It is now the time of year when gift-giving is on our minds as we hunt for the perfect presents for friends and family. If you are seeking gifts for the comic book lovers in your life, the Gemstone staff would like to offer some interesting suggestions of trades and graphic novels that they might enjoy. In this article, the selections come from our Vice-President of Publishing, J.C. Vaughn, who skewed heavily toward back issues and books about comics history with his suggestions.

Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man
DC Comics/Marvel Comics; $2

It’s not uncommon for franchises to crossover. In fact, it’s a fairly standard practice in the arena of video games, and it’s not at all unusual in the world of comic books either. Whether we’re talking Aliens vs. Predator (the comic book version spawned the video games and then the movies), Star Trek/X-Men, or even Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes, the financial and creative rewards of such crossovers can be very compelling.

It’s very hard to replicate the impact, however, of the 1976 collaboration of DC Comics and Marvel Comics on their first high profile crossover, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. In those days, such a thing was just about completely unheard of. Its impact was bigger than its Treasury-size format.

DC Publisher Carmine Infantino developed the cover concept, which was then executed by artist Ross Andru. It helped that in addition to being a talented draftsman, Andru was no stranger to either DC or Marvel. Inker Dick Giordano provided the finishes.

Along with writer Gerry Conway, Andru and Giordano also delivered the story’s interior art, which as the title suggests, initially pitted Superman against Spider-Man (hey, it’s a superhero team-up story, we all know how they start).

With Lex Luthor and Doctor Octopus as the villains, the story and art captured so much of what made comics cool in that era. Personal relationships, egos, trials and tribulations, all combined with bombastic threats from intelligent villains playing out on a grand stage.

Andru and Giordano’s clear storytelling moves the story along briskly. There were also chapter-break asides with the respective origins of the heroes and villains, and the whole package stands up remarkably well.

It’s still a lot fun, though any kind of higher grade copy is going to cost you a lot more than the original, almost astronomical $2 cover price.

As a side note, there were a few exceptions, but most of the Treasury-size projects from either company were character-centric, series-centric, or thematic reprint collections. The publishers made the right choice in releasing this one in this format.

Weird Science-Fantasy #27 Jigsaw Puzzle
Renegade Game Studios; $20

Wally Wood’s cover for EC’s Weird Science-Fantasy #27 is widely – and correctly, if you ask us – regarded as a masterpiece of its era, and now it’s a beautiful, 1,000-piece puzzle from Renegade Game Studios as part of their EC Comics Puzzle Series.

The finished puzzle is approximately 19.7” x 27.6” and depicts the three astronauts, alien creature, and the rocket ship that – along with Wood’s impressive skills – made the cover so memorable. In puzzle terms, there’s not a ton to review, but the pieces feature sharp, well-formed edges and fit together nicely. Since I generally pick a puzzle based on the image, those are about the only criteria I have by which to evaluate one.

In EC science fiction comics, it’s hard to get more iconic than Wood.

Wood, of course, came into his own at EC.

His work on EC’s Weird Fantasy and Weird Science followed covers on Avon’s Attack On Planet Mars, Flying Saucers, Earth Man on Venus, Space Detective and Strange Worlds. Later he’d be touted by Stan Lee on the cover of Daredevil #5 and would create the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, among many other accomplishments.

The offerings in Renegade’s EC Comics Puzzle Series are available at comic shops through Diamond Comic Distributors and directly from Renegade.

For fans of the great American comic strips of old, my next three suggestions center on the supremely talented Alex Raymond. In truth, I could have just as easily gone with Milton Caniff, but the recent arrival of this next suggestion nudged things in this direction…

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond
Living The Line; $39.99

Forbes’ Rob Salkowitz called The Strange Death of Alex Raymond “…an inspired work of obsessive genius that will take a long time to untangle.” And he’s right, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the journey. In fact, for the mind-bending trek through the development of the top comic strip art of the 20th century (and probably all time), that journey may well be the destination.

Cerebus creator Dave Sim is not a newcomer when it comes to groundbreaking, but in The Strange Death of Alex Raymond he has gone all out to deliver readers a compelling, thought-provoking look at the techniques and the stories behind such comic strip luminaries as Alex Raymond (Rip Kirby), Stan Drake (Juliet Jones), Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates), and others.

