I’ve been contemplating my comic book collection, and the reason for collecting and having a collection and what it means to have approximately 9,000 comic books and trade paperbacks in a small house when the future is here and cloud-based comic books are the thing (the recent massive Marvel sale of Kindle editions of collections is surely an indicator of legitimacy). There’s nothing like considering the merit of one’s comic book collection to make you think about life as well, so it seemed something worth writing about.
I’m a reader and collector of comic books – I always make the distinction of being a reader and collector instead of a collector because I bought them for the stories, not the investment. This was put into sharp focus when I ended up chatting to a guy in the queue outside Orbital Comics on Free Comic Book Day; he called himself a comic book collector and seemed to collect comics primarily for the purpose of having them and hoarding them, with reading them being an afterthought. He was visiting all the shops in London to get as many of the FCBD books as possible; he’d been in Forbidden Planet six times already, and eventually left the queue outside Orbital because they’d run out of the free books he wanted for his collection. I’m not sure if he was going to read them because that would affect their value. Perhaps he might read the many spares he picked up. But I digress.
I’ve been reading and collecting comic books for over 30 years, which is why my comic book collection is so large. There are many differences between then and now in how comic books could be accessed that drastically affects the way somebody can read and collect comic books. Apart from the basic desire to own the things you love, the main difference is that if you wanted to read comic books back then, you had to buy them. Your local library did not have a well-stocked graphic novels section (I’ve already praised libraries and the number of books I’ve read through them – the list of comics books I’ve read via libraries continues to grow, over 750 and counting, which equates to about 3,750 comic books [if you approximate five comics per collection], books that I didn’t need to buy in order to read them), so the only access was a purchased comic, either your own or swaps from a friend. This factor contributes hugely to the number of books in long boxes in our house – I wouldn’t have been able to read them otherwise (and, in quite a few instances, would still not be able to read them because they haven’t been handily collected).
Another factor in having such a large comic book collection from back then is the price. When I started buying Marvel comic books, they cost 30p – I might not have had much money then, but 30p wasn’t a lot of money, so I could buy lots to enjoy. Yes, the paper quality was poor, the printing was low quality, and the creators didn’t receive great compensation for their work, but the stories were still enjoyable so it didn’t impinge on my consciousness until my horizons were expanded. Even though the prices increased over the years, it didn’t seem extortionate, and the cheap back issue bins used to be affordable – I recall picking up all of John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad at 25p each in the 1990s. I if I were starting reading comic books today, there is no way I could afford to buy as many copies, physical or digital, when single issues cost $3.99 for 20 pages. (And I have principles: I would never torrent illegal copies of comic books, just so I could read all the books I wanted to.)
My comic book collection has been with me in the various locations I have lived, providing me with entertainment and comfort throughout that time, but now I live in a house where I can see my collection and see how much room it takes up. Previously, it was hidden away in the loft storage, so I was less aware of it. Now, I see it all the time in the various rooms that house it, and there is a lot of it. And I have to ask the question: what does it mean to me now?
Does the collection reflect who I am now? Going through it, there are books in there that I don’t want to keep. I know I had reasons to buy them at the time, but that time has passed and there is no strong attachment. (This has happened before – when I moved to the US for a few years, I pared down the collection to reduce the number of books to take with me. I got rid of something like 1,000 comic books, including the likes of X-Force, Uncanny X-Men/X-Men after Claremont, Power Pack after Louise Simonson, and various books that I kept buying out of habit instead of desire BECAUSE THEY WERE CHEAP. I donated them to the children’s ward of the local hospital, and the nurses seemed quite happy about the reading material.) I’m not going to read those books again, although I do have an urge to read them before I divest myself of their presence.
An aside: I want the comic books to go somewhere they will be appreciated. I might try to sell some of the notable ones – I have issues of Hard Boiled that I don’t want in my collection that might be worth a few pounds now there’s a film being made, and I don’t need those original copies of Cages by Dave McKean in my collection which seem to be worth something – but ebay seems such a chore, so I’m not sure. I don’t want to give them all away because I might find it a bit heartbreaking to do that after all this time; it depends on whether a comic book shop would take them off my hands in exchange for a couple of trade paperbacks.
The other aspect regarding the collection is the factor of rereading it. When the collection was smaller, I reread more of my books, but not now. There are a lot of books in the collection – when will I get round to reading them again? I still read a lot of current books via the library, as well as the few new comics and trade paperbacks I continue to buy, so it’s not as if I’m short of new material; can I justify having a collection that just exists instead of being used? Going through the collection, there was definitely an urge to pick out series and read them again, which was a bit distracting while I was supposed to be sorting them. Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Doom Patrol, Alan Moore’s Supreme, Mark Waid’s Flash and Fantastic Four runs, Sleeper, Astro City, Y: The Last Man, Fables, Alias, Grant Morrison’s X-Men and JLA, Arrowsmith, Priest’s Black Panther, Gotham Central, Immortal Iron Fist, Incredible Hercules, Nextwave, Planetary, Runaways, Simonson’s Thor and Orion, James Robinson’s Starman, Peter David’s Hulk and X-Factor, Quantum & Woody, Sandman, Alan Davis’ Excalibur, the aforementioned Suicide Squad and Power Pack – even listing these titles gives me a warm glow, which must be some sort of positive indication that the collection means something to me. But does the glow justify the collection, or should rereading justify the collection?
My collection is a part of my life – it represents who I was at various points, what I was into, the changing face of comic books through the past 30 years, stories and characters that are dear to me, things that speak to me in the way good art does. This is what makes it hard to get rid of comic books from the collection – I have a strong hoarder element, and the comic books are life mementoes. I know that physical things are not the same as life memories, but at the same time I can’t find it in my heart to just discard them without angsting over it first.
I’m not going to use my comic book collection to start my own comic book shop (such as the comic blogger Mike Sterling); I don’t have incredibly rare books that are worth anything (I had a friend at university, and that was the first thing he asked about my collection, which I thought was really weird), and the whole comic book collection is effectively worthless anyway. It has the appearance of value because it’s a physical thing that exists – the accumulation of a life in comics makes a dent in the fabric of space-time. But it is my collection. But it’s taking up space. But can I reread it all? But what is the point of it? I don’t think I have the answers, but I do have a comic book collection.