"Thrilling Holiday Tales"
Story and Art by Jeff Patterson
Jeff's Note: Another 11th Hour rush job. This drawing's not quite what I was aiming for, but it does evoke a vintage Max Fleisher feel. I can live with that. I've become more comfortable with Photoshop, but still prefer a hybrid of computer and hand-rendered art. The printed version was more detailed.
In a year that made hero-worship almost mandatory, I decided to harken back to days of yesteryear. This story just fell into "the zone" early in the process. Good rhythm, plenty of fun "lists," neat wrap-up. It worked, as I got a lot more positive response than I anticipated. Had to hack off a lot of ideas to keep it short. Maybe I'll post a "Director's Cut."
Uninteresting fact: This marked the second story in three years to be written from a woman's point of view.
I must admit, doing this card was a strange experience for me as it quickly became a team effort. I got a good quantity of much-needed assistance from some folks who know more than I do. Amateur pulp icon historian and occasional lawyer Bob Gelinas gave the tale a once-over, Jennifer Abel (a confirmed obsessive/
compulsive proofreader) did the whole spelling/grammar thing (which they tell me is kinda important), and Mark Vadnais ("The Operating System Who Walks Like A Man") finished the visual imaging and tweaked the master for prnting. Several metric tonnes of thanks go out to them. This year also brings a new font and layout to the card, additional digital art, and the use of a new print shop. As Dr. Caligari said:"Exactly the same, but different in every way."
He's never home for the holidays. Don't get me wrong, he always remembers important dates, like birthdays and anniversaries. A mind of such a critical caliber as Max Venture's could never forget such things. Nor does he neglect the spirit of the time. Each year I am showered with exotic gifts from places most people would not believe exist. No, he is generous to a fault with me, in both the emotional and material realms. It's just that I never get to spend this most precious time of the year with him, when our thoughts and actions should be focused upon the ones from whom our joy flows. It seems that every holiday season he's off to a distant corner of the earth to deal with some crisis, subdue a new monster, or defeat a madman. I've gotten accustomed to it; I just don't have to like it. I've been telling myself "this year it will be different" for far too long now. If I have learned anything in my time with Max it is the immutable fact that it is our deeds, not our intentions, that make a difference in this world. My host brings me the tea he promised, asks me if I'm comfortable, then goes back to his preparations. I sip the warm brew and remember... We met in Monaco right after the war. Mother and I were sunning ourselves on the sands of Plage de Larvetto when he strolled up and introduced himself. Max was breathtaking, bronzed by the sunlight and jeweled by the ocean spray. He was jovial, charming, and incorrigible. He dined with us that night and told an outlandish tale of spending the last few weeks battling something called the Axis Warbot, how it pursued him across Europe until he lured it into the seething mouth of Mount Etna. Mother dismissed him as a crackpot, but I spent the next few days with him anyway. He told me stories of the war, his airborne duel against Baron Von Bane, freeing the lost city of Aquapolis from enemy occupation, and his dealings with the Vampire Battalion. By the end of the week he had asked me to join him on his travels. I had finished my studies, and had no obligations to tend to at home, so I agreed. We were inseparable for the rest of the year, sailing around the Mediterranean and hiking the Scottish Highlands. Mother repeatedly told me it was improper for a woman of my station to cavort with such a roguish fellow. I didn't listen. It was bliss. Then in December he received a call and told me he had to go to Giza. A man named Professor Darquehart was trying to procure a hidden scroll that could resurrect an army of the dead. It wasn't exactly my idea of a holiday, so I stayed behind. In his absence I learned all about the man named Max Venture, the daring adventurer, the inventor of modern marvels, the thief extraordinaire, the master of disguise. The bright child born aboard an expedition ship bound for Madagascar; the displaced orphan raised by the Irugu tribe to be brave and noble; the brash youth discovered by the nomadic Order of Light and educated in the arcane arts; the inquisitive prodigy tutored in London by the reclusive, enlightened minds of the Enigma Society; and the young genius who used his late parents' wealth to construct his Secret Sanctuary in the foothills of the Andes. I read of his exploits, how he toppled The Iron Sultan, solved the Case of the Vanishing Marquis, and