Editor’s note: Hi! John here. It’s a surprise holiday edition. My longtime editorial partner Eric Vilas-Boas, the entertainment editor at Observer, steps in with a guest essay for the final Tears for Toons issue of this bad year. Hope you enjoy, and see you (and your inboxes) on January 9th! Please note: This entry contains discussion of both fictional and real-world genocide.
How do you celebrate Christmas after a genocide? After you’ve seen your family killed? After you've tried to assimilate into a new and strange society?
Whether you knew it or not, Justice League, the early-aughts animated series, actually had the balls to consider these questions in its holiday episode “Comfort and Joy,” an entry written by Paul Dini and directed by Butch Lukic. “Comfort and Joy” is one of the show’s most narratively efficient episodes—spreading Christmas cheer across three separate storylines in just half an hour, even as it tees viewers up for a brutal upcoming series finale. But it shines when it tugs at the holiday heartstrings of J’onn J’onzz, a.k.a. the Martian Manhunter.
At the top of the episode, after J’onn telepathically coordinates with the Justice League to save a species from extinction, the team splits up for the holidays. J’onn tells the gang that the season holds no special meaning for him, while Superman immediately schemes to invite his friend over to his parents’ house for Christmas.
The episode never spells it out, but we need J’onn’s backstory to fully appreciate his lack of enthusiasm for Christmas. It’s not just that he’s a tall green man, and it’s not just that his telepathic mind is fundamentally wired differently. It's that J’onn’s history is more tragic than that of any other member of the Justice League. He is the last Martian left alive after a genocide that killed his wife and two children, as established in the series premiere, “Secret Origins.” And though he is a refugee who has suffered great pain, he must modulate his appearance constantly to avoid freaking humans out.
So J’onn barely knows what to do with the kindness of the Kents when they invite him into their home. He's stiff and awkward, confused as to what he should call his coworker when they’re off duty. He tries to pet Supergirl’s cat, Streaky, and is rebuffed. But J’onn is no Scrooge. He graciously accepts a gifted sweater at least two sizes too big for him, shape-shifting his frame to fit to its knits and purls. He enjoys the company, but he clearly feels empty inside, so he makes himself literally empty, decreasing the density of his body enough to slide his molecules through the walls and escape into town on Christmas Eve.
J’onn’s response to his many traumas has always been to make sacrifices for the greater good at the expense of his own psychological well being. First, the loss of his family drove him to the life of a freedom fighter on Mars. Then he was captured while trying to warn the Earth of the same invaders that killed off his race. Later, as the Justice League’s telepath, his job required him to open his mind to his six teammates, putting him on the front line of any potential mental attacks. His peers are all heroes who deal with their own share of traumas, but their blues ain’t like his blues, and how could they be?
We have little evidence that J’onn ever talks about his struggles, let alone that he goes to therapy. How could the totality of his issues not race through his mind as he paces the snowy streets of Smallville, shape-shifting into his nondescript human avatar, “John Jones” and peering through windows to look at cheery gatherings and listen to the thoughts of children who still believe in Santa. In a moment of levity, he snags an Oreo to keep a little girl’s belief in St. Nick going a little longer, but it does not leave his heart full. So he continues, an intangible ghost, and it snows harder.
All the while, we catch glimpses of the respective Christmas shenanigans of the Flash, who is tracking down a toy for some kids, and Green Lantern and Hawkgirl, who are consummating their flirtations with a healthy bar fight. Both Dini and Lukic—veterans of animated, character-driven superheroics—knew exactly what they were doing in breaking the narrative this way. The episode draws from the “Holiday Knights” format from The New Batman Adventures, and just as in that episode, one story serves as a heavy thematic anchor. Clark gets his lead-lined wrapping paper. John and Shayera get their post-pugilistic canoodle. Wally does more than one great deed. And Bruce and Diana are definitely playing with her lasso in a way that would be inappropriate for kids’ TV, though they're barely mentioned in the episode.
But J’onn’s story is the one the episode imbues with grace—in a very literal sense when he comes upon a church. He hears a recital of the Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” written by Edmund Sears, and his stoic face cracks like an icy lake in March. He has finally found something to connect to, an outlet for the intensity of his melancholy.
The episode ends at daybreak on Christmas, with the Kent house bathed in morning light and J’onn stroking Streaky and singing a Martian canto. None of the Kents know the words, but they recognize the performance as a treasure. “And he said he didn't bring a gift,” Clark says.
J’onn is a Martian, but his hurt is universal. “Comfort and Joy” acknowledges not just the thrills that come with ripping open presents but also the pain of having no one to share them with. It understands the cognitive whiplash we can feel when we are surrounded by happiness but still desperately need to heal before it can reach us. Like the best Justice League episodes, it dares to hope that healing is possible.
We hid together but the interahamwe discovered us. The Interahamwe tied up Gakuba but they did not tie me up. They killed him in front of me. When they took their eyes off me, I escaped. I did not want to die like Gakuba. They fired three bullets but none hit me….
I now live in a child-headed household. I live in poor conditions because I am in secondary school and we must look after ourselves. I cannot bury my parents properly because I do not have the means. I would like to become a hero like my dad. My life today is worse than ever before because my problems are increasing day by day. I have great responsibilities because I am the head of a child-headed household.
Through the Gacaca reconciliation process, the killer of my family came to me for forgiveness. I did not forgive him at that time because I had bitterness in my heart. If he comes now, I could forgive him. God said that, if we forgive, we would be forgiven. We have to show the killers that we are not like them, that we have a more noble character. I think that they have seen that they gained nothing from what they have done. Let us give them a human heart.
My nights are dedicated to the glory of cartoons, but I spend my days covering the book business for Publishers Weekly, and every once in a while, I get the chance to make a statement. I hope this whopper of a piece, saluting the workers without whom no American would have a book to read and without whose tireless push for a better industry the book business would not change, is a worthy one. Plus, the incredible Madeline Gobbo illustrated the magazine’s cover this week. Check out the illustration in its glorious full-page version right over here!
Weekly watching recommendations and more.
Each year on Christmas Eve, after our parents go to sleep, my brothers, Stephen and Alex, and I enjoy a rotation of adult animation Christmas specials to wash down the classic family-friendly staples. This year, we’ll be watching over Netflix Party, Hulu Party, and the like, but there’s no chance in hell we’ll be skipping over the tradition. We like to mix it up every year, but there are three that always make the cut:
P.S. I am also watching the new season of Hilda, which remains one of the greatest delights on television. Get with it if you haven’t yet!
I’m going to attempt Moby-Dick over the holidays. I’ll probably fail. Don’t judge me.
I apologize for the shameless yuletide energy of the bulk of my recommendations this week. Halfheartedly, though. For the funky and soulful, this is the perfect Christmas playlist. I, the Numero Group stan, proclaim it:
And for the recovering choir kids like me, have a sacred, soothing, soaring holiday:
What I’m Eating
Call it Il Cenone di Vigilia or the Feast of the Seven Fishes or whatever else you like— if you’re Southern Italian American, you’re probably doing it this Christmas Eve. I’m the chef this year, and will be figuring out my own version of the following staples:
Tears for Toons is on holiday for two (2) whole weeks, until January 9th! In the meantime, got any feedback for me? Gimme that good stuff. And have a healthy (and happy) new year!
Read more posts like this in your inbox
Subscribe to the newsletter