Archive for December, 2008

31
Dec
08

Everything But Imaginary #291: One Last Look at 2008

It’s the last day of the year, friends, so let’s end it with one look back at some of the high and low points in the world of comics, as chosen by me. And then, stick around for the nominees for the 2008 Everything But Imaginary Awards! Your votes have to be e-mailed to Blake@comixtreme.com by Monday, Jan. 5, to be counted!

Everything But Imaginary #291: One Last Look at 2008
Inside This Column:

30
Dec
08

DC Universe Infinite Heroes-Lotsa Toys

As happened during the Halloween Party, I drifted away from doing my “Toy Stories” photoblogs during the Christmas Party. And this time, I’ve got a lot of new figures to cover. This is, I must say, something I love doing, and as it seems to be a feature that gets a lot of attention, I assume you like it too. Let’s look at some of the DC Universe Infinite Heroes I’ve picked up since I last talked toys with you guys.

Batman and Two-Face

Batman and Two-Face

This first pair, like earlier ones, isn’t technically an Infinite Heroes set, it’s part of the DC Hero Zone: The Dark Knight. When I heard that they were releasing the Dark Knight toys in two waves, I assumed that the reason for this was so that they could hold back on Two-Face figures until after the film was already out and not spoil the reveal. As usual, I was correct. The Harvey Dent figure in this two-pack looks great — and considering the 3.75-inch scale, it’s not a bad likeness of Aaron Echardt. As all of these figures were released in two-packs, this makes the third Batman figure I’ve gotten to get the three different villains (the others being the Joker and Scarecrow), which is exactly two more Batmen than I actually need, but hey, how else are you gonna get a Two-Face?

For the Infinite Heroes, let’s look at a Toys R Us exclusive six-pack, Defense of Oa:

Guy Gardner, Energized Hal Jordan & John Stewart

Guy Gardner, “Energized” Hal Jordan & John Stewart

This Green Lantern themed six-pack comes with three heroes and three villains. Guy Gardner, unfortunately, is a duplicate of one of the single figures I already had. (What, we couldn’t get a Kyle Rayner? Or a Kilowog? Or even a Tomar-Re?) The “energy” version of Hal Jordan is a neat-looking figure, and that at least means it won’t be a duplicate of the inevitable single Hal figure that’s sure to come out sooner or later. Finally, there’s a really sharp looking John Stewart. I’m well on my way to constructing my own 3.75-inch Green Lantern Corps.

A Qwardian Weaponer with two Manhunters

The villains in the pack are kinda generic: no Sinestro, no Sinestro Corps members, but instead one Qwardian Weaponer — one of the millions of footsoldiers from the Anti-Matter Universe — and two “battle damaged” Manhunters, the robots created to protect the universe before they went bad, prompting the Guardians to create the Green Lantern Corps in the first place. The Qwardian is also available in a single pack, which I intend to pass on now, and there’s also a single Manhunter, but one that’s not “damaged.”

Let’s move on to the single figures:

Batwoman

Batwoman is a nice-looking figure, although (like all the female Infinite Heroes toys) her legs are totally incapable of standing the figure up on their own, so she comes with a clear plastic base. You can kinda see it at the bottom of the picture if you look hard enough. I’m glad they came out with this toy, though — she’s becoming a more significant member of the Batman family.

Hush

Hush

Speaking of Batman, I found one of his nastiest enemies — Hush — when I was in Pittsburgh with Erin. For some reason, this was a hard photo — the camera wouldn’t focus on the figure. Maybe it’s the bandages or something, it could have confused the camera. I dunno. Still, cool figure for a cool villain. Although I do think the trench coat is borrowed from the Commissioner Gordon figure.

The Question

The Question

The Question is next, and I find it interesting that they went with the original incarnation of the character, Vic Sage, instead of the current Renee Montoya. As far as I know, this is the only Infinite Hero figure of a character currently dead. I wonder if they’ve got plans for Renee later down the line.

Black Hand

Black Hand

Getting ready to cause a little chaos next summer in Blackest Night, here’s one of Green Lantern’s old enemies, Black Hand. Not much else to say about him — most of the Infinite Heroes toys come from the same basic body sculpts, with accessories (capes, gloves, masks, etc.) added as necessary. Without the cape, this is as good an example of that as you can get.

Black Adam

Black Adam

Speaking of villains with “Black” in their name, here’s the anti-Captain Marvel, Black Adam. He’s really one of the most interesting characters in DC Comics these days (thank you, Geoff Johns), so I’m glad to see him showing up in this set.

Wildcat

Wildcat

Ted Grant, a.k.a. Wildcat, is one of the grand old men of the DC Universe. He’s a classic World War II hero whose powers have kept him viable to this day. I love the character, and I hope his inclusion means we’ll see more of the classic heroes — specifically Alan Scott and Jay Garrick, the original Green Lantern and Flash, respectively.

The Atom

The Atom

From one of the oldest DCU heroes to one of the youngest, this is Ryan Choi, the third Atom. Ryan is a character who I think many fans rejected without giving him a chance just because he wasn’t Ray Palmer (the previous Atom), which to me just ain’t fair. He starred in a really good series that ended before its time. I hope we see him find a home, and soon.

Well, that was going to be it, until I was out shopping earlier and found something I had to grab. To the aunts and grandmother who gave me money for Christmas, here’s what your dollars bought:

Battle For Metropolis

DC Universe Infinite Heroes: Battle For Metropolis

The Infinite Heroes Battle For Metropolis eight-pack. This set is another Toys R Us exclusive, and it’s another set that uses duplicate villain henchman to fill up the case, but that’s not really why I got it anyway.

Lex Luthor and his Rockettes... um... that is, Luthor Troopers.

Lex Luthor and his Rockettes… um… that is, “Luthor Troopers.”

