The GOOD Gift Guide: Gateway Graphic Novels

You don’t have to be a fanboy to enjoy these five great comics from 2014.

It’s 2014—how are you still not reading comics? While the funny pages were once just the domain of muscle men with their underwear on the outside, lasagna-craving cats, and dangerous juvenile delinquents named Dennis, those days are long gone; the comic book medium is now being used to tell pretty much every kind of story there is. Here are some suggestions for those who might not be up to date on what’s going on in the wide world of the graphic novel, a few guaranteed good reads that’ll get you and your friends hooked—soon you won’t want to read any dialogue that’s not in a word bubble. So what are you waiting for? Go be cool and read some comics.

1. Andre the Giant: Life and Legend

Today, some might only remember Andre Rene Roussimoff as Fezzick, the giant from the 1987 film, The Princess Bride, or recognize his face from Shepard Fairey’s OBEY brand of streetwear. But for more than 25 years, Roussimoff was wrestling star Andre the Giant, a complicated man known paradoxically both for his geniality and his grumpiness, his earnestness and drunkenness, (he was estimated to drink 7,000 calories of alcohol daily) beloved for his work with children, and yet himself an absentee father. Over seven feet tall, and often weighing in at more than 600 pounds, he spent his life literally never fitting in—as a child Roussimoff could not squeeze onto his school bus, and a family friend (incredibly enough, playwright Samuel Beckett) would drive him instead. Andre the Giant: Life and Legend pieces together a portrait, not always flattering, of the larger-than-life heavyweight through the personal stories of The Giant’s family, friends, admirers, and rivals.

2. This One Summer

There’s an art in taking on nostalgia; the work has to be both specific and vivid enough to really put a reader into a particular time and place, as well as general enough to inspire sentimentality in a broad audience. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki achieve these goals ideally in This One Summer, capturing an adolescent girl’s tumultuous, yet idyllic season at a lakeside cabin with her family. “We spent a lot of time spying on kids, wherever we would find them,” the authors, who are cousins, told The New Yorker in May. While Mariko’s characters are complex, engaging and eminently appealing, Jillian’s artwork is just as likely as the storyline to induce the Proustian jolt—a set of keys, seashells, an empty teacup, a half-finished crossword—a single still-life panel can tap perfectly, and often uncomfortably into the very substance of summer.

3. Saga Deluxe Edition Volume 1

Saga, Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Space Opera family drama, brings us the Romeo and Juliet tale of Marko and Alana, who, along with their half-breed child, Hazel, are fugitives of an interplanetary war in which both sides want them dead. Pursued by emissaries of their respective peoples—including a bounty hunter with a lie-detecting cat and Prince Robot IV, a member of the android royal family—they navigate the stars, fighting off hostile elements, befriending ghosts, and changing diapers. This new deluxe hardcover edition collects the first two years of the monthly series, offering the complete initial story arc and over 500 pages of comics. Coming in at under $50 this giant tome is a steal, and would make a great gift for fans of this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy or the Star Wars franchise.

4. The Best American Comics 2014

Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s now-classic book on the graphic medium’s strengths, foibles, and essential vocabulary, was a key part of comics’ push into respectability over the last two decades. In The Best American Comics 2014, he compiles exciting pieces from some of the biggest names in the business, (R. Crumb, Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez) but also highlights a host of up-and-coming artists and experimental works that play with the idea of what a comic book can or should be. Not that this is just some artsy exercise or academic textbook—there’s a strong grip on narrative, and McCloud maintains a friendly, explanatory presence throughout, discussing each piece’s inclusion and merits and drawing out the themes and histories that connect the diverse group of works.

5. Sugar Skull

Something weird happened to Doug. All he knows is that it started with the irresistible, elusive, self-destructive Sarah, whose checkered past and history with violent men only drew him deeper into her thrall. Waking up with a head injury and very little memory of how he got there, he first passes the time at his parents’ house in a haze of drugs and paranoia, while his alter ego, a simple, cartoonish version of himself named Nitnit (Tintin backwards, get it?) looks for answers in a world of deformed freaks and foul-mouthed lizard functionaries. Think Memento, if David Cronenberg had directed it. Charles Burns, maybe best known for his beautiful cover illustrations at The Believer, began Doug’s story several years ago in X’ed Out and continued the hallucinogenic art school noir in 2012, with The Hive. Sugar Skull, the third installment of the series, released this September, brings the dark, maudlin tale to its finale.

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