single-handedly faced the Lost Armada that terrorized ships around the Bermuda Triangle. His name was whispered in high social circles as the man who had saved the world more times than could be counted, who split the sky astride his gyrospeeder bringing justice where it was needed. I was intrigued. Upon his return he brought me to his Secret Sanctuary, full of wondrous vehicles and inventions. It was magnificent in its functionality, but lacked a certain, shall we say, domestic charm. It wasn't long before I moved in. He would occasionally leave for a few days to quell some impending disaster, but always returned to discover a new improvement I had made to the place. We were happy that whole year. I was determined that we were going to have a festive holiday, with grand celebrations and all the trimmings. Instead, he took his Drillship to the subterranean empire of Quul, where he battled magma-beasts and returned the reptilian queen to her throne. Apparently he and the queen went back a long way. To make it up to me he brought me back a diamond the size of my fist, a common stone from the world below the earth's crust. The next year he flew his Venturejet to Shadow Island, with its dinosaurs and ancient ruins. He rescued a ship that had run aground there, and freed its crew from cannibalistic primitives. My gift was a bracelet of polished saber-teeth. The year after that the U.S. Government summoned him. They shrunk my beloved to molecular size and injected him into the President's bloodstream. Professor Darquehart and his robotic Micro-Pirates were trying to mine military secrets from the Commander-in-Chief's brain. Max derailed their plan. You don't want to know what he brought me that year. The following year he had to build the neutro-cannon to defeat the atomic horror of Insecticus off the Bikini Atoll. After that it was Antarctica and the lost Silver City that appears for ten days every century. Then it was the Ghost Dragon that threatened to destroy the Great Wall, and the attack of the Wasp Men, and the earthquake in Wales that spit up Excalibur, and the Professor's hypno-bomb hidden under the new United Nations building. As time passed my gifts grew stranger: a necklace of dreamstones, an Amazonian amulet, rolls of firesilk, a coat of softest Yeti fur. There are so many stored away in the Sanctuary that I've lost track. I've also lost track of how many times Professor Darquehart's diabolical plans have taken my beloved away from me at holidaytime. There were others, like the Weather Master and Samurai Spy, but Darquehart was a bad penny, always unleashing Meta-beams or Spider-tanks on the world. His quest to defeat Max blinded him so. Poor deluded Darquehart, his intentions were always good. He wanted to rule the world, end hunger and pain, usher in a new scientific golden age, all under his "benevolent" guidance. "I must save the world from itself." He said that to Max almost every time they met, just before Max escaped from his trap or destroyed his new weapon. No matter how many times he was thwarted, he kept coming back. Mother always said Max couldn't help himself, regardless of the risk. It's in his blood. Even as the world changed around us, he still had to be the hero. When the Nine Jade Tigers on display at the World's Fair came to life and began a rampage, Max wrestled them one by one until he could pluck the cursed jewels from their brows. When meteors began falling on major cities, he rocketed to the Moon where he found a giant who communicated in radio waves. Our television signals had roused him from a million-year slumber and he was hurling boulders at the Earth to silence us. Max built him a set of lead earmuffs that blocked out the noise and let him sleep. That's Max. Such virtue and bravery are a part of him. He cannot let a challenge go unanswered. You see my problem. How can a girl compete with all that? How can making me happy compare with saving the world? I have rooms full of fabulous wonders, but I never have him around to help decorate the Secret Sanctuary for the holidays. As I said, I don't have to like it. We're getting older, and he's been at this for so long. But, as Mother said, it's in his blood. Nearly a year went by without incident. Oh yes, my beloved was asked to help save a satellite from decaying orbit, and decipher the cryptic glyphs of an ancient text, but the world he had saved was growing more complicated and managed to survive without his intervention. There were younger daredevils who, with a sound bite or the stroke of a pen, took on magnitudes of evil Max could never conceive of in his youth. The dread of monsters and villains had been replaced by the fear of stock market fluctuations and trade agreements. People panicked over layoffs, government reports on lab rats, corporate mergers, and petty scandals. The light in Max's incorruptible eyes burned a