Today, Patrick and Michael are discussing Klaus 5, originally released May 4th, 2016.
Patrick: Joseph Campbell’s monomyth needs revision. Certainly, the concepts born out in his Hero With A Thousand Faces appear in every blockbuster action movie and comic book produced in the last half-century. But the proliferation of visual storytelling since Campbell’s heyday has added some colorful hallmarks to the heroic storyteller’s lexicon. I don’t know what we can really trace these recurring visual motifs to — Hollywood Westerns, anime, comic books, Saturday morning cartoons — but the fact remains that our heroes all share some common traits. They have costumes that give them either an instantly recognizable silhouette or an instantly recognizable color palette. They all move the same way: with a shocking grace, often over rooftops. In Klaus, Grant Morrison and Dan Mora imbue Santa with these same visual hallmarks, updating him from folk legend to comic book hero.
While that description sounds silly, Morrison and Mora present all of this iconic, Batman-esque imagery with the straightest of faces. Which should in no way suggest that this issue is joyless — the narrative thrust of the story is that Santa is actually out delivering presents to children and the bad guys are trying to stop him from doing so. I’ve mentioned Batman already, so we may as well discuss some of Mora’s amazing roof-hopping action.
That first panel is so wide and moody, as if selling both the character’s determination and the size and severity of the city. This is Batman in Gotham, rolled back a couple centuries and with a slightly different costume and set of goals. Even the persistence of that bright moon recalls the batsignal hanging in the sky. I’m also fascinated by how fucking active this camera is that follows the package of toys down the chimney — it’s like the perspective of the audience tumbles down the chimney with it, showing off all the coolest, closest, most intense angles along the way.
Mora and Morrison also go a long way to sell just how impressive the heights are that the character travels at. He may not be flying, in the traditional sense, but there are multiple occasions where Mora uses the entire height of the page to make Santa’s acrobatics that much more spectacular. Hell, on just the next page, we’re treated to a conversation between guards at the bottom of the page, while high above Santa leaps from one building to the next. And those guards are talking about him the same way two Falcone henchmen would talk about Batman. More than that though, they might be leveling the same criticisms against Santa that some would level against superheroes. One calls him “a tall story for kids,” but his compatriot has to concede that “it’s exciting all the same.” Damn right it’s exciting — he’s enacting the Hero’s Journey as a thoroughly modern hero.
If you need any further evidence that Morrison and Mora are deliberately tapping into superhero imagery to portray their Santa Klaus, get a load of this panel.
Look at him! Keeping watch over the city, perched atop of chimney (in lieu of a gargoyle) and with his striking red cape blowing in the wind. Morrison addresses the graphical nature of his outfit a little bit earlier in the issue when Klaus has just rescued some miners. He wears “white for the snow of our homeland, red for the blood of the working people who built this town.” The character is almost intentionally self-designed, like a superhero crafting his perfect crime fighting identity.
He’s even kind of the victim of a lot of the same hero-blaming that characters like Batman and Superman have been pegged with in recent years (thanks, Watchmen). The back half of this issue turns into an all-out chase sequence as Klaus attempts to escape a trap laid by the city guard. He’s a champion of the people, but despised by the authorities. The rip-roaring battle through the streets and rooftops of Grimsvig is not only true to its superheroic inspirations, but also amazingly fun. Klaus bounds up stairs, zooms out of windows, slices his way down 100-foot tapestries — it’s obviously over the top, but to quote that guard from earlier: “it’s exciting all the same.”
I’m a little bit floored by this issue. In tackling material that seems so far from standard superhero fare, Morrison has instead created an ur-superhero out of a folkloric character. Michael! I know you like superheroes and Grant Morrison, but we seldom talk about Santa Claus, because why would we? Does this superhero-ification make sense to you? Also! I didn’t get a chance to comment on it in detail, but I love the lettering in this series. Letterer Ed Dukeshire subtly changes the size of the text to convey whispers or shouting, but never in a way that makes any of it hard to read. He even leads some of the action with balloon placement.
