With pain hitting the economy everywhere these days, you might think coffee-table books would shrink to night-table books - half the size they used to be, much like your 401k.

You'd be wrong. Holiday gift books, like Detroit-based automobiles, emerge from battleship-slow production lines that take eons to turn around. For now, the joys of the season are as lush as ever, and it's a particularly good year for birdbrains and comic lovers. Here are some standouts:

Equus, by Tim Flach (Abrams, 300 pp. $60).

A photographer's lustrous seven-year effort, resulting in 200 color illustrations, to celebrate the noble steed, from the American mustang to the Mongolian Przewalzski. (What's a Polish four-hoofer doing there? Read the book!)

Marvel Chronicle: A Year by Year History, by Tom DeFalco, Peter Sanderson, Tom Brevoort and Matthew K. Manning (DK, boxed, 352 pp. $50).

Multiple Marvel talents form a league to do justice to the comic-book publisher that put character development over superhero derring-do. Foreword by the founding father, Stan Lee.

The American College Town, by Blake Gumprecht (University of Massachusetts Press, 448 pp. $34.95).

There are red states and blue states, and then there are college towns - a universe of their own, anomalous political cultures. This brilliantly worked-out idea by a University of New Hampshire geographer is that rarest of things - the first full-length study of its subject - and sure to please any academic on your list.

Albatross: Their World, Their Ways, by Tui De Roy, Mark Jones and Julian Fitter (Firefly, 240 pp. 49.95).

Coleridge gave a bad name to this threatened ancient explorer, but that didn't stop De Roy and Jones from sailing a 43-footer around the world in search of the 22 species of albatross. Essays and photos galore on a bird that can live more than 60 years and journey 9,000 miles to find food for its young.

Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form, edited by Paul Buhle (New Press, 208 pp. $29.95).

"How the people of the book became the people of the comic book," playing a role as key in inventing the latter as they did in catalyzing Hollywood. Coffee-table history by the thoughtful Brown historian, who sees the comic strip as a kind of cultural Yiddish, mixing two other kinds of language.

James Castle: A Retrospective, edited by Ann Percy (Yale, 251 pp. $60).

Fascinating overview of Castle (1899-1977), the singular artist from Idaho, born deaf, whose distinctive drawings and paperworks attract ever more critical attention. Percy is curator of drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

World War II, by Reg Grant (DK, 192 pp. $24.99). The Greatest Generation's battle gets the lavish, pictorial DK treatment for young adults. (See 2007's Holocaust.) More than a few gift books now include DVDs, and World War II's 40-minute add-on provides testimonies of survivors.

Erotic Comics: A Graphic History From Tijuana Bibles to Underground Comix, by Tim Pilcher with Gene Kannenberg Jr. (Abrams, 192 pp. $29.95).

They date back to antiquity and have hurtled forward ever since, surviving Victorian censorship and pedestrian men's magazines. Amazing what can happen in, if not on, a single panel.

Havana Before Castro: When Cuba Was a Tropical Paradise, by Peter Moruzzi (Gibbs Smith, 256 pp. $30).

Will Barack Obama sit down with Fidel and open a whole new era for Cuba, once America's favorite Caribbean destination? A sharp eye back on a splendid yet sordid time and place.

Imperishable Beauty: Art Nouveau Jewelry, by Yvonne Markowitz and Elyse Z. Karlin (MFA Publications, 176 pp. $45).

That is, buy this book and you can keep doting on these even after thieves walk off with them. Designers of the German Jugendstil, Austrian Weiner Sezession, and more.

Antonio López García, by Cheryl Brutvan (MFA Publications, 160 pp. $24.95).

Robert Hughes considers this esteemed Spaniard "the greatest realist artist alive." The only book-length representation of his work, with enlightening commentary.

The Way We Work, by David Macaulay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp. $35).

Aimed at young adults but informative for older readers too, a wonderfully designed explanatory tome on the human body by the Caldecott Medal winner.

America, by Zoe Strauss (Ammo Books, 192 pp. $29.95).

How the country looked recently to the Philadelphia-based installation artist, known for pushing artistic transparency in multiple ways.

Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition, by Tom Butler and Antonio Vizcaino (Earth Aware Editions, 352 pp. $65, with deluxe slipcase, $125).

A conservationist's dream: gorgeous photos and taut descriptions of donated wilderness preserves.

The New Annotated Dracula, edited by Leslie S. Klinger (W.W. Norton, 672 pp. $39.95).

Philadelphia's Rosenbach Library took a major stake in Drac with an exhibition this fall, but here's the volume to sink your teeth into. Another excellent edition in Norton's "Annotated" series, with Dracula expert Klinger testing the truth behind Bram Stoker's novel.

Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities, by Barbara Buhler, Sandra S. Phillips and Richard B. Woodward (Little, Brown, 176 pp. $40).

Thought-provoking volume juxtaposing work of these two great Southwest artists and explaining the linkages.

American Road Warriors: Classic Muscle Cars, by the editors of Car and Driver (Filipacchi, 128 pp. $24.99).

Bailouts? Warriors don't need bailouts! Keep this one away from "Green" folks. A NASCAR addict's fantasy, with lot of photos and information about such high-performance classics as the 1968 Chevy II Nova SS.

Berkeley Bohemia: Artists and Visionaries of the Early 20th Century, by Ed Herny, Shelley Rideout and Katie Wadell (Gibbs Smith, 208 pp. $24.99).

Yes, Virginia, even radical, anticapitalist rebels can be the subject of a coffee-table book!!! The early People's Republic of Berkeley, packaged for the holidays.

The History of the Church in Art, by Rosa Giorgi (Getty Publications, 384 pp. $24.95).

Ingenious, erudite guide to people, movements and especially tactile features of the church whose recondite names - from ambo and ciborium to cruet and monstrance - you may not know.

Cranes: A Natural History of a Bird in Crisis by Janice M. Hughes (Firefly, 256 pp. $45).

Whoop it up for the 15 species of this endangered creature. Stick your neck out, wade right in, and Hughes' full treatment will reward your effort.

The Influence of Japanese Art on Design by Hannah Sigur (Gibbs Smith, 224 pp. $40)

An art historian recalls the Gilded Age's craze for all things Japanese, with superb attention to every kind of craft.

Egg and Nest by Rosamond Purcell (Harvard University Press, 232 pp. $39.95)

As noted, it's a birdbrain's year. Who said you can't go home again? Add Purcell's remarkable photography to the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology's amazing holdings, and you have splendiferous proof that, indeed, the chicken did not come first.

Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com.