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The thrill of the hunt

by  in Comic News Comment

Last Saturday, 2 June, I traveled to the wilds of north-east Phoenix to the Atomic Comics store there, where I participated in a trivia contest emceed by Jake Bell (pictures here, although I’m not in them – or maybe I’m like certain X-Men, who don’t show up on electronic recording devices …).  It was not unlike VH1’s World Series of Trivia, in that there were three-person teams in an NCAA-style bracket tournament.  My team didn’t win, partially because one of my teammates couldn’t remember Chad Vader’s name and that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs, but also because I couldn’t remember that Patrick Swayze sang “She’s Like the Wind.”  Arrggghh, my memory of hideously banal late-1980s pop fails me again (my wife likes to denigrate the late 1980s, when I was in high school, as the nadir of pop music; she’s three-and-a-half years older than I am, so she was going to school in the early- to mid-1980s, when I guess music was “cooler”; and, to tell the truth, my school voted for a Richard Marx song for prom theme, so who am I to contradict her?)!  But that, good friends, is not the point.

The point is that in conjunction with the event, the store had a BIG SALE.  All back issues were 40% off.  Plus, as a participant in the event, I got a $21 gift certificate (I have no idea why it was $21, nor did I ask).  So I just had to spend money, right?  Just like a woman who says, “Shoes were 50% off, and even though I own 27 pairs of shoes, I just had to get six more!”  With that in mind, I thought of which back issues I should buy.  I have been thinking for a while about buying the entire Dazzler series, so I checked out what they had.  (Yes, I know the Essential version is coming out, but I likes my funny books in the color.)(And yes, mock me if you want.  I don’t care.  I love Dazzler.  So there.)  Surprisingly, they didn’t have a lot, but I got what they did have.  Then I looked into the boxes for The ‘Nam, thanks primarily to Bill reminding me that Michael Golden drew the damned thing and that it’s a pretty good book.  I picked up 23 of the first 24 issues.  The next day I went to my own store, got their issues of Dazzler, and bought the missing issue of The ‘Nam.  I have not read either series, so don’t spoil anything for me.  How will I live if I know what happens?!?!?!?

It had been a while since I went diving into the back issues with such abandon, but it reminded me about why collecting comics is so cool.  Comics are a unique collectible (and no, I don’t buy things just to see them go up in value, because that’s stupid, but they’re still a “collectible”) in that with books, or movies, or toys, or baseball cards, or anything else, the object you get is a finite object.  You can collect just that and not worry about anything else.  Comics, of course, are a serialized medium, so just collecting issue #1 of Dazzler doesn’t work.  Sure, it works if you’re simply in it for the money (I’m sure that issue is worth at least twice its cover price!) but not if you’re in it for the joy of collecting.  You have to keep buying, because the series continues – for a while, at least.  This makes collecting comics very interesting, and leads back to the title of the post.  There is something thrilling about hunting down back issues.  I don’t want to go all “kids today” on you, but these days, finding old comics just isn’t as exciting.  First, we have trade paperbacks.  Why should I try to find John Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four when Marvel is collecting them all?  It’s a very good run, so it’s something that I would hunt down, but why should I?  Marvel and DC will always have holes in their trade paperbacks, but now even freakin’ Dazzler is getting some of her series collected.  DC is finally getting around the collecting Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, albeit without color.  There’s a good chance you can find a lot of different titles in trade, so there’s no reason to search for them.  Unless you like the color, or the letters column (which is a big draw), or the feel of the paper.

There’s also the Internet.  I have never bought anything from eBay, and I don’t think I ever will.  I’m not sure why – call it a quirk.  The Internet, however, has made it much easier to find back issues, and more often than not, it’s cheaper, too.  I remain a Luddite, however, in that regard, and to me, there’s something wonderful about digging through the long boxes.  There’s a thrill of discovery when you find stuff you like, a palpable feel of disappointment when the store is missing that one freakin’ issue of Young Heroes in Love that you want, and that new thrill of accomplishment when you finally find it.  I used to drive around to the various stores in the suburban Philadelphia area, combing their stock and building my collection.  I would drive to Willow Grove, head over to Montgomeryville, then into Doylestown.  If I was feeling adventurous I’d drive down to Feasterville or even Roosevelt Boulevard in north-east Philly.  And occasionally my friend Ken and I would head into the city itself to visit Fat Jack’s Comic Crypt.  This was in 1988, ’89, and ’90, when I first started collecting and was buying back issues by the bushel.  I remember buying Amazing Spider-Man #298, 299, and 300 for about three dollars a pop – this was just before McFarlane back issues went nuts, so I’m happy I got them.  I remember finding the first issue of Trident in Feasterville and buying it because of the magic names on the cover: Gaiman and Morrison (Campbell is in there, too, but at that point he wasn’t a draw for me).  I bought old issues of X-Men back further and further into the past, until they became scarce and expensive.  I’m still lacking Uncanny X-Men #121-122, the first Alpha Flight issues, and every once in a while I’ll look for them.  Someday they will be mine!  I’m ashamed to say I spent $20 for New Mutants #87.  Gadzooks, that thing probably costs a dollar today.  What the hell was I thinking? 

