Warning: Graphic Content

Warning: Graphic Content

(This is the first column by Books@Toronto’s graphic arts/comics columnist, Dave Howard)

It’s late December. You haven’t done your holiday shopping and you’re surrounded by happy loved ones you’d like to indulge with a gift. You’d like to get them a book they would really enjoy but probably never think to buy for themselves. A little surprise that is indulgent, luxurious and even a little decadent. A gift that gives them permission to spend a little time on themselves, and when they’re done, have the option to re-gift…I mean…share with others.

You’re in luck. You’ve just fallen into the world of the graphic novel. The form’s non-verbal, dreamlike-yet-self-aware text most closely imitates cognition, and can hold moments indefinitely – ready to be revisited again and again. Lovely.

But which ones to choose? And for whom? Fortunately for you, 2009 was a stellar year for comics publishing. Let’s start.

Absolutely Brilliant Graphic Novels To Impress The Hell Out Of People

George Sprott 1894-1975, Seth

This is certainly the best book yet in the internationally revered Canadian artist’s career – and that’s saying a lot. Collecting Seth’s existential strip, which appeared in New York Times Magazine in 2006, George Sprott is a serendipitous depiction of a small town celebrity filled with Canadiana both sad and unsentimental, accessible and far-reaching, a fun light read and a poignant tolling of the bell. It is also a simply beautiful book: oversized, hard cover with silver foil lettering, colour glossy pages, and gorgeously designed endpapers.

The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by Robert Crumb

Probably the most anticipated book to come out this year, the irreverent, controversial, neurotic grandfather of underground comix has given the first book of the Bible an unexpectedly straight treatment with his mighty pen – and to the surprise of all, it really works. It turns out the Bible has enough racy story material that can be told without embellishment and still satisfy the aesthetic of an artist credited for defining the comics underground.

Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli

The author of probably the second most anticipated book for this year, David Mazzucchelli is half the genius behind Batman: Year One, one of the key books to revive the Batman franchise and the basis for the Batman Begins movie. Mazzucchelli dropped out of superhero comics and famously re-emerged to translate Paul Auster’s City of Glass into comics, garnering widespread critical and literary acclaim just before he disappeared from comics for a while. Asterios Polyp marks his long-awaited return. An examination of meaning and identity, it is simply a beautiful book, rich in formalist comics language experimentation that would make even Scott McCloud blush.

Luba, Gilbert Hernandez

Hernandez is one of the brothers behind Love and Rockets, the complex, beautifully drawn and multi-storied anti-middle-American soap opera rooted in Latino California. Luba is one of the vast cast’s matriarchs – a force to be reckoned with – and this book collects her stories in one enormous volume. Very much worth it.

Masterpiece Comics, R. Sikoryak

An artist who can trace his roots way back to Art Spiegelman’s RAW, R. Sikoryak has achieved the near impossible: mashed famous literary works with superhero tropes to create an enormously clever reductionist viewpoing that makes us re-examine our feelings of both genres. With mock covers like “Action Camus,” the work is laugh-out-loud funny.

Gifts For Your Sometimes Angst-Ridden Young Adult/Older Teen

Skim, Mariko Tamaki/Jillian Tamaki

This is a beautifully drawn piece of work that I highly recommend, told through the eyes of Skim, a teenage girl struggling with her own identity as she works though the rituals and limitations imposed upon her by her friends and peers and herself. Drawn in a lovely familiar pencil line that feels like it could have come out of a diary.

The Complete Essex County, Jeff Lemire

Winner of many awards, including a 2008 Joe Shuster Award for Outstanding Canadian Comic Book Cartoonist and a 2008 Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Talent, Lemire pays homage to his southern Ontario upbringing with this critically acclaimed farmland tale. Over the years a community is forced to deal with a damaging and long-standing deception – and to try to heal from the fall out.

GoGo Monster, Taiyo Matsumoto

Originally released in Japanese, this much-lauded story dabbles in magic realism – a new student sees ‘monsters’ wherever he goes and his new friend must decide if they are a figment of his imagination or a real force to be reckoned with. Emotionally resonate, sometimes sinister, and ultimately adventurous.

Far Arden, Kevin Cannon

A great deal of fun, Far Arden is Cannon’s tale of a noble young man who sails into the Canadian Artic to find the utopian tropical island of Far Arden, only to be thwarted by one after another ridiculously impossible set of people and circumstances. Clever and funny – very much like life, yes?

Scott Pilgrim Vol 1-5, Bryan Lee O’Malley

Young Canadian cartoonist star and Doug Wright Award winner Brian Lee O’Malley continues to unravel his charming, autobiographical coming-of-age story set in Toronto. Addictive and very likeable – also soon to be a major motion picture, shot in Toronto.

True Loves, Jason Turner and Manien Bothma

Set in Vancouver, True Loves is a light-hearted romantic comedy about True and Zander, by one of my favourite underground Canadian cartoonists.

