Also published at Adventures in Poor Taste!
“His origin story detailed an out-and-out shamanic experience of a kind familiar to any witch doctor, ritual magician, anthropologist, or alien abductee.”
Out of context, one could easily mistake Morrison’s above quote as referring to Klaus, his superhero Santa whose secret origin is being scribed in this eponymous miniseries. This sixth issue in particular has many of the elements enumerated: the shamanic experience as Klaus borders between the living and the dead, the ritual magic ascribed to Klaus by Finn in insisting the former to be a wizard, even the visitation by the shining family in an episode extremely reminiscent of Morrison’s own alien abduction. In actuality, the referent of the quote is Captain Marvel, to whom Morrison devotes nearly an entire chapter in his 2011 autobiography Supergods.
I’ve previously detailed ways in which Klaus is clearly channeling both Superman and Morrison himself, particularly in the first issue. In the middle issues Klaus takes his cues from Batman, skulking in shadows, running on rooftops, and turning theatricality into a tactical weapon. Here, however, Morrison is infusing Santa with Shazam. Such certainly makes sense. While Morrison is best known for his work on Superman (All-Star, Final Crisis, Action Comics) and Batman (R.I.P., Return of Bruce Wayne, Batman Inc.), Captain Marvel has always seemed the most Morrison-esque mainstream hero. This is undoubtedly because both are associated with magic, particularly the mercurial magic of spells and incantations. Consider the following quote from the same paragraph in Supergods as the one above, but with the name “Klaus” in place of “Captain Marvel.”
“[Klaus]’s stories offered a world that slid and slipped and became unreal, a world where the word became center stage. He embraced the interior world of dream logic, fairy-tale time, and toys that come to life.”
Toys that come to life? I’d not be surprised to learn if Morrison had had the idea for Klaus years ago, before the publication of Supergods. There’s certainly enough of the plot of Klaus in the pages of Supergods to support the notion. Klaus’ ascension by means of the shining family in this issue is pulled nearly exactly from Morrison’s descriptions of his experience at Katmandu:
“I met intelligent sculptures of what appeared to be ultraviolet neon tubes, which fanned and changed configurations as they attempted to communicate with me… I was turned around, is the simplest way of thinking about it. My sense of being rotated through a plane I could not now point to, turning my attention to an environment that was not entirely incompatible with theoretical physics’ descriptions of hyperspace, or the bulk, a hypothesized mega-medium in which entire universes are suspended. This was like that, but real – more real than anything I had ever experienced. Whatever it was, I had fully entered a space that felt both vaulted and enclosed, like an immense cathedral or an infinite horizon. It was as if infinity and eternity could be contained and bottled inside something bigger than both.”
Additionally, words are certainly center stage in Klaus, particularly in issue #6. The shining family command Klaus: “Come. Make. Better.” In saying so they show the Santa three runes from the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc: Gyfu, meaning “gift,” Ƿ (Wynn), which readers will recall from the second issue means “joy,” and Cweorð, which according to one source means “fire,” though another claims that there exists no known meaning.
Essentially, Klaus is being given a mission to make better gifts, better joy, better fire. The first two are obvious in their association with the Santa Claus of contemporary culture. The one characterization of him consistent across all cultures, beyond even his name, is that he exists to bring yuletide joy to children through gift giving. Fire is less obvious. There are thirty-three runes in the version of the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc which Morrison is utilizing. The name of each rune was derived from an Anglo-Saxon word, none of which is any more fitting than “fire” or even a mysterious meaning as part of the command to Klaus to “make better.” It may simply be that Morrison wanted to utilize three runes, and his options as to the third were severely limited. If he did in fact intend Cweorð to be translated as “fire,” such was certainly for fire’s associations with the yule log, the hearth which warms the home in winter, and the light in the darkness which fire brings, similar to the solstice bringing about the return of daylight and the lessening of darkness.
Runes as a means of resurrection are particularly fitting given their connection to Odin, whom in Supergods Morrison declares Captain Marvel (and by extension now, Klaus) to be an incarnation of: “The Vikings knew him as Odin, the one-eyed god, from whose shoulders the magical ravens – thought and memory – fly hither and yon and bring the god instant knowledge from all corners of the cosmos.” Furthermore, in the Old Norse poem Hávamál, Odin specifically states that there are runes which can bring a man back from the dead: “I know a twelfth one if I see, up in a tree, a dangling corpse in a noose, I can so carve and color the runes, that the man walks and talks with me.”
Of course, beyond any influence from Captain Marvel, inspiration from Odin would have been inevitable in Morrison’s more deliberately pagan Santa story. One of Odin’s names in Old Norse was Jólnir, meaning “yule figure,” who, alongside Saint Nikolaos of Myra, is regarded as one of the major sources for Santa Claus. According to Margaret Bake in Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore: A Guide to Seasonal Rites throughout the World, “The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas… owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts.”
It goes without saying that the master of the medium Morrison has written in Klaus a great comic, both for the series as a whole and issue #6 in particular. It’s well paced, action packed, and crammed with compelling characters. But where he truly deserves praise is just how well researched Klaus is, how smartly and subtly he synthesizes the real pagan roots behind Santa Claus with the superhero tropes the comics medium demands. Small touches like the meaning of several Anglo-Saxon runes are sure to be overlooked by the vast majority of readers, but such details demonstrate the depth of Morrison’s world-building. And like Klaus himself, that which Morrison builds is made with magic and always gives the gift of joy.