We start, of course, with comics. For the X-geek in your life, or for the geek who just wants people to understand your love of all things X-Man, the Grant Morrison run on New X-Men is a fantastic place to start. It has enough backstory to "fill in the gaps" for people just joining, while being an incredible, world-spanning story that it's hard as heck not to love. The Grant Morrison run has been collected into three massive volumes. New X-Men: Collection I [Amazon] kicks things off with the bombing of Genosha, the world's only all-mutant country. New X-Men: Collection II [Amazon] ups the ante in a dozen different ways, and New X-Men: Collection III [Amazon] brings things to a screaming, ass-kicking conclusion. I highly recommend these books, and not just because Emma Frost features heavily.
If you're looking for something a little outside the mainstream of the superhero world, Robert Kirkman's Invincible is an amazing title from Image, one that dares to show superheroes as a little more human than most publishers will dare. It's a painful, beautiful story, and since it's relatively new (IE, "this century"), catching up isn't all that hard. Invincible: The Ultimate Collection, Volume I [Amazon] is a big, beautifully sturdy hardback introduction to Mark Grayson and his world. If that's a bit too big for your budget, Invincible book one: Family Matters [Amazon] and Invincible book two: Eight Is Enough [Amazon] include the first issues of the series, and are more than awesome enough to get you hooked.
My current favorite superhero title is a lot darker. Garth Ennis—the man who brought us Preacher, which really tells you something about how dark we're talking here—has turned his attention the superhero world, and the resulting title is...disturbing, to say the least. Start with The Boys, volume one: The Name of the Game [Amazon]. Proceed from there to The Boys volume two: Get Some [Amazon]. With fantastic art, a gritty storyline, and an all-too-plausible superhero community, The Boys is a great antidote to all that four-color brightness. (If you need still more dark-but-awesome superheroics, look up Incognito [Amazon] and Wanted [Amazon], which really has nothing to do with the movie. But don't say I didn't warn you about the dark.)
Important note: All of the above are graphic novels, and can be obtained from your local comic book store. The Amazon links are for reference, and for people who don't have a local comic book store. Buy local. It's awesome.
Soon I Will Be Invincible [Amazon]|[Mysterious Galaxy] by Austin Grossman is a brilliant piece of superhero fiction that looks at the heroic and the villainous at the same time. I can't recommend it highly enough. I also can't say much about it without spoiling the surprise. Check it out, it's awesome.
If you enjoy the "Velveteen vs." series, you absolutely have to take a look at Black and White [Amazon]|[Mysterious Galaxy] by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge. This is the start of a bad-ass series about a world where superheroes are under corporate control, and stepping outside the lines costs you more than you could possibly imagine. It's an awesome treatment of a superhero world, and the contrast between good and evil has never been more blurred.
Sometimes you want your superheroes to be fluffy and fun, and those are the times when you should reach for the Bigtime books by Jennifer Estep. Karma Girl [Amazon]|[Mysterious Galaxy], Hot Mama [Amazon]|[Mysterious Galaxy], and Jinx [Amazon]|[Mysterious Galaxy] are superhero romance cotton candy with a sharply sweet bite, like cocktails that look completely innocent until they knock you on your ass. They're more fun than a barrel of radioactive monkeys, and I hugely recommend them.
I've tried to avoid movies in today's gift suggestions, but I can't resist slipping one in here: Krrish [Amazon]. It's sort of the Bollywood answer to the big-budget Hollywood superhero movie, with a dash of Tarzan and several large dance numbers. It's incredibly fun, and incredibly weird, and really, really worthwhile. For seriously.
Got any heroes or villains to recommend? Tell me about it!