Why Graphic Novels make great Christmas/Holiday Gifts
OK straight up, I’m heavily biased here. I love graphic novels, manga and comics. That being said, I do think graphic novels - just being what they are - avoid a lot of the problems that come with gifting books.
When you give a book as a present, you’ve got a lot of factors that make it difficult - both in deciding if it’s a good thing to give in the first place, and which book to choose. Below I’m going to list a bunch of book-giving problems, and show how graphic novels avoid many of them.
Then I will recommend some of my favourites.
1) Books often take time and effort to appreciate, both of which people often are in short supply of
Graphic novels are consistent exceptions to this rule.
While we’re consuming more information than ever before, not that many people today make a habit of sitting down and reading for pleasure for an uninterrupted duration of time. As such, books don’t really fit into a lot of modern lifestyles.
For many of us, our reading diet consists mostly of fast-food words; buzzfeed articles, social media, news stories. Not to say any of these are inherently bad, however I think it’s important to recognise that the amount of time it takes to produce these pieces of content is minimal. Even if people do agonise over their Instagram description, they seldom spend more than a few minutes on it. With news stories there’s a pressure to get out the piece before anyone else does. Hell, even most blog content doesn’t have more than a few hours spent on it (though of course, this varies, depending on which blog you read *coughs*).
With books, there’s a certain guarantee that they’ve been cooking longer. People spend years, decades even, meticulously writing and re-drafting their work. This leads to a certain quality, or creative reach, that isn’t accessible to the short-turnover content we normally consume. Often, it’s much more impactful, or thought provoking, because of this.
Sadly, as a direct result, novels and books also require a not-quite-proportional but still significant increase in time and focus from the reader. Our lives currently aren’t built to give us easy access - mentally or otherwise - to this kind of material.
The exception to this, however, is the graphic novel.
Graphic novels can take years to write and produce, and often involve a team of artists and writers. A lot of hours are put into baking one, however they can be consumed quickly and easily.
The fact that graphic novels consist of illustrations (often with colour) means they more naturally hold attention. A graphic novel doesn’t demand focus from the reader, but invites it. The ‘lazy’ reader will be able to enjoy the novel, while if someone does invest more time thinking about the art, they’ll often find a lot more depth to it. However, crucially, this isn’t necessary.
There’s a universal language to art that transcends whatever language you speak – which is why even if you were to receive a graphic novel in the wrong language, often you could understand a lot of what was going on.
You can get through some graphic novels in an hour, or less. Yet, they’re legitimate books - with just as much capacity for nuanced writing and storytelling. Perfect for today’s world.
2) With books, some people simply prefer digital versions (which make unsatisfying gifts) – and some books are arguably far better suited to E-readers anyway
Graphic novels are infinitely better in physical form
There’s a certain satisfaction in giving someone something physical as a gift - there’s a certain experience to holding something given. As we know, the modern-day landscape of reading makes this more complicated. If you do give someone a book to read, and they become committed to doing so, likely the only way they’ll be able to do this in any reasonable amount of time is by carrying. As such, some people refer to read everything on their kindle/E-reader. Getting a physical copy when the receiver would have preferred a digital one is sub-optimal gift buying. Yet giving something digital just feels unsatisfying.
Sure, there are ways to supplement the physical experience of giving with digital presents; you can write in a card a code for a gift voucher, or send them the email with their book at the last instant before you’ll see them, but these aren’t really exciting or fun.
Thankfully, graphic novels are best in print. Because they can be devoured so quickly, there’s less of a need for them to be carried around - so their bulk size doesn’t become an issue in the same way it might with a book. Besides, they are there, in large part, to be admired and looked at - to splash colour and images across your vision. They are a more literal manifestation of the word ‘art’ - and deserve to be printed as such.
If you live in a city, chances are that (especially during the winter months) much of your world becomes devoid of colour. Days are darker, spent in increasingly black-and-white offices. We counteract this with colourful trees and decorations. So much of our experience of great colour comes through screens, and this is a shame. A printed, colour graphic novel can be a simple joy to look at in these times.
Plus, in truth, most of them are designed with the idea that at any point in time you will have two pages open to your eyes to see. To read them digitally is to, in a small part, to detract from the intended experience.
3) A book can (unjustifiably) feel like a boring gift
Graphic novels are still books, but are so markedly different from other kinds of literature - they’re inherently more exciting
When writing a graphic novel, you have a lot more degrees of freedom. As opposed to writing any kind of fiction or non-fiction, with graphic novels you have more things to think about than with standard print mediums. Writing a book means you’ll need to think about typography, characters, story-line, pacing syntax etc. Graphic novels have all of those problems, with page and panel layout, colouring, character design, angles, visual symbolism and metaphor added on.
