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Comics Reporter's Black Friday and Beyond Shopping Advice For Sophisticated Comics Fans 2005
posted November 25, 2005
 

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Today is Black Friday. Depending on your family's traditions you may know it as the Busiest Shopping Day of the Year, Hangovermass, Nintendo Marathon Day, I Don't Care Who's Playing as Long as Its Football Eve, or, as it's known in my house, Apology Day.

Although I never recommend comics as gifts, there are times, like during the winter holiday season, the potential for a funnybook or funnybook-related item making its way into wrapping and a tag is too great to close my eyes and ignore.

So, with that in mind, here are a few tips to help you along if you've decided that four-color presents may be on Santa's list. The tips are hardly complete, but they are semi-topical in that I'll try to focus on newer books in the recommendation section whenever possible. Please don't hesitate to e-mail with any questions, and I'll do my elfin best to give you an answer.

Happy shopping, and have a great, stress-free holiday season.

Three Really General Things to Remember About Buying Comics
1. You can buy them just about anywhere now. You can generally buy individual comic books both new and old from comic book shops; some publishers; formal mail-order services like Mile High Comics, MyComicShop.com; and Mars Import; and informal mail-order service from any comic shop you can convince to drop stuff in an envelop after you arrange payment over the phone. Trade paperbacks (book-length comics with a spine and ISBN number) can be purchased from the above list plus any bookstore that can work with an ISBN number, either physical or on-line. There are even places to buy handmade comics, like usscatastrophe.com, Global Hobo, and Poopsheet. Be patient and persistent and it soon becomes very easy to buy funnybooks.
2. There's no way to list every comic every person will like. Comics are a global art form with a wide variety of formats and genres; even if North America readers have been slow to recognize this fact, their market reflects this now. I'll recommend a few comics below, but like every art form the comic that someone will enjoy will likely conform to their personal tastes just as much as to relative excellence. I can recommend 50 comics by European masters, but if the gift recipient loves basketball, chances are you'd do better with some volumes of Slam Dunk. The gift recipient's taste always wins. Also, a ton of comics are published these days, and while this page will concentrate on 2005 books whenever possible, remember 1) there's a pretty deep backlog of material that people might like past 2005, and 2) I'm bound to forget something good that came out this year. There's that many good books now.
3. The reason I never recommend comics as gifts is that while comics may have wide appeal they're still a narrow passion. So there's often a disparity between gift-giver and give-receiver in terms of how much comics are loved. A lot of presents run the risk of being something the gift-giver wants, or, conversely, something the gift-recipient already has or decided to pass on. Like any passionate interest, you just have to be careful.

Three Strategies For Buying Gifts For Someone Who Knows Comics Better Than You Do.
1. Use a Wish List -- Appropriate your target's existing to-buy list, have him/her fill out an Amazon.com wish list, or work out their having a wish list with your local comics shop. Many comic shops already do gift lists for their more devoted customers, with the idea being that people with little knowledge of comics can brave the store, go up to the counter, ask for that person's list, and find an item or two that will delight and please said gift recipient. It might be something worth checking out at yours.
2. Buy Gift Certificates -- The big book chains like Barnes and Noble definitely have them (which may be the first place to go for a manga fan), as do the larger on-line comics sellers like Mile High Comics and MyComicShop.com. Many local comic shops have them or will be willing to make up such a document for anyone willing to drop cash in their store.
3. Get an "Enhanced Item" -- This might not work for everyone, but some people might enjoy receiving a better version of something they already have -- a special edition, or a signed version of a favorite graphic novel. As an example, it's my understanding Dreamhaven Books carries a lot of special edition Neil Gaiman material. This option may involve some research, but could be worth it.

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Three Solid Gift-Style Books for the Holiday Season
1. Krazy and Ignatz Volume II 1925-1934 -- Fantagraphics' oversized, hardcover edition of ten years in the lifespan of what I believe is the greatest comic of all time will give whoever reads it an education in comics' capacity for the fanciful and expressive. A beautiful limited-edition volume.
2. The Invincible Ultimate Collection -- This Robert Kirkman-scripted retro superhero story isn't exactly my cup of tea, but it has its die-hard adherents and the way Kirkman builds his plot makes his series a good fit for this massive (400 full-color pages) one-cover format.
3. The R. Crumb Handbook (above) -- Don't forget this solid attempt at a great one-volume Robert Crumb book from earlier this year. The underground legend had previously lacked that one-publication gift, and this could be it for years to come. The way the work is presented, this can be someone's only Crumb book, or their twentieth.

