Thursday, April 12, 2012

Purge of the Day: Comic Books

Hi, folks. Jonathan here with another guest post, this time on the painful subject of a grown man separating from (most of) his comic books. This was a tough one. It took two tries, as most good purges do. But why was it so tough? First, some history:

I began collecting comics in the summer of 1996, when Marvel's Onslaught Saga proved too tempting to resist, and kept on collecting them up until sometime in 2003, when a combination of illness and schoolwork slowed my reading and I fell far enough behind to quit (albeit temporarily—I had always planned someday to catch up on all that I’d missed, which I eventually did, but that led to another purge for another post for another day). In that time, I amassed a collection of approximately 1800 issues of comics. Let’s do math together, for some reason:

1800 issues/(approximately) 84 months = 21+ issues per month, or about 5 issues per week.
Long comic boxes hold approximately 250 comics, bagged and boarded (geek-speak for when comics are in a protective plastic sleeve with a cardboard backing to keep it flat and neat and more or less as it was when it was bought).

These boxes are measured at 27.25” x 7.5” x 10.8”. I would have required more than 7 such boxes, but let’s assume I’d have stuffed them in a bit and gotten away with 7, which would have measured 190.75” long, by the same 7.5” and 10.8”, which is a total of 8.94 cubic feet, which is about the size of an “apartment” refrigerator, and approximately a bazillion times as heavy.

Why had I held onto a small refrigerator’s worth of comic books? Because comic books are worth money! Not really. But someday they will be! Eh…not really. Some very old and/or rare comic books are worth money. Virtually nothing from the late ‘90s is rare, and is still in its infancy, in collecting terms. Sure, I said I was keeping them because they’d be worth money, but I always knew that was unlikely. It’s foolish to think that buying the latest issue of Uncanny X-Men will ever turn into a profitable investment. For one thing, 57,000 other people are buying it this month. For another thing, the cost of storing, moving, and maintaining the comic for the amount of time it will take for there to be a demand rivaling that of its first week of release will likely leave you in a hole deeper than the few bucks you may get back for it in the year 2043, when some wealthy spacegeek loads a box of your comics into the trunk of his flying car and takes them to his swanky vacation house on the moon (this is what the future will look like—trust me).

No, buying comics was never my retirement plan. I was buying them to read them, which, by and large, I had done. The buying of comic books, like most books, is something of a speculative proposition: You are buying them in the hope that you will enjoy them, and you are gambling that what you pay will be worth the enjoyment you get. Then you read them. And then you keep them because…
This is a mystery I’ve spend a lot of time pondering, and I’ll delve into my conclusions more deeply in the coming days, as I detail a purge of books and comic book paperbacks and hardcovers (that’s advertising, folks!).

Approximately 80% of my near-worthless comic book collection was housed in my grandmother’s garage in New Jersey from the time my mother and step-father moved out of the house I grew up in during my senior year of college until, for some godforsaken reason, a month before our wedding, when my grandmother’s house was on the market and they were shipped out to us. We needed to get our apartment guest-ready, and with its closets stuffed full of wedding-related paraphernalia and incoming gifts, there was no space for these comics.

I made plans for an aggressive first purge. I called around to all of the comic shops I’ve shopped in to gauge their level of interest. No one had any interest at all. The issues are plentiful, and most are available in other formats (digitally or in paperback and hardcover collections), so the demand for these as back issues is smaller than Ant-Man (I’m allowed one bad comic book joke per comic-related post, I think).
Scott Lang (Earth-616) 0005.jpg
I made a second call to Golden Apple Comics, where most of what I’d bought since around the end of 2001 had been purchased, and said I was willing to be ripped off. I just needed them out of our apartment, and in some way it felt right at the time returning these comic books to a comic book store. I was happy to receive $120 in store credit, which I turned into some 7 trade paperbacks, 5 of which I have since sold on Amazon.

In that first purge, I held onto approximately one-third of my comic book collection, selecting issues I thought I might like to re-read, either because I remembered them being really good, or because I remembered them being really bad but so many people had said they were really good, or because I didn’t remember reading them at all but thought they looked really good (which is presumably what I thought the first time I read them, before I discovered that they were forgettable). Almost all of these went in the second purge.

The second purge was made while we were moving from our larger but undesirable apartment to our smaller but much-loved house, and had to be more aggressive and less time-consuming, so I took what was left to Goodwill, which will hopefully result in some children getting to read good comics for very little money and funding for all of Goodwill’s good works. So what allowed me to part with these a few months after I’d carefully selected them for preservation?

One important factor was a digital Marvel Comics Unlimited subscription. For $5 a month, I have access to a ton of digitized Marvel comics. No, it’s not everything they’ve ever published, and it’s not everything I purged, but it’s an awful lot of it. This, of course, requires something of a leap of faith in the digital world.