At first it may seem a beautiful, rather stream-of-conscience-type approach, but Sim and Carson Grubaugh weave their own intricate story on or in which all of their analysis rests. They showcase the artists and their respective approaches to comic art in convincing fashion.

This is an amazing piece of work that will take some time to fully digest. It’s also superbly produced.

Rip Kirby – Volume One
IDW Publishing; $49.99

Before World War II, artist Alex Raymond had made his name by establishing a strong following on three popular newspaper strips, Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, and Secret Agent X-9. Raymond’s stint on Flash Gordon inspired many artists, including Al Williamson, and it set an early benchmark for the adventure strip. When the war came along, though, the artist volunteered and was shipped out to the Pacific theater.

After he completed his military service, he expected to pick up where he left off on Flash Gordon, but King Features Syndicate has signed his replacement, Austin Briggs, to a contract that was scheduled to run until July 1948.

Based on the contents of Rip Kirby – Volume One from IDW Publishing’s imprint The Library of American Comics, that turned out to be a very good thing. He got a new assignment and solid contract from the syndicate to develop a new strip, Rip Kirby, which had been created by editor Ward Greene.

Like the artist, the title character Rip Kirby was newly returned from the war. An ex-Marine, Rip Kirby was also a writer, scientist, and amateur detective.

Both the character and the artist hit the ground running. The first daily ends with a gun shot. The second one ends with a beautiful dead woman falling into Kirby’s arms, and things start from there. Kirby is aided by his girlfriend “Honey” Dorian and his assistant, Desmond, a former burglar, as he plunges into the case.

He is acting, of course, against the wishes of the police when he gets involved. That’s about the only standard issue private eye cliché readily apparent. Kirby is more of the Sherlock Holmes mode than of the Mike Hammer variety (although he’s certainly not afraid to use his fists, if that’s what’s called for). He prefers deductive reasoning to violence, wears glasses, smokes a pipe, and certainly appears to be a moneyed man-about-town.

And yet this strip grew in popularity and influence almost immediately. When you start reading it, there’s no mystery as to why. It’s just simply brilliant stuff. Raymond had already defined himself as an artist’s artist, but this strip has everything: great storytelling, wonderful characters, and stunning art.

Dean Mullaney, Bruce Canwell and company have done an outstanding job (you’ll be ready for the second volume right away). The introductions by Brian Walker and Tom Roberts have a lot of information to put things in context and they’re definitely worth reading as well.

For would-be practitioners of the comic strip arts and for fans of the craft at its best, this book is a treasure not to be missed.

Secret Agent X-9: 1934-1936
IDW Publishing; $49.99

It was neither the most likely of pairings nor would it last long, but the original outings of Secret Agent X-9, which premiered in January 1934, teamed one of the great practitioners of mystery fiction, Dashiell Hammett, with one of the most significant comic strip artists to ever ply his craft, Alex Raymond.

Hammett remains known for such hard-boiled detective novels as The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and Red Harvest, while Raymond would define his legend with Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim and later Rip Kirby.

The daily strip – there were no Sunday pages for this one – featured mystery and some of the wit that made The Thin Man so popular, and despite the fact that the collaboration was very short-lived, they make for some great reading. It doesn’t start evenly, but the strip finds its stride fairly soon and quickly becomes very enjoyable.

While it’s not the master work of either creator, it is a compelling bit of history that heretofore has been missing. It’s not on the level of Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson’s 1960s revamp of the strip as Secret Agent Corrigan, but it does have its own distinct charm.

And even with Hammett and Raymond’s quick exits from Secret Agent X-9, it should be noted that among those who followed Hammett was The Saint’s creator, Leslie Charteris, under whom the strip definitely held its own. This collection spans January 22, 1934 through October 31, 1936.

-J.C. Vaughn

In addition to our upcoming new book, The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide To Lost Universes, J.C. Vaughn recently authored his first novel, Second Wednesday. He’s also the author of Vampire, PA, Zombie-Proof, and Antiques: The Comic Strip, and the co-author of Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universeall of which he swears make great Christmas and Hanukah gifts.