• Let's Review: Holiday Special 2019

    Yes, I vandalized a cover to make a pun. Definitely earning a spot on the naughty list.

    The time has come to take a look at the latest IDW holiday special.

    Catch the spirit after the break, but beware. Spoilers await the ill-behaved!

    What we have here is two stories written by James Asmus and illustrated by separate artists. So let's go over these stories as two independent works.

    Holiday Hassle

    D'awww! They match their pets and vice-versa.
    If they weren't ponies, I'd find this much less adorable.

    Illustrating this longer story is my favorite, Andy Price. Much like in the Halloween-themed FiM#71, Price makes an effort to decorate each page with both holiday ornaments and references to popular culture.

    What studio is at the Rockafilly Center?

    It doesn't strictly add to the story but it does drive home that this is a special publication and is just something fun to enjoy. Much like the Easter Eggs and Watcher Pony we've come to expect. It's also nice to see Price honor past issues with cameos by ponies like Kibitz and Raven Inkwell. Even Windy the Windigo, Asmus' own creation, gets a nod. It seems that Twilight is okay with its display now.

    My Little Pony: Procrastinating is Not Magic!

    Price seems to have the most fun satirizing the fashion industry as he presents a holiday party. I don't know fashion icons well enough to get all the jokes, but I can recognize a reference by the characters' expressions and unique styles.

    I have no idea who this is and currently lack the energy to check.

    Yet humor is fickle, as sometimes a joke can leave a sour aftertaste. In this case, there is a chef trying to create a cheese fondue fountain. At first I thought the joke was that they were trying for cheese when chocolate is the norm. A quick Google search revealed that cheese fountains are indeed a thing. Also, I'm hungry now.

    That's no gouda!

    Yet we later see that same pony has been scalded by her own creation and a side of her face bandaged. I've been witness to enough slapstick to understand the humor behind a character getting banged up, but often times that injury was karmic. This pony didn't do anything mean-spirited or hurtful. If anything, she was trying to get a party set up in time. So this visual gag feels uncomfortable.

    Am I supposed to laugh at the fact she might be scarred for life?
    Because I'm not!

    The story itself is pretty basic and relies on Price's vitality to keep the energy up. We start by giving reasons why each of the Mane Six is occupied, including Applejack injuring her leg and needing some help. Thanks to a mixup, Rarity is torn between multiple Hearth's Warming commitments. True to Murneigh's Law, everything that can go wrong does. We follow Rarity from disaster to disaster; Canterlot to Manehatten to the Poirot Pass. Thankfully, that last one doesn't involve a murder.

    But could these places afford an appearance fee?
    Trick question. That's something divas do!

    While reading comments on the most recent preview post, I noted that several fans drew comparisons to "Sweet and Elite". I would argue that this story is a parallel to "Suited for Success". In trying to please everyone and increase the quantity of engagements, Rarity is actually lowering the quality time spent with her closest friends.

    I'm more concerned with what they wear on Mondays.
    For Mondays are hateful.

    This is where Spike comes into play. Watching Rarity bounce between commitments can feature some funny moments but to build rising tension we rely on Spike to serve as a wounded party. Though is primary goal is quality time with Rarity, each event leaves him disappointed as he is denied some form of enjoyment. I don't think we'd identify with the rising frustration or Rarity's revelation if Spike wasn't there to serve as the conflict's embodiment.

    I chose the wrong screen name! I should have gone with
    "Silver the Awesome!"

    Yet Spike's role has me pondering the message. His frustration is legitimate and highlight's both Rarity's mistake and the story's moral, but I feel that it's incomplete. This is a message that works well for a young audience. "Enjoy the relations you have, not how many". Yet Rarity' visit to the fashion social stands out to me because it does yield a possible benefit. It also gets me thinking of the more mature responsibilities adults face. 

    Feats of Friendship is too fresh in my memory!
    I keep expecting Hercules to go chasing after Aspen.

    The truth is that a lot of adults this season are going to be moving between commitments and budgeting out their time. Yet those events are things like charities, opportunities for newcomers in a field to interact with experts, and drawing attention to worthwhile causes. In many ways, these gatherings will not allow for much quality time with friends and family, but there's more than one way to understand quality. These same acts can benefit a larger group of people or lay the groundwork for benefit down the road.

    Now this is a fashion pony I can celebrate!
    A beacon of positivity in a party of drab.

    So I feel a conflict between Rarity's strained schedule and Spike's desires for quality time. This story leans heavily in favor of Spike's perspective, but I wonder if he could grow from realizing the purpose behind Rarity's actions. That if he saw her generosity at play, helping improve quality of life for others, he might let go of a desire to have all her time to himself. While Twilight offers a comment similar to this at the end, I'd rather see it acted out by the primary characters.

    Rarity attempting physical labor.
    It be a world gone mad!

    Yet while I wonder about the messages that could be told, I don't want to dismiss the one we have. This story's message is something that can apply year-round, which is what a holiday theme should convey. We will be busy with various commitments throughout the year, but must build quality time with friends and family into the framework.

    Stop worrying about your schedule and help Applejack!

    So I consider it a fun read. I certainly wonder about how the story might be turned on its ear, but there's plenty to enjoy and a good message for those who find themselves running around between commitments.

