What I gave my family for Christmas and why you should care

I am one of those: the relative who gives you presents you wouldn’t have asked for, in the hope that you will discover that you should have. In a prose family, I give comics. But I don’t give them willy-nilly; I give them because I love them, to people whom I love, in the hope that they will find the good experiences I know are there.

Cousin: The Bellybuttons

Dubuc and Delafontaine

My second-youngest cousin is sixteen and I don’t see her very often. I don’t know her well; what I do know is superficial. She’s pretty, has a flattering haircut, and dresses comfortably on-trend, she likes to laugh and I think she might be a tiny bit wicked, given opportunity. I like her a lot, but that was not the sort of teenager I was–and it’s also not the sort of template that comics, as an industry, are designed towards. Obviously there’s the possibility of her enjoying any title you could name, but I don’t want to throw “whatever” at her and see if it sticks. I want to try, at least, to give her something that looks like it’s made for her.

I was doing fairly badly, but then had two strokes of luck: I visited my new LCS for the first time, and I received a review package from Cinebook. The proprietor of Proud Lion (Cheltenham) recommended Look Straight Ahead by Elaine M Will. Cinebook sent, among others, volume one of The Bellybuttons. These are both by Canadians. Perhaps that’s irrelevant. Look Straight Ahead turned out to be a heavier read than expected and a bit much to drop on someone you see once or twice a year, but The Bellybuttons was just about perfect. In my opinion, anyway. I haven’t heard from my cousin yet.

You gradually realise that every page of Bellybuttons (Les Nombrils) is “a strip”, which I presume is how it appears in magazines Safarir and Spirou. Fascinatingly this does not affect the flow of the collected volume. It’s a long-form story in chapters: some a single page, some continuing over several. If you’re familiar with the Young Adult diary-format novel, you’re in good shape to enjoy this. And in fact, the (main? secondary? you’ll see what I mean) character Karine has a Mia Thermopalis-y vibe to her–the tall thin blondeness, the compulsive niceness and refusal to believe in her own attractiveness or popularity, the naive blindness to some relationships’ toxicity. She’s very, very likeable.


The Bellybuttons deserves a proper review (working on it), but for now suffice to say that it’s very funny and surprisingly respectful high school social commentary. Every character design is impeccable, the brushwork is so fluid it’s almost alive and the colouring is bright and cheery without neglecting to reflect mood and environment. The titular “Bellybuttons” (visible & pierced, see) are Karine’s friends Jenny and Vicky who live and work to be glamorous, hot babes–and who don’t much consider how they treat their flat chested, flat haired, only other friend. Basically a kind, smart, rather deeper re-telling of this asinine song by a highly talented wife/husband team:


Whether or not my cousin’s into The Bellybuttons, I’m going to be reading the rest of the series.


Jean Van Hamme, William Vance

If my Dad and I have watched The Bourne Whatever once, we have watched it ten thousand times. And we have definitely watched it once. So when Cinebook’s package also contained XIII I thought right, how can I make Dad read this and then talk to me about it. I’ll have to trick him. I gave him a copy for Christmas.

Until half an hour ago, when I started writing this, I did not know that Van Hamme’s XIII was actually inspired by Bourne! But let’s not fib, it’s completely obvious. “More superficial than Bourne or something though, isn’t it?” said Dad, as we walked alongside a motorway in the dark during an emergency boxing day vegetables run. He’s right; “XIII” washes up with a head wound, is taken in by old people with a dead son, has an operation by an alcoholic ex-surgeon… and then it’s two months later, he’s up and kicking, and they’re all best friends. Can we slow it down a little, there? There’s no time to appreciate, or even see, XIII’s relationship with his surrogate parents before they’re murdered, along with their dog. Bourne tales a whole movie (work with me, the novels are on my to-read) to form his post-amnesia attachment. And a good ten minutes of screen time is taken to establish their continuing and changing bond in the next film, before she’s–spoiler!–shot. The surgeon is still alive when XIII leaves on his quest of vengeance and self-discovery, but has her clogs popped before the end of the quite slim volume. Contrast with Bourne’s Nicky: a trilogy-length constant. XIII doesn’t have any other friends, and he also doesn’t have what I’d call “a personality”. What am I coming back to volume two for?

While Van Hamme is acclaimed enough that I might take a second look, there’s no likelihood that my Dad will. Not under his own steam. But he was turning the pages fast enough, complimented the artistic realism, and cheerfully said that reading it felt like being “back at school”; I’m hopeful that a book with a stronger beginning could hold his interest. Try euro-comics on your (action movie loving,) artistic and literary Papas!

For my money, the surgeon is the best character in the book. She’s a grey-haired, double-chinned intelligent alcoholic who wears bright red socks and twice asks XIII for a kiss. She could easily have been a man’s role–the brilliant recluse who ruined his own career through self-medication–and there’s nothing in it, really, that feminises her dialogue or actions. They’re a woman’s words and a woman’s choices just because they are spoken and made by a woman. I liked her a lot, and I’m sad that she isn’t XIII’s romantic goal.

Mum: Look Straight Ahead

Elaine M. Will

Like I said, a heavy read. This is a book about mental health–no. That is too clinical. This book exists to exhibit the mental state of its protagonist. He starts out miserable, downtrodden, insomniac and on the mental hamster wheel of self-recrimination; by the end he has suffered breakdowns, hallucinations, institutionalisation and has spoken with both God and demons. The comic is in black and white, but not always; when protagonist Jeremy suddenly “sees in colour”, so do we. It’s as jarring or transformative as it should be. The ending comes fast on the heels of the beginning of the end, but it’s not a book about getting better. It’s a book about what it was like to be ill.

My mum does not approve of comics in the general sense; she thinks they are silly and, I guess, pointless. I am working on this. She has bought one comic in her life: Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat. OBR is about a girl who has run away from home after living through parental sexual abuse, and about this girl’s coping mechanisms. The heavy read is what Mum respects–the heavy read is what I give her. It was a gamble; there was the risk that she might take it for communication rather than a recommendation of powerful art. You know? You do.

“Are you enjoying your comic?”, asked my sister.

Enjoying might not be the word. …But it’s very good” said Mum.


Cousin 2: Battling Boy

Paul Pope, Hilary Sycamore, John Martz

There is one other person in my family who likes the comics. My youngest cousin. I think he is fourteen? He’s very tall, anyway. When he was small he liked Tintin and Asterix, as so many are allowed to, and I thought right. That’s not a hobby you’re losing, chap. I need you on my side.

It’s not a hobby he’s wanted to lose, I think. I gave him Battling Boy, and he happily declared he already had it, and I was so pleased! At least one other person in his life is on the ball re: comics presents, he’s getting the good stuff, and now I get to keep Battling Boy.

But what shall I give him instead? We chatted about novels and authors he likes, and I like almost all of them too. I’m not worried about future Christmases at all. Give comics, reader. They bridge gaps. 2

“it” is comics

Which comics did you make presents of in 2013?

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money