Monday, December 12, 2011

Comic Books You Should Be Gifting (2011)

Has Christmas shopping made your head explode yet? It has mine, and half the people I know are getting the same thing (Masks volume 1, out in paperback … soon!). So while I go back to working on paperback proofs, here are ten great comic-book gift ideas for the readers in your life.

As always, these suggestions are designed for recipients who don’t regularly read comics. They’re rated loosely according to the MPAA’s rating scale—basically, if your lucky recipient can handle a PG-13-rated movie, he or she can handle a PG-13-rated comic. And, of course, I have to recommend the collected edition of Masks (out before Christmas—watch this space!) for any recipient. Order it through my website and I’ll even autograph and personalize it for you …

Right! Now on to the list!

1. Sandman. (Stop whining, JohnK.) Neil Gaiman’s epic ten-volume series redefined comics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it’s still a great gateway drug for future comics fanatics. The story loosely follows the god of dreams (at various points called Dream, Morpheus, Oneiros, and a half-dozen other things) as he sees his world changing around him, partly because of a few past mistakes. Dream’s journey makes stops all across literature and history—prominent guest stars include Marco Polo, Julius Caesar, the entire cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the devil himself. While new readers are usually advised to begin with the first volume of the series, “Preludes and Nocturnes,” I personally suggest picking up whatever later volume catches your fancy. My gateway to the series was Volume 6, “Fables and Reflections,” which charmed me with Orpheus and Eurydice, the French Revolution, and the mostly true story of the first and last emperor of North America. Rated R for sex, violence, and Neil Gaiman being Neil Gaiman. Perfect for: mythology buffs, literature fiends, musicians, and hipsters (especially hipsters whom you’d rather see start acting like rational people again).

2. Lions, Tigers, and Bears Volume 3. That’s right, it’s baaaaack! Mike Bullock’s winning all-ages series about two kids and their stuffed animals fighting fantasy monsters has returned for a third volume, this one a self-contained adventure from little Hermes Press that’s this year’s all-ages offering. In "Graybeard's Ghost," Joey and Courtney have a new companion in Courtney’s snobby cousin Beth, who’s altogether too mature for all this stuffed-animal nonsense. The Beasties, of course, don’t care what Beth believes, and trouble ensues. All I’ll say about the plot of this volume is that it involves both ghosts and pirates. Pirates, I tell you! What more do you need to know? Rated G, with an advisory for pirates. Perfect for: anybody over the age of 6 smart enough to know that stuffed animals get up to things when you’re not looking.

3. Daredevil. With the Big Two busily rebooting and rehashing their offerings late in the year, this list had slim pickings among the new graphic novels. If you just can’t live without your superhero fix, however, hit your local comic shop and pick up a few back issues of this little gem (the first collection’s not out until February). Writer Mark Waid has pulled the venerable blind superhero out of the doom and gloom that have characterized his series, for good or ill, for the last 30 years and given him back his sense of humor and whimsy. The result is a crackling adventure story with plenty of wit and humor—never a parody, but always good for a guffaw. There’s a reason IGN voted this series the #1 Marvel comic to watch in 2012. Start with any back issue you can find, or (especially) the Christmas issue, out December 21 for just $2.99. It apparently involves a wrecked school bus full of kids and Matt wearing a sweater that says “I’m not Daredevil.” Rated PG-13 for violence, innuendo, and somewhat grown-up words and humor. Perfect for: superhero fans and readers of swashbuckling adventure—plus anybody who enjoys a good legal thriller, thanks to the courtroom fireworks in the hero’s secret identity.

4. Basic Instructions. One of the best webcomics out there, in my humble opinion, and a magnificent gateway drug. The premise of Scott Meyer’s Basic Instructions is simple: four-panel instructions on how to perform a task, simple or complex. The cartoonist acts out the directions, along with his friends, relatives, and coworkers, and that’s where it all gets weird. With characters like Mullet Boss and Scott’s much-put-upon friend Rick, Basic Instructions manages to enliven all manner of subjects from “How to Smile” (Scott smiles by thinking, “Your hide will make a fine poncho!”) to “How to Explain Your Tastes” (“Dr Pepper has NEVER contained prunes. If it did, it would say, ‘Made with real fruit’ on the label.”). Watch for the infrequent appearances of Meyer’s oddball superheroes—Omnipresent Man, Mr. Everywhere, the Knifeketeer, and Rocket Hat. Rated R for grown-up language and jokes that will make you snort coffee out of your nose. Start with volume 1, “Help Is On the Way”, or indeed any volume you can find. Perfect for: anyone with a dark, twisted, or nerdy sense of humor. Or anyone who’sever tried to wash a cat.