Lex Luthor, the big mama-jama in the middle there, comes with four of his “Luthor Troopers.” He’s given them all armor, which is nice of him, but you’ll notice he saved the big toys for himself. You see those two big shoulder-mounted rockets? Yep, they actually shoot. The set also has three different heroes with it:

Captain Marvel, Superman and Captain Atom

Captain Marvel, Superman and Captain Atom

Captain Marvel, Superman, and Captain Atom all have a home here. Captain Marvel (labelled as “Shazam!” for trademark reasons) is sadly identical to the single-pack figure I already have, not unlike the Guy Gardner. Captain Atom is a nice new figure, but I wonder… why him? Neither he nor Marvel have ever lived in Metropolis. Why not have some natives fighting for their city? Booster Gold? Gangbuster? Guardian? Rose and Thorn? So many figures they could have chosen from.

Like I said, Captain Marvel is a duplicate, but Superman…

Kingdom Come Superman & Classic Superman

Kingdom Come Superman & Classic Superman

The Superman battling for Metropolis is actually the version of the character from the awesome Kingdom Come series and currently appearing in Justice Society of America. And since he’s from an alternate Earth, I can officially count these figures as two different characters, rather than just different versions of the same character (as Hal Jordan and “Energized” Hal Jordan would be). Sweet. This is the kind of duplicate character I like.

So looking over the packages of the figures that have been released so far, here’s what I still appear to be missing:

  • The Gotham City Patrol six-pack, which includes Batman, Killer Croc, Catwoman, Hush (at least this one has an alternate head, unlike the duplicate Guy Gardner and Qwardian Weaponer), and two Gotham City SWAT team members. I already have the two that came with Commissioner Gordon, but I guess you can never have too many of those.
  • Single-packed, undamaged Manhunter figure
  • Power Girl
  • Star Sapphire

There are also single figures of Batman and the Qwardian Weaponer, but as those appear to be identical to the ones in the multi-figure packs, I can pass on ’em.

Hope you enjoyed this little look at the figures I’ve been accumulating, gang!

29
Dec
08

Back to work

A lot of folks who had off for Christmas are back to work today. Although I’ve still got another week of freedom before school starts again, I’ve been busy today. This is the most intensive day I’ve put in on Project Rebirth in quite a long time. It’s been an editing day, mostly. Like I said at the conclusion of National Novel Writing Month, I really believe that you need some distance after finishing a project before doing the revisions. Well, I’ve certainly got distance behind me here. I’m working on something that I thought was finished quite some time ago, but I may have the chance to breathe new life into it in the coming year. So I’m going back to the source, cleaning up dialogue, fixing errors, changing dated references (to something that hopefully won’t be dated any time soon) and basically trying to make an old favorite into a project that will last.

Perhaps most importantly, I’m working on something that really matters to me, and that’s always where a person does his best work, don’t you think?

I’m not finished — didn’t even get as far as I wanted today — but I did enough to believe I can finish this revision by the end of the week, which is my goal.

So those of you who spent a first day back at work today, how’d it go?

28
Dec
08

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 99: 2008-The Year in Review

2008 ends in just days, folks, so let’s go out with a Showcase blowout! Joined by back-up geeks Mike and Kenny, the boys announce the winners of the Best of 2008 awards, as voted on by you! Then, it’s a long talk about everything that happened in comics in 2008! The Dark Knight, the rise of Marvel Studios, Diamond refuses to distribute Hack/Slash, Archie goes back to ninth grade, and a heck of a lot more. This double-sized episode is the longest Showcase ever (we promise we won’t make a habit of it)! And instead of our usual picks of the week, stay tuned as our four guys pick their favorite comic books of the entire year! Next week will be the 100th Episode Spectacular! If you’ll be in the New Orleans area on Friday, Jan. 2 at about 4:30 p.m., stop in at BSI Comics to join the guys as they record their centennial episode! You can also send your anniversary greetings, “Ask Chase Anything” questions, or anything else at Showcase@comixtreme.com!

Episode 99: 2008-The Year in Review
Inside This Episode:


PLUS: In Week in Geek #5, DC Comics has released a teaser image for the upcoming Batman: Battle For the Cowl event. This week, Blake dissects the image to try to figure out the clues and hints hidden within!

Week in Geek #5: Battle For the Cowl Teaser Analyzed

27
Dec
08

What I’m Playing: LEGO Batman

Here’s something I haven’t had many chances to post here — today I’m going to talk a little bit about a video game I’m playing.

I know. It surprised me too.

I don’t play a lot of video games, folks. I’m usually doing something else and, to be frank, I’m not that good at them. So it’s got to be something I really want to play to take my time. If DC Universe Online finally comes out next year, I’m gonna be all over that bad boy.

But last year I got a chance to play the LEGO Star Wars game for a few minutes and I thought it was fun. When I heard LEGO Batman was going to be available for PC (I have no X-Box, no Playstation, no Wii… I’m a heathen) I thought it’d be fun to give it a spin. And when I found it on sale yesterday, I picked it up. I’ve spent most of the afternoon spinning through the LEGO-ized version of Gotham City.

As far as sheer gameplay goes, this is a lot of fun. The designs are great and the animated “story’ sequences that provide the plot of the game are really funny. Robin comes across a little buffoonish, which bothers me as a fan of Tim Drake, but it works with the tone of the game. The plot, basically, is that a mass breakout occurs at Arkham Asylum, releasing nearly all of Batman’s foes at once, so he and his allies have to cut loose to capture them.

The game contains 30 levels — 15 you play as the heroes and 15 as the villains, and you tag-team with another character in every level. So far, I’ve only played the first “story” of five hero levels, featuring Batman and Robin tracking down the Riddler and Two-Face (who have also recruited Clayface, Poison Ivy, and Mr. Freeze in their scheme). The controls took a little getting used to, but once I got the hang of it, I did fine. There’s a lot of action — a lot of times where you just go around and beat up villains — and that’s fine. You also find yourself building things out of LEGOs to create weapons, vehicles, and other things. Plus, almost everything is breakable, since it’s all made of LEGO. The game totally simulates the LEGO experience — sometimes you’re the kid getting to put together crazy things, sometimes you’re the jerk who shows up and just starts breaking everything. The level where you pilot the Batmobile and try to capture Two-Face in his armored car features more destruction than the last three Michael Bay movies.

