overly long story that offers little besides a fill-in team trying to pad out a fat comic, something that still seems somewhat unusual to me. Because where I come from, when I come from, annuals were something else altogether.

You’d normally see the covers for the first time in mail order catalogs like Kays or Littlewoods, at the back of the book after the clothes and the electrical appliances and the toys and the slippers and everything else. There wouldn’t really be that many books in general, but those that were there were mostly coffee table books, things about golf or wildlife or other subjects that bored the shit out of me, years before I would’ve ever said anything like “bored the shit”. But the point was, they were books for grown-ups, expensive and glossy and hardcover. And then, at the bottom of the pages of those books would be the annuals.

The ones I was interested in were reprints of American superhero comics. They’d always be hardcover, they would be on cardstock paper, and they’d reprint three or four issues of whatever the title character was for that year. Every year there would be a Spider-Man one, usually there would be an X-Men, and one year through the magic of licensing, Marvel UK even put out one for DC’s Super Powers series. But they were these beautiful things that we didn’t realize were beautiful, because they were there every year and we were kids and you’d just always expect that they’d be there. They’d pull things like Neal Adams’ run on the original X-Men and put all of the Sentinel stories together, editing out the bridging material so that everything read as one story, graphic novels before we knew what graphic novels were.

I wouldn’t even get these annuals for Christmas – If I got them at all, it’d be later, seeing them for sale cheap as remainders somewhere. But the catalogs where I saw them for the first time, the fact that they existed, all of it seemed as if it was a sign that Christmas was coming and we should all get ready.

**

Years later, when I was getting into American comics proper, Christmas meant random issues of things rolled up and pushed into oddly-shaped wrapping to disguise whatever it was that I was getting that year from my parents. Those were the comics that I’d end up accidentally destroying, tearing the covers in half as I tore the wrapping off much too eagerly: things like The Official Handbook to The Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, Millennium, Batman books. Things like that, chosen at – I guess – random by people who didn’t really have an idea what I wanted, because it all looked the same to them. Each series I’d collected would have an issue where it looks as if it’d been mauled to paper death by an angry dog at some point.

For most of the day, I’d forget about the comics, because there would be bigger, better, more exciting presents and family visiting and brussel sprouts to be eaten due to threats of what would happen if plates weren’t cleaned. But at the end of Christmas Day each year, everyone would collapse after the big meal and start watching television shows with canned laughter and whatever the big movie premiere of that year would be, except me. I’d be on the other side of the room, leaning against the window, hiding behind the tree, reading comics with torn-apart covers.

(There were many other comics that I’d end up destroying by accident, but they would normally be able to survive at least a day before I’d accidentally stand on them or spill something on them or whatever. I’ve never really been a Near Mint kind of person.)

**

Later still, I’d go to beat-up little stores in the middle of Glasgow that sold secondhand books with broken spines and folded-back covers. On the counter, they’d have these tall, perilously-positioned stacked-up piles of old comic books from the ‘70s and ‘80s that someone had dropped off and not thought twice about, all priced at next to nothing because they just wanted rid of them. Normally, I’d visit these stores and just buy things without any rhyme or reason, but somewhere in those piles, there would inevitably be the holiday issues of the run, where Superboy would accidentally discover a world where the Nazis had won the war and outlawed Christmas, or the Legion of Super-Heroes would go looking for the Christmas Star (But it’s a myth, they’d say, before finishing the story with, Or is it…?), and I’d viciously hunt those issues down at this time of year, knowing exactly what I’d be getting. Critical parts of my mind fail at Christmas – I read or hear or watch things and know that they’re cheesy and full of forced sentimentality, but I don’t care for some reason, anticipating the awkward resolution where everything is okay and everyone gathers to wish each other good cheer.

I’d read these issues going home for the holidays on the train, or the bus, and let all the schmaltz wash over me and give me all these expectations of what to expect, knowing all the time that real life was something less tidy and easy to sort out in twenty-two pages. No matter what mood I’d start the journey in, I’d slip into the genericized traditional holiday mood by the second issue.

**

The last time I was home for Christmas was a few years ago, now. I’m trying to remember if anyone gave me any comics, but I don’t think so. I remember bringing large quantities of comics that I’d left with my parents back to San Francisco, so I know comics were involved somehow, but I don’t think that there were any comics that were especially Christmassy amongst them. Maybe that was for the best; by that point I could tell anyone how to write their own superhero Christmas special – first things first, have a character that is named after a well-known Christmas figure, and bonus points if you manage to have references to both Jesus and Santa on the same page – but, still. Something was missing, somehow.