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Grumpy Old Fan | Boxing days

by  in Comic News Comment

What could be worse than a slide show about a stamp collection? Probably a blog post about a comic-book collection….

Among other things, the Vast Bondurant Comic-Book Library now includes over 11,000 single issues spread over 23 long boxes and 15 short boxes. My goal — which seems to recede in the distance the more I consider this project — is to separate all of the newer issues and shorter-run series from the old warhorses like Detective Comics and Fantastic Four. That means bringing the Gotham Centrals and Hourmans out of those big boxes with all the Green Lanterns and Incredible Hulks, into smaller boxes which won’t strain my aging vertebrae.

That scintillating introduction should tell you just how thrilling the past couple of days have been for me (not least because the project is far from over). This is the paper equivalent of defragmenting a hard drive, and it is not the most engaging of topics. Nevertheless, the process has forced me to examine how I use this library. After all, books are for reading, not for taking up space — and the way we read comic books, especially superhero comics, is changing dramatically.

Now, for various reasons (including, ironically enough, lack of suitable shelf space) I am not in a position to start converting these individual issues into a collection of paperbacks and hardcovers. Besides, much of my collection hasn’t been reprinted. More importantly, though, I feel like if I have these issues already, I should enjoy them as they are, albeit with a minimum of hassle.

I started with some administrative work. For almost twenty years, I have been keeping electronic records on my comics — first as a simple list, then as a spreadsheet. It’s just the basics: title, number, cover date, and brief credits. Mostly this is a straightforward exercise, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time on each issue. However, changes in trade dress have made this part of the process a bit more complicated. The DC superhero books have been pretty consistent in putting all that information right on the cover. By and large, Vertigo and WildStorm are similar; but Vertigo’s cover data tend to be in smaller type, and if the cover layout varies from issue to issue, the data can be harder to find. The Unwritten is especially tricky in this respect, because its cover data are often in white type against a busy, multicolored background.

Other publishers are less concerned with putting this data on their front covers. For Beasts Of Burden, Dark Horse put the cover date in the fine-print indicia on the inside front cover of each issue. Boom! did the same for The Muppet Show. Dynamite’s Galactica 1980 (don’t judge me!) had no cover dates at all that I could find.

When it comes to cover data, though, Marvel is the most frustrating. Like Dark Horse, cover dates are in the indicia, but the indicia aren’t always in the same place. With Fantastic Four, they tended to be on an opening credits page. Atlas had them on a next-issue page at the back of the issue. Failing that, however, they were placed at the bottom of an ad appearing randomly in the issue. One Marvel miniseries, Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s The Marvels Project, even played with the issue number itself, by using a variant layout with the number on the back cover.

You may already be muttering who cares about cover dates, anyway? As a remnant of newsstand distribution, originally designed to tell retailers when to take books off the shelves, they do seem increasingly irrelevant. However, it is an item on my spreadsheet which I feel obliged to fill. At the risk of being obvious, the cover date also fixes the issue in time, not just chronologically but in relation to other titles. In short, the cover date marks, say, Warlord #12 as part of DC’s May 2010 lineup; and future comics fans will be able to tell easily what kinds of stories DC was interested in telling ‘way back then. I’ll stop short of saying that the cover date gives a single issue a certain amount of dignity, but its role is more than merely vestigal.

Accordingly, it seems to me that the less prominent these cover data are, the more likely it is that the publisher is looking to collect these books. After all, issue numbers and cover dates are irrelevant when all of a story’s installments are bound together. I can’t really argue with that, because we read these books for the stories, and not so much for some metatextual analysis of the particular publishing month. Still, the way those stories are collected influences the way they are told; and if the individual issue is downplayed, maybe I as a reader am better off waiting for the collection.

That, in turn, would be a hard habit for me to form, because I am used to making my own collection out of those individual issues. The second part of this week’s great organizational undertaking involves sorting the issues into runs and bagging them. Most of the time this too is pretty straightforward — all the Wonder Womans go together, all the Brightest Days, etc. However, as you might expect, crossovers like “New Krypton” and Blackest Night gum up the works.

Actually, neither of those examples were particularly bad, because “New Krypton” revived the old triangle-number system to put its mega-story in order; and I treated the Blackest Night miniseries basically as extra issues of Green Lantern. What’s going to be a little hinky, at least for ease-of-reading purposes, are things like those old issues of The Flash from the ‘70s and ‘80s. See, over the years I have been collecting those old Flashes primarily for their backup stories — first “Green Lantern” in the early ‘70s, and then “Firestorm” in the early ‘80s. In both cases, the backups continued from the characters’ cancelled ongoing series; and in both cases, the backups led to revivals of those ongoing series. Otherwise I didn’t really read The Flash that regularly. Therefore, do I put some issues of Flash in with the Green Lanterns, and some with the Firestorms? This was getting into the heart of Cary Bates’ run as Flash writer — what if I want to buy more Flash back issues for the headliner? Will I end up eventually picking out those individual issues from the larger Flash file, just to read eight to ten pages at a time?

This is where DC’s publishing program can really help. A couple of weeks ago I was sorry to see that those old “Green Lantern” backups might not be collected in an upcoming Showcase Presents GL volume. Separating those GL stories from the Flash main feature just makes sense, and would literally make them more accessible.

Of course, I look forward to the day when we readers can make our own collected editions from the ground up, through an ala carte, print-on-demand system. Imagine being able not only to download just those GL or Firestorm backups, but also to order a print edition — in effect, making one’s own trade paperback like you would make an iPod playlist. If issues and/or individual stories thus become the “singles” of tomorrow, such a marketplace could also encourage their standalone importance, along the way encouraging experimentation with different story lengths. It may be years away, or it may be decades, but I think it could be the future of superhero comics.

Until then, I’ll continue to maintain my own voluminous collection. I’m looking forward to revisiting those Firestorm backups, maybe some Thriller or Young Heroes In Love, and any number of issues I’ve probably forgotten I have.