    I'm glad Starlight at least got a cameo but...
    That is terrifying.

    Krumple Horn
    Our second story by Asmus is much shorter, yet gave me as much to ponder if not more. Trish Forstner is tasked with expressing a story set in the School of Friendship. That means drawing a high enough amount of detail to be recognizable without becoming distracting. I think she finds the balance well as we get very recognizable settings but the focus never leaves the protagonists.

    How does "worked up" transalte into "vadalized books"?

    We also get a lot of extreme reactions from the Student Six, including some very memorable fears.

    Which one will have a heart attack first?

    Colorist Heather Breckel adds many cold colors to the backgrounds. This both matches the show and helps the characters stand out more. Though a side-effect is that the School of Friendship, much like Twilight's own castle, is that it looks more foreboding than its title implies.

    You sure that isn't one of the Fluttershy's class creatures?
    Anything is possible!

    Then again, this story does revolve around scare tactics. The Student Six are being roudy, and Twilight's attempts to calm them are ineffective. So Pinkie Pie tells them the myth of the Krumple Horn: a being that steals away the misbehaving and forces them to work during Hearth's Warming's festive times.

    It's funny how often Equestria can be summed up as
    "Be friendly and merry or die!"

    At first this seems like an obvious adaptation of the Krampus. The son of the Norse God Hel, the Krampus would seek out the naughty children, whip them with chains or a birch bundle, and carry them to the underworld in a sack. Though originally a pagan figure, the Krampus became Saint Nicholas' counterpart, representing the balance of good and evil.

    Wrestling event. Pay-per-view.
    You'd make a fortune!

    Yet even the Krampus is part of a larger idea: expressing the concept of consequence through a character. Other nations have various, vengeful figures as part of their holidays. Some Germanic regions have Belsnickle and Knecht Ruprecht. These dark-bearded men carry switches to beat children. France has Hans Trapp and Père Fouettard, both wicked men who eventually served Saint Nicholas as a means towards redemption and try to avert children from going down a similar path. 
    Funny enough, I learned last week that Japan has its own version of this practice with a Shinto priest who visits families and asks if the children are well-behaved. Those who are affirmed are given treats, but if a child is declared misbehaving then the priest threatens to drag the child to hell. 

    This is a holiday card.
    For when you want fewer friends.

    I could go further about all the various figures that are used to scare children into behaving. Is this a healthy practice? I can't say. Ideally, you could sit children down and help them understand the benefits of kindness and respect, but that assumes the children themselves are ideal. If calling others to their best doesn't work–as is the case with Twilight–then there's the approach Pinkie Pie offers. 

    Just so we're clear, that is mud.
    Mud and nothing else!

    Yet just because this idea is effective, it doesn't follow that all actions are justified. A few pranks and sightings draw the Students' attention, but it isn't until they think Ocellus has been abducted that they truly believe. 

    Try to celebrate a holiday with this image in your head.
    It's just not possible!

    I'm going to declare this November an unofficial Ocellus Month. We've had the conclusion of Feats of Friendship, her own story in FiM#84, and now it's her disappearance that scares the others into behaving. She really has been a central focus.

    She is the bridge between comics.
    Get it?

    I'm not going to spoil the revelation behind all this, but I do think there's a point where a story goes too far. Yes, the remaining Students are behaving, but they'll go home thinking their friend is being subjected to forced labor by some kind of monster. Happy holidays indeed. 

    Hey Rainbow, Mare-Do-Well and 
    the Cookie Zombies worked too, didn't they?

    Though meant as a joke, this story has a cynical flavor that I've critiqued in past holiday comics. It's a mean-spirited effort that assumes the ends justify the means. At one point I wondered if this trend was a byproduct of trying to avoid the saccharine, cookie-cutter Christmas stories older audience members have experienced. Yet now I wonder if it's a sign of a larger fatigue. 

    Can you believe she's improvising? Real talent, that one.

    As a culture, we've been going through a lot and I wonder if focusing on a dark figure like the Krampus in the midst of a positive holiday is a means to expressing that fact. We're not as interested in figures of hope and instead want something to embody our discontent. 

    This is Belsnickle. His mythology is... disturbing.

    For this story, I find the idea of the Krumple Horn and some of the involved pranks to be inspired, but implying Ocellus' abduction is a step too far. This is not something I'd hold up as a story for the young, but it does perhaps reflect a larger shift in our awareness.  

    Love those book titles. Starlight gets another mention.
    We haven't seen her much in the comics, have we?

    Is the Comic Worth It?
    A big part of this question is "for whom is this special intended"? The first story has a good message but might not carry the same meaning for an older audience. Yet the second message seems to speak to a more jaded humor that one would expect for an older audience. Something for those of us who feel burnt out on a perpetually-happy holiday ideal. 

    I don't think that's what they mean by "Getting into the spirit."

    Take them together and you have at least one story that can appeal to a polarized audience, but you could also have a pair of stories that cancel one another out. I don't regret reading this and there is some fun humor. I think the best mindset is to be flippant while reading this special. Yet if parts of it strike you as off or less fun than intended, I'm of the same mind. 

    Now, if the Krumple Horn represented our worst and we had to stop it...
    No, wait. That's what Wendigos represent.

    I'm Silver Quill. Thanks for reading!

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