September 11, 2008


500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide. By Gene Kannenberg, Jr. Collins|Design. $24.95.

The Penguin of Death. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

I’m Sorry…My Bad! By Bradley Trevor Greive. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Fans of graphic novels now have a great gift to give each other – or themselves. It is a gift that does double duty, because you can give the actual book or keep the book and use it as a guide to other books to give as presents (or add to your own collection). This double-edged, or double-jointed, gift is Gene Kannenberg, Jr.’s comprehensive, exhaustive, thoroughly researched, intelligently opinionated 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide. It may not be quite the ultimate guide, since of course it is merely a snapshot in time and there could be further amazing graphic novels still to come (in which case there will no doubt be a revised version of this book). But it is certainly a guide that every fan of graphic novels will want to have, so if you would like to give it as a gift, make sure the recipient has not yet bought it for himself or herself. Kannenberg, who has a Ph.D. degree in comics (really) from the University of Connecticut, manages to discuss graphic novels with a wonderful mixture of pithiness, understanding and erudition. More power to him if he has read all 500 here – and all the follow-ups and cross-referenced works to which he alludes in his short write-ups. Here you will find Tales from the Crypt (“a classic portmanteau horror anthology [and] a distinctly enjoyable – and maybe just a little nostalgic – peek at 1950s B-horror”). You will find Watchmen (“the daddy of all superhero graphic novels [and] an exceptional case of what can be achieved in the comics medium”). You will find Bone (“exciting, moving and very, very funny, this is one ‘all ages’ title that both adults and children will be fighting over for years to come”). And how about one of the many versions of Little Nemo in Slumberland, or the Asterix books, or a strange bit of European sadomasochistic erotica called Marie Gabrielle? Kannenberg, it is clear, defines the term “graphic novel” very broadly. His book is divided into 10 sections that often overlap (one is “Adventure,” another “Superheroes,” another “War,” for example). This requires readers to make frequent reference to the four indexes (by age, artist, writer and title), which unfortunately are printed in minuscule type and seem rather lightly inked – you may need a magnifying glass. 500 Essential Graphic Novels shows some other elements of overdesign – for instance, when you look up a title, the number next to it is the page number, but only right-hand pages are numbered (and not all of them), and the numbers are printed sideways on page edges rather than at top or bottom. Still, even when the book makes it less than simple to find a specific work, it is a joy to page through, because while looking for one thing, you will surely encounter others you would never have thought to seek. This book is a pleasure to read in and of itself (non-sequentially!), as well as a gateway to uncountable hours you (or a lucky gift recipient) can spend reading the graphic novels about which Kannenberg writes so knowledgeably.

     But perhaps all this is too rarefied, and all you really want is a little, not-too-expensive gift book for that special someone. Well, how special is he or she? Special enough to merit The Penguin of Death, the weirdest small hardcover yet from the increasingly strange mind of Edward Monkton (pen name of poet Giles Andreae)? This little volume, which gets a (+++) rating, tells about the 412th and final method by which the title character can escort you to your everlasting reward – a method involving words, song, poetry, truth and an eventual explosion “into a million specks of dust.” And all while sipping tea and eating biscuits. Parable? Fairy tale? Merely an oddity, through its juxtaposition of death with pictures of an enigmatically smiling penguin? You decide – and then decide whether you know anyone who would receive this book as a compliment rather than…well, rather than anything else it might be.

     Still a little on the weird side? Well, what is the reason you are looking for a gift book? If it’s to say you are sorry to someone, you can certainly get an amusingly apologetic if somewhat overdone little hardcover in the form of Bradley Trevor Greive’s I’m Sorry…My Bad! Like all Greive’s books, this one uses cleverly chosen animal photographs, plus text written to make it seem as if the animals’ expressions are related to the message that Greive wants to send (that is, the message that you want to send). Thus, two fish facing each other in separate fishbowls go with the words, “The longer I waited, the harder it was to talk to you.” And a photo showing a baby kangaroo on one side of a gate, with a dog on the other, gets the words, “It’s all my fault there is a weird barrier between us now. I blew it.” This particular book gets heavily into self-flagellation and may go farther than you wish to go in apologizing – so it gets a (+++) rating. But if you do want photos that allow you to describe yourself as stubborn, whiny, a pious twit and a lazy, smelly slob – and you think such self-description will repair a damaged relationship with someone you have offended – then by all means consider this book. But read it yourself first, since it promises, among other things, that if the offended party gives you one more chance, “I shall zip my lip and never ever ask for anything else for the rest of my life.” My goodness – what did you do if this book reflects your feelings, even in an amusing way?

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