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The Graphic Depictions Last-Minute Gift List

It's that time of year again: the stockings are hung by the chimney with care, the chestnuts are roasting by the fire, and visions of overdue credit card bills dance in our heads.

Yes, it's Christmas. Bring on that fat guy in a red suit.

Since it is the season, I've decided to forgo my usual review to come up with a list of a few comics that can end up being the crown jewels of anyone's collection. Diehard fanpeople may have some of these already, while others may never have even heard of them. They are some of the best our favorite literary medium has to offer, at least in my humble and often ignored opinion, and would make a good gift under any comic lover's tree.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

I love comics, but I never understood why until I read this graphic novel about three years ago. Scott McCloud created the most widely sought and highly regarded critical evaluation of comic books to ever grace the industry and if you haven't read it yet, you don't deserve to read comics.

In Understanding Comics, McCloud makes the best case for the validation of sequential art as a serious medium, demonstrating the clarity and depth that can be achieved when words and art are combined, and analyzing and defining our favorite medium. He takes the reader through the history of comics, pointing out its ties to ancient pictorial writing and artwork, while pointing out the potential and the flaws of the medium. He includes visual art concepts right alongside panel description and negative space techniques, all to link the world of high art with the world of comic book creation.

Most importantly, he teaches the fanperson more about the history and inner workings of comics and at the same time, introduces the comic book novice to an easily understood explanation of how to read, understand, and interpret comic books. It's the comic book Bible, and should be on your shelf, if for no other reason than to lend it to people who don't read comics, so they can start.

Order Understanding Comics

The Books of Magic created by Neil Gaiman, continued by John Ney Rieber

It was one of Vertigo's best selling and best written titles to date and has seen its entire run collected, as well as a collection for The Names of Magic miniseries, Books of Faerie, and a sequel series Hunter: The Age of Magic. Eight volumes grace my shelf and the rest are soon to follow.

Tim Hunter was a thirteen year-old British kid with glasses and an owl, long before a certain Potter made it cool to be a thirteen year-old British kid with glasses and an owl. And he also did magic.

From the original miniseries by Gaimain, to the recent ongoing by Dylan Horrocks, The Books of Magic have been the story of a young man discovering that there is magic in the world, and it's not always riding around on a flying cleansing implement, looking for a spastic, winged pinball. Magic is hard, dangerous, and it brings you miles and miles of painful memories.

Gaiman introduced us to Tim and the world of Magic, and Rieber showed us the world as a Tim aware of magic and his own powers had to deal with it. The series never failed to be strikingly real despite its fantasy elements, the characters never less than thoroughly human. It covers the broad spectrum of emotion and tackles all kinds of topics, from love, Death (fanboy points for those who know why the "d" is capitalized), life and loss, to the afterlife and what it means to really grow from adolescence into adulthood. It's one of the greatest series I've ever read and you do yourself a disservice if you haven't done so.

So, to sound like a bad Hallmark commercial, give the gift of Magic this Christmas.

Astro City by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson

Superheroes are what got just about everyone who reads comics into comics. Superhero as a fiction genre, and even as a literary writing style, is unique in the way it examines themes of responsibility, power, and the belief that an individual or group of individuals can affect something larger than themselves.

Astro City is a title that explores almost every aspect of the superhero as characters, as well as showing the affects superheroes have on the world and people around them. Busiek used the archetypes that the comic reading world is used to (the powerhouse, the the amazon, the vigilante, etc.) and created a plethora of characters help him comment on the world of superheroes. In the four collected volumes (some issues have yet to see collection), Busiek gives each one a theme to address.

In Life In the Big City, the original miniseries, Busiek gives his introduction to his fictional home to superheroics Astro City, telling several done-in-one stories that give the reader a smattering of his honest and down-to-earth writing style, introducing the reader to many great characters like the Samaritan, Winged Glory, Jack-In-the-Box, and the Hanged Man.

Later, Busiek addresses the affects of being a superhero has on the familial process in Family Album, the definition of heroism in Confession, and the idea that a man can be redeemed in Tarnished Angel. All the volumes are written with a deft understanding of what it means to be human, while still being superhuman, as Busiek writes an alien invasion as well as he does a little girl learning to play hopscotch for the first time.

It's the kind of book that has us wishing superheroes were real, not because we want to fly as fast as a speeding bullet or shoot beams from our eyes, but because the world would contain just one more spark of wonder, one more example of the great things humanity can accomplish, if they were real. Anyone who reads any of these volumes will get that. "Wonder" always seemed like a good gift idea.

Well, that's it for me. Time to hang up my reviewing hat for the week (it's a very nice hat, red and white and furry). The three comics (or over fifteen if you count individual volumes) I've mentioned cover what I hope are parts of everyone's comic reading experience: history, magic, and wonder. Every Christmas should have a little of each, so try and sprinkle a dash or two around. Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Good Kwanza, and Best Festivus to all. And to all a good night.

Robert Sparling

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