5. Dramacon. Svetlana Chmakova’s wacky-sweet romantic comedy is all about the relationship between a young would-be manga writer and a mysterious cosplayer who meet exactly once a year, at an anime con. The three volumes cover three years of the convention, with plenty of twists and turns along the way—evolving friendships, wacky costumed hijinks, and serious drama involving boyfriends, girlfriends, an attempted rape, and—well, let’s just say it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Even with the heavy stuff, though, Dramacon never manages to be less than dazzling, thanks to Chmakova’s vivid art and pitch-perfect writing. Because of Tokyopop’s recent bankruptcy, most of the series is now out of print, so you’ll have to hit used booksellers (I recommend to find it. Get the “Ultimate Edition” (containing all three volumes) if you can—you’ll want to read the whole story. Rated PG-13 for violence, an attempted rape, and demonic chibis. Perfect for: anime and manga fans, romance fans, cosplayers, and almost any girl between the ages of 12 and 18.

6. Starman. It’s been nearly a decade since James Robinson’s quirky signature series, Starman, was in print, but it’s worth revisiting now. The Golden-Age superhero Starman had two sons, one of whom took up his superheroic mantle … and gets shot to death in the first issue. After that the job of hero falls to his brother, Jack Knight, a junk dealer who’d rather hunt vintage vinyl than throw down with Solomon Grundy. With stylish art by Tony Harris and unexpectedly human characters (watch for the immortal and unpredictable Shade, now featured in a limited series from DC that isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves), Starman was much more about finding direction in life and making peace with family than it ever was about fighting bad guys. That said, watch for cowboys, ghost pirates, and psychedelic journeys through space, time, and disco. Start with Volume 1, “Sins of the Father”, or the first Starman Omnibus (which you’ll have to find used, alas). Rated PG-13 for sex, violence, and 1950s pop-culture references. Perfect for: reformed hipsters and anybody looking for something a little different.

7. Captain America. Okay, I confess. This one is only on the list because the movie came out this summer, and did quite well. If anyone on your list enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger, they’ll want to check out Ed Brubaker’s work on the character, which was so massively successful that he really should have been listed as one of the writers on that movie. From the assassination of the Red Skull to the resurrection of Cap’s dead sidekick to one of the best surprise reveals in recent comics history, Brubaker’s run on the character is action-packed and understandably definitive. The recent relaunch of the series is pretty good, too, but not collected yet, so grab an omnibus if you want more bang for your comic-book buck. Perfect for: fans of war stories, espionage thrillers, and anything that involves punching Nazis.

8. The Unwritten (again). I didn’t think this comic could get any better … but it did. This year Tom Taylor’s adventure through the secret world of books written and unwritten took him through the pages of Moby Dick and into his own twisted, long-forgotten origins. The transformation of his female companion, Lizzie Hexam, has been astonishing—particularly since it happened in the only choose-your-own-adventure story I’ve actually been able to finish. (And then I went back and read all the other options, because it was that good.) Volume 4, “Leviathan”, contains the excellent Melville story (with a cameo by Frankenstein’s creature!), and while volume 5, “On to Genesis”, isn’t out until January, it’s well worth waiting for with its vivid exploration of the pulps, the origins of comic books, and how superheroes can mess with the head of an entire culture. You can also start with volume 1, “Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity.” By Mike Carey. Rated R for sex, violence, and literature. Perfect for: lit fiends, horror and fantasy junkies, and anyone who always knew there was something darker going on behind Harry Potter.

9. Superman: Earth One. If you’re a nerd, you either loved this one or hated it. If you’re not a nerd, you didn’t even hear about it until it broke a bunch of bestseller lists. A thoughtful retelling of Superman’s origin story, J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One dares to mess with a lot of the canon—like the reason Krypton blew up—and it mostly works. The story follows young Clark Kent as he tries to make his way in Metropolis and decide what he’ll do with his life. We get to see the non-face-punching side of Superman as he’s offered a series of plum jobs, from cutting-edge research scientist to football star, and the story underlines the point that at this moment in his life, Clark really could have become almost anyone. But it takes an alien invasion and three scrappy journalists from a certain aging newspaper to help Clark finally figure out who he is, and who he’s going to be. Rated PG-13, for property destruction and a surprising amount of thinking. Perfect for: anybody who likes superheroes and anybody who claims superheroes are “played out.”

10. Superman: Secret Identity. How did this list end up with two Superman titles on it? A complete accident, I swear. DC Comics has just re-released Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s thought-provoking alt-universe take on Superman … set in a world where superpowers don’t exist and Supes himself is a fictional character. (Sound familiar?) A real-life Mr. and Mrs. Kent in real-life Kansas have a sense of humor, it seems, so when they have a dark-haired, blue-eyed son, they name him Clark, much to his eventual chagrin. Growing up surrounded by Superman jokes is bad enough—but then young Clark actually starts developing Superman-like powers. The four-issue series, now collected in one volume, follows this Clark’s life from birth to old age, as he encounters the challenges you might expect for a real-life man named Clark Kent—a blind date with a woman named Lois (complicated by the fact that they actually do fall in love), a government agency trying to find out what makes his powers tick, a writing career and a family that take unlikely turns. Above all, Secret Identity is thought-provoking, heartfelt, and bittersweet—the perfect comic for readers who think they’ve seen everything. Rated PG-13 for the scary moments, and perhaps the happy ones too. Perfect for: anybody who won’t read comics because “they’re too unrealistic.”

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