Friday, June 4, 2010

At long last, the Comics Project

OK, let me finally get down to posting about the project(s) which my collection of comic books currently represents to me, which is so fraught with backstory and technical jargon and escalating implications that even this – writing on my blog about my thoughts about the project – has somehow ballooned into a project in and of itself. (Clearly this is a new highwater mark for my overthinking tendencies.)

So, comic geeks who fully commit to being comic collectors generally store their collections in longboxes, which are the approximate height and width of a comic book and long or deep enough to accommodate maybe 200 or 250 issues. The comics stand up in the boxes like cards in a card catalog drawer because that prevents them from warping and curling as they would if you were to store them lying on their backs (comics don’t lie exactly flat because of the staples). I have about seven full longboxes of comics, so a bit less than 2,000 issues. On the one hand, that’s a fairly modest collection. It’s nowhere near enough stock with which to open a comic book store, though it might be the right amount for a back-issue section of a hole-in-the-wall used book store. It’s a smaller collection than those of some of my friends. But still, who has 1500+ of anything? Anyone who has that many CDs or DVDs in their house must have something to do with music or films as their full-time source of income. Some households probably have thousands of magazines pass through them over various stretches of time, but magazines of course tend to get thrown away or donated to the local hospital or something. Magazine collecting has not quite caught on the way comics collecting has, though I’ll save the whys and wherefores of that for perhaps another day.

I have fond memories of certain very specific comic books from my childhood but those particular artifacts, much like old editions of Good Housekeeping or Sports Illustrated, were unceremoniously thrown away by my parents every so often. I didn’t start holding on to comics with the forward-thinking intention of a collector until right around 1990 or so which, as any amateur comics historian can tell you, was the dawn of the decade that later came to be known as the Speculator Boom. Everyone started collecting comics in the 90’s because stories about Action Comics #1 going for a million dollars at auction started to reach a certain critical mass of public awareness, and comics went from being disposable kiddie entertainment to valuable commodities which would increase in net worth over time. Thus things like up-and-down-oriented longboxes became widely available, along with mylar polybags and acid-free backing boards and all manner of preservation equipment. The inevitable bust came along before someone began marketing a comic book humidor, but only barely.

Fairly early on in the 90’s I adopted what I thought was a best-of-breed approach to collecting comics. I still genuinely enjoyed reading comics, and since the medium had evolved to favor longform storytelling akin to soap operas, picking up every issue month after month (or more frequently, sometimes) was the only way to come close to the feeling of a satisfyingly complete story. So acquiring comics in massive amounts came fairly naturally, and I could have thrown away the old to make room for the new, but I have been known to take pleasure in re-reading stories in various forms, as well as lending my copies of stories to other people. Hence a collector is born. And I was fully aware of the fact that Action Comics #1 was worth a million dollars because it was so scarce, and so old, and because Superman is such an icon and thus his first comic book appearance is a historically significant touchstone, and that therefore my copy of last month’s Avengers #334 was unlikely to be auctioned off for a million dollars in my lifetime because it met exactly none of those criteria (though I still think it’s one of the best stories ever). But unlikely is not impossible, so I figured as long as it wasn’t an onerous task I might as well keep my comics in good, value-preserving condition just in case. I further justified that with the old bromide about saving them for my own (hypothetical future at that point) kids to read, which in my case rang truer than you might suspect because my father’s younger brother had somewhat presciently saved a good number of his own comics from the 60’s and used to let me read them when we visited, and I not only enjoyed the stories but appreciated my uncle for making that possible. So I became a committed collector, but one with no stars in his eyes, thank you very much. I had my reasons which had nothing to do with implausibly anticipated riches.

Lies.  All lies.
Though of course I wasn’t completely immune to the thought. The other thing that characterized the 90’s in terms of comics was the rise of the specialty comics shop, where instead of a single spinner rack at the convenience store you could now browse expansive displays of the newest releases as well as roomfuls of longboxes containing back issues. Said back issues did not, for the most part, cost a million dollars each, but they did have hefty markups which sometimes ran ten, twenty or fifty times the cover price (or even more, but the old comics ostensibly available for purchase for $300 or $600 were kept behind the counter, not out on the floor in longboxes), and the back issue prices depended on arcane formulations of scarcity, condition of the comic, and a nebulous sense of inherent quality or importance, and that further fed into the vicious cycle. Avengers #334 wouldn’t get much play at Sotheby’s, but in five or ten years it might be selling at the comics shop for $10 instead of the $1 I paid for. Or, if the artist or writer became really famous or if there was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo of some character who later grew ridiculously popular, maybe it would be worth even more. So there I would be, on a visit to the comic shop just to pick up the latest Avengers or the latest X-Men or the latest Justice League, but as long as I’m there I might as well browse, and as long as I’m spending $3 on comics I might as well spend $5, and if there happens to be a new #1 issue of a new title, hey, you never know (as the old New York Lottery ad campaign so eloquently put it) … so collecting a few beloved comics slippery-sloped its way to casting a wide net wherein the worst that happened would be shelling out a couple extra dollars for comics that ended up not being so great, but the upside was presumably limitless.

And ultimately I have to admit that I have that compulsive collector brain-arrangement where I just feel good about both completeness and overall mass in my collections, so I was drawn to the slippery slope from the get-go.