It’s not all punching and breaking, though. There’s some strategy involved here too. All of the characters can find alternate suits with different abilities — Batman has a”Glider” suit, for instance, Robin has an “electromagnetic” suit, and so on. You need certain suits to open certain doors or activate certain devices. What’s more, once you’ve beaten a level, you can go back in “free play” mode, which allows you to trade off between any of the suits or characters you’ve unlocked and find different items or locations that you couldn’t get to the first time you played the level.

Like I said, I don’t play a lot of video games, but I really had fun with this one… and I’ve really only gone through a sixth of the game. I expect to have a lot of fun playing through the rest.

On a totally unrelated note, I caught Frank Miller’s version of The Spirit last night. In a nutshell… there were some things to like about the movie, but not nearly enough to counter terrible performances by usually-good actors, horrendous dialogue, and a painful disrespect for the history of one of the greatest comic book characters ever created. You can read more details (although mostly spoiler-free ones) at my review at Comixtreme.com.

Hmm. The poster says “My city screams.” Not as much as the fans, Mr. Miller.

26
Dec
08

What I’m Watching: Animaniacs Volume 1

Merry Day After Christmas, everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful time yesterday and you got everything you wanted. Since most of us are spending the day relaxing (and/or recovering) I’ve spent most of the day enjoying one of my Christmas presents. Sure, you could be watching a House marathon on USA or doing post-Christmas shopping on any of a dozen networks, but I have instead spent today hosting my own marathon thanks to what I got from my sister and brother-in-law: Animaniacs Vol. 1.

If you never saw Animaniacs when it was on the air… well, you’re insane. The show starred the Warner Brothersand their sister, Dot, three cartoon characters from the 40s who were deemed too zany for public consumption and locked away in the studio water tower until present day. Alongside the Warners, the show gave the world the would-be world conquerors Pinky and the Brain, the pre-Sopranos mob parody Goodfeathers, the magnificent Bernadette Peters in Rita and Runt and a half-dozen other cartoon superstars. This was Steven Spielberg’s second cartoon with Warner Brothers (the studio, not the characters), having cut his teeth on Tiny Toon Adventures. As good as Tiny Toons was this blew it away.

Yakko, Wakko and Dot Warner were the spiritual successors to Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and all the other great Looney Tunes. Sure, the Tiny Toons had a more direct link to the classic characters, but the cartoons you saw on Animaniacs had the same tone, the same feel, the same sense of barely restrained insanity. The cartoon had levels upon levels of comedy, sneaking in political humor right next to a potty joke, or doing an entire episode (King Yakko, one of my favorites) to parody the classic Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup, a joke that went right over the heads of 90 percent of the audience, adults included. This wasn’t just funny, this wasn’t just wonderfully animated, this was a smart show, probably the smartest cartoon ever made for kids’ television.

Remember a few days ago when I complained that none of the cartoons of my childhood hold up today? Well, this is a cartoon of my teen years, not of my childhood… and this bad boy holds up. Even with a few dated references to then-popular actors or TV characters (an Urkel cameo, or a joke about Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg), the majority of the humor is timeless and as entertaining today as it was when it first came out 15 years ago. I love this cartoon as much today as I did back then.

25
Dec
08

What I’m Watching: A Charlie Brown Christmas

And so it comes again, Christmas Day, the most wonderful time of the year. As I sit here, waiting patiently for the new external hard drive I got to finish backing up my laptop, I decided I had the time to give you guys the review I promised a few days ago, of the greatest Christmas special ever made, A Charlie Brown Christmas, released on a Deluxe Edition DVD this year.

Originally produced back in 1965, in A Charlie Brown Christmas we find everyone’s favorite round-headed kid getting disillusioned with the holidays. Everywhere around him, from his dog to his baby sister, commercialism seems to be strangling the meaning out of the season. Lucy tries to help out (to her credit) by making him director of the Christmas play, but even then, nothing seems to go right. In the end, it’ll be up to wise little Linus to set things right.

There’s little point in actually reviewing the cartoon itself. Everyone has seen it, everyone knows  how brilliant it is. It’d be like trying to review Hamlet or… I dunno… celery. Suffice it to say, it’s as magnificent in its simplicity now as it was 43 years ago, and the message may be more important than ever. Let’s talk about the DVD itself — the video has been cleaned up and “remastered,” which is a process that still eludes me. For all I know they’ve got a machine where they feed videotape in a frame at a time and miniature elves clean it off with little squeegees. Whatever they did, the video looks really good — the colors pop and the sound is wonderful.

But what I’m really about, as you well know, are the special features. There are two bonuses on this disc, beginning with the 1992 cartoon It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown. This is the same back-up feature we got on the first Charlie Brown Christmas DVD, but it’s not a bad one. Out of the three other Christmas specials (the others being 2002’s Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales and 2003’s I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown), this is hands-down the best. The cartoon, like most of the later ones, is culled from several Christmas stories that ran in the comic strip, including Sally’s attempt to memorize her lines for the Christmas play, Charlie Brown’s attempt to buy a Christmas present for Peggy Jean, the girl he likes (who is not, as some would have you believe, the never-named “Little Red-Haired Girl”), and Peppermint Patty’s dealings with Handel’s Messiah.

The other featurette is a new “making-of” documentary, which was clearly produced alongside the similar features included on the DVDs for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown; You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown; and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. It’s not a bad feature, but a lot of the information is repeated from the older making-of feature (which, oddly, was not a special on the DVD of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but rather, with I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown). The older version also includes some stuff that we don’t get here, specifically interviews with the now-adult voice actors who brought Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy to life.

I’m going with the same recommendation with this as I did for the Thanksgiving DVD. If you don’t have the old DVD, you have to get this. If you do have it, then you need to make the call — is the remastering worth it to get the DVD again? For most people, I think the answer will probably be “yes.”

Enough to Go Around

Before Thanksgiving, when Erin and I saw Twilight together, there was a commercial co-produced by Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola, in which a guy wanders around his Christmas party handing out Cokes (from a Wal-Mart bag, of course) to everyone he knows, singing about them along the way. The song was incredibly catchy, and I was disappointed that I didn’t see the commercial make its way to television. To date, the only times I’ve seen it are at the movies or on the display TVs at Wal-Mart itself. Fortunately, some industrious person has put it up on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it, it’s only a minute. Give it a view. I hope you enjoy it — and more than that, I hope you and yours have a very Merry Christmas!