The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

This now famous two-book collection of a girl’s emigration from Iran to France to escape the oncoming cultural revolution has been repackaged into one set. A not-atypical Middle-East-meets-West conundrum showing a family’s high expectation and a girl’s rebellion as she is lured by a once-alien culture she has been sent into for her protection.

Gifts To Intimidate the Budding Cartoonist

The Collected Doug Wright 1, Doug Wright

One of the Canadian grandfathers of the cartoon form in the 1950s and 60’s, Doug Wright was once a household name. Now gone, he is the person behind the prestigious cartoonist award that bears his name. Drawn and Quarterly has done well to collect this master’s work. Lynda Johnson says “I don’t think I’d have had the basics needed to do a syndicated comic strip had it not been for Doug Wright.”

Yoshihro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life

Tatsumi is well regarded as the grandfather of alternative manga for adults – the precursor to the “graphic novel.” This enormous tome is a fantastic autobiography that has taken 11 years to create. It is indulgent and illuminating, both in terms of his life, and in terms of Japanese comics history.

The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga, Helen McCarthy

The Japanese creator of Astro Boy has had an enormous impact on manga and comics the world over. His life and work are collected here in this lavish biography for new readers and those familiar with his work.

Hot Potatoe: Fine Ahtwerks, Marc Bell

Canada’s own Marc Bell has earned a reputation for groundbreaking work, effectively blurring the distinctions between art and craft, of unique art object and print piece, of comics and fine art, of associative and linear narrative. Here his labyrinth-like creations are bound in a single beautiful book.

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (Calvin & Hobbes) (v. 1, 2, 3), Bill Watterson

This box set is the last appearance of Watterson’s comic and it contains the whole strip in it’s entirety. For those who are fans of the strip, this is a real find. You can cast off all you dog-eared, incomplete collections of the strip, and keep this one on the bookshelf. Finally.

Sundays with Walt and Skeezix, Frank O. King (Author), Peter Maresca (Editor), Chris Ware (Editor)

This oversized book reproduces the legendary Sunday pages of Frank King’s “Gasoline Alley” in it’s heyday, the 1920s and 30’s, in their original newspaper broadsheet size. Certainly the book and art are absolutely beautiful – large and lush – but they are difficult to handle. I was worried the book would become ruined or worse – forgotten. To my surprise, it became one of my eight-year-old’s favourite books: she lays it out on the floor and pores over every corner. Now what parent in the world would stop their child from reading?

Walt and Skeezix: Books One, Two and Three

These are beautiful and well crafted hardcover editions of Frank King’s “Gasoline Alley.” After reading a few strips you realize they are more than simple jokes or gags, they create a complete quiet, poetic world, against which you may see reflections of your own. These are when the dailies were at their height.

Gifts For Impressionable Kids

BONE, Jeff Smith

Every kid I’ve known who started to read this series could not put it down. Now colourized beautifully, the book is at times slapstick, funny, poetic, poignant – it is the rare breed of comic that is not full of superhero power fantasies that still holds your seven- to eleven-year-old’s attention. Oh, and it’s Canadian.

The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly

These are the classics from the masters of the 1940s and 50’s – those who laid the brickwork down for the graphic space we now inhabit. Chosen by New Yorker art director Mouly and her Pulitzer Prize-winning husband, the legendary Art Spiegelman, in one book you have the best of the best of the cream of the crop, of the silliest, funniest, craziest kids’ comics ever made from the Golden Age.

Jellaby, Kean Soo

When Toronto’s Kean Soo showed preliminary samples from Jellaby around, the work was quickly snatched up by Disney’s graphic novel imprint Hyperion, and for good reason. I often read comics and books to my daughter, and this is one of the few she really took to and really wanted to read again and again. Try it out.

Historical, Journalistic, Biographical

Footnotes in Gaza, Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde pretty much defined comics journalism as a complete, legitimate, and independent genre. His latest work looks at the history of Gaza and the notorious massacre in 1955 of 111 Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. By placing this in context to events since then, we are reminded how precious life is, and how easy it is for people to become statistics.

Drop-In, Dave Lapp

Dave Lapp splits his time between teaching art to kids in drop-in centres in some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Toronto and relentlessly pursuing his dream to create great comics stories. With Drop-In, Lapp has found a way to combine the two: a series of unflinching short stories unfettered by judgment or useless commentary about some of the most damaged people living in some of the worst situations you can imagine. You think you know Toronto? Not for the light hearted, but still recommended reading.

Louis Riel, Chester Brown

Chester Brown created this biography of Louis Riel many years ago yet it still shows up on Canadian bestseller lists. Why? Because its the kind of timeless book you can refer to again and again. Consider Canadian history’s treatment of this enigmatic personality, as well as how our government treated an “unwanted” people. Now – compare that treatment to today.

Dave Howard sketches, writes reviews and analysis of comics, and founded the Toronto Comic Jam as well as Don’t Touch Me Comics. Visit http://davehoward.ca