little dimmer. The future had arrived, and it didn't need him as much anymore. I would catch him reading the news clippings of his older exploits, and wandering the Sanctuary in the small hours, remembering. One night this past fall I found him flipping through television channels, pausing whenever he came across a newscast. He was looking for a challenge, some impending doom to rise against, but everything he found was out of his league. Economic crises couldn't be defeated in fistfights, phobias and ideologies were not susceptible to Max's technological wizardry. These were threats and dangers that no one person could end, no matter how brilliant or powerful. Max knew that too well. That was when the plan came to me. "This year it will be different." Max was dispatched to Canada to help corral a newly thawed herd of mammoths that threatened to damage the oil pipeline. After he left I went through his old journals, studied his maps, and accessed his computer files. Once I had what I needed, I boarded the Venturejet and took off. Darquehart wasn't hard to find. Max had destroyed many of his secret bases in years past. Only a few were left. He was holed up in the catacombs beneath Easter Island. I found him and his robot servants constructing a Floating Fortress, a massive skull-shaped hovership from which he could carry out his next campaign. He demanded an explanation for my intrusion. I laughed, and told him his new monstrosity would never succeed. It wasn't a taunt, just a simple truth. He stared at me. This was the man who had fought my beloved to a standstill countless times, who had evaded capture repeatedly by the slimmest of margins, and who had made an art out of faking his own death. He was an exhausted maestro whose greatest acts had been played out on the global stage for many years. The world no longer had a taste for the elegant flavor of his machinations. The schemes of his design had no place in the here and now. Injustices a thousand times greater than his most insidious plans were carried out daily all around him. He had the same look in his eyes as Max: helpless, obsolete, old. He turned and looked at his newest creation. His face told me he knew it was futile. "No matter what you do," I said, "he'll stop you. Both of you will wage the epic struggle again and again, enact the same drama, utter the same banter, and it will end as it always does." He was silent for a moment, and then he wept. He wept for a lifetime of defeats spent chasing a hollow dream. He wept for an age long past, and a future too frightening to face. He wept for the day when good and evil ceased to mean what they used to. He mourned his heart's desire, this man who wrought fear upon the world, now hiding and tinkering under an island, with only robot slaves for company. "Is this why you've come?" he said between sobs, "To see me broken?" "No, actually" I said, "I've come to help you defeat him." I told him my plan, how his nemesis could be snared and rendered helpless. I described each step that would need to be taken. Every detail. Every contingency. He was impressed, and agreed to participate. I would be Max's undoing, to a degree that Darquehart could never dream of achieving. Tonight the world celebrates this most precious time of the year, their thoughts and actions focused upon the ones from whom their joy flows. A few lucky ones will look up, and against the night sky they will see the indelible image of Max Venture astride his gyrospeeder, his square jaw set with grim determination. For a moment, the world will seem a safer place. I can imagine the adrenaline racing through Max's body, and can almost hear his quickening pulse pounding in his chest. It's in his blood. The Professor is holding me "captive" in his Floating Fortress over the Pacific. The ransom demand has been transmitted on the secret frequency that I, of course, provided. Darquehart has promised to put on a good performance, giving Max a moderate amount of resistance and struggle before escaping in his Rocket-Pod. Then my beloved and I shall have the place to ourselves. The lead doors will seal shut and the Fortress will rise into the moonlit sky. Escape will be impossible. The Fortress' many chambers have been transformed by my hand. The Command Dome is now a dining hall, where our sumptuous feast awaits. The Interrogation Cell has become a sitting room holding all of Max's gifts. The Weapons Bay is now a candlelit boudoir with a breathtaking view of the ocean. Of course his precise and analytical mind will unravel my ruse quickly, but by then it will be too late. My victory is assured. I shall be the instrument of Max's defeat, and the object of his greatest triumph. My love shall be a world for him to save, my embrace the spoils of his victory. I hear my beloved's gyrospeeder approaching, and prepare to spring my trap. I do love the Holidays.