Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dug by little moles

Having recently completed collections of certain comic runs that have taken decades to finish, it’s time for something new. Something to search for in that musty old stack. Something worth reading. It might have been published years ago, but if I've never read it, it's just as new as this week's latest releases to me.

I understand why back issues are a mug’s game from the retailing side. I know they take up a lot of space for very little return. I got the fact that there are just far too many back issues produced over the decades for anything short of a warehouse to handle.

I understand all this, but my favourite comic shops are still the ones with an unhealthy amount of back issues. Places where I can dive in and look for random shit, fill that one hole that has been itching for years.

I used to get Star Trek comics when I was 10, and I loved that shit. One of my favourite storylines was the one that kicked off a year into the mid-eighties DC series, with the Mirror Universe invading the regular Trek universe in the wake of Star Trek III. It was an exciting and engaging read for L’il Bob, but I was damned if I could find two issues right in the middle of that storyline.

I looked everywhere and eventually gave up, only to stumble across those fabled two issues at my first ever comic convention last year. They filled that space in the Star Trek run that had been itching for decades and while they turned out to be thoroughly average comics for the 33-year-old Bob, they were still snapped up eagerly.

It took almost as long to finish a long-running collection of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and I only just completed another frustrating lapse when I found the last issue of Miracleman I needed in a New York comic shop in 2007. (Although they weren’t the exceedingly rare later issues that proved problematic. I got those for $1.50 years ago, but couldn’t find #6 anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere.)

For years, it was these issues and a few other idiosyncratic bits and pieces that I would start searching for whenever I got near a new comic shop, and I loved every second of it. I loved suddenly remembering about some issue that I always wanted, and I loved stumbling across something I didn’t even realise I had been searching for. Most of all, I loved that feeling I get when I do find that one elusive issue I’ve been craving. It’s an honest high.

But despite finding more and more of these little issues, the market for back issues has been steadily drying up for some time. Cheap trades and the internet have shot the traditional comic shop back issue market in the spine. When it’s so easy to get that elusive issue of Iron Man through an internet auction, why would a store bother?

And without an idiosyncratic selection of back issues, all comic shops begin to blend together after a while. There are always some wonderful exceptions, but the formula is depressingly easy to replicate: A good selection of the latest issues from the big boys, a few independent comics that everybody likes, and the usual merchandise, much of which is getting creepier by the day.

We all love the collected editions and the large chunks of easily digestable story they give us. It's hard to hate the trade when it gives so much. For many series, it does take an awful lot of time and effort to get the original issues, and that can just seem a bit stupid when the collection is sitting on the shelf in all good stores everywhere.

But still, while an internet auction can have a fair amount of excitement as you bid for that one issue you want more than any other comic that has ever existed, it’s still impersonal and strange. You might have to resist the odd temptation to buy complete runs of Power Pack on E-bay, but is it really as much fun as buying them one at a time, building up a complete collection over years?

And I still adore the hunt. When it comes to buying comics, nothing in the world beats that feeling of finding that elusive issue of Hellblazer that Gaiman and McKean did in a pile of ‘80s New Universe crud. Digging through piles and piles of ‘80s Starman comics, only to turn up a few early issues of Matt Wagner’s Grendel that I never dreamed of seeing before.

It’s that feeling that sends me into the dusty, musty back issue rooms with glee, knowing I’m bound to turn up something interesting or fill that annoying black hole at the centre of otherwise immaculate collections.

And when those holes are filled, it’s time to move and and start looking for something new. There have been so many brilliant comics published over the past seven decades, there is always something new in the old, something else to look out for.

Once I’ve got a copy of every comic Garth Ennis ever wrote, (and I am getting close to that goal), there is always something else to hunt out, ongoing quests to grab those missing Cerebus and Bacchus comics.

Recently, I managed to score a significant proportion of the Vertigo versions of The Losers and Human Target, with only a few issues left out. That’s something else to go for now, and it’s a lot easier to pay full prices for a few issues when you’ve got the bulk for so cheap.

And after some bastard stole a complete run of Promethea from my letter box a few months back, I managed to get almost every issue for a dollar each last week, and now just to find three more to finish that off. I honestly can't wait.

These holes can be itchy, but they’re so much fun to scratch.


Jesse Farrell said...

Am I saddened you didn't review or summarize those Star Trek issues? I am. I was always interested in what happened in the weird, out-of-official-Trek-canon comics, but usually found them to be pretty dismal when I sampled them. I really loved the DC Star Trek Who's Who, an amazing confluence of obsessive Trek lore, guesses, and outright fanwanks from a time Paramount let stuff like that happen.

I tend to prefer a modern comic shop with a good collection of TPBs, but I see the appeal of the back issue collection. While I still have longboxes clogging my home (why does no one make something adults can keep their comics in without looking like they're moving?), if I could afford it and if they were all available in that format, I'd trade them for books without a second thought. I like the content better than the container, and feel less and less attachment to the original transmitters.

But the hell I'd go all digital. A line must be drawn somewhere, hell.

zom said...

Never really done the back issue thing, but I would very much like to fill in the holes in my Claremont Davis Excalibur collection. Weirdly I've never even tried. The pamphlets I require could be sitting in the back of my local for all I know, it wouldn't surprise me in the least, but it's never occurred to me to check.