And occasionally, a balloon will just have punctuation or an asterisk in it. I’m not totally sure how that’s read, but it communicates something very clearly. I just really, really love this series.
Michael: I think that if Grant Morrison didn’t decide to tell us the Santa Claus story in superheroic fashion, then someone else (most likely less talented) would. The superhero genre is arguably bigger than it has ever been in popular media, so it makes sense that Morrison would speak to us in a language we understand. It’s hard not to notice the parallels between Klaus and so many Batman stories we know — Patrick noted the gothic setting, the flowing cape and the rooftop jumping. But since Klaus is an origin story, it also vibes very strongly with many a Batman origin story. The trap that Lord Magnus has set for “The Santa” at the climax of Klaus 5 feels very much like a moment out of Batman Begins or Batman: Year One. Klaus is riddled with poison arrows and barely survives as he tumbles down the sides of the towering buildings of Grimsvig.
Dan Mora’s depiction of this hero’s failure instinctively made me think of those moments where Batman gets too cocky and it almost costs him his life. Klaus even has his own Robin in the boy that rescues him and pulls him into the forest. I’d say that intro makes this lad more of a Carrie Kelley Robin than a Dick Grayson Robin, though.
But, as Patrick pointed out, Klaus is not Batman, if for no other reason than his cheerfulness. Moreover, Klaus is kind of a cross between Batman, Superman and Captain America. Like Superman, Klaus is an orphaned foreigner who was taken in by kind strangers and raised in a different land. Like Captain America, Klaus has decided to dress in the colors of his home and be a champion of those people. The decision to give Santa Claus’ traditional reds and whites such weight and significance to the town of Grimsvig is incredibly important.
Overall it seems like the people of Grimsvig are happy that “The Santa” is providing their children with Yuletime gifts but he still is a stranger. Klaus appeals to the men he frees from the mines however, by letting them know that he is one of them. Klaus grew up in Grimsvig and remembers what it was like before Lord Magnus’ reign of oppression and sadness, so in that sense Klaus is a spirit of hope from the past. And like any great superhero Klaus takes on a burden of responsibility so the people of his city do not have to. Cue the epic hero shot from Dan Mora:
Sacrifice, selflessness and suffering are all tenants of the most effective superhero epics. Morrison drapes the Santa Claus legend in a superhero cape because it’s more relatable to us than a jolly man handing out presents. And while Klaus’ selfless acts of gift-giving do still come off as a little other-worldly, Morrison grounds it in basic karma: Grimsvig gave him a life full of joy so he wants to pay that good will back in their time of despair.
While Lord Magnus has always been a grade-A dick in this book, it seems that he is getting closer and closer to psycho-levels of evil. He’s going mad in the vein of The Shining’s Jack Torrance or Macbeth — fearing that the King is conspiring to kill him. It’s interesting to note that as “the voice in the black rock” further demonizes Magnus, Dagmar seems to be able to further humanize her shitty son Jonas.
Dagmar herself seems to be becoming the girl that Klaus knew when they were younger — becoming more conscious of the world around her. When we met Lady Dagmar in the beginning of the series she was an un-affectionate mannequin, frozen like Klaus’ birth mother. Klaus 5 gives us a Dagmar who seems genuinely surprised by the fact that she is hated by the people of Grimsvig. This is likely to do with the waning power of the spell that Magnus cast on her, but in the realm of storytelling, magic is typically a heightened metaphor for situations that already exist within a character’s world. Dagmar has been unhappy in her marriage for some time and the reappearance of Klaus, combined with the likely weakening of the spell has allowed her to come to grips with her unhappiness. Dagmar doesn’t want to be a shut-in anymore, she wants to live in the world. Even if that means getting garbage thrown in her face.
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I was so focused on the hero, I didn’t spend any time on the villains! I really like that observation about the “spell” that Dagmar was under. It could really be anything: love for Magnus, comfort with their lifestyle, whatever. But it’s cool that even the villains have some complex psychology flying between them, which… I’ll have to think about whether that’s another tenant of modern Heroes Journeys that isn’t boiled in to Campbell’s.