24
Dec
08

A gift from Erin — and more Christmas Comics

I’ll link you guys to this week’s Everything But Imaginary column in just a moment, but before that, I want to show off a little. Everyone’s best friend, the UPS man, stopped at the door yesterday with a box for me, sent from the far-off reaches of Pittsburgh. I popped it open to find a couple of sweet gifts from Erin:

A little bag of “Snowman Poop” sits atop a canister of “Snow to Go,” which is a nice little powder that turns into faux snow with just a dash of water. Also, arriving in a separate package, the DVD of Ducktales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, which makes her totally awesome. But the coup de grace was the Lenox China Superman ornament.

The Superman ornament is really cool — nicely sculpted, beautifully painted. The white cape took me by surprise, until Erin explained it’s kind of a Lenox trademark — every piece they make has the white China and gold trim on it somewhere. It makes a unique-looking figure. Erin tells me she’s got a Batman of her own. Eventually, we’ll hang the World’s Finest on a tree together.

Anyway, how about I show you guys this week’s EBI? A couple of weeks ago, I went through several of this year’s Christmas comics. This week, I finish the job!

Everything But Imaginary #290: Christmas Tales From the Longbox II
Inside This Column:

23
Dec
08

He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special

As we head into the final few days of the Christmas Party, I’m planning to hit you guys up with a review of the new DVD of the greatest Christmas special of all time. Before I do that, though, I’m going to subject you to one of the worst specials ever. Worse than A Family Circus Christmas, not quite as bad as Frosty Returns… ladies and gentlemen, He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special.

The original He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series premiered in 1984, approximately 11 seconds after the FCC made it legal to base a television show on a toy character.  I was seven years old, and at the prime age to become a fan both of the TV show and the umpty-twelve billion action figures. (Note to the people making toys these days — see, here’s the way to do it. Don’t just put Batman in 67 different ridiculous costumes in order to make action figures, actually come up with 67 different characters in ridiculous costumes.) He-Man was popular enough to spin-off a show with his previously unseen, unmentioned, unimagined sister, She-Ra, Princess of Power. Actually, she was princess of Etheria, but “Power” has a better ring to it.

At the time, this was the greatest TV show since sliced bread (we watched The Sliced Bread Show every afternoon at 5:30 on Channel 26), and I watched it religiously until G.I. Joe and The TransFormers took over their prime spot in my young, burgeoning geek heart. Having gone back and watched some of these shows as an adult, I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank my parents, my friends’ parents, and the parents of every child of approximately my age for actually watching this stuff. My lord, we subjected you to some crap back then. (I do not, however, apologize for the original TransFormers: The Movie, because that bad boy still holds up.)

Anyway, in this special, He-Man and She-Ra, in their so-lame-it-makes-Superman-feel-better-about-himself disguises of Prince Adam and Princess Adora, are planning to celebrate their birthday, which just happens to take place near the Earth holiday called “Christmas.” Their mother, being an astronaut from Earth that wound up on some other planet and decided to shack up with the king, is a little homesick this time of year, but everyone is busy paying attention to their efforts at a new planetary defense system, which somehow wound up carrying the world’s worst sorcerer, Orko, off to Earth. He picks up a couple of human kids with the sort of ease that Michael Jackson can only dream of, and before you can say “Merchandising Tie-In,” the three of them were whisked back off to Eternia. Since it’s going to take some time to get them back to Earth, everyone decides it’d be swell to have a Christmas celebration for them, which evidently never occurred to Adam or Adora when it was just their mother who missed Christmas.

When word gets out that a Christmas party is in the works, the respective bad guys from the two TV shows — Skeletor and Hordak — are whisked off to meet their boss, Generic Cartoon Super-Supervillains #14. He informs them, quite simply, that Christmas is bad, and they need to get those damn kids. Skeletor is the one who actually accomplishes this, but as he’s bringing them off to the big boss, the combination of their Christmas cheer and the weird blue robot dog that tags along with them begins to melt his heart.

It was at this part that I realized Skeletor, one of the coolest-looking action figures ever made, the figure that gave a generation of children nightmares, the very grim spectre of death itself, is one of the worst supervillains of all time. I mean, look at this! The dog is licking his face, and he clearly is enjoying it! Right there on the DVD cover! Come on, man, have a little self-respect! A few years ago, they did a new version of the He-Man cartoon, which I watched one time and turned off in disgust at how obnoxious and whiny Skeletor was. At the time, I hadn’t watched the original series in a good 15 years. Now that I’ve gone back and watched this special, I realized that… yeah, the New Skeletor was whinier than the original… but not by much.

Anyway, Skeletor weenies out and saves the kids, then meanders away, deservedly ashamed of himself, and the par-tay continues with everyone having a happy ending, except for the people who actually watched this cartoon. This was just awful. Chase, my 2 in 1 Showcase partner in crime, tells me I need to just get the Best of He-Man DVD, which features a lot of episodes penned by J. Michael Straczynski and Paul Dini, just to prove to myself that there were, in fact, a few good episodes of the show. I’ll do that… eventually.

Having said all that, the DVD wasn’t a total waste. There are two pretty good documentaries on the disc about the creation of He-Man and the moral messages behind the show. They’re actually pretty entertaining (and go a long way towards explaining just why Skeletor was such a weener on the show). I also have to appreciate the fact that they tried to appeal to both boys and girls with this property. These days, you wouldn’t even see a crossover between a toy line for boys and one for girls, let alone a spin-off. C’mon, how many times did you see a G.I. Joe riding My Little Pony? Of course, now that I’ve actually said that, it’ll happen. Blake’s Universal Rule of the Universe #52: As soon as you conceive of a bizarre pairing of two different fandoms, someone on the Internet will write a bad fanfiction about that very thing.

