The Rules of Collecting

The most dedicated of my readers had a realization while chomping on Thanksgiving turkey (or tofurkey): No jams got in their face last week! For that I apologize, but my stuffing-fueled, holiday-tinted sabbatical left me with enough material for this week's column. That material, I must say, is not for the faint of fandom, for telling of my recent experience over the holiday break reveals possibly too much about how my brain works when it comes to comic books.

This week, I'm talking about collecting. I'm talking about hardcore, materialistic greed and avarice so entwined in my being that it threatens to cripple my bank account and crowd my living space. But, I mean, gee, I got a lot of cool stuff for nice prices!

With the entire disgusting hullabaloo being made about the different types of fan in mind, I'd put forth that the distinction is not between "real" and "fake," but between "reader" and "collector." Unlike the delusional former categories, the latter pair consists of two equally valid halves. I have met many fans who just read comics without a care for how they read them nor what happens to the physical remains of their hobby. These people probably don't bag and board. That's fine. They are still accomplishing the only valid item on the comic cred checklist: enjoying stories.

I fall into the other category, and I think that I fall into it rather firmly, if not abysmally. I'm a collector. My living space in Tennessee could have easily qualified for Robot 6's "Shelf Porn" series, but the limitation of space in New York City (where I now live) also put a limitation on my penchant for extravagant displays. It has also placed a lot more hurdles for items on my wish list to jump over on their way into my permanent collection, as everything I buy has to be placed in one area of my limited living area.

Space limitations notwithstanding, I'm a collector through and through. I have roughly thirty Marvel Universe figures on my desk at home (another twenty or so stored under my bed). Mini-busts and statues by Bowen Designs pass for classy art in my apartment, much to my boyfriends chagrin. I have thirty-six Marvel Minimates within arm's reach from 9 to 5 every day. There may or may not be more than one poster tube in a corner of my apartment, and they may or may not be filled with X-Men posters from the 1980s. All of that exists independent of my actual comic book collection, which is closing in on 5,000 single issues (going partially digital has slowed its exponential growth). I know my collection isn't the most impressive one, far from it, but I do posses the fun, gnawing urgency of desire every time I step into a place that sells anything remotely comic book related.

With all that in mind, you probably can guess what my first priority is every time I visit another city: I find the comic book stores and I go to them and I give them money. This happened again last week, as my boyfriend and I drove to St. Louis to spend Thanksgiving with his family. I didn't realize it while it was happening, but I dragged him to at least six different establishments that sell comic books (the fantastic Star Clipper, two Fantasy Shop locations, a huge second-hand chain called V-Stock and at least two Slackers locations). It wasn't my intention to do this; it's just really hard to go five miles in St. Louis without finding some place where you can find Marvel Premium Hardcovers. Or maybe it is hard and I just have an insane, natural radar for these places.

Either way, I was thrown into the wilderness of collectibles without having a map handy. I don't do a lot of purchasing in New York City outside of my weekly pull. I save big purchases for comic conventions and visiting other cities, and my habits have taken a seismic shift over the past year. I got an iPad this past spring and have stopped buying back issues and trades for the purpose of reading great comics I initially missed. This means I no longer carry a piece of paper in my wallet detailing which issues of "Alpha Flight" I still need. But I still had those collector urges! I still needed to spend money on a physical thing in order to, I don't know, not have my head explode? Sure. That makes sense.

In order to keep my sanity and as many of my dollars in my wallet as possible, I came up with these rules. Note that they helped me accomplish the first goal more than the second, but it could have been a lot worse.

1. Set clear goals. When you have the collecting bug this bad, it's easy to just buy everything in sight. I decided early on during Comic-Book-Shopalooza (the vacation formerly known as Thanksgiving) that I was looking for some specific items: the first two premium hardcovers of "Runaways" and the first "X-Men" omnibus, collecting the initial issues of the '60s series. This way, I had a thing to hunt for in every store we went into (the hunt is a key experience for the collector, because of primal urges or something) and I spared myself the agony of deciding whether or not to buy the items should I find them because I had already decided I would. I did find the first two "Runaways" hardcovers at Star Clipper and one of the Fantasy Shop locations. The "X-Men" omnibus is out of print, but I decided that's all right since rule #2 exists.

2. Don't fear digital. There's a whole article's worth of thought in this one, and I definitely don't advocate ditching your local retailers in favor of stuffing your tablet (this entire article is about buying stuff at local comic book stores, BTW). I'm advocating keeping digital as an option, therefore narrowing scope of things you shove on your shelves. If I am curious about a comic book series, I will buy it digitally. I buy hardcovers and trades because, like any psychopath, I need those spines on display. Those should be the comics I have an attachment to since their physical presence in my apartment means they reflect my taste to all who see them. I decided that this should be how I purchase the '60s "X-Men" comics, not in a big oversize omnibus.

3. Only buy trades of the essentials. I was quite excited to get one spine on Black Friday (that's a creepy statement...) at Star Clipper for 50% off. I now own the 30th Anniversary Edition hardcover of "The Dark Phoenix Saga," which is my favorite anything ever. That needs to be on my shelf as much as anything else needs to (my boyfriend would argue that there don't even need to be any shelves). This same rule applied to those "Runaways" hardcovers; I love that series and wanted nicer editions than the digests I previously had. This rule syncs up with the second one, as well, because I plan on purchasing trades of my favorite story arcs of the digital comics I buy.

4. Back issues are big purchases. The single issue is death by a thousand cuts when you are living in a very limited space. I add anywhere from 20-40 single issues to my collection every month, so I don't need to add back issues of "Spider-Man 2099" to that (which was, shockingly, a goal of mine at one time). If rule #2 exists, then why should I buy any back issues? To complete a run, specifically my run of "Uncanny X-Men." Having this one goal (see rule #1) makes shopping easier. I know what I want, and I have heart palpitations when I find what I want unexpectedly in a mall. I bought "X-Men" #17 and #58, as well as "Incredible Hulk" #180 in a mall, and those were big purchases. Those are comics I want to own, for they are a part of history (I own the comic with Wolverine's first ever appearance in it!). Digital doesn't replace history as easily as it does issues of "Force Works" (which, again, I wanted to collect at one point).

5. Support local shops. This goes without saying and without any real need for an explanation. It also explains why I spent as much time ogling old Star Wars figures behind a display case as I did watching Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

These are the rules I followed. They worked for me and I'm excited to continue implementing them. They may not work for you, but I'm not really monitoring this. I hope something in this inspires you to create your own rules that will keep you from going broke. Also: Realize that your head won't explode if you don't buy anything.

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 Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

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