A blank page to the writer of a graphic novel is so much more terrifying than that of your standard writer. At least a writer knows their pages will be filled with sentences. There’s a greater potential for density of creative care and detail in graphic novels - and most people aren’t familiar with them at all. They can represent something really fresh and new to someone who isn’t familiar with them (and if you’re not, that’s OK, I’ve got some recommendations below).
4) With books, it’s often the case that ‘classics’ are books that no-one wants to read, but everyone wishes they had read
The classic graphic novels, however, everyone should genuinely start with
As much as we all wish that we’ve read War and Peace or Moby Dick, most of us haven’t. Those of that have, probably had to do so because of school. Most people don’t want to read classic literature. Given how fast literature has evolved, and how many people write now, it’s even questionable how useful it is to read old classics anyway if you wanted to understand modern literature. Obviously, if you want the full picture of how we got here, they’re important, but they produce small social capital - not many people have read them, nor is it simple to relate the reading of them to books people tend to read nowadays.
With the classic graphic novels, it’s different. There are far, far fewer graphic novels than there are other kinds of books. They are harder to make - and really represent an extremely niche genre. Due to this, the classics are far more directly relevant to the medium today. So to give someone a classic graphic novel is a legitimate way to foster interest in the culture of graphic novels it exists in this era. If someone is interested in graphic novels, they have almost certainly read the classics. In some sense, that means the community is less thinly spread around this genre, making it more accessible.
Who knows, you might introduce your friend (or indeed, yourself) to an entirely new genre of books.
For those that are convinced but have no idea what to buy, here are three ideas, take your pick.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
If you were only able to read one graphic novel in your life, it should probably be this one.
Today the market is saturated with colourful, glamorous, heroic superheroes. Moore and Gibbons, all these years ago, wanted to tell a different kind of story.
Watchmen is set in a fictional history where America won the Vietnam war, due to the assistance of a super-human named Doctor Manhattan. Set in 1985, with Nixon still as president, the cold war between the US and and the Soviets seems doomed to turn into a real one.
The story follows the lives of a group of vigilantes - the Watchmen / The group were once officially employed by the US Government, however our story begins when they have long since been disbanded due to the government banning vigilantes and heroes. The story begins when one of them - The Comedian - is murdered.
It begins as a murder mystery, but turns into a psychological thriller. It’s very hard to go wrong with this.
The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore
You know how there’s a Walking Dead everything? TV series, games, board game… the entire franchise began with this comic.
You probably already know the premise - zombies. Zombies force regular people into dire situations whereby they have to make moral choices. It’s compelling, and beautiful, and worth your time and attention.
The story is of the TV show does depart from that in the comics. So, if someone you know loves the TV series, there’s something for them here too.
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman
Chances are you’ve read, or watched, something by Neil Gaiman. Whether that’s the recent American Gods adaptation, or the film Stardust, or certain episodes of Doctor Who, or indeed any number of his books - the man is prolific.
However, you may not know that some of his first published literary works were comics (he had a career in journalism to begin with), which he wrote before he did any of his novels. His main contribution to the genre was The Sandman series. This follows the character of Dream - one of ‘The Endless’ - eternal entities who exist as something like demigods, and how they interact with our world.
The story begins with Dream being captured by some humans, who were intent on capturing his sibling, Death, and what happens as a result.
It’s retro, and trippy, and saturated with every bit of imagination you’d expect from Gaiman. After all, he’s writing about the embodiment of Dreams. The other Endless include Death, Destiny, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium.
It’s the kind of story that is so otherworldly, and so Gaiman, that it feels almost wrong to compare it to regular books. Still though, it’s worth checking out. It’s almost certainly unlike anything you (or who you’re gifting it to) has ever read before.
Graphic novels make great gifts because they’re accessible, easy to love and read, and are different from most kinds of books. They avoid a lot of the pitfalls, and are wonderful things in their own right. I feel they deserve more attention for these reasons.
I’m a fan.
Similar to the genre of graphic novels - but with a vastly different culture - is that of manga. I’ve written about manga here before, and the insane work that goes into it. If you’re thinking of going for something a little more unusual, my recommendation to anyone curious about starting manga is:
Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
For the love of God ignore the Netflix live-action film. The manga is a genius, beautiful, intellectual thriller. The premise is this: a genius high school kid gets a the notebook of a death god. It allows him to kill anyone on the planet, anonymously, so long as he knows their name and what they look like.
The kid goes nuts, and decides to try and purify the world of criminals. The people of the world (not knowing that this is what’s happening) all assume that God himself is enacting judgement on the human race. Well, almost everyone - a lone detective believes that there’s a pattern to the murders, and that someone - specifically, a human person - is behind them. It’s about the two trying to hunt each other down, while still retaining their anonymity. It’s brilliant.
I’d recommend getting the ‘Black’ edition - the print is slightly larger, and you’re getting two volumes in one at roughly the same price.