Three More Solid Gift-Style Books for the Holiday Season
1. Absolute Watchmen -- It's big, it's fancy, and its icy take on realism in superheroes and the limits of power is still really, really good.
2. Maximum Fantastic Four -- It's big, it's fancy, and the concept is really, really weird. If you haven't read anything about it, it's an exploration of the classic Silver Age comic book Fantastic Four #1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby broken down to one panel per page. It has that great gift combination of being completely unnecessary yet also hugely desirable.
3. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes -- One of the big Christmas gifts of the year across all reading habits and appetites, this hernia-inducing collection of the last great newspaper stip of the 20th Century is sure to delight most fans.

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Three Slightly-Scaled Down Gift-Style Books
1. The ACME Novelty Library -- A thin volume, ACME Novelty Library takes something like 100 days to read because of author Chris Ware's well-known attention to detail and complex rhythms on the page. These mostly one-pagers are funnier and looser than Ware's long-form work, but it's still very much working out of the same view of the world, so a great deal of the humor is quite dark.
2. Conan: The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories -- Kurt Busiek's shot at the loin-clothed mainstream comics market savior from three decades ago is once again about the only non-superhero cracking the top 50 in sales. For all of that, the title is still reasonably underexposed.
3. Black Hole (above) -- You won't find a more beautiful comics-related publication all year than Charles Burns' gorgeous decade-long masterwork; it rewards multiple readings and/or time staring at the art.

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Three More Casual-Sized Crowd-Pleasers
1. Showcase Presents Superman Volume One -- Classic Silver Age madness in a three-piece suit, at an extraordinary price of $10. A pretty good novelty gift, I'd say.
2. Wimbledon Green (above) -- I'm not sure what the wider critical reaction is like, but I laughed all the way through this sketchbook comics story by Seth. The key to its success, at least with me, is that the cartoonist is making up the ridiculous particulars, but nails the very real obsessions behind them. A lot of comics readers would give their right arm to find a bunch of suitcases filled with Golden Age comic books, that romance of an enormous history in the lifetime of our parents and grandparents, worlds and worlds fallen just out of view.
3. We All Die Alone -- A master of comic precision, Mark Newgarden is also the forgotten godfather of alternative comics. You won't find a better package (black velvet covers!) or a better essay (from Dan Nadel) in any book about a cartoonist published to date.

Three Under-Appreciated 2005 Graphic Novels
1. Epileptic -- It's a difficult work, and at times the characters can be less than sympathetic, particularly to a North American audience used to being told who to root for. But forget all that: David B.'s great graphic novel about the effect of his brother's epilepsy on his family is drop-dead gorgeous, told with brutal and sometimes contradictory honesty, and presented in human fashion without falling into the kind of maudlin nonsense every comic book story ever told about family eventually wallows. This is a great, great book and I can't believe more people weren't talking about it when it came out early in '05.
2. Late Bloomer -- This collection of short stories from a wide variety of sources is my current favorite comics work, the one I'm reading over and over. I can't imagine Fantagraphics printed more than a few thousand, the limits of comics sales in North America being what they are. I hope that every person who buys this appreciates it. These are beautiful stories told in a voice unlike any other in comics history. Carol Tyler isn't telling you stories as much as letting you stand close enough to listen in on them.
3. Paper Rad, BJ and Da Dogs -- Dan Nadel makes official the throwing of his gauntlet into the comics publishing world with this visual lp from Ben Jones and the Paperrad collective. Earnest storytelling mixes with explosions of art and color that draw directly from cheap animation and video games. Not for everyone, but for more people than you'd think.

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Three Graphic Novels I Would Have Loved as a Little Kid, Although Please Note I Was a Weird Little Kid and Haven't Even Been a Little Kid For Thirty Years
1. The Bone Series From Scholastic -- Beautiful, easy-to-scan grand fantasy with enough adult stuff like fear and destruction and betting and boozing that I wouldn't figure I was being given a little kids' book.
2. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck (above) -- Dense, loopy, fun storytelling from Don Rosa exploring the past of the famed comics character, the kind that would have caught my eye as a kid. I also always liked getting the full story and seeing a character develop, and this offers that.
3. The Naruto Series -- This is the manga I would have liked if were I seven years old right now. Kids llearn how to be ninjas, and their perfectly attuned interpersonal relationships dictate how they interact and how they succeed and fail at various ninja tasks. The action here is in depicted in a very creative, sometimes offhand and frequently appealing ways, too.