But that’s the point.  You run the risk of overspending for something that goes down in value.  On the other hand, it’s kind of cool to buy something that no one knows about, only to have them “discover” it later.  Again, it has nothing to do with what you can sell them for – I have never sold a comic in my life.  It has to do with finding something neat that grants you access into an exclusive club – the comic-buying community – and other, even more exclusive clubs within the community of people who have actually read what you have.  In my scouring of the back issues, I found early issues of Grendel, Tim Sale’s Amazon, and the Englehart/Rogers/Austin Detective issues.  It’s very nice that these days we have access to far more in far better formats than even ten or fifteen years ago, but you lose a bit of that underground feel to comics collecting.  I’ll take the trade-off, even if I get a bit nostalgic for the old days occasionally.

When I went off to college I found the Comic Swap in downtown State College.  There was another store in Calder Alley (Denny O’Neil had a signing there when Legends of the Dark Knight #1 came out, and I, being the iconoclast, got him to sign an old issue of the Moench/Sienkiewicz Moon Knight, which he edited), where all the nicer stores were, but the Comic Swap was the place I usually went to – they had better back issues.  I found almost the entire run of Morrison’s Doom Patrol there, which was nice.  It was typical of a lot of comic book stores from the olden days – they had a lot of used books of the science fiction/fantasy variety, and they also had magazines.  I guess it’s still around, but I wonder if they’ve moved completely to comics.

In 1993 I moved to Portland and found a couple of new stores.  For the first few months I went to Rocky Road on Burnside, but it was a pain to park downtown and the store wasn’t very big.  Pretty soon I found Excalibur, which is probably my favorite comic book store ever.  They had a vast collection of back issues, and even though by this time I had exhausted my initial burst of collecting fever and was now simply buying new issues, every once in a while the urge took me and I went a bit nuts.  I got Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Challengers of the Unknown there and at Things From Another World, which had a few stores in the area.  This was another loop I would take when I wanted to dig through the back issues – from Hawthorne Boulevard, where Excalibur is, down to Milwaukie to the TFAW there (it was right across the street from Dark Horse headquarters, which was kind of cool) and then back up to Sandy Boulevard to the TFAW there.  During these years I gobbled up the early issues of Garth Ennis on Hellblazer, which I hadn’t gotten when they were first published (I started buying them new during his last storyline).  I also bought Hellblazer #25, 26, and 27, the first two of which were a Morrison/Lloyd collaboration, with #27 being the unbelievably beautiful Gaiman/McKean “Hold Me” story.  In another frenzy of purchasing, I got issues of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing that weren’t contained in the first two trade paperbacks (#35-65).  Of course, now they’re all collected, but I didn’t know that they were going to be, did I?  At some point I found the Miracleman trades, which are long out of print.  Who knew that would be such a fortuitous purchase?

I doubt if the back issue collections of comic book stores will ever be phased out completely.  There are always hard-core loons like me and Greg Hatcher (and, I’m sure, plenty of our readers) digging through them.  I enjoy back issues way too much to completely give my soul over to trade paperbacks.  I have read in recent years about people selling their collections on eBay and buying the trades, which is not a bad idea.  I will probably never do that, for a few reasons.  For one, as I mentioned above, my fear of eBay.  Two, although inconvenient, there’s something magical about having a stack of comics next to you, all bagged and (possibly) boarded, and peeling the tape away and liberating the issue from its mylar prison.  Individual comics in bags beg to be read, and I love it.  Yes, it’s a pain, but it’s all part of the collecting experience.  As I read through my collection these days (to find Comics You Should Own, but I also read other books in between), I get a sense of satisfaction and triumph that I own these comics and that, for some of them, I managed to find them in some dark box on a lonely shelf.  I’ll never discover a continent, but I think what makes this such a fun hobby is that the possibilities of new discoveries are always there.  It’s a great feeling.

Now I just have to find Dazzler #1.  Man, I hope it’s not too expensive.