So can I recommend this DVD? Well… maybe, if you’re buying Christmas presents for somebody you really don’t like. Otherwise, friends, this is just solid proof that it’s best to remember how much we loved things as a child, as opposed to actually going back and seeing how terrible they really were.

In other news…

If you guys look at the list of friends’ blogs over on the right-hand side of the page, you’ll see a link to “Michael’s Million.” That actually needs to be updated, as the blog is now called $100,000 Blog. This site is an interesting little experiment to see if the potential of shared revenue can help increase involvement on a blog. Check it out — you may have a chance to win some money.

22
Dec
08

Return to Sender: Christmas 2008

Hey, friends. Those of you who have been visiting my various sites for a while now know of my little tradition. Every year, I write a new Christmas-themed short story. Sometimes it’s a spin-off of an existing project (“Lonely Miracle”, for example, included characters from Other People’s Heroes), and sometimes the inspiration comes from somewhere else entirely (“Clarence Missed,” for example), but somehow I manage to find the proper yuletide inspiration every year. The story you’re about to read comes from two sources. First, on the day I arrived in Pittsburgh for my Thanksgiving visit, I was reading Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader: Jingle Bell Christmas, and I came across an interesting little tidbit about a post office where they got a very unusual letter to Santa Claus. The second came a week later, back home, when I was rehearsing with my church choir (made up of all family members) and my sister suggested trying to learn a wonderful little song that just made everything click together. Heather also graciously made the logo for me. Anyway, I’ve gone on enough. I had fun writing this story, and I hope you guys enjoy reading it. Oh… and Merry Christmas!

RETURN TO SENDER
Christmas 2008

“If you are who you say you are, you will put this to good use.”

Hans Lyman had worked in the post office at North Pole, Wyoming, for 52 years now, ever since he graduated high school. Because of the name of the town, selected apparently as a lark by some old town council that thought it would stir up tourism, his post office was deluged every year with letters intended for another Pole, much farther north. Hans and his wife, Meredith, had no children of their own, but he took great joy in opening the Santa Claus letters every year. Partially, he just liked hearing the blissful wishes of the local children, but every year he tried to find one or two children he could help somehow. One year, the two of them provided blankets for a family that couldn’t afford to fix their heater, and they took up a collection to get the clinker repaired as soon as the mechanic was available after Christmas. Once, he tracked down a Pomeranian puppy that was picked up by the Humane Society and returned it to a little girl who missed it very much. Once, he even managed to give a job to a mother who had lost hers, and she still worked with him every day. She was the most conscientious, dependable employee he ever had, and he was sure she would be that way even if she wasn’t acting out of constant gratitude.

But he had never seen anything like the letter he was holding in his hands right now: “If you are who you say you are, you will put this to good use.” Nothing else was written on the small slip, generated by a computer printer. There was no name, no date, no Christmas wish. There was no return address on the envelope, although the postmark was local. All Hans had was this strange, cryptic little note.

That and $10,000 in cash.

He looked down at the wad of bills in his lap, speechless. He’d never seen this much money in his life, and here it was with no name, no owner, no way of tracing it. He could easily slip the thick packet of bills into his jacket and no one would be the wiser. The only problem, of course, was that the envelope was not addressed to him. It was for Santa Claus. Whoever sent this wanted Santa Claus to “put it to good use.” Hans prided himself on delivering every piece of mail that was physically possible, but this

It was too much for him. He did the only thing he could possibly do. He put the money and note back into the envelope, put the whole thing into his jacket pocket, and took it home.

“Ninety-eight, ninety-nine… one hundred,” Meredith said, finishing her counting. “A hundred one-hundred dollar bills. Hans, this is incredible.”

“I know. I just can’t fathom what to do about it.”

“What usually happens to the Santa Claus mail?”

“The stuff I don’t take care of personally winds up sent down to the dead letter office. They go through it, auction off anything valuable and destroy the rest. I guess I could have sent a fortune there over the years.”

“But this isn’t dead anymore, is it?”

“No… no, it’s not.”

“So what do you want to do about it?”

He thought, but not for too long. “I want to find out where it came from. I want to know what makes a grown person put this much money in the mail for Santa Claus.”

“I thought as much.”

“But where do we start? The postmark is local, but all that means is that it was mailed here. It could have been some crazy billionaire driving through town and dropping it in a box on the way.”

“Or maybe it is someone who lives here.”

“Who, in this dinky little down, would have that kind of money?”

* *  *

It was a short list, to be sure. In a town like North Pole, Hans was able to narrow it down very quickly. Edwin Mellich had made his fortune in real estate. His father practically built the town, and Edwin sold it, bit by bit, for a tidy profit. Neal Grayson was one of the few dot-com millionaires that didn’t lose his shirt getting out of the business while the getting was good. He rolled his investment in an online video game magazine into an actual game producer, and still rode a wave of royalty checks every year. Myra Chester was the last generation of an old oil family. She was a famous spendthrift in North Pole, and while she was pretty much set up for life it was widely assumed that her two grown children would have a tough time trying to continue living in the manner in which their mother had raised them. She was Hans’s top suspect – the frivolity of the letter seemed to him to be the sort of crazy thing she would do. However, he also knew she was out of town, not yet returned from her annual holiday vacation to someplace far too warm to actually feel like Christmas. Rather than wait for her, he decided to begin his investigation with Mellich.

Edwin Mellich’s father had been in Hans’s high school graduating class, the two of them representing nearly five percent of the seniors at the time. The town was a little bigger now, but not so big that everyone wasn’t kept abreast of everyone else’s business. Edwin Mellich was one of the few exceptions. His father, God rest his soul, had passed seven years ago, and Mellich lost his wife suddenly not long after. Now he and his stepson, Cade, lived alone in their big, drafty house, and kept to themselves. The only time anyone saw them was at Church on Sunday – every Sunday, like clockwork – and on occasional trips to the grocery store and to empty out his box down at the post office. They were visible, but they never took the time out for friendly conversation. It got to the point that kids would spread stories about their house at Halloween, and it stood black at Christmas.

