Christmas episodes are generic now in the year of our Lord, two thousand and fourteen, but they are embedded in a larger history of seasonal programing that transcends mediums of all forms. Holiday festivals, derivative of older pagan holidays, have transfigured from ecstatic orgies to pious reflections of secular and sacred traditions. Naturally, as the means of communication have evolved, so has human expression of these festive moments of spiritual intimacy. Sami shamanism converged with Romanic festivals (Saturnalia), forging the Yule time cheer that became Christmas during the expansion of apostolic Christianity in the early medieval period. And then Dickens happened. Regardless of the occasion, there has always been something to celebrate on the eve of the winter solstice. The dwindling hours, the increasing cold and time spent lingering on the flickering candlelight, engenders in western civilization something profoundly universal and existential. The rest is claymation special history.
Of these faceless devices of segmented marketing, one particularly stands out: Comfort and Joy, the Christmas special for Justice League. That Comfort and Joy is highly regarded, yet overwhelmed by the seasonal saturation is unfortunate. Often, super-hero comics operate on spectacle; rarely do they approach characters from a humanistic standpoint. When comics do corrupt the personality of a super-hero, or demonstrate their weaknesses, these narrative events are showcased as opportunities to undermine the faculties of a caped vigilante. Patton Oswalt’s JLA: Welcome to the Working Week painted the Justice League in grandiose, larger than life dimensions. His objective: finding sympathy for often Platonized heroes, by deconstructing them to have personal lives. Yet they are still angelic guardians floating tens of thousands of miles above the Earth’s surface. Paul Dini’s Comfort and Joy is something of a different animal. It finds the common ground between gods and men, which is herculean in the business of gods.
Comfort and Joy is a variety episode, with three plots, one of which serves as a plot device for establishing the growing love interest between Hawkgirl and John Stewart, which comes to fruition in the season finale of season 2. The other plots, however, are the meat of the Christmas special, both of which make attempts to understand the heroes of the Justice league in their humanistic contexts. The first involves the Flash, Wally West, playfully reenacting Jingle All the Way, all the while teaching Ultra-Humanite to have the holiday spirit. The second features Superman as Clark Kent bringing the Martian Manhunter home with him for Christmas, wherein the latter encounters through telepathy the meaning of Christmas’s secular sentiments that have become ingrained in American culture. At the outset, these plots, which alternate and cut in between one another, are very reductionistic and trite. They are not original, nor are they particularly engaging. However, these pericopes superbly execute and channel something far deeper and meaningful than they were meant to because of superb voice-acting direction and the development of the characters up to that point in the series narrative.
Clark Kent and J’onn J’onzz arrive in Smallville for the holidays at the beginning of their arc, with J’onn noticeably out of place and played in the context as the other. Yet despite his outward reservation, Ma and Pa Kent welcome him warmly with a gift and open arms. Clark Kent is playful, like a child, and emptied of his larger than life persona of Superman. The voice acting direction on the part of Andrea Romano effortlessly captures Superman’s humanity, which is an aspect of the character that has become a trademark struggle within the DCAU. Despite Superman being brainwashed by Darksied and painted as a villain earlier in the continuity of the larger conspiracy against meta-humans that taints the atmosphere of Justice League’s grander narrative, the viewer is intended to view Superman now as Clark Kent, a kind, humbled adopted son and all American boy at heart. J’onn remarks with surprise, “[Clark] I’ve never seen this side of you,” which will continue to resonate through the episode as Clark rushes off to light the tree downstairs and when the viewer observes Clark late at night while everyone is asleep trying vainly to peek at his presents which are wrapped in lead foil. J’onn then goes off to explore Smallville, representative of Americana in microcosm, which is decked with Christmas lights, ornamented displays, and warm greetings from passersby. Most curious, is when J’onn in the distance sees a traditional community church (representative of a conservative, established protestant denomination; likely Lutheran or Southern Baptist) celebrating a late night Christmas Eve service.
At this point it is necessary to mention that Christmas is still a Christian “holy day” (see what I did there?), despite the syncretic adaptation of cultural elements derivative of the greater American milieu. The elements of “goodwill to all men, holiday cheer, and love” are aspects of what Christmas reflects in the birth of Christ, the Semitic messiah that heralded the coming of the already-but-not-yet Kingdom of Heaven preaching the Gospel, in which all aspects of society would change. What is commonly misunderstood about the Kingdom rhetoric that Christ proclaims, is that it was something exclusively physical and far reaching in tangible terms. This is not the case. Without detouring through several hundred pages of theology and apostolic history, suffice to say, the Kingdom is about vicarious experience: do unto others as they would do unto you, etc. Only, when giving a homeless man a warm meal on Christmas Eve, the act in doing do is allowing the man to experience a tangible aspect of the Kingdom of Heaven at that moment. For the benefactor, the experience of giving grace to another is tangible as well. In both instances, Christians look forward to the coming of the Kingdom in full wherein these brief, momentary glimpses dilate to the brink of eternity (hence Paul’s terming of the Kingdom as “already-but-not-yet”). Therefore, when Christmas is celebrated, the deeply rooted spiritual causality is often overlooked, only because it is culturally irrelevant in our post-Christian society. But, at one time, these themes had more significance.