Three Smart New Books About Comics
1. Arguing Comics -- A smart collection of essays featuring various 20th Century intellectuals and critics diving right into the comics form, with occasionally captivating results. A must for any comics scholar's library.
2. Frederic Wertham -- Bart Beaty's lovingly researched book about longtime comics industry bogeyman Dr. Wertham paints a complete picture of the man, giving his crusade against comics both a context and a tragic feel.
3. Graphic Novels -- Paul Gravett's conceptual genius gives us a book that works as both an introduction into the range of books now available and enough oddities and curiosities that a hardcore fan will want to read it, too.

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Three Recent Books That Actually Fit in a Stocking
1. Muzzlers, Guzzlers and Good Yeggs -- really an illustrated book by Joe Coleman in the big-little tradition, this is a great novelty gift.
2. Destined For Dizziness! (above) -- Souther Salazar's children's book features spare poetry and whimsical drawing.
3. Or Else #3 -- Kevin Huizenga may be the best new talent out there; each of his comics is a different size, with this one being the one you could most easily drop into someone's stocking.

Three More Books That Actually Fit in a Stocking With Maybe Some Slight Bending
1. Cromartie High School Volume 1 -- Just about any manga would fit into a stocking, especially if you bend it a little bit. This combination of deadpan absurdity and layered character building is the manga I most enjoy.
2. A Scott Pilgrim Book -- Bryan Lee O'Malley's action-romance-humor books are cute and breezy, and sport an exuberant indy-film feel. O'Malley has one of those approaches to comics that makes you think there should be lots of comics like his, when really there aren't.
3. King Cat #64 -- One of the books of the year, this mini-comic acts a tribute to John Porcellino's suddenly departed father. Master of a spare, stark art style, John Porcellino is a gift to comics, and has a collection out this year as well, Diary of Mosquito Abatement Man.

Three Old Stand-Alone Single-Issue Comics That Make Fine Novelty Gifts
1. Hero for Hire #9 -- the famous "Where's My Money, Honey?" issue, where Luke Cage flies around the world to collect $200 from Dr. Doom. Perhaps the king of all clueless 1970s superhero comic books.
2. 2001 #6 -- This issue of the short-lived series contains the lovely cosmic Jack Kirby effort "Intergalactica."
3. Heartbreak Comics -- David Boswell's best comic, with a cameo by Reid Fleming.

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Three Random Gifts Adapted From Comics
1. It's Superman (above) -- Tom DeHaven's new book about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster pop culture giant. Early reports says this is awfully good.
2. Initial D -- The comics-to-film adaptation of 2005. Sorry, Batman.
3. Lithographs, posters and portfolios from Brusel. Or if you're not in Brussels, from Alvin Buenaventura.

Three Sites From Which to Buy Original Art
1. ComicArtCollective.com -- I've purchased a lot of art here over the years. This is a web site used by a lot of alternative comics artists, set up so that the artist keeps every dollar of what's been spent. You can find everything here from a $5 pencil sketch to a a complete run of a comic worth several thousand dollars.
2. The Beguiling's Art Store -- I've picked up a Christmas present or two from this store, the art-agency half of the great Canadian comics retailer. One thing that's nice about this store is that it includes a number of illustration commissions and related pieces from comic book artists, which I find are sometimes better for wall art.
3. Denis Kitchen Art Agency -- One of Denis Kitchen's many businesses is an art agency representing the people and estates with whom Denis is involved in other capacities. This is prime material. I know a few rich people who have been inordinately pleased to do business with Denis, and I've been fascinated with some of the things I've seen them purchase.

Three More Places to Buy Original Art
1. From the Artist -- Go directly to the cartoonist's individual web site. Here's my list of such sites. The Roger Langridge site, for instance, offers up tons of his work (up top), all of which is generally beautiful.
2. Ebay -- I know it's not very imaginative, but this is still the place to go for older art (I don't know of any dealers except the bookseller Stuart Ng), and opportunities increase exponentially for older art, newer art, all kinds of art in the weeks leading up to Christmas. There are also things you will only find on ebay or at conventions -- artists will sometimes make original pen-and-ink drawings to sell directly on the Internet at this time of year. All the usual warnings about buying stuff you can't see first apply.
3. Commissions -- It's usually possible to solicit something from an artist, say at a convention. Although at this point of the year you may have to jump in the Wayback Machine to get something good unless you're swimming in cash and are very persuasive.