The 90’s came and went and the Speculator Boom became the Speculator Bust and tons of comics trying to be the next Action Comics #1 ended up worthless from a collectible-resale perspective, not to mention worthless from an entertainment perspective to boot. I wouldn’t say that I got burned by the inevitable decline of the secondary comics market, but I did end up with some real dross in my collection. Half of that I can blame on the “hey you never know” Lotto-thoughts, and half I can blame on my obsessive need to own every single issue of Green Lantern, even the months where the publisher had the lowliest of the lowliest writers and artists churning it out to make quota. So now I find myself with maybe fifteen cubic feet of comic books in the closet of my dorkcave, and that’s kind of a drop in the bucket storage-space-wise, yet I can’t deny the urge to go through and cull the collection, on principle if nothing else.

Granted, I could probably do this in pretty short order as follows:

1. Go through the longboxes and pull out the stuff that is non-sellable, and which I have no desire to re-read, and which I don’t particularly care to share with my kid(s)
2. Offer pulled issues to my friends who read comics, for free
3. Any that are left over, offer to Children’s Hospital or something
4. Any that are still left over, compost

Which is all well and good but I keep getting mentally hung up on the fact that there may very well be some issues in amongst the chaff which I personally find no aesthetic value in but which actually would be re-sellable. It wouldn’t even have to be for that much, I’m not expecting to find something personally meaningless but worth $900 to a collector of a different mindset. If I could sell some of these comics for a buck or two apiece, that would be something, for a couple of reasons.

One, it would just feel right, providing a kind of closure to the part of my wasted youth in which I was a half-assed comic speculator. I wouldn’t need to make out like a bandit, but just the symbolism of in fact completing the cycle wherein I paid money for a comic, waited several years, and then got some money back would be gratifying. And if I can do that for even 10% of my collection, 150 issues, at a buck apiece, that’s $150 I didn’t have before, which is not retire-to-Tahiti money, but it ain’t nothin’, neither.

Two, it would be a good way to address various other desires of mine in a fairly guilt-free way, and at the same time cross a couple other projects off my mental list (I mentioned this project was really about projects within projects right?). For example, I’ve been meaning to learn how to sell things on eBay, and presumably if I’m talking about selling I’m talking about eBay. I have a PayPal account set up, and that’s where the money from each sale would go. As I mentioned, if I do this enough times I could have a nice bit of mad money in my PayPal account, unimpeachably separate from the usual household budget monies. And then I could turn around and use PayPal and eBay to conclude yet another project, like the heretofore unannounced Assemble a Complete Vintage Voltron Project. (For my little guy, of course. Ahem. Also because Voltron is still rad as hell.)

Giant space-lion robots with knives in their teeth blowing up alien warships COME ON!
So the only downside to the eBay-inclusive plan is that it requires a bit more of a time commitment, not just yanking comics out of the longboxes but then digitally photographing them and setting up eBay listings for them and monitoring the auction and shipping them to the winner (and there’s a learning curve for me in a lot of that), and because I was a half-ass collector some of my comics are ready to ship in bags with backing boards but some aren’t, so I’d have to buy those supplies, etc. etc. etc.

But then. BUT THEN! It occurs to me that, as I go through the lowlights of the past couple decades of comics collecting in which I’ve been embroiled, it might be fun to zoom in on certain things and talk about them here on the blog. I do love to talk about comics, and myself, and the intersection between the two, which would be encapsulated in “What exactly was I thinking when I bought this comic and saved it for 18 years and now want to unload on eBay for a buck-fifty plus shipping?” This could actually be a regular feature on this blog, which actually is a good thing, actually is to a certain extent THE thing, because if I’m completely honest I have to admit that sometimes the blogging does not come easy. Sometimes I draw a blank as to what I’m going to post about on any given day, so even though it’s basically a crutch it would be SO nice to have something to fall back on content-wise, since it is important to me to post as close to every day as I can. I have copped in the past to being a creature of habit, habits make me feel fundamentally all right, so if Wednesday on the old PA blog became “Speculator’s Remorse” day that could be a win, for me. (Your mileage may vary.)

But then again, if I’m going to dive in and turn 20% of this blog into simultaneously a Comics Blog and a Project Blog, I want to do it right, and one thing which every self-respecting comics blogger has and I do not have is a scanner. This would be crucial when I’m talking about a comic I once bought and now consider eBay-able, if I want to illustrate what I’m talking about with fair-use interior art from the comic itself. I know have some real obscurities that I wouldn’t be able to find any visual aids for at all via Google Images. Scanning the comics in question myself is really the way to go. I find myself therefore inching ever closer to breaking down and buying a scanner, but that’s slightly outside the realm of impulse shopping and hasn’t quite happened yet.

So, to sum up: I now have more than enough storage space for all the comics I’ve ever bought in my life, but I still want to thin the herd, and the major things holding me back from embarking on that project are profound lack of necessary time and not owning a scanner with which to share with you all the most egregious missteps of my speculative collecting days before I eBay them away forever. That’s the status of The Comics Project. Huginn and Muninn, I’m exhausted just having typed all that.

1 comment:

  1. I hear ya. I do so want to unload many longboxes' worth of comics on the eBay, but man. It's not easy to find the time when you got young'uns, a wife, a job, and lots of teevee that needs watchin'. Dadgumit.