The Gutterball Special Holiday Gift Guide
Here’s an old chestnut (and I don’t mean the one roasting on an open fire): Christmas is about giving, not receiving. Just because everyone says it, doesn’t make it untrue, but it is hard to know how to emphasize the joy of giving, especially with the frenetic pace of the holiday season and the joyless, soulless experience of shopping this time of year. At risk of stating the obvious, what I do to really enjoy my Christmas gift giving (and to better tolerate my holiday shopping), is to buy gifts that I find exciting and interesting. I never ask my family and friends what they want for Christmas, looking instead to share some of the things that I love in a form that I think they will enjoy. At risk of again stating the obvious: what I love, is comics.
Comics make a great gift, because many people have never thought to buy themselves a comic, usually because they think that comics aren’t something they’re really into. Lots of folks have lots of assumptions regarding comics: it’s all just superheroes, it’s just for kids, it’s catered to the male gaze and objectifies women. If that’s what you think comics are, I wouldn’t blame you for assuming that it isn’t something that interests you, but it’s a little like judging all movies based upon how much you liked The Avengers. Comics, simply, are a storytelling medium, and there are a panoply of different stories told using this medium, and if you’re looking to share your love of comics this holiday season, I am confident that we can find a comic for just about anyone on your list.
(Note: I can offer a few suggestions, but your best resource will be your brick-and-mortar comic book store. Not only will you have the joy of giving comics to your loved ones, but you will also have the satisfaction of supporting an independent business. Obviously, every comic book shop is different, and I can mostly comment upon what Toronto has to offer, but doing my Christmas shopping at Paradise Comics was easily my best ever Christmas shopping experience – Doug was endlessly knowledgeable and helpful, and provided excellent insight to steer me toward choosing the right books for the right people. Paradise Comics, located just north of Lawrence on Yonge Street, skews a little more toward superhero comics, but if you can’t finish all your Christmas shopping there, it’s just a short subway trip to Bloor & Bathurst, placing you within a block of both the Beguiling and Little Island, which should cross all the independent and children’s comics off your shopping list.)
For The Person Who Wants To Like Superheroes, But Doesn’t Identify Much With What Marvel & DC Are Doing:
Superheroes are a pretty iconic concept, and everyone wants their own superhero. With Marvel and DC dominating the market, it would seem easy to find a superhero comic, but truthfully, it’s almost so easy that it’s hard to know where to start. Due to having to maintain an ongoing narrative, most current Marvel and DC books are a continuity deep dive, with plots hinging on arcane bits of comic book history that have little meaning to someone looking for a good simple superhero narrative. While both companies have some great, accessible superhero books to choose, the characters have such long histories, and their universe has so many corners, that the stakes have been raised to such cosmic proportions, that many people don’t much identify with the icons as their own heroes anymore. Add on top of that both company’s uneven record depicting their female characters, and a proclivity toward joyless and grim stories, there are plenty of reasons why there might be someone on your Christmas list who is convinced that there isn’t a hero out there for them.
For this person, I can think of no greater gift than The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks. When at first I was discussing this gift guide with Dani, she joked that I ought to just call it “Hickstmas,” as I was filling the entire list with Faith Erin Hicks’s works. Not without reason though: her work is wonderful, with an enormous range, and I am pretty sure I could find a Faith Erin Hicks books for just about anyone. I will refrain from recommending only her works, but this list would definitely be incomplete without The Adventures of Superhero Girl. By turns adorable, witty, and hilarious, it is also just a great superhero book, plain and simple. Superhero Girl is a fantastic protagonist that just about anyone can relate to, and both the character and the stories themselves are crafted with a great amount of heart. This book reignites that giddy sense of wonder which inspires children everywhere to wear their blankets like capes and pretend to be superheroes.
