The holidays may be mercifully over, but considering that I got my review copy of Ryan Alves and Ron Beek III’s new “split release” comic (co-published under the auspices of Alves’ AWE Comics and Beek’s Wtfawta), The Christmas Before/Santer, after the purportedly most wonderful time of the year had run its course, I was left with two options : review it now to keep the unseasonability of doing so to a minimum, or sit on it until next Christmas. I chose the former since the comic was still fresh in my mind and since it’s still available for purchase, which may not be the case in 11 months.
Before we delve too deeply into the particulars of the book itself, I should state that it seems the image of Santa Claus has fallen on rather hard times, which I suppose is to be expected in this cynical age, but we’re four decades on from films like Christmas Evil and Silent Night, Deadly Night, and the simple fact remains that there isn’t much of a “middle ground” for the character between jolly bringer of gifts and joy and psychotic serial killer apart from Bad Santa, which has become something of a latter-day holiday classic. You’d think somebody else would mine the fertile territory that is a debased but not altogether evil iteration of St. Nick, but for whatever reason, no one’s picked that ball up and run with it to any appreciable degree.
Not that I’m paying particularly close attention, mind you : Christmas and popular culture have merged into one inseparable commercialized entity at this point, and it’s one that I couldn’t frankly care less about — but that certainly didn’t preclude me from quite enjoying this comic, which is a testament in and of itself to the talents of the cartoonists who made it. I mean, if you can hold my interest with a Christmas-themed comic in the first place you’re doing something right, and if you can manage to do so in the days immediately following the end of a holiday season that I’m nothing but happy to see firmly in the rear view mirror, you’re doing something doubly right.
Not that I would expect anything less from these guys, both of whom have impressed me with their solo and collaborative efforts in the past, but I think turning their creative juices loose on a single connecting theme really draws attention to the different sensibilities each brings to the table, as well as the tonal similarities that make this pairing such a natural one. They’ve both, for instance, chosen to place their versions of St. Nick somewhere beneath Bad Santa but above the various “Santa slashers” on our makeshift “creepy Santa” scale, and both are masters at utilization of blacks, whites, and gray tones in their art (Alves’ cartooning leaning more toward abstraction and Beek’s more toward formal realism), but whereas Alves sets his wordless interpretive yarn in the dim reaches of prehistory, Beek’s story is very much contemporary, urban, and depressingly believable. Contrasts and convergences are the name of the game here, two sides of the same coin, so it’s entirely fitting that this is formatted as a true “flip book,” with each story given its own cover and both, quite literally, meeting in the middle.
The natural enough question following along from all this would be, of course, “so which story did you like better?,” but as much as this will no doubt sound like a cop-out, I found both to be successful for entirely different reasons. Alves’ The Christmas Before leaves one with more to think about, certainly, given its more mystical nature, but Beek’s Santer is open enough to interpretation as well and perhaps packs a bit more of a wallop in purely visceral terms, so — yeah, don’t force me to choose one or the other since I technically don’t have to anyway.
Besides, of utmost import here is the fact that they work really well together, something not every co-operative creative venture can claim — themed anthologies, in particular, having a rather spotty track record when it comes to maintaining an overall flow to them given that “all these comics are about a similar subject” is often an easy way to avoid the more challenging task of selecting material that either possesses an overall artistic cohesion or establishes a frisson of conceptual and aesthetic tension throughout, both of which of course offer their own rewards. Alves and Beek give us the best of both worlds here, presenting two discrete but linked comics stories that manage to play off each other and stand in stark contrast to one another. Don’t ask me how that works, just be glad that it does.
The Christmas Before/Santer is available for $5.00 from the AWE Comics Storenvy site at https://www.storenvy.com/products/34444423-the-christmas-before-santer
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