I took that leap for music several years ago. I remember buying Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine album when it was released, which Amazon says was October 2005. I’d bought some music on iTunes at that point, a few singles, but I hadn’t bought an album yet. Sure, I’d downloaded thousands and thousands of songs illegally, but to actually pay for an album I couldn’t hold, or put in a book with my other CDs and look at as I flipped past… It was too scary. So I bought the CD.

That was the last CD I bought until May 2009, when I ordered Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown, but then I didn’t want the CD—I wanted to save $2, which is how much cheaper it was to buy the CD than to buy it on iTunes. I almost paid the extra two bucks to not have to have the physical thing, and now I think I would. I haven’t bought a CD since. All of our music is saved on at least two computers, and some combination of our phones and other iDevices, so I’m not worried about it disappearing in a crash, and I’ve gotten used to the idea of intangible music.

So why is it different for comic books? Well, for one thing, CDs are themselves a passing technology; I’m old enough to have already gotten rid of cassettes and, embarrassingly, MiniDiscs, which I thought would replace CDs and ended up only replacing a lot of money in my wallet with useless crap.
This month’s issue of Superman, however incomprehensibly misguided its storytelling may be, is sold in the same medium in which Action Comics #1 introduced Superman to the world in 1938.

(It’s also published digitally, like almost all comic books, and may suggest the eventual end of paper comic books, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Assuming there was no fire- or water-related catastrophe, my paper comics books would have lasted my lifetime, and if I wanted to break out Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run on my 90th birthday to see if I could finally tell what all the fuss was about (the emperor has no clothes, ladies and gentlemen), there’s no reason I wouldn’t still be able to hold that comic book in my hands and read it with my future-technology-improved eyes. Will the technology of digital comics adapt in a simple and easy-to-adjust-to way that allows me to still have access to the debut of Nightcrawler’s short-lived, underrated, slightly pirate-y costume in Excalibur #98?

I don’t know. Probably not. But I’m taking a leap of faith. I’m recognizing that my attachment and interest should be not in the physical comic book, but the story and art held within, which can be found digitally for the near future, or repurchased in neater collections and on newer paper in most cases, if I want it that badly. But more importantly, I’m realizing that I probably won’t ever want it that badly.

I think a good rule of thumb for evaluating an item’s purge-worthiness is to ask yourself, “Would I rebuy it?” If our coffeemaker broke tomorrow, we’d buy another one tomorrow. If I’d spilled coffee on my copy of Excalibur #98, I’d probably have cursed and been mad at myself, and then thrown it away and been sadder than made any sense, and made no effort to replace it.

So why did I keep these for so long? Why was it so hard to part with these? And why do I have the instinct to collect to begin with? I’m going to take a hard look at these questions and try to provide some answers, and if you’re curious, I’ll do so right here in this spot in the coming days. Until then, Make Mine Onefellin!*

*This is another nerdy reference. Back in the ‘90s, there was a column that appeared in Marvel comics and then on their website where reader mail always ended with some version of, “Until Spider-Man shaves his head and joins an REM coverband, Make Mine Marvel!” I wrote in once and used the sign-off, “Until Marvel changes its name, Make Mine Marvel!” Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.


JanAlyssa said...

Sad day for the comics! I keep asking Ben to purge his books, but he claims he has already done it several times and can't get down to less than one GIANT bookshelf overflowing with old college books and Tom Clancy. Meanwhile, my bookshelf contains VHS copies of Aladdin and The Princess Bride in those big clamshell packages - do I have to give those away???

Secondary question: did you see Avengers yet??

JR said...

Primary Response: Why is he keeping old Tom Clancy? Not to judge--I'm a lapsed Clancy-ite--but those things are all, like, 800 pages. He's never gonna read those again (I assume, based on the massive amounts of free time I know he doesn't have). You should make a deal to get rid of your Aladdin and Princess Bride VHSs if he matches you on fat books. (And actually, all of your videos--we finally got rid of the VCR that had been taking up space in our closet. You think you'll miss it, but you won't. And if you're saving it because you have meaningful home videos or something that can't be re-bought in a newer format, look into a converting them to DVD. Costco and Target both do it, if you don't have the technological technology/know-how/time to do it yourself.)

Secondary Response: I have not seen Avengers yet. Is there a way to have seen Avengers already that you can hook me up with? If yes, please respond by e-mail. If no, please sulk in shame.

JanAlyssa said...

I don't know, he claims he culled the books once already. And sometimes he really does pick up the Tom Clancy and read it again. When (if?) we actually get out of this apartment, I'm sure some things will have to go, but I will be sad if I have to part with my Batman trilogy on VHS plus the one extra Batman Forever tape. Sniffle. We do have a VCR because one of our televisions has one built-in, but we never use that one anyway.

You know, on my Facebook page, I saw all these people commenting about The Avengers and how great it was... I just assumed it had already come out and I was way behind the times. Now I have to sulk until it actually comes out. BAH, I say.