This is not the only book to fill this void, of course. If you’re looking for your superhero stories to be at once more overtly satirical and more reflective and ruminative, the first four chapters of Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag’s wonderful webcomic, Strong Female Protagonist, is available in a print edition. Even the Big Two are recognizing that, while they might hold a join copyright on the word “superhero,” superheroes ought to be for everyone, and are publishing some books toward that end: I don’t have much to say about G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona and Takeshi Miyazawa’s Ms. Marvel that hasn’t been enthusiastically proclaimed elsewhere on the internet, but the first volume is collected in four trade paperbacks, and can comfortably sit on a shelf next to The Adventures of Superhero Girl.
For The Person Who Loves Superhero Movies, But Has Never Really Read the Comics:
Marvel does a fair job of providing books that someone walking right out of the movie theatre can enjoy. The most obvious is their Season One line of graphic novels, which are standalone books that detail the origins of some of their iconic characters. I haven’t read all of them, and as I understand it, some are worth reading more than others, but I can definitely unequivocally recommend Dennis Hopeless and Jamie McKelvie’s take on X-Men, as well as Greg Pak and Emma Rios’ Doctor Strange volume. It gets a little trickier to pick and choose books from Marvel’s mainline, but the one which immediately springs to my mind is Matt Fraction and Dave Aja’s Hawkeye, a 22-issue run which is collected in four trade paperbacks or one handsome-but-expensive hardcover. Tucked away in it’s own little city block of the Marvel Universe, Hawkeye is a brilliant and innovative comic, and is entirely no-experience-necessary.
Otherwise, I think that an alternate take on the characters we know and love from the movies can make a great gift: books like Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert’s Marvel 1602, Mark Millar and Tommy Lee Edwards’ Marvel 1985, or Old Man Logan (also by Mark Millar, but this time with Steve McNiven on art duties) reinvent familiar characters in new times and settings, told in a more concise narrative form than an ongoing comic, making for a more satisfying, novelistic read.
For The Food Lover:
Not all your comic selections need orbit around the recipient’s relationship to superheroes, of course. Comics exist for just about every interest, and one of my favourite combinations is that of comics and food. The highest profile comic that just about any foodie will love is John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew. It has a simple damn-I-wish-thought-of-that premise: Chew is about a detective who gets psychic impressions from anything he eats. In a single bite, he can know something’s history, where it came from, and with whom it has come into contact. This skill takes Tony Chu to a lot of bizarre places, and has him eating a lot of bizarre (and at times, none-too-appetizing) things. It’s an imaginative series that will give any foodie (pardon the pun) a lot to sink their teeth into.
For something a little more pleasant than Chew, there are few books I can recommend as unequivocally as Lucy Knisley’s Relish. Dani and I stumbled upon Lucy Knisley and this book a few years ago at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and without any prior knowledge of her work, we bought a copy. It remains one of Dani’s most favourite books (graphic or otherwise), and is probably our-most-frequently-given-as-a-gift book. Subtitled My Life In The Kitchen, the book is a memoir, with food and the experience of cooking being the through-line from chapter to chapter, from childhood, through global travels, and into adulthood. It is a warm and personal book, and Knisley’s simplistic-but-lifelike art is as delightful in this book as it is in any of her other (wonderful) memoirs. This is a book that will delight foodies, but truthfully, even someone who has never cooked will find something to cherish in this beautiful book.
For those more interested in drink than food, Etienne Davodeau’s The Initiates is the graphic novel equivalent of a fine wine, but unlike a bottle of wine, one can enjoy it again and again. As the book’s subtitle indicates, it documents an unorthodox job-exchange between a comic artist and a vintner. With loose pen drawings, shaded with ink washes, The Initiates is something of a visual journal of the experience, as Davodeau learns all about growing and harvesting grapes, and then making, aging and drinking wine, while educating vintner Richard Leroy about comics and comic artists. It’s a meandering true story that will deepen anyone’s appreciation of both wine and comics.
For The History Nerd:
If you know someone who likes to read history books for fun, then chances are pretty good that they will get every joke in Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant and it’s followup, Step Aside, Pops. Kate Beaton is smart and funny and her work is just plain wonderful.
Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography is a brilliant graphic novel. While it might be more focused and linear than the comics that turned Chester Brown into what I might describe as our nation’s comics laureate, it is a fantastic showcase of his storytelling talents, and is well researched enough to satisfy just about any history nerd, Canadian or otherwise.
Of course, I could make a pretty strong case to give the imaginary title of Canada’s comics laureate to Seth, and his mostly-faux-history The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists pretty well makes that case on its own. Yes, it’s not actual history (unfortunately, Canada doesn’t actually have a brotherhood of cartoonists), but he integrates his fiction so seamlessly into Canada’s history that I feel it’s addition actually improves upon fact.
For the Serious Reader:
We all know a few people who take their literature very seriously – that person who has never read pulp entertainment like James Patterson or Dean Koontz, even just for fun. Big ideas, rich themes, clever syntax – that is how they define fun. Their carefully alphabetized bookshelf is populated by Atwood, Chabon, Eggers, Lethem.
It’s easy for people like myself who are constantly proclaiming “Comics are for everyone!” to brand such people as “the enemy,” because it is frequently folks of this inclination who tend to dismiss comics as “not real books.” But that’s because they haven’t read Blankets by Craig Thompson. Recently given a tenth anniversary addition by Drawn & Quarterly, Blankets is as rich, deeply felt, and literate as any prose could be, and uses it’s medium to do things that most literary heavyweights can only ever dream to achieve with mere words. I know I’ve praised Blankets previously on this blog, and one day, I expect I’ll dedicate a whole editorial to it (I actually intended on doing such a thing much sooner, after having the enormous privilege of attending a talk by Craig Thompson at Librarie D+Q in Montreal this past October.)
I also feel that the bookshelf of any literati is incomplete without a copy of Jeff Lemire’s Essex County. A quiet and subdued reflection of rural life, Lemire’s black-and-white art is stark, strange and gnarled, a little like rural life. Like Blankets, it uses the art to evoke places, times and feelings in such a way that a prose novel never could, playing to the strengths of the medium. With a story that spans eras and generations, it’s a book that warrants consideration alongside the best prose novels, the CBC be damned.
For the Connoisseur of the Weird:
Do you know someone who has willingly watched Eraserhead multiple times? Someone who will not answer “Green Hornet” when asked to name a Michel Gondry film? For that matter, someone who knows who Michel Gondry is? This person probably likes the different, the intentionally difficult, the challenging and the surreal. Such a person can be difficult to buy a gift for if you yourself aren’t really into these things as well, because it is hard to determine what inscrutable quality these things possess that might be appealing to someone.
Here is where comics really get to showcase their range. With the broad, Hollywood-esque appeal of superheroes, comics deliver the less sophisticated blockbusters, but without having to fret over funding to the same extent that filmmakers have to, a whole lot of cartoonists can indulge in the weirder storytelling impulses that are off-limits to other mediums. Case in point: Ryan Browne’s God Hates Astronauts. You don’t know the meaning of the phrase “anything goes” until you read God Hates Astronauts. It defies description, but when I try, I tend to use a lot of adjectives like “insane,” “brilliant,” “hilarious,” and “bizarre.”
Skewing a little darker but no less surreal, Cameron Stewart’s Sin Titulo and Charles Burns’ Black Hole are pretty well essential reading for anyone with a taste for the strange. Both might be described as horror, but really belong in whatever nebulous category the films of David Lynch occupy, because they have a similar way of taking up permanent residency in the hitherto unknown recesses of the brain. Reading them is a little like being reminded of a dream otherwise forgotten, and it’s an at-times uncomfortable but wholly unforgettable experience.
For the Music Lover:
We all have that friend who has better taste in music than us. Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson and Clayton Cowles have better taste in music still. Rather than try and find an album which the audiophile on your list doesn’t already have, give the gift of The Wicked + The Divine.
Or Phonogram, by the same team.
Or both. Maybe just get both.