One of the advantages to being old, though, is that it was hard to be intimidated by a man whose daddy you caught sneaking frogs into the girl’s bathroom once upon a time. Hans girded himself and marched up the walk to the Mellich house. He wasn’t surprised to find it devoid of Christmas cheer: no lights, no decorations, no six-foot inflatable snow globe showering animatronic carolers with little snowflakes made of Styrofoam. Hans didn’t really think Ed Mellich was behind the letter, but he’d seen enough schmaltzy Christmas specials to know the most miserly person in town could hide a heart of gold.

It was Cade who opened the door for him. The 15-year-old looked out through the opening, brow furrowed, clearly surprised to see him.

Hans tried to remain friendly. “Hello, Cade. May I speak to your stepfather?”

“Uh… sure. Dad?”

Griping the whole way, Edwin Mellich made his way to the door. He looked far worse than the last time Hans had seen him. He was thinner, almost gaunt, and his hairline had receded badly, as if it was fleeing from his dark, sunken, angry eyes. Every wrinkle on his face was pronounced and none of them were what you would consider “laugh lines.”

“Oh, Mr. Lyman,” he said, seeing the visitor. “What brings you here?”

“Well…” Hanks froze. He realized he hadn’t quite thought this through. How was he supposed to inquire about a situation like this?

Mellich frowned. “Well? What is it?”

“This is going to sound strange, Ed, but… well, I’ve been going through the mail down at the post office and… um…”

“What? Spit it out, man.”

“Did you write a letter to Santa Claus this year?”

In the foyer behind his stepfather, Cade rolled his eyes and quickly wandered off. Edwin just glared at him, incredulously. “Are you serious? You came here to ask me if I wrote a letter to Santa Claus?”

“I know it’s a strange question, Ed, but I got a weird letter and I really need to find out where it came from.”

Mellich snorted at him. “What, are you reading other people’s letters now? Isn’t that a federal offense?”

“Oh come off it, Ed, you know I go through the Santa letters every year.” Hans shook his head. “And obviously it wasn’t you who wrote the letter. Sorry to have wasted your time.”

“Wait, what was in this letter that even made you think it could have been me?”

“Sorry, Ed, can’t tell you. It’s a matter of Santa/Elf confidentiality.” He doffed his hat and started down the walk. “Merry Christmas.”

*   *   *

Neal Grayson was in his early 30s, not married, but never lacking in female companionship either. Having a few million dollars rolling around in the bank had the effect of drawing a certain type of girl, Hans noticed. The women that rotated in and out of Neal Grayson’s home weren’t what his mother would have called “the marrying kind,” but Hans doubted very much that was Neal’s goal anyway.

His house was considerably flashier than Mellich’s had been. It was a huge, ostentatious place with three cars in the garage, an immaculately-tailored lawn (when it wasn’t under a blanket of snow), topiary sculptures of what Hans assumed were popular video game characters, and an enormous swimming pool covered over for the winter. The only indulgence missing, Hans noted, was any trace of a Christmas decoration.

The redheaded girl who answered the door was wearing sandals, a pink bikini, water droplets, and nothing else. Hans was briefly distracted, but shrugged it off. He was a mailman, he’d seen far stranger things when people opened their doors. “Is Neal here?” he asked.

She scoffed. “Yeah. Jerk made me get out of the hot tub when the doorbell rang so he wouldn’t have to pause his game.” The town noted how frequently Neal’s female companions rolled over. Hans had a suspicion that this one would be out of the picture by New Year’s Eve. She led him into the house, where Neal was comfortably seated in front of what could only be designed as the Ultimate Entertainment Center. An enormous flatscreen TV was the show piece of the room, mounted on the wall, flanked by gargantuan speakers, and wired into an endless array of game systems, DVD and Blu-Ray players, receivers, and something labeled “Tivo.” On the walls, dozens of shelves were full to overflowing with video games, movies, CDs, and even the occasional book, along with a refrigerator, microwave, and shelves with assorted snack foods. The furniture consisted of overstuffed bean bag chairs, a table for food, and the hot tub where Neal’s door greeter was again situating herself.

Neal was comfortably melting into a bean bag right in front of the TV. He was wearing a headset and waving a wireless game controller as, on the screen, he watched a first-person view of a soldier blowing up aliens or mutants or demons or something. Hans tried to keep current with modern technology, but there were some things he preferred to remain blissfully ignorant about. “Hey-hey, Hans Lyman! Postal worker extraordinare! What can I do for you? Laci, shake it over to the fridge and get Mr. Lyman a beer.”

“The fridge is right there!” she howled. “Let him get it himself!”

“Um, that’s okay,” Hans said. “I really can’t stay too long.”

“Hold it, hold it…” On the screen, a mothership of some kind was vaporized in a spectacular explosion, and Neal hooted in triumph. “Sweet! Yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Okay, guys, back in a few. I’ve got a real-life guest here? What? Yeah, that’s what your mother said.”

He took off his headset and looked at Hans for the first time. “So, what’s on your mind?”

Hans was better prepared this time. “I’m trying to track down the person who sent out a sort of unusual piece of mail. There was no return address, but it’s important I figure it out.”

“I doubt I can help you. No offense, man, but I don’t do much outgoing mail. Bills get paid online, e-mail takes care of the rest. The only time I send anything myself is when I’ve got a business document I’ve got to sign personally, and I always send those certified.”

“So you haven’t sent any letters lately? Nothing… out of the ordinary?”

“Just my letter to Santa.”

“What?” The words sent a flow of adrenaline down Hans’s back. It was Neal! It—

“Dude, relax, I was just kidding,” he said. “Gee, the way you looked you would think… oh my God, it was a letter to Santa?” He started laughing. “Man, you should be over at the elementary school instead of wasting your time with me.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Sorry to take you away from your game.”

“No problemo.” Neal put his headset back on, still laughing, as Hans went to show himself out. “Dudes? You’re not gonna believe this one…”

*   *   *

Myra Chester, the only other person on Hans’ list of suspects, was still out of town, so he had to abandon the search for a few days. Work was busy enough anyway: people mailing packages, sending out Christmas cards, picking up piles of both from their P.O. boxes… a lot of people had abandoned the USPS for the same alternatives as Neal, but in December, they could still just barely keep up with the rush.

