Thursday, January 22, 2015

Comics and Me: A Brief History

Cover art for Wendy the Good Little Witch 95
My parents are road trip people. Every summer, they'd pack me into the car and drive, drive, drive.

Tiny Memory was a poor traveller even with a massive dose of Dramamine in the mix, so my mother distracted me with goodie bags she'd dole out a piece at a time. Small games, magic pen activity pads, plastic toys, and books all worked their way into the back seat at regular intervals lest I complain about my boredom or decide I needed to puke. (Tiny Memory almost always needed to puke.) And every once in a while, we'd stop at a gas station for the ultimate prize: comics.

I read those comics over and over again. Casper, Wendy, Yogi Bear, Richie Rich, and Archie became an abiding force in my life. When I got old enough to warrant an allowance, I used it to buy back issues from the thrift shop and the mouldering used bookstores we dipped into on less prize-laden vacations. I even bought current issues of ARCHIE from the grocery store (comic shops weren’t on my radar yet). I was halfway delighted and halfway pissed of to discover how many of them featured the exact same scripts as my vintage copies, albeit with updated artwork.

I can barely remember a time when comics weren't a part of my life; when I wasn't reading them or hoping to read them good and soon.

*

I come from comics-loving stock. My father likes to talk about how he and his childhood friends traded comics at his local convenience store's take-one-leave-two rack. My mother and her sister were less sanguine about letting go of their own stash. They hoarded them in a large cardboard box my mum reclaimed from my grandfather when I was thirteen or thereabouts.

Mum was happy to have her comics back and eager to see how much they were worth, but she saw little point in cataloguing them herself when she had a thirteen-year-old kid around. I set to it with a copy of the 1996 Overstreet Guide and a determination to read everything I priced. For the first time, I wallowed in superheroes alongside the typical American teenagers I'd met in the pages of ARCHIE, or the witches and ghosts I found in Hanna Barbera’s range.

I liked most of what I read, but the Legion of Superheroes quickly became my jam. They were my first superteam, and they had a dog. (I’m biased towards comics characters--hell, towards people--with dogs.) Mum knocked my socks off when she gave me her issues of ADVENTURE COMICS.

I’m also supposed to get 5% of her net earnings when she sells the collection, but I’m still waiting on that one.

*

Cover art for Tales From The Crypt: The Official Archives
My high school was next door to the public library, and I began to haunt the place whenever I had some spare time. The library didn’t have much in the way of comics back then, but their nonfiction section was decent.

One fruitful day, I emerged from the stacks with TALES FROM THE CRYPT: THE OFFICIAL ARCHIVES by Digby Diehl. I'd watched the show with my grandfather and figured the book would focus on that. Instead, I got nothing less than an EC-focused history of the comic book.

It was a turning point. I'd always loved comics, but I'd never realized it was possible to love things about comics, too.

I read the book cover to cover and asked for my own copy for Christmas. The library, thoughtful institution that it is, also provided a few more books on comics history. These enormous volumes firmly in hand, I discovered how the Comics Code had affected publishers besides EC. I learned about the Marvel Method and gained a painfully strong desire to explore DC’s Vertigo line, starting with THE SANDMAN.

But like I said, the library didn’t have much in the way of comics. If I wanted SANDMAN, I had to buy it--and this was also long before trade collections were affordable. $30 and up was the norm. I scrimped and saved and finally considered myself lucky to get PRELUDES & NOCTURNES off Amazon for $19.21, with free shipping thanks to a promotion.

It changed my world.

*

But that came a bit later.

At fifteen, I’d read a bunch of all-ages comics, a large handful of vintage comics, and a number of history texts, but I had yet to delve into the world of contemporary superheroes. A liquidation centre in Duncan, BC changed that.

Around this time--we’re talking the late 90s here--comics multi-packs were a popular way for publishers to get rid of remaindered back issues. They'd pack four to six issues together and ship 'em off to discount retailers, who sold them for nice and cheap.

Cover of Gambit Number 1
Comics fan that I am, I bought a pack containing the 1993 GAMBIT mini series and settled in with it. Next thing I knew, the X-Men had eclipsed the Legion of Superheroes as my favourite superhero team.

I started buying X-MEN and UNCANNY X-MEN on a monthly basis, along with Gambit’s own ongoing series. Any week with a new issue automatically became the highlight of my month.

It got even better when my friends and I discovered Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics, starting with their Mara Jade miniseries. My pull list grew.

