Over the weekend I finally got a chance to read some comics I’ve been curious about for a while: the first arcs of both Greg Rucka and Jason Aaron’s runs on “Wolverine.” I have come to love pretty much everything Rucka writes and loved how Aaron’s run ended without ever reading “Get Mystique,” and I got to buy them for cheap thanks to a comiXology sale. I loaded the comics up on my iPad and enjoyed them one after another, mere minutes after I had the urge to read them. Unlike a few years ago, I didn’t have to add them to a list and remember to hunt for them the next time I was at a comic book store. I also didn’t have to pay cover price — or in the case of a lot of comic shops, a few bucks above that. Thanks to the Internet, they were only a click away. The digital revolution has truly changed how I buy back issues, but does what I’ve gained really replace what I’ve lost?
To put things into perspective, my childhood was filled with newsprint stained, grubby little fingers thanks to the thousands of cardboard bins I rifled through. Back issues were the bulk of my comic book hobby for well over ten years, lasting from when I first laid eyes on one in the third grade all the way through college. I was obsessed with the hunt. I kept lists of my favorite characters’ first appearances — usually culled from the backs of trading cards — in my wallet at all time. Before every trip to the comic book store I would update my wish list and watched my number of desired “Excalibur” issues dwindle down. I figured the mission I was given was to track down every issue of the major X-Men spinoff titles, and I gladly accepted it.
But once I succeeded in that mission and had only expensive pre-1980 issues of “Uncanny” to buy (still my main vice), I never found a new one. I mean, sure, I dabbled in collecting “Force Works” and “Spider-Man 2099” back issues, but who didn’t go through that phase in college? You say you knew better? Well, I did not!
But a few years after college, digital comics became a thing and changed the way I read comics. If I want to read the six issues that a favorite creator devoted to a favorite character, they’re just a click away. If I want to physically own a random back issue that’s always eluded me (like “X-Universe” #2), I can buy it on any number of websites without having to hunt through never-that-specific back issue bins. I’ve also gotten older and don’t really have the time to devote to the hunt like I did in my high school days.
The biggest drawback to my digital collection is the fact that I’m only paying for the experience of reading the comics. If comiXology ever goes belly up, I’m going to be down every issue of “Gotham Central” — and that series won’t be easy to replace with physical copies. But I try to not let that fear define me. I’ve seen people here in New York City spray themselves down with rubbing alcohol after sitting in movie theater seats, presumably to kill possible bed bugs (I have no idea if this is even remotely plausible). I don’t need that level of paranoia and fear in my life, and definitely not in my hobbies. comiXology is a fine alternative to adding a thousand more single issues and trades to my already large and in charge collection.
There is something I miss about the hunt, which I discovered at SDCC when I set out to find Carol Danvers’ first appearance. I liked the clarity of my mission — find “Marvel Super-Heroes” #13 — and I liked feeling determined to find one back issue. I hadn’t felt that in years. In the comic collecting hobby, there’s nothing like finding the one back issue you’ve been searching for. I lost a lot of this joy in college when I started hitting up holiday sales on the reg, picking up huge chunks of “New Mutants” in the quarter bin. Those finds didn’t feel earned, not the way “Marvel Super-Heroes” #13 did a few weeks ago. I mean, I went to a dozen different vendors, and I even talked to strangers in order to find it.
The whole goal of buying comics, for me, is eventually reading them. And my “gotta have’em all” attitude resulted in me buying huge runs without reading a single issue, just because I wasn’t sure when I would find those issues again. I collected most of Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr.’s “Daredevil” run and I have yet to read a single issue of it because I’m still missing a few of them. Yeah, I would wait until I had every issue before reading any of them. Now that I live in New York City, I don’t really have the shelf space for that level of fandom.
Thanks to digital storefronts, I now feel reasonably safe about buying back issues one at a time because I know they’ll be there. This has made reading Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” or Silver Age issues of “Detective Comics” much easier now than if I had tried to read it a decade ago. The hunt’s great and all, but my desire to read all types of comics outweighs it. If I still had to physically track down every comic I wanted to read, I would not read hundreds of comics a month. I’d be sitting on stacks on unread runs, waiting to be completed.
I’m glad that I’ve evolved to a place where I no longer feel the need to own everything, and that I’ve mostly killed that collector’s urge. I’m glad that I now read comics because I want to read them, not because I happened to stumble across them or wanted to complete a run. I think that even though the comics I buy digitally don’t have cool stories behind them (like the comic shop that had no idea that “Avengers Annual” #10 was Rogue’s first appearance, but I did!), I appreciate them more because I’m actually reading and enjoying them. I feel like after twenty years, I’m now more a fan of comics than collecting comics.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).