Given the state of the economy, you may not be buying your favorite comics fan that copy of Detective Comics #27 or piece of R. Crumb original art you know he wants for Christmas. Luckily, a quartet of new releases are hefty enough to make quite nice gifts while filling four different gift-giving niches.
The Best American Comics 2008 (Houghton Mifflin), part of that wonderful anthology series whose other flavors devote themselves to magazine essays, short stories, “Nonrequired Reading,” and the like, hired Lynda Barry to edit this volume, with predictably engaging results. Working with the new series editing team of Matt Madden and Jessica Abel, Barry worked hard to present unheralded new talents, including some artists whose work has only appeared online or in self-published mini-comics. Completely new to me were people like T. Edward Bak, whose story looks like it was colored with Crayolas, and Gene Luen Yang, whose cute drawing style captures the flavor of a fish-out-of-water childhood. But rest assured there are enough established artists within to make this set’s “best of” claims plausible — especially when you remind yourself that the book’s geographical limits rule out such artists as Guy DeLisle.
An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories, Vol. 2 (Yale) works in a different direction, aiming to capture not this year’s best, but a complete (if subjective, as viewed through cartoonist and editor Ivan Brunetti’s eyes) look at the artistic possibilities of the medium through its entire history in North America. That means everything from 1928’s The Bungle Family and the rambunctious 1913 strip Naughty Pete to R. Sikoryak’s Superman-meets-Sartre spoof Action Camus. Contemporary cartoonists make up the book’s bulk, unsurprisingly, but it’s nice to be free of a calendar year’s constraints here, so that, for instance, where Lynda Barry’s book presents Chris Ware through his dour set of New Yorker “Thanksgiving” covers, Brunetti can reach back to a one-off like “Rocket Sam,” which reminds us Ware can be funny when he wants to. Going one step beyond Barry’s focus on little-known cartoonists, Brunetti even includes one who has never been published before: “Onsmith,” whose haunting “502 West Main Street” recalls borderline-shameful episodes in a boy’s adolescence as told by an omniscient narrator who occasionally and enigmatically slips into the first person.
Absolute Sandman (Vertigo): DC’s Vertigo imprint wraps up its four-volume set just in time to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Neil Gaiman’s universally acclaimed series, which did as much as any other to prove that literary merit could be found even amid tired superhero sagas. This is the maximalist approach to giving, with the four oversized hardbacks adding up to almost $400 retail, but for those readers who have pored over this mythology from the start, it’d be a welcome replacement for that stack of yellowed, staple-challenged comics spilling off the bookshelf. Happily, the books include all the original Dave McKean cover art in addition to the stories, including the new designs he did for trade-paperback collections. (Need an additional stocking stuffer, or a more frugal option, for your Gaiman/McKean-loving friend? Try the Graveyard Book, a new novel from HarperCollins in which McKean supplies pen-and-ink illustrations for his old pal’s prose.)
The Adventures of Tintin (Little, Brown), a tidy little box in which Hergé’s tuft-headed hero globetrots through 21 adventures and has his roots explored in a bonus book, Tintin & Co. The set is intentionally incomplete, omitting stories like “Tintin in the Congo,” whose racial and political attitudes have dated badly in the seven decades since publication. (A more complete version of this set was published last year in the UK and generated protests.) But what’s here is made to last, in sturdy hardback volumes that each contain three stories and reproduce Hergé’s famously clear-lined drawings with top-notch printing and color reproduction — though readers without eagle eyes will wish the page size was larger, more like the flimsy paperbacks through which most of us were introduced to the