But then Marvel cancelled GAMBIT, and both they and Dark Horse raised their prices. I kept buying the Star Wars titles a little longer than the X-Men ones, but I eventually had no choice but to back away from the joy of monthly issues. I had the occasional SANDMAN trade to look forward to whenever I managed to scrounge up enough money, and I still bought whatever I could find at the thrift shop, but I was squarely in the middle of a comics-light period.

It sucked.

*

Then a miracle happened. The library began buying comics.

I borrowed every trade collection they placed on the shelves. It didn't matter what it was about, or whether I'd ever heard of it, or even if it was the sixteenth volume in an ongoing series. If it was a comic, I wanted it.

Some of the books were perfectly unmemorable, but others stayed with me. AMY UNBOUNDED: BELONDWEG BLOSSOMING by Rachel Hartman; HICKSVILLE by Dylan Horrocks; FABLES by Bill Willingham et al; BONE by Jeff Smith; ELFQUEST by Wendy and Richard Pini; CASTLE WAITING by Linda Medley.

The collection wasn't huge. It focused mainly on general fiction and indie fantasy to begin with, with little attention paid to superheroes and suchlike. The library also had a distressing tendency to buy only the first book in the series, or to drag their feet on getting comics through processing. After nearly a year of waiting for volumes four through nine of BONE to work their way from the back room to the shelves, I broke down and bought the omnibus instead of my university textbooks.

It could be frustrating. Still, it gave me an outlet. It let me wallow.

And the more comics the library bought, the more I read.

*

All those trade collections changed my comics-reading mindset. I lost interest in acquiring single issues. Why read a story arc a piece at a time over five or six months when I could wait and gulp the whole thing down in one go? Trade collections were cheaper than single issues, too, which meant I could ease back into buying comics again.

That said, the digital comics revolution has done a lot to revive my interest in buying single issues, though I still hold off until they’re back issue-priced and/or bundled together by arc. I love having a decent-sized comics collection in a format that takes up zero space. I love reading the letters pages, which I sorely missed during my years of trades-trades-all-trades. I love buying comics immediately before I plan to read them. I love reading by panel, which makes the comics almost like animated movies. I lovelovelove hunting for sales and bargains.

Digital comics let me follow series with greater ease than the library allows, and at a much better price than any paper retailer offers. They don’t take any space in my overfilled comics boxes or on my bookshelves. Their only potential downside is they’re nontransferrable, and I make that a non-issue by buying only things I know I’ll read over and over again. I have all the Buffy and Angel comics (though I still need to convert some of them to digital), all of SAGA, a ton of other Image comics thanks to their recent Humble Bundle, and plans to purchase HAWKEYE as soon as my budget allows. And I can fit the lot on a 7-inch tablet.

Maybe something better than digital comics will come along eventually, but I can’t imagine what it’ll be.

I also can’t wait to find out.

6 comments:

  1. This was a fun idea for a post. I enjoyed reading it!

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  2. Oh wow, I completely forgot that trade paperbacks of comics used to be so much more expensive! I'm trying to remember now what price I bought mine at. It can't have been $20 apiece because I wouldn't have been able to afford that, even with my graduation money. I can't remember. I'll have to check when I get home; maybe I got them on an insanely good deal.

    I was going to say that my comics life story is very brief, but then I realized I got into comics in June 2004ish and that is ten and a half years ago now. But I never was as rapacious a reader of them as you, just because of availability -- my library has some comics, but I don't read ALL of them (some are stupid), and even the ones I want to read, it's tricky to get them in order from the library. If I had a bit more money to spend on digital comics, I'd be going mad with the comics-buying. As it is I read a lot more just behind having a comixology subscription and more people making recommendations to me on a regular basis. (Hooray!)

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    1. It took me sooooooo long to finish my Sandman collection at the old trade prices. Soooooooo long. Like, I think I was 16 when I got PRELUDES & NOCTURNES, and I wasn't able to buy SEASON OF MISTS until my aunt and uncle gave me a gift card for my 18th birthday. And it was a year or more after that before I finally got THE WAKE.

      I'm so glad prices have gone down and libraries have stepped up their game.

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  3. I think I'm just beginning to truly get into comics. I started out the same way you did - Richie Rich and Archie, with the occasional Casper thrown in (my first encounter with Yogi Bear, though, was in a collection of short stories when I was five). But somehow DC/Marvel never made it onto my radar. I feel like I'm playing catch up right now. On the other hand, it's lovely to be able to read various series back to back.

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    1. That's a definite advantage. I love not having to wait for new issues to come out with all the older stuff I read, though of course that's still an issue with the current, ongoing comics I follow.

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