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The holiday season is the gift that keeps giving for comic book artists. From the earliest days of the four-color medium there have been Christmas and Santa Claus covers that nudge sales and cast a spell over collectors. At Marvel Comics, the holiday cover is such a set tradition now that the challenge is to find a concept and composition that feels truly original and not...ummmmm...''re-gifted.'' That's not a problem during other parts of the calendar: Valentine's Day motifs don't get much love, for instance, and no one expects an Easter Bunny cover to deliver sales bounce. So, with the season upon us, here's a selected look back at some of Marvel's modern history of holiday heroics.
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Ridley Scott's Alien was rewrapped for this Christmas 1980 cover by Terry Austin but the story has a Home Alone vibe as young Kitty Pryde finds herself sharing the deserted X-Men mansion with a soul-gobbling visitor — no, not Joe Pesci, but an otherworldly demon.
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Wait, mindless rage comes in shades of green and red? Yes, it's true, Hulk and the Red Hulk (a.k.a. Rulk) are just made for the holidays, aren't they? The vicious Red Hulk first appeared in 2008 as a government-created rival to the emerald original; this cover by Ed McGuiness hit stores in December 2009.
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Peter Parker planned to join a friend at a holiday party but, wouldn't you know it, he's needed over at Central Park where dinosaurs are on the rampage. The spindly superhero saves the day (again) and bellows a greeting to the frosty skyscrapers: ''Merry Christmas, New York — you great big shiny apple you! And God bless us...everyone!''
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Marvel Comics surged in pop culture in the 1960s by focusing on flawed heroes who were often hard up for cash, unlucky in love, or tagged as misunderstood outsiders. That melodrama tradition echoed clearly in this Christmas 1988 cover (by fan favorite Todd McFarlane) and in its accompanying story, ''Down and Out in Forest Hills,'' where Spidey's enemies handed him an eviction notice.
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The logo on the cover of the GL X-Mas Special from 2005 makes you wonder if Marvel got an interstellar cease-and-desist from the Green Lantern legal department, but of course in this case the GL is shorthand for Great Lakes Avengers, and, instead of ancient Oa, the strange alien setting is Milwaukee. Kudos to artist Paul Pelletier for having the courage to put antlers on squirrels.
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Christmas 1976 delivered this Treasury edition collection with a snow-swirling cover by Gil Kane, who was born Eli Katz in Latvia in 1926 but raised in Brooklyn. In the comic book world Kane, who died in 2000, was ''an artist's artist'' and is best known for co-creating the Silver Age hero called the Green Lantern. Kane's name was left out of the credits of the Warner Bros. film but, really, maybe that's for the best.
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One of Marvel's early oversized Treasury editions, this 1974 beauty reprints two holiday-themed tales (Have Yourself a Sandman Little Christmas! with Spider-Man and the Human Torch plus a 10-page Black Widow story illustrated by Gene Colan) as well as Silver Age classics by Wally Wood and Jack Kirby that are sublime in any season. The cover, however, is a reminder that, when you draw the Hulk with smile on his face, he looks like a doofus.
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Most Marvel holiday covers hang their fur-lined hats on humor or a symbolic representation of community, tradition, altruism, or faith. Others, like this Uncanny X-Men cover by Chris Bachalot for Christmas 1998 look for darker corners of silent nights. You won't be surprised to learn that the story in that issue was titled The Ghost of X-Mas Past.
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This cover from Christmas 1990 might be a headscratcher for some of you. You may be asking: Is that really the Hulk and if so, why is he primer-paint gray instead of seasonally appropriate Christmas-tree green? And this not-so-jolly version of Santa — since when did Kris Kringle trade his jaw-breaker candy cane for a skull-cracking crowbar? Yes, the grey fellow is indeed the Hulk (sometimes his skin is like a mood ring), but the guy in the red suit is actually the Rhino, a brutish knucklehead and, no surprise, a Naughty List lifer.
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Wrap-around covers are always fun, but they can be a little tricky for artists as far as composition — the right half of the image is the front cover and the left is the back. For this 1991 cover, Art Adams used that to his advantage — readers see the glowering Marvel heroes on the front but need to flip the book for the Santa reveal moment.
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James Brown sang ''Santa's Got a Brand New Bag,'' and that title also works for this 1994 wrap-around cover that shows the toymaker bent by the burden of the Marvel Universe. At the top of the picture you'll see that Santa's cap has been stolen by Thanos, the death-loving alien tyrant moviegoers will remember as the smirking alien at the end of The Avengers.
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The fan-favorite artist George Perez is known for dynamic images, often with an army of characters and intricate detail that fills every corner of the page. But with this 1994 cover he let empty space and the monochromatic visages in the Christmas decorations take the visual volume down to a nice ''Silent Night'' level.
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Since the 1970s when he made a splash as the artist on The Shadow, Michael Kaluta's evocative artwork has veered away from the conventional sensibilities seen in superhero comics. This winking portrayal of Santa Claus feels like a nod to the golden age of magazine illustration — but who besides Santa knew that the Ghost Rider was a golfer?
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Marvel's heroes face death and sometimes die (although typically not for very long), and they often can't make it through the week without getting indicted, banished, broken, framed, libeled, or punched in the face. But at least in the holiday issues, like this one from 2010, they get to act like kids. And that's an endearing gift to a readership that remains young at heart.