Saturday, September 4, 2010

Chasing Batman

A couple of goddamn decades ago, finding the latest issue of the Justice League in my tiny corner of the globe took a large amount of effort. It would require biking all over town and hitting the half-dozen book shops and dairies that still bothered to sell comics in the early nineties, in the hope that one of them might have the next issue.

This would take a few bit of planning to ensure all the right stores were hit - including putting a huge amount of thought into creating a route that involved as few steep hills as possible - but it would all be worth it to find an issue of the West Coast Avengers or 2000ad or X-Factor that would only be sold in one store, and might even be there the next month.

With a ridiculously shoddy distribution system which seemed to have been designed by somebody who didn’t give a flying fuck about their job, missed issues were an absolute certainty and to get more than a dozen uninterrupted issues in a row was almost unheard of. But with no comic stores and no access to any kind of mail-order system, the mission was necessary.

The pay-of was immensely satisfying. I still remember being proud of having the first two dozen issues of the New Warriors, after finally locating #10 six years after it was published.

Time moved on, and few of those bookshops or dairies or supermarkets or tearooms have carried mainstream American comic books in more than a decade. I ended up living in towns which actually had stores devoted to comics and I discovered the joy of being a valued customer. Suddenly, I was ensured of never missing an issue of a regular comic, they were all available every month, waiting for me in the store, and if I didn’t have the necessary money straight away, they would still be sitting there next week.

I was inevitably drawn back to smaller towns, and with comic shops drying up like yesterday’s rain, it looked like I was back to a system that was broken and forgotten. Luckily, the joys of mail order made up for that, and consistency was maintained.

But somewhere in there, I got a bit bored with that too. The ability to purchase stories in a collected format months, or even years, after they were published made that monthly fix a little less necessary.

These days, there are only a handful of monthly comics I get on a full and regular basis. These comics are always waiting for me at the local shop, delivered with efficient friendliness.

But those aren’t the only comics I ever buy, and there are even some I specifically avoided asking for at that shop. It’s nothing against them, I just like chasing Batman.

I have found the Morrison run on the comic - whether it’s in the original Batman comic, or Batman & Robin, or the Return of Bruce Wayne - consistently rewarding and enjoyable, and have not missed an issue. Sometimes, it’s taken me a couple of days to track one down, and in one case, I only got hold of an issue the day before the next one was due out.

I’ve now bought this comic from nine different comic and book stores. It means I could drop it easily when Ostrander had a go with the writing early on in the pace, and later when Denny O’Neill did his bit. But it’s also the thrill of the hunt, the joy of discovery, and the butt-numbing tedium of failure.

And it gives me an excuse to walk into different stores, and I don't feel like a complete parasite if I walk out with something, after flicking through the latest Captain America and putting it back on the shelf. It's a guilt reliever. And the more effort that goes in, the sweeter the reward.

There are a couple of other things I buy in this manner. It never felt right getting 2000ad put aside for me, but fortunately, and unlike Batman, this one is actually still sold in several book and convenience stores, so it’s never a big deal getting it.

It doesn’t prevent the distributor from occasionally delaying or releasing comics in the wrong order, but there is a fairly strong level of deliverability consistency for the weekly comic.

There is always the possibility of failure – I spent a large slice of last weekend trying to buy Batman #702, the final part in Morrison’s short three-issue return to the comic he started with back in 2007 - and I completely failed. I drove halfway across Auckland and back, checking out all three of the city’s comic shops, and they’d all sold out.

I don’t blame the shops, it costs so much for them to ship over here that there are few shelf copies of anything, and even though I enjoyed the previous issue a lot, I can wait.

After all, it’s just another Batman comic, and they’re not exactly hard to find. It might take a little bit more effort, but half the thrill is in the chase. The result is almost an after-thought.

Because I love hunting down comic books, and the harder they are to find, the greater the pay-off. I get off on this. The frustration of missing out doesn’t matter, and the hunt is the thing.

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