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Three Items to Which I Contributed and Have Done a Poor Job of Promoting Through This Site
1. Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers and Pirates -- Bob Levin's wonderful essays exploring the outer reaches of comics' creative community. The essay about Jack Katz is worth the cost of the book. I was this book's editor.
2. The Education of a Comics Artist (above) -- I contributed an essay to this book of short essays about topics of interest to cartoonists as they start out.
3. The Comics Journal Library Volume 5: Classic Comics Illustrators -- I worked on this book of interviews featuring some great comic artists with the designer Greg Sadowski, who changed a book of pretty good chats with some of the best artist in comics history into a high-quality art book.

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Wait a Minute, Aren't Most Comics About Large Men in Capes Beating the Crap Out of Each Other? Do they Still Do Those? Can you Recommend a Few?
1. Top Ten: The Forty-Niners -- Alan Moore and Gene Ha's sweet look at post-war possibility, the true comics Golden Age that held within it seeds of burnout and eventual renewal.
2. Ed Brubaker's and Sean Phillips' Sleeper series (above) -- Four volumes of the superhero as an HBO television show, funny and profane and violent with a purpose. One uniquely-powered hero goes so deep undercover into super-villain territory he's the only one who knows what side he's on.
3. Batman Year One Deluxe Edition -- The best superhero comic book of the last 25 years? Maybe. The best-looking? Probably. This ground-level take on Batman and, surprisingly, Jim Gordon, was a smart looking re-release and makes a nice companion to that Christian Bale movie of last summer.

Giving the Gift of Charity
1. CBLDF -- It's the best charity in comics and the most important to comics. Because the backbone of the comics industry is a series of small businesses, a national organization to protect their interests in terms of free speech is so vital it's almost impossible to overstate the case for it. Memberships cost a mere $25.
2. ACTOR Fund -- Although it would be nice if there was more effort in comics to support economic justice for artists before they get older, this organization does necessary, important work with artists late in life, if only to take care of certain funeral costs.
3. The Center For Cartoon Studies -- A gift to James Sturm's school, currently in its first year of operation, is an investment in the future of comics, whether through a scholarship or just helping the institution establish itself.

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Three Miscellaneous and Potentially Last Ditch Comics-Related Gift Strategies
1. Consider a subscription to DailyInk.com -- King Features offers up a lot of comic strip for $14.95 a year through its on-line service, including a few classics like Thimble Theatre. I think one thing that might be really appealing to a comics fan about this as a gift is that many hardcore fans wouldn't buy it for themselves, preferring comics on paper, but would actually be delighted in having this on a one-year trial to play around with.
2. Stick to Nostalgia Buys Rather Than Content Buys -- Sometimes less is more, and a very specific old comic book or a short run from a fondly remembered series can make a great gift for someone you've overheard waxing rhapsodic over a dimly recalled story from a summer long ago. Say your brother really liked the Sub-Mariner comic book in the 1970s (above) and asks if you, as a comics buyer, have ever seen any of those around anymore. Well, you can get him a new Sub-Mariner project, but you might also just think about getting him 10-20 reader copies of those exact old comic books. It's not the kind of gift that builds a reader for the rest of time, but you're not a recruitment officer, so what do you care?
3. The Hardcore Comics Shopper's Best Friend: AbeBooks.com -- Some of the best gifts for a hardcore comics fan can be found in out of date books, particularly old ones, that can be searched through one of many services AbeBooks.com. Some of the thousands of great books available Thanksgiving morning through this service:
a. Rowland Emett's The Early Morning Milk Train for $10 with free shipping.
b. An early edition of Crockett Johnson's first Barnaby book for $19.99
c. A copy of the only exercise book that matters, the Marvel Strength and Fitness Book, for $6.20.


Finally, Three Things I Managed Not to Get On Any Other List
1. Masters of American Comics -- The much talked-about exhibit in Los Angeles has a $45 companion book in the grand tradition of coffee-table books as Christmas presents.
2. Jim Woodring Toys -- Since the Hellboy Christmas ornament has taken a powder and my link to it no longer works, I also wanted to write something about the explosion of boutique toys the last couple of years, which a lot of people find fascinating supplements to their comics reading. There is also a lot of imported Japanese toys for minor-over-here major-over-there manga that can be awfully cute and really rare.
3. Forgotten, low-price runs of old comic books -- I wanted to build a category around highly entertaninig low-cost runs of old comic books, but I abandoned it or being too difficult. That said, I noticed you could get the Justice Society run by Mike Parobeck for $.75 each if you look around. Parobeck was the first skilled practitioner of the cartoony superhero style to make an impression on a lot of people.