DC Comics’ tradition of annual holiday specials continues with this interesting experiment: an apocalyptically-themed collection of superhero tales, all set around the most wonderful time of the year. Rip Hunter is stuck in some unknown future, surrounded by a gang of mutant thugs, and he has to buy some time while his timesphere recharges. Naturally, he tells them stories of DC’s legendary heroes to keep them distracted. After all, who doesn’t like Superman?!
Mark Russell’s wrap-around story is humorous, but slightly confusing. Is Rip making these stories up? Are they from alternate timelines that he’s visited, since they all seem to take place in very different timeframes and circumstances? The end times take a different form in most of the stories, so it would seem that most of them are are set in differing realities.
Maybe I’m giving this too much thought but, in a strange move, a few of the stories don’t even utilize the central concept of taking place after a nuclear war. A few stories only mention the end of the world in passing, while the Superman One Million story doesn’t have anything to do with it, instead choosing to focus on the heartwarming and enduring friendship between J’onn J’onzz and the Kent family. It makes me wonder how many of these shorts were being written for a more traditional holiday collection and had to be tweaked due to an editorial mandate for “nuclear winter” stories.
For instance, the Aquaman story is established as taking place three years in the future, but Arthur Curry’s hair has turned grey in that short amount of time. Likewise, the Green Arrow segment (which I loved) definitely takes place in the future, but the action of the story all takes place at a Christmas party. The fact that the world outside looks bombed out seems to come as an afterthought, only mentioned in passing. Nothing in the story proper necessitates the post-apocalyptic setting, which lends further credence to my notion that the nuclear winter gimmick was a last-minute change. In fact, aside from the appearance of a Christmas tree in the background of two panels, the Flash story by Jeff Loveness doesn’t have anything to do with the Christmas season, let alone the nuclear winter concept. It’s still a decent story, but it compounds my feeling that the idea behind the collection itself seems somewhat half-baked.
That qualm aside, most of the stories here are pretty excellent. The Green Arrow/Black Canary story that goes for a beautiful melancholy that would make Frank Capra proud. The previously mentioned Superman One Million segment tells a clever little time travel story that dives into some nearly-forgotten bits of DC comics lore and has me very excited to read writer Steve Orlando’s upcoming Martian Manhunter series. The Damian Wayne tale that opens the collection is grim yet poetic, taking the hellish version of the future Dark Knight first glimpsed during Grant Morrison’s Batman run and giving him a heart that we haven’t really explored before.
The two strongest tales of the bunch, for me, were “Last Daughters” and “Northern Lights.” The latter is a Kamandi story that almost feels like it could have come from Ditko’s own pen. The storytelling is so economical, establishing an entire tribe and their plight and exploring the religious faith of the Last Boy on Earth in a way that is just tender enough without becoming maudlin, all in less than ten pages. It’s a fantastic short that belongs up there with the great DC Comics holiday stories like Dan Jurgens’ “Metropolis Mailbag.” To get the maximum enjoyment from “Last Daughters,” I’d even recommend readers skip the table of contents at the beginning of this book. I did this accidentally, so the reveal of the main character of this story was genuinely a magical moment for me, even if it was kind of staring me right in the face. It’s an exceptionally dark story, but the message is one of hope and love, perfectly fitting the character it’s focused on.
I should also mention that I’ve never been the biggest Firestorm fan, but it’s a delight to see Jerry Ordway penciling the character for this special in “Last Christmas,” written by Paul Dini. This is another story that kind of suffers from the vagaries of the timeline and setting (Is the world over or just hurting? How old would Professor Stein be, at this point?), but it’s another one that delivers the right amount of good vibes and lovely art to excuse some of those logistical problems. In many ways, “Last Christmas” is the perfect example of everything that does and does not work with this anthology as a whole.
DC’s Nuclear Winter Special is a mixed bag in terms of execution of concept, but more than half of the stories are good enough to make up for that problem and at least one of them is a stone cold classic.