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Comics Collecting Today: The State of the Hobby

The Longbox Theory

The comic book industry is going through a difficult transition. Creators, publishers, retailers, and diehard fans of the medium are struggling with a grim reality; an audience that is contracting and skewing ever older. Comics face increasing competition from other forms of entertainment. Publishers have sought ways to evolve, providing diversified products like motion comics, or “augmented experiences” on-line. Unfortunately, people simply read less now and attention spans have grown shorter. With so much technology constantly at their fingertips, providing uninterrupted streams of entertainment content, comics barely register with most kids, so there may be no next generation of readers. Those who enjoy the hobby have a stake in ensuring it survives. Beyond just giving out some free comics one day a year, the key will be to foster a connection between the books and a new audience of young readers.  A good place to start is to remember how you got into comics yourself.

Some of my earliest, most vivid memories revolve around comic books.
Every Sunday, my extended family would get together for a full day of eating, talking, singing. One of my uncles knew I loved to read and wanted to encourage me, so he’d stop by his local newsstand and buy one issue of every comic that had come out that week, along with the Sunday editions of the three major papers we had in New York at the time. My cousin and I loved the funnies, but my uncle would insist I also read as many of the newspaper articles as possible. He didn’t distinguish between Marvel and DC, Harvey funny books and Classics Illustrated, Archie comics and Charlton, so he bought them all and I read them all. My cousin would read the comics right away, but I always waited. They were what I looked forward to the most, but I wanted to savor them. I usually ended up reading them in my room before bedtime, a couple of sheets of typing paper and a pencil beside me so I could copy the panels I liked best. I read and drew everything.

Marvel Treasury Editions: Trade Paperbacks before the term existed

Marvel Treasury Editions: Trade Paperbacks before the term existed

Sometimes, Marvel or DC would release an oversize “Treasury Edition” of choice reprints. My cousin and I would read them through, finish and immediately begin again at the first page. We were in awe of these books: Kirby’s Ragnarok storyline, and his Thor versus Hercules, several Fantastic Four story runs and the King’s trippy version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had various DC treasuries as well; collections of Superman and Batman, loads of Golden Age reprints. The Captain Marvel reprints and the Legion of Superheroes were my favorites. I imagine it was because they featured kids with powers, whether it was the members of the Marvel/Shazam family or those hip and angsty Legionnaires with their flight rings, rotating leadership and ability to travel through time.

The doorman of my building always had a pocketful of quarters for the elderly ladies who needed change for the washers and dryers in the basement. He’d dole them out to the kids in the building: Fifty cents allowance every week or so for the kids who did well in school, minded their moms and generally stayed out of trouble. We’d save up until we hit the critical mass of one dollar, then race to the stationery store around the corner. When I started going there, comics were twenty cents apiece, but then they jumped to a quarter and I stewed over it for months as my purchasing power went from five down to four books per visit. There always seemed to be a fifth book I wanted, or an impossible decision I had to make over that fourth book, like some junior King Solomon debating splitting the baby in half. God forbid there’d be an annual or two released that week, higher cover price confirming I’d be leaving with fewer books.

Once, a friend’s older sister asked me what my favorite title was, and after I’d answered “Thor” and explained why, she gave me a well-read and worn stack of books, the full run from Journey into Mystery #110 through Thor #179. I still have them, even though I’ve repurchased most of those issues to upgrade their condition. Those original copies hold a special value for me.

When we had to go to the department store, I’d beg my mom to buy me some of the sealed three-issue packs they had on the spinner racks at Woolworths. The anticipation was intense: You never knew what you were going to get as you tore open the bag—you only had one visible cover to go by. We’d always hope for something weird, like a Warlord by Mike Grell if it was a DC pack, or a John Byrne Iron Fist if it was from Marvel. Sometimes you’d end up with three issues of Spider-man and it felt like you’d won the lottery. Other times, you’d get three copies of the same crappy reprint issue you’d gotten twice the week before, the karmic wheel turning, as the publishers and distributors cleared out unwanted stock. Spinner racks would also yield up hidden gems, like back issue runs two or even three comics deep. It was likely because of negligent stock boys, but I always imagined they were just fellow fans who’d left them like that, having already read them during their breaks. I figured they knew some kid like me would discover and buy them and be able to read the entire story in one sitting, instead of waiting the months between each issue.

9 years old, my best friend made me pinkie-swear to keep a secret, and showed me his older brother’s hidden stash of comics which he was forbidden to touch: An old army footlocker covered with stickers, containing a perfect run of X-Men drawn by Neal Adams and a stack of Heavy Metals. They blew my mind. Adams’ drawings were a revelation. I’d seen his version of Batman before and it was my favorite, but his X-men simply looked real. As for the Heavy Metal, there was Mœbius (Jean Giraud), Phillipe Druillet, and Richard Corben. For the first time, I realized that comics were not only also for adults, they were art. Under these treasures were all sorts of underground comics I’d never even imagined: Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, stuff by Vaughn Bodē and Robert Crumb. It was disturbing and exciting and seemed more than a little dangerous. My friend told me his brother was already working for Neal Adams; when what he’d said finally registered with me, my opinion of the guy went from “my buddy’s jerk brother who treats us like garbage” to “demigod”.

