Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware that the last few years have seen an impressive flowering of graphic novels and comic book art. These days, every self-respecting, well-read person should have a graphic novel or two on the shelf and that makes this the perfect moment to give your fave loved one a comic as a holiday gift. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how about a present with both?
FOR THE SMARTY-PANTS IN UNDEROOS
Watchmen changed the world of comic books when it debuted in 1986, ushering in an era of more serious and ambitious storytelling. Written by the revered Alan Moore, Watchmen uses the trope of superheroes to examine American culture. It won the Hugo Award that year (the first time a comic book had ever won a major literary award in America), was later named one of Time Magazine‘s "Best 100 Books of All Time" (the only comic book on the list), and is now being made into an movie. Watchmen dissects the superhero, revealing the elements of fascism, nihilism, and sexual obsession inherent in the genre, while always maintaining a sense of empathy for its characters’ humanity. It is beautiful, incredibly dense and intricate, and profoundly moving.
Watchmen: The Absolute Edition (DC Comics, 2008, 436 pages, $39.99) is a magnificent large-format reissue that beautifully shows off illustrator Dave Gibbon’s meticulous art, is completely re-colored, and has plenty of additional material. This is something that any geek would be proud to own.
FOR THE TWEEN WHO STILL BELIEVES IN MAGIC
Forget Harry Potter, Bone (Cartoon Books, 2004, 1300 pages, $39.95) is the bomb! Jeff Smith’s magnum opus is something truly rare in comics a fully realized, all-ages fantasy story that balances thrilling adventure, humor, and lovable characters that develop and grow.
Three cousins stumble into a new land complete with dragons, a super-strong grandma, a princess with a destiny, a terrifying lord of locusts, and stupid rat creatures. As in the Harry Potter series, Bone becomes darker and more serious as the story progresses, but it never loses a delightful playfulness, both in the moments of comic relief and in Smith’s light, masterful brushwork. Bone can be found either as a single volume in its original black-and-white form, or as a set of color books from Scholastic Press.
FOR SCI-FI FANS WITH POST-APOCALYPTIC DAYDREAMS
Perhaps the best science fiction comic book ever produced starts off the way the best sci-fi stories do, with a simple premise that creates a ripple-effect of expanding consequences. In Y: The Last Man, all the males on the planet except for two die off from a sudden, horrifying plague, leaving poor Yorick and his pet monkey Ampersand the last creatures alive with Y chromosomes.
Writer Brian K. Vaughn, one of the best of a new generation of comics writers and one of the principle writers for TV’s Lost, cut his teeth creating the Y saga, which has been seeping out in one-volume installments since 2003. He imagines a world without men in fascinating ways, but never lets the setting get in the way of a gripping, fast-paced story. Pia Guerra’s art is competent and engaging, and propels the story along at the same clip as the writing. The entire breathtaking story comes in 10 soft-cover volumes from publisher Vertigo for around $13<\d>$15 each. A just-published comprehensive deluxe edition (Vertigo, 2008, 256 pages, $29.99) comprises the first five volumes, with the second installation scheduled to come out in May 2009.
FOR TORTURED, BEAUTIFUL SOULS
There is a long, venerable history to comics biographies and autobiographies, from Art Spiegleman’s Maus to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (fabulous gifts all). I want, however, to point out an often-overlooked book that deserves its place in the canon, Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl (Frog Books, 2002, 312 pages, $22.95), which is one of the most compelling accounts of a troubled childhood that I’ve ever read.
Diary is not just a comic book. It weaves together graphic chapters with diary-form prose and illustrations to tell the story of Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old girl who has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend before spiraling downward into drugs and abusive relationships.
It all takes place in 1970s San Francisco, and the city is an integral part of the story, from Minnie’s home in a Victorian flat in Laurel Heights to the world of gay hustlers and runaways on Polk Street.
FOR ROCKET-POWERED LOVERS
Have someone on your gift list who loves the magical realism, multigenerational storylines, and fantastic characters of Gabriel García Márquez? How about someone who can’t get enough of cool-ass, punk-rock dykes? Well, I have the perfect graphic novels for you: Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories (Fantagraphics, 2003, 512 pages, $39.95), which chronicles the adventures of the denizens of a fictional Central American village, and Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories (Fantagraphics, 2004, 712 pages, $49.95) by Jaime Hernandez, which centers around two punk girls in the Mexican barrios of Los Angeles.
Both collect stories originally serialized in what is arguably the greatest American comic ever produced, Love and Rockets (and yes, that’s where the band got its name), which has been published somewhat consistently since 1981.
FOR EPIC MEDICAL DRAMA QUEENS
Ode to Kirihito (Vertical, 2006, 832 pages, $24.95) will blow your mind. Created in 1969 by the stellar Osama Tezuka, godfather of manga and anime (Japanese comics and cartoons), it was markedly more sophisticated and accomplished than anything coming out of the United States at the time. In fact, American popular culture is only now catching up to Tezuka we’re just now getting translations of his works. Luckily, the new American versions are well designed and nimbly translated.
Kirihito tells the story of a plague that turns people into doglike creatures, and reads like a combination of a medical drama (Tezuka was trained as a physician), a panoramic 19th-century novel, and an existentialist treatise à la Albert Camus. Maybe your loved ones think that manga is all melodramatic kids with big eyes, spiky hair, and cute pets that shoot lightning? Ode to Kirihito will expand their view.
FOR YOUR FAVORITE PERVERT
Best Erotic Comics 2008 (Last Gasp, 2008, 200 pages, $19.95) is trying to fill an important, ahem, hole in the world of alternative comics. As the current comics renaissance gains steam, it is becoming curiously less and less sexual. Compared to the wild antics of the underground cartoonists of the 1960s, today’s indie comics tend to be flaccid fare.
BEC 2008 aims to change all that, as the first of an annual series of anthologies devoted to showcasing the best of comics erotica and restoring sexuality as a centerpiece of the indie comics sensibility. Last Gasp, a venerable San Franciscobased comics and alt-media publisher and distributor, is putting out the series.
Impressively diverse on all levels, BEC 2008 features a young dyke’s first encounter with a vibrator, a dominatrix who hires a gay masseur to fuck her boyfriend, King Kong and Godzilla getting it on … there’s a little something here for every proud pervert to treasure. That’s the magic of the holiday season! 2
WHERE TO GET YOUR GIFTS
Isotope Comics 326 Fell, SF. (415) 621-6543, www.isotopecomics.com
Al’s Comics 1803 Market, SF. (415) 861-1220, www.alscomicssf.com
Whatever 548 Castro, SF. (415) 861-9428, www.whateverstoreonline.com
Comix Experience 305 Divisadero, SF. (415) 863-9258, www.comixexperience.com
Comic Relief 2026 Shattuck, Berk. (510) 843-5002, www.comicrelief.net
Justin Hall is a San Franciscobased comics artist and owner of All Thumbs Press (www.allthumbspress.com).