Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Klaus #2. Written by Grant Morrison (Nameless, The Multiversity) with art by Dan Mora (Hexed), this issue reinterprets the legend of Santa Claus in an action-packed narrative that doesn’t lose the holiday spirit. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

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Grant Morrison writing a comic that reimagines Santa Claus as a gruff, grizzled action hero is an idea that could have gone very wrong. The initial promotional image for Klaus (and first issue cover) showed the title character standing in the snow, shoulders drenched in blood from the slain buck he carries on his back, joined by a wolf dripping blood from her muzzle, and it projected a tone of grim severity that was totally at odds with the traditional image of Santa Claus as a jolly gift giver. Just how dark was Morrison going to make this story? His last Christmas tale, Happy!, was a grotesque, deeply unsettling read; would Santa Claus receive similar treatment in Klaus? It’s possible that a writer of Morrison’s talent could make an oppressively bleak version of Santa work, but that doesn’t sound very Santa-like at all, and it certainly doesn’t sound like a pleasant holiday comic.

Thankfully, that’s not the direction Morrison and artist Dan Mora go with Klaus. Morrison stays true to the core idea of a man who brings children gifts at Yuletide, but he puts Klaus in a context inspired by another classic hero, Robin Hood, casting Klaus as a lovable rogue who brings relief to the people of a town under tyrannical rule. Christmastime has been canceled in Grimsvig Town until the miners reach their quota, and all toys are the property of Master Jonas, the spoiled, sequestered son of the town’s cruel ruler Lord Magnus. There are literally signs on the street that read, “It is forbidden to wish,” and exaggerating the gloomy despair of Grimsvig Town plays up the fairy-tale quality by creating an especially cartoonish opponent for Klaus.

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Different regions have their own specific variations of the Santa Claus archetype, so the character is extremely malleable. Morrison’s interpretation pulls from Viking and Serbian folklore, with the Viking element coming through in Klaus’ warrior prowess, aligning him with Odin, the Norse god of war that serves as a proto-Santa figure. The Serbian element is highlighted by the first issue’s sequence where Klaus eats a hallucinogenic stew that allows him to commune with the spirits of the forest, drawing from the theory that Santa Claus was a shaman who came to people’s homes with hallucinogenic mushrooms as presents in late December. Klaus creates all his toys during his gorgeously rendered drug trip, which is one of the few instances where that signature Morrison weirdness seeps into the plot, but even then, Morrison restrains himself and lets Mora’s artwork carry the majority of the storytelling weight for Klaus’ psychedelic experience.

Mora is a relatively new name to the industry, and working with an A-list writer like Morrison is a huge opportunity for him to elevate his profile. He has a bright future considering how much his art for Klaus #2 improves on his already excellent art in the first issue, and Morrison’s story is enriched by the lush detail and bold composition of Mora’s visuals. The opening image of the issue paints an evocative picture of the dreary Grimsvig Town as two guards stand together in a cold, empty street, the light of their fire making them a bright target for Klaus to aim a snowball at. Mora’s coloring brings remarkable texture and atmosphere to his linework, and the uneven balance of warm and cold shades in this opening scene starts the story off with visual tension that intensifies the danger of Klaus’ illegal mission. That tension dissipates in the following scene when the children of Grimsvig Town wake up and discover the toys on the doorsteps, a moment of joy that is heightened by the lush, vibrant palette.

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With a sexy lead hero and a fun twist on a classic holiday concept, Klaus is a story that feels like it’s tailor-made for an eventual film adaptation (Joe Manganiello as Klaus, please), and that’s actually a good thing here. Morrison’s writing is surprisingly subdued, and working in a simpler style makes Klaus one of Morrison’s most easily accessible comics. The book reads as a sincere pastiche of the type of animated movies Disney put out in the ’90s, which incorporated darker elements into stories that still had a lot of heart and charm. Morrison realizes that doing a gritty Santa story is silly, and he highlights Klaus’ charity and sense of humor in this second issue without diminishing his badassery.

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After sneaking into the city, Klaus knocks out a guard and defaces one of the posters of Lord Magnus, turning his stern glare into a goofy grin and painting the rune for “joy” on his chin. Later, Klaus takes down the hulking Olaf and uses his overturned, unconscious body as the foundation for a snowman. These moments of humor do a lot to make Klaus an engaging character, and unlike a lot of the gruff modern heroes that Klaus is visually informed by, he has a genuinely kind spirit that motivates him to selflessly fight for the happiness of others.

The fourth page of this issue encapsulates the appeal of Klaus in four panels, beginning with a dramatic shot of the hero leaping down from a battlement, looking like a grade-A action hero with a sack full of toys strapped to his back. The poster of a disapproving Lord Magnus appears throughout the sequence to reinforce the authoritarian rule Klaus is fighting against, and Klaus has to slink through the shadows to deliver his toys. His face is hidden in the next three panels as Klaus drops off his first gift, depicting him as an ominous figure when he’s in reality the only person fighting to make things better for the people of Grimsvig Town. The gift he leaves is wrapped in gold paper, and as Klaus moves on to the next house, the shining package serves as a representation of the hope and good cheer Klaus wants to bring these poor people. The character may be hunkier and moodier than the Santa Clause most readers are familiar with, but Klaus succeeds by remembering the positive attributes that have made the figure a cultural mainstay.

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