The original French Magazine was "Metal Hurlant" which translates to "Screaming Metal"

The original French Magazine was “Metal Hurlant” which translates to “Screaming Metal”

I remember the first convention I went to, and how laid back it was—creators and collectors all just standing around talking, sketching, arguing and laughing. I don’t recall an admission fee. Then again, I was so young, maybe I didn’t realize my mom just paid for it and didn’t want me to feel bad about the expense. My cousin and I raced around the one small ballroom, taking in as much as we could. We took turns running down to the lobby to tell my mom what we’d seen or overheard, begging for an extra dollar or two advance on our allowances beyond the Christmas, Birthday and general hoarding of money we’d saved up to buy…something, anything, provided it was from the show.
That convention was the first place I’d ever heard mention of a comic-book store.
A store? That only sells Comics? Could it be?..
What sensation comes after giddy and exists beyond incredulous?

I remember my mom taking me for the first time to a comic book store. It was on the other side of town and I was too young to go alone. Back then, it was the also the wealthier side of town. The books weren’t out on display, but you could see the pristine boxes filling up shelf upon shelf in the back, behind the imposing glass counter. You had to ask to see a specific book, and they brought it out to you. I got nervous and asked for the wrong issue number—Journey into Mystery 125, instead of Thor 126—and the guy who was waiting on us sniffed, and explained there’d be a “restocking cost” of a dollar twenty-five. My mom gave him the look that could liquefy a person’s bowels, and he shriveled up and said he’d waive the fee for us. He brought back the prettiest copy of a silver age book I’d seen.
How much?” I asked, breathless…
Fifteen bucks.” he stammered, under the strain of that death stare from mom.
She chipped in the extra five I was short and I bought my first “expensive” book.
Sixty issues worth of new comics for me in those days, but I floated home, staring at the cover for hours, days, on end. A couple of years later, though now it seems only weeks had passed, those same snooty guys opened a store on my side of town. Rougher clientele meant they had to lighten up. Soon they had competition, as more stores opened up around the city. Some were hole-in-the-wall joints, some were palaces of opulence. I always felt like Indiana Jones when I went into one of these places for the first time—about to discover something I’d never seen, in an altogether familiar place that was completely unknown to me. Even now, years later, I still feel like that, if I manage to find a new comic store to visit for the first time. As much as I love to see specialty stores, I miss the days comics were everywhere. We can’t put the onus of creating the next generation of readers solely on comic shops. Kids won’t readily pick up the hobby if they’re never exposed to the medium. The kids of my generation collected comics in part because they were available in many different places: Those of us who truly loved them eventually sought out the specialty shops.

When I was twelve years old, the coolest comic store in the city suddenly opened up in my neighborhood. The owner was a curmudgeon right out of central casting. He was a retired psychiatrist (MD and PhD, take that, ghost of Fredric Wertham) who chain-smoked cigars, played opera music in his store, and wore beat up t-shirts and Birkenstocks. He didn’t suffer fools lightly, severely punished shoplifters, and could get you a mint copy of any book you could think to ask for. His prices were fair—and if he liked and respected you and he’d met your parents, his prices dropped so low they had to have been ludicrously below his margin. He didn’t seem to care about profit at all. He loved the books and he wanted to share the hobby. His wife only made appearances when he had a guest signing and she’d sometimes sing along to the music he played in the background. He’d always ask his celebrity guests to draw a picture of Batman onto a backing board. The back wall of the store was a one of kind gallery, featuring dozens of unique images of the caped crusader, most created by artists who’d never drawn him for print, some by the artists most associated with him, all on identical cardboard sheets with identical black frames. He sold me perfect copies of Giant Size X-Men #1 and X-Men #94 for about a quarter of their street value at the time. I’d reread my originals so many times the covers were falling off. He knew I loved them and promised me they’d be worth a lot someday. Years later, in a moment of mad desperation, I sold them when I was broke in college. The owner of the store I sold them to kept repeating, “Are you sure you want to sell these? I’ve never seen copies this good…

Comics could go the way of the newsstand (and the fedora) if we don't pass on the hobby

Comics could go the way of the newsstand (and the fedora) if we don’t pass on the hobby

I’ve sold nearly as many books as I’ve bought over the years, and these days I usually opt for hard cover collected volumes of story runs I enjoy—current ones or those classics that take me back to more innocent days. I got my daughter into comics at a young age, mainly through the print versions of the cartoons she most loved. I happily engage my nieces and nephews on the topic of comics, as well as the young students in the school where I work. I share the love I have for the medium. I try to pass on the hobby. So much has changed. Speculators bid on comics that’ll forever remain encased in thick plastic slabs. Far too many retailers have gone out of business, and the big two publishers keep sending us offers for digital copies of their titles—not just the recently published issues, but the old standards as well. The audience for the films grows, but the one devoted to the original hobby shrinks. I’m glad there are many ways to experience comics now, many young people creating their own comics even, with greater ease, thanks to technological advances. I just know that the experiences I’ve shared here, though uniquely mine, echo those of thousands of you, and sometimes it feels as if no one will ever again get to have them the way we did. You have to remember what it felt like when you started collecting.
You have to pass it along to those who come after us before it’s all gone and they’ll have missed the chance to feel it too…

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