There were a lot of kids, of course, who wanted to personally drop off their letters to Santa Claus. The parents with them typically wore an expression that said, “Just humor the kid.” Hans would take each letter, smiling, and add it to the pile. Today, though, a lot of the parents were chuckling as they dropped off the mail. One even looked him dead in the eye and said, “Now this letter belongs to Jacob, and it’s going to Santa. Got that?”

It didn’t take Hans long to figure out what had happened – one of his interviewees, probably Neal, had blabbed about his little search all over town. If he was younger, it would have bothered him, but Hans just laughed it off.

“Found your elf, Hans?” one of them shouted.

“Not yet!” he replied cheerfully.

The questions and jokes continued until the crowd died down. It was about 2 o’clock – the lunch rush was over, the after-work mob hadn’t arrived yet – and Hans was pausing to take a breath when Edwin Mellich came in. He shot a glance over at Hans and scoffed, then went off to check his P.O. Box. He came back a few seconds later holding one of the cards that indicated he had a package too large to fit in the box.

Hans quickly retrieved the package and handed it over, trying to be friendly. “Here ya go, Ed. Doing some online shopping? Got a gift for your son there?”

Stepson,” Mellich snapped. “And we don’t do your Christmas.” He took the package and stomped away, glowering. Hans suddenly felt very bad for Cade. The boy had never really known his father. After he lost his mother, Edwin Mellich was all he had left. It wasn’t a position that Hans envied.

A week before Christmas, Myra rolled back into town in the middle of the night and, before the sun came up, decorated her house with the lavish, over-the-top Christmas display everyone in town had come to expect from here. There were lights, standees, inflatables, robots, a moving train, a small ferris wheel, a display of Santa facing off with the Grinch on the roof, a Nativity scene in the corner, and Hans thought he even saw a Menorah in there somewhere. It was like the reindeer in flight voided their bowels directly over the house.

He was anxious when he rang the bell, he admitted to himself. Myra Chester was a human butterfly, flitting about from one reckless adventure to another. Even though she had technically lived in North Pole her entire life, she was never in town long enough to make any lasting friendships, and most of the hard-working, hard-saving people of the town would have rejected her friendship had it been offered. Still, there was no one else in town – perhaps in the universe – who had both the money and the mental capacity to send ten thousand dollars to Santa Claus via the U.S. mail.

“Hans!” she cried, opening the door. She flung her arms around him, hugging him like an old friend, even though he couldn’t recall the last conversation they’d had that lasted longer than three minutes. “So good to see you. Come in, come in!” She ushered him into the house, where he saw that her Yuletide zealotry wasn’t limited to the yard. Inside was bedecked with garland, lights, wreaths, bells, and a Christmas tree in every room, each with a different color scheme and decoration motif.

“Lovely place you have here, Myra,” he said, inhaling the distinct aroma of pine, even in a plastic forest.

“Oh, I’m so glad you like it. It’s a chore, trying to decorate this way every year, but it’s worth it when people show their appreciation.”

He nodded weakly and had a seat on a couch with a snowflake-pattern throw across the back. She joined him and offered a gingerbread man, which he politely declined. “Listen, Myra, I’ve been running around town trying to solve a little mystery and… heck, you’re probably the first person I’m going to ask who won’t think I’m crazy.”

“Is this about you trying to seek out the person who wrote a letter to Santa?”

He laughed. “Word travels fast, I guess.”

“Well, look no further! I’m your girl!”

“Really? You wrote it?”

“I write one every year! Oh, I know it’s a little silly, but we all have our traditions, don’t we?”

The word “tradition” stopped Hans’s inner celebration. Even Myra couldn’t afford to traditionally drop thousands of dollars in the mail. “Um… if you don’t mind me asking, what did you write about this year?”

She leaned in towards him conspiratorially, and whispered, “Diamonds.”

“Diamonds?”

“This new diamond pendant I’ve had my eye on. That’s what I asked Santa for.” She laughed, shaking at her own cleverness. “Of course, if Santa doesn’t come through, I’ll just buy it for myself.”

*   *   *

He went home to Meredith feeling despondent. If it wasn’t one of his three suspects, he had nothing to go on. If some random passerby had dropped the letter into the mail on his way through town, Hans knew that finding him would be nearly impossible.

“Any luck, dear?” she asked as he walked in.

“None,” he said, tossing his coat on the armchair where he hibernated most days. “I’m starting to think this whole thing was a waste of time.”

“It would have driven you crazy if you hadn’t tried.”

“It’s driving me crazy now.”

She smiled and gave his hand a tender pat. “At least you tried. Let’s sleep on it and try to figure out what to do with this little gift for Santa.”

“I guess,” he said. He brewed a pot of coffee and sat down in his favorite chair. He rarely had time to read his newspaper in the morning, so it was a treat for himself when he got home.

On the front page was a headline that made his heart drop and his brain throb. “Meredith!” he shouted. “Merry, did you see the paper today?”

“No, Hans. Why?”

He jumped from his armchair and accordioned the paper open, displaying it for her. “Great shades of Jimmy Stewart, look at this!”

The headline said it all: “MELLICH INDICTED IN $10,000 SHORTFALL.”

*   *   *

According to the paper, a bank examination showed the books at Mellich Real Estate, Inc. to be short exactly $10,000. Edwin Mellich had been arrested and indicted on suspicion of embezzlement, but he adamantly denied touching the money. It couldn’t be a coincidence, Hans thought, it just couldn’t. But how could Mellich have done something so foolish and not know he would get caught?

He was placed under house arrest, so Hans knew exactly where to find him. He didn’t even wait for the next day – it was still early evening, and this would be worth interrupting Mellich’s dinner for.

He rang the bell three times before he got an answer, and then it was just Mellich screaming at him through the doorway. “I said no interviews! Go away and leave me alone!”

“Ed, it’s Hans Lyman! I’m not here for an interview, I’m here to help!”

“How could you help? Leave me alone!”

“I have your $10,000!”

There was a long silence, and Mellich yanked the door open. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Hans withdrew the envelope from his pocket. “Does this look familiar?”

