Paperbacks remain popular holiday gifts: They're smaller, cheaper and easier to wrap than hardcover books. Not everyone on the list rates one of the $85 gift books the publishers trot out each fall ("The Joy of Lard," "The Bassoon: A Photo Study," "Chunk Style," "Lapland From the Air") and consign to overstock tables January 2.
Cartoon books rank among the most popular paperbacks, and there are some excellent choices this year. THE CALVIN AND HOBBES LAZY SUNDAY BOOK (Andrews & McMeel: $9.95), a full-color collection of Sunday pages, proves that Bill Watterson is, simply, the best comic strip artist working today. He blends words and drawings with rare skill and unflagging imagination to portray the mischievous fantasies of 8-year-old Calvin and his tiger companion, Hobbes. Hilarious and charming, this book makes an excellent gift--or a reward to yourself for getting through a hard day's shopping.
For the last few years, Watterson and Gary Larson have been sharing the number one and two spots on paperback bestseller lists, and the only book likely to rival "Lazy Sunday" in popularity is THE PREHISTORY OF THE FARSIDE: A 10th Anniversary Exhibit (Andrews & McMeel: $12.95) This off-the-wall anthology includes preliminary sketches, "childhood drawings," panels that were too gross to print and the artist's comments on his favorite cartoon panels and mistakes. (When one paper mixed up the captions, it was Dennis the Menace instead of a snake who looked at his sandwich and complained, "Oh, brother! . . . not hamsters again!") "Prehistory" offers readers a rare peek into the bizarre mind that conceived so many gags about cows, snakes, cavemen and bugs--and discovered "the real reason the dinosaurs became extinct" (they smoked cigarettes).
Anyone who prefers the nostalgic appeal of an older comic strip will enjoy LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, Volume Two: 1932 by Harold Gray (Fantagraphics Books: $14.95). By 1932, Grey had given up trying to do a humorous strip and was developing the soap opera/adventure format that made "Annie" famous. Eleven-year-old Annie was a Reagan Republican 50 years before the fact, extolling the virtues of thrift, hard work and private enterprise. Billionaire "Daddy" Warbucks counted as a good guy because he used his wealth to create jobs. (Leapin' Lizards--is that the origin of the "trickle down" theory?) Included in this collection is Warbucks' forgotten marriage to golddigger Trixie Tinkle.
Canadian cartoonist Lynn Johnston is less concerned with supplying a daily laugh than presenting an account of middle class daily family life in the '80s. A LOOK INSIDE . . . FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE: The 10th Anniversary Collection (Andrews & McMeel: $12.95) continues the tradition of Frank King's "Gasoline Alley." The characters age and make decisions that may not be wise, but are true to their personalities. Johnston's gently skewed vision of contemporary suburbia is both more accurately observed and more entertaining than many contemporary novels.
Kim "Howard" Johnson pulls off the impressive trick of making one of the funniest groups in the history of television and film comedy seem dull in THE FIRST 20 YEARS OF MONTY PYTHON (St Martin's Press: $14.95, illustrated). He just summarizes the skits, adding bits of trivia about changes in their order on the original TV shows. With so many Python videocassettes and recording available, why bother?
Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, a.k.a. "Los Bros Hernandez," are part of the small group of artists working to establish the comic as a legitimate vehicle for artistic expression. DUCK FEET (Fantagraphics Books: $12.95), their latest collection, shows that Jaime is the more skillful artist, using bold black and white drawings to recount his slightly fantastic tales of the LA punk scene. Gilbert's continuing series of stories about the tiny Latin American town of Palomar ("Chicken Coop") prove that he is the more effective storyteller. Palomar seems as real as the unnamed city in "Love in the Time of Cholera," as Heraclio, the local accordion teacher and artist manque, explains how his love for his wife overcame his desire for a career in the city.
The Hernandez's graphic stories are more readable than the trendy prose spoofed in SPY NOTES ON MCINERNEY'S 'BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY,' JANOWITZ'S 'SLAVES OF NEW YORK,' ELLIS' 'LESS THAN ZERO' ... And All Those Other Hip Novels of the 1980s by the editors of SPY Magazine (Doubleday: $7.95), a delightfully malicious satire of the brat pack's ready-to-weary line of fiction.