For the purposes of Comfort and Joy, J’onn’s observance of the people of Smallville is an unintentionally poignant observance of Advent misunderstandings in the greater American culture. The echoing voices J’onn hears are that of a choral performance of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, an innocuous church hymn from the mid-19th century. Though the work now is a widely recognized Christmas carol, its roots in the anticipation and hope of Christ are still present in the lyrics, which are otherwise morose and weighty. The final stanza of Edmund Sear’s poem, which isn’t featured in the episode, reads:
For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Whatever J’onn encounters in the lyric, it is the final nail in the coffin that renders his understanding of Christmas, and the episode ends with him singing in martian tongues an atonal song of rejoice.
The second plot that concerns itself with the episode is that of the Flash, who attempts to find a toy for the children residing under the ward of the State at Central City’s orphanage. The ensuing plot prods at materialism that has since repurposed Christmas as a shopping holiday, not unlike Black Friday, which in American tradition is situated the day after Thanksgiving and considered by retail shoppers and associates alike, rendered in the words of St. Mark’s Gospel, “[An] unquenchable fire […] where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:43, 48) During the episode, the Flash also confronts and attempts to remedy the old racist undertones of his line’s publishing history, in which he travels straight to Japan to acquire the object of the orphan children’s’ desire, a highly sought Christmas toy. But it is not until he returns and encounters Ultra-Humanite where the plot begins to thicken.
In the episode Ultra-Humanite, like other episodes of Justice League, is depicted as an intellectual terrorist that lashes out at artistic expressions that deviate from the classical forms. (In another episode, Ultra-Humanite grows tired of Lex Luthor in a collaborative offensive against the Justice League and is bought out by Batman. At the episode’s conclusion, it is revealed that Ultra-Humanite uses the entirety of the funds to sponsor the arts on public broadcasting.) So, of course, the Flash interrupts him destroying the modern art exhibit at a local museum. During the altercation, the toy that Flash acquires is destroyed and the ensuing conversation delivers a powerful war of words, aided once more by superb voice direction:
Ultra-Humanite: What a shame. I broke your toy.
Flash: It was a present for some kids who really wanted it.
Ultra-Humanite: A paltry bit of plastic and crude electronics . They’d have been better off with a book. I suggest Voltaire.
Flash: Don’t you remember what it’s like to have your heart set on something and that awful feeling when you didn’t get it?
Ultra-Humanite: Yes. And I usually have your and your teammates to blame for that.
Flash: I was talking about Christmas
Ultra-Humanite: Oh, that garish, hollow charade. Forced jollity on every lip, insincere goodwill in every heart. Tidings of comfort and joy indeed.
Flash: For a creep that claims to personify human advancement, I’d think you know what it means to pass along goodwill. Especially to kids who need some. I’d like to think they’d grow up to pass that goodwill on to others.
Ultra-Humanite: A not unworthy aspiration.
Flash: You can go ahead and use that thing for all I care. [Ultra-Humanite points a gun at Flash.] I couldn’t feel any worse.
Ultra-Humanite: As you wish.
The end of the side plot results in a rather bizarre, but lovably childlike co-operation between the two enemies, which makes little sense but nevertheless communicates a heartwarming partnership. Ultra-Humanite explains that, above all, his mission to promote intellectual progress along with Flash’s rousing speech moved him. After knocking out the Flash, the hero reawakens and watches Ultra-Humanite fixing the Christmas toy, which at the episode’s conclusion becomes an animatronic storytelling device and relates The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Perhaps the most moving moment comes when Ultra-Humanite is returned to prison and finds an aluminum Christmas tree in his cell provided by the Flash. Ultra-Humanite is startled and moved, and blithely sits down to observe the colors that cascade off the tree. The spirit of the moment shows Ultra-Humanite as a vulnerable creature, one predisposed to nostalgia and simplicity, which serves as anti-intellectual conceit wherein he is forced to confront the nature of a holiday that cannot be dissected and examined as he does so easily elsewhere. Though the segment is far less weighty in philosophical and cultural significance to greater American culture, it is one of the hallmarks of the season, and perhaps one of the most touching.
Considering the use of the holiday special in modern media, it is likely that not many have encountered Comfort and Joy. Despite being a program for children, the episode serves adults and other non-traditional segments as well, primarily because of the universal themes that are present. Its strong emotional appeal is unexpected and attempts to deconstruct the holiday rigmarole that obfuscates the “meaning of the season.” How well it does this lies beyond the scope of this article. However, suffice to say, it achieves its purpose for this author, and warmed my heart this Christmas morning.