As you might expect, Santa Claus is a fixture in Christmas comics, but he’s rarely having a very good time of it. At the very least, he tends to need help saving Christmas from just not happening, and often, he’s in pretty bad shape himself. Sometimes, he’s kidnapped by aliens, or trapped on Apokolips.
And sometimes, he gets exploded on Page 2 and this is never mentioned again.
Such is the case in Len Wein, Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano’s “The Man Who Murdered Santa Claus,” from Justice League of America #110, and man, it is a rough one for Jolly Old St. Nick. Not only does he get murdered, but the guy who did it is never actually brought to justice for his crime, and everybody just kind of forgets about it over the course of 20 pages.
To be fair, it’s not actually the real Santa Claus, so I guess that’s something. Instead, this humble Kris Kringle is simply a do-gooder who has elected to spend his Christmas Eve helping out some orphans, secure in the knowledge that he’ll be safe in the company of Superman and Batman. That’s a decision that doesn’t really work out for him, as he exists for exactly one panel before blowing up.
Incidentally, he does not get an actual name. And if that’s not bad enough, he dies in a story that’s ultimately about Red Tornado getting new pants.
What he does get, as we find out when the smoke clears, is a mysterious key and a poem that would’ve gotten a failing grade in virtually any Creative Writing class:
Obviously, Santa Murders are a level of crime that even Superman and Batman can’t deal with, so they decide to call in the Justice League. Unfortunately for them — and fortunately for the entirety of crime, it seems — most of the non-scrubs on the League’s roster have Christmas plans. The Atom’s exploring the world of micro-space, Elongated Man’s on vacation, the Flash is off in the future hanging out with his wife and the parents who sent her back in time so that she could dress like Batgirl and get almost-murdered by Professor Zoom (it’s a long, long story), and Aquaman is just cold not picking up the phone because he’s celebrating “The Festival of Lights.” Who knew Hanukkah was so big in Atlantis?
Hal Jordan, on the other hand, is available for superheroic action, but in the most famous panels this story produced, we learn that he is a person entrusted with an all-powerful magic wishing ring from space who cannot get out of a shower without bonking himself into a coma:
Even the ring itself decides that it’s fed up with this goofball and goes off to get John Stewart, who will be our designated Ring-Slinger for the evening.
He’s not the only hero who’s available, though, as Green Arrow and Black Canary were just spending their holidays making out on the couch:
Also, Red Tornado’s there. So yeah, maybe calling this a “Justice League” story is overselling things just a little.
Anyway, the World’s Finest And Their Significantly Less Fine Friends examine the poem left on the murdered Santa Claus and figure that they should begin their search “beneath the arch” in St. Louis. Green Lantern does what he does best (nebulous, plot-sensitive ring-magic) to make the key vibrate when it gets close to the lock that it fits, and Red Tornado, in true cloying robot fashion, volunteers to wander through the streets looking for the right place.
I think I should probably go ahead and get this out of the way right here just in case anyone is new, even though it’s probably self-evident: Red Tornado is just the f**king worst. He is the apotheosis of the robot whose special ability is crying, and he is pretty much the worst part of every story he is in, and he’s in stories where he literally punches Hitler. Do you know how hard it is to screw up punching Hitler? It’s, like, the easiest thing to make awesome. And yet, he continues to exist.
Occasionally someone asks me why I hate that weepy sack of bolts so much, and this story is a pretty solid example of why: Superman and Green Lantern are having a conversation about the Flash when Red Tornado walks up, interrupts their conversation, literally takes the key out of Superman’s hand, and starts talking about how he can do it. Hey! Moron! You don’t have super-speed! You know who DOES have super-speed? THE GUY YOU JUST TOOK THE KEY AWAY FROM WHO IS TOO NICE TO TELL YOU YOU’RE BEING A WHINY PRICK.
God I hate you, Red Tornado.
Anyway. He finds the right door in a run-down section of town, right where a handful of adorable street urchins are there to look longingly at the superheroes and tell them that they’re poor and cold and need help, only for the superheroes to do that “uh, yeah, we’re a little busy right now, but maybe next year” thing that’s usually reserved for Salvation Army bell-ringers.
Instead, they enter what we will come to know as the Key’s sinister Maze of Death — Have I mentioned that the Key is behind all of this? He is — and promptly fall into a pit trap where they are in danger of being burned up by a miniature sun.
I want to stress that two people who can actually fly, including f**king Superman, fall down a pit trap. A pit trap. Seriously. And not only that, but the only thing they can think to do to get out of it is to throw Superman straight at the sun, which is yellow but also red at the same time because of reasons that I’m beginning to suspect had a lot to do with Len Wein having other things to do that day.
The sun blows up, presumably taking Superman with it, and after two panels of mourning their friend who also happened to be the greatest hero the world had ever known, they’re off to a room where a calliope is shooting poison gas everywhere.
Guys, there is no way that Len Wein was not cleaning his office one day and found an index card with “poisonous circus calliope?” written on it and put it on his desk in case he needed to fill an extra page. It’s not even Christmasy!
And as such, it doesn’t really fit with the other deathtraps that winnow down the Justice League one by one. Black Canary sacrifices herself to hold the gas back with her voice powers (?), but Batman and Green Arrow are taken out by gigantic heat-seeking Christmas ornaments (!) and Tornado and Lantern are trampled underfoot by toy soldiers, all while the Key watches gleefully on closed-circuit television.
Or are they?! For you see, a mysterious panel opens in the wall just as they’re about to be smashed, leading them through a secret panel, behind which they can hear the Key monologuing about why he’s doing all this. Apparently injecting yourself with “various psycho-chemicals” has a detrimental impact on your lifespan. According to his doctor, he’ll “probably” make it through Christmas, but definitely won’t survive to New Year’s, giving him a pretty narrow window in which to exact his revenge against the Justice League. And now he’s killed them all!
Except he hasn’t, because the guy he left in charge of monitoring all their deaths was secretly replaced by… the Phantom Stranger!
Better known as the biggest plot copout this side of Red Kryptonite.
Despite the fact that the Justice League (or this crappy version of it, anyway) has reunited, the Key is able to move faster than Superman and suddenly be immune to Green Lantern’s ring (this is never explained) so that he can turn the “primal key” that will blow up the whole neighborhood, and then escape. For real, he gets away at the end, having blown up an entire city block.
But, in the spirit of Christmas, Green Lantern uses his architectural skills to put those buildings’ atoms back together in the form of newer, nicer apartments for their downtrodden occupants, and as mentioned above, Red Tornado gets new pants and learns a little something about the holidays:
And isn’t that the true meaning of Christmas?
Well. Sort of. I mean, yeah, sacrifice and doing nice things for people and giving gifts is all well and good, but dude, what about all those orphans from page one that are still waiting to see Santa, who is dead with his murderer running free? I’m not sure what that’s the true meaning of, but I’m pretty sure it ain’t Christmas.