“No. What is it?”

“A letter to Santa Claus. With ten thousand dollars in cash.”

Mellich waved him into the house, and Hans noticed he had been wrong in his earlier assessment. The house wasn’t entirely empty of Christmas decorations. On the mantle over the fireplace was a modest Nativity scene.

“Okay, Lyman, explain yourself.”

“I was hoping you could provide the explanation. A few days ago I got a letter to Santa Claus with a wad of money and a letter telling him to put it to good use. Now your company is short the exact same amount of money.”

“Are you still saying you think I sent that letter?”

“I guess not, Ed. the more I talk to you, the more it doesn’t seem your style. But that doesn’t mean the money inside the envelope didn’t come from you somehow.”

Mellich snatched the envelope and started to go through it. “This is insane! If this is the money we’re missing, how did it get in this stupid letter?”

The door opened, then, and Cade tromped into the house, tossing his backpack and coat over the first chair he saw. “I’m home, Ed!” he said, looking over to where Mellich and Hans were examining the contents of the envelope. When he saw the money sticking out of the flap, his face drained to bleach-white, and he stammered, Uh… I-I-I… I’ve gotta go!”

Hans and Mellich cast a glance at each other as Cade bolted up the stairs. Mellich roared at his stepson. “Cade! Get back here!” The boy came back into the room, tears brimming from his eyes. Mellich’s own eyes were red, and his face was following suit. “How the hell did you do this?”

“Easy,” Cade snapped. “A hundred bucks at a time, whenever I could sneak the business’s ATM card.”

“A hundred times?” Mellich screamed.

“Sue me. I wanted to make a statement.”

“Wait a minute, Ed, don’t you think you’re asking the wrong question?” He turned to Cade. “Why did you take the money, son?”

Cade looked around, refusing to meet either his father or Hans in the eye. Mellich’s face was almost purple now, rage sputtering from his lips. “Well? Dammit, boy, answer the question! Why did you do it?”

“Because all that money is wasted on you!” he shouted. “Because you never do anything! Ever since Mom died, you just sit around here and hoard your money and ignore the world! So I just… I hoped someone could find a way to be happy!”

The two adults were left speechless. Cade, cheeks wet and nose wheezing, bolted from the room during their silence.

“Ed,” Hans whispered. Mellich was beyond listening, though. His purple face burst in a cascade of tears, and he sat down in front of the fireplace, blubbering. Hans leaned over towards him. “What happened, Ed? You used to be so close to that boy. We all saw it. Then after his mother died, it’s like you retreated from the whole world.”

“Christine,” Edwin sobbed. “She… she was my world. I love the boy, Hans, I do, but every time I look at him all I can see is her face.”

“I can’t even imagine how that must hurt.” Hans thought of Meredith, of losing her, and of having a living reminder of that loss. Even the fantasy made his heart ache. “But listen, Ed, Cade needs you. Christine is in a better place, but Cade needs a father here and now.”

“I’m not his father.”

“You think the prefix makes you any less important to him?”

“You don’t even have any kids. What do you know about it?” Edwin continued to weep, and Hans turned and rest his head against the mantel. When he looked up, he was looking at the Nativity scene, Mary and Joseph crowded around the manger, waiting for the figure of an infant to join them on Christmas day.

“You’re right. I’m not a father. Even with a prefix. But I know this much, Ed: some of the most important people who ever lived had stepfathers.” He picked up the Joseph figure, turning it over in the light. “Or were them,” he finished.

He placed Joseph back in the scene and leaned the envelope against him, the small fortune complete inside, and he walked out.

*   *   *

With the return of the money, the bank examiner dropped the charges. Many people in town were skeptical of the company’s public statement that it had been misplaced due to an “accounting error,” but Hans suspected Edwin didn’t particularly care what people believed. It was over; that was enough.

Hans was surprised, though, to see Edwin arrive in the post office the day before Christmas Eve. “Got another package pick-up, Ed?” he asked.

“No, I’m here to put a hold on my mail.”

“A hold?”

“Yes. Cade and I are going out of town for two weeks. We’ll be back right before school starts again.”

“Ah, I see.” Hans handed Ed the appropriate form and waited patiently as he filled it out. “So, where are you boys headed?”

“Colorado. Cade wanted a ski trip for Christmas.”

“Is that right?”

“His mother always wanted to go, but…” his voice trailed off and he quietly completed the form. “Um… here.”

“Thanks. You fellas have a good trip, now.”

“We will, Hans. Thanks.” He looked up at him and, with more weight in his voice, said it again. “Thanks.”

Hans winked. “I’m a postman. That’s my job.”

END

Well, folks, I hope you enjoyed that. The MercyMe song I mentioned back at the beginning, by the way, was “Joseph’s Lullaby.” Lovely song, if you ever get a chance to listen to it.

If you enjoyed the story, please feel free to pass the link on to your own friends and family. And check out the stories from previous years, too! Every word of every one of them is still online, and totally free:

2000: Lonely Miracle– A retired superhero is called to action once again
2001: Clarence Missed – In jail on Christmas? It could be worse…
2002: Pencil Sketches – The tale of two people who should never have been the best of friends
2003: JLZX622 – When a mother goes missing on Christmas, there’s only one way to find her
2004: Promise – A Christmas campout unearths a long-lost treasure
2005: A Long November was written as my National Novel Writing Month experiment for 2005 and became my first Podcast Novel. Duncan Marks is just like you — sick and tired of Christmas coming before the Thanksgiving turkey even comes out of the oven. But this year, a Spirit of the Season takes him on a journey that tests his resolve… and upon which Christmas itself may rise or fall. This yuletide adventure is available in 9 free-to-download episodes!
Subscribe at Podiobooks.com
Or read the book online in three parts: ONE-Preparations; TWO-Invitations; THREE-Celebrations
2006: The Helper – With his wife dying, how can this be a Merry Christmas?
2007: Circle – One good deed can change lives

Have a great week, guys. The Christmas Party isn’t over yet — expect a few more days of reviews and commentary, but this story is the centerpiece. Merry Christmas!




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