Sunday, May 15, 2011

Uh oh, I'm thinking about comic books again.

Like many nerds, I have a bit of a collecting problem. As in: I like to collect things. (Game Freak gets a Genius of the Millennium award for recognizing this problem in us and creating Pokemon, by the way.)

My worst collecting addiction, by far, is with music. I really make no apologies for it. It's just too much a part of who I am, and what gives me joy and meaning in life. I have hundreds of vinyl records and CDs, and, boy, have I spent a lot of time and money over the past four decades thinking about it all and obsessing over them and going down different avenues every time I fixated on a new sound or genre or artist. I'm particularly glad to be living through the digital age now, though, since the *worst* thing, by far, of the collector mentality is the sheer clutter of it all. Being able to buy music (and not have to wait for the store to open, or to hope that the record is in stock) without adding more *stuff* to my house is a godsend. And as much as I love my vinyl records (not so much with CDs), there's no chance I'd ever go back. I'm all digital now, baby.

What I wanted to talk about in this post, however, is comic books--another obsession. This one was never as important to me as music, except for the fact that once I start collecting, I can't help but kind of go all in. Though I read a bunch of Marvel and DC stuff when I was growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, I never developed a habit for it. (What I did collect back then was MAD Magazine, one of my big life influences.)

My comic obsession really started in the mid-80s, when I was already in my 20s. This was the point at which the indies first began to rise, as well as the watershed rebooting of the superhero genre through Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Thanks to these guys, as well as comics like Harvey Pekar's American Splendor (my all-time favorite comic book ever), David Boswell's incomparably ridiculous Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman (my all-time second favorite comic book ever) Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot, Peter Bagge's Hate, and Daniel Clowes' Eightball, I discovered comics as an intellectual pursuit, and these alternative books coincided and collided nicely with a lot of my punk/alternative musical obsession at the time. Comic book shops (like the just-departed, legendary Comic Relief in Berkeley, R.I.P.) were added to my shopping rotation along with the record store, where I'd blow an irresponsible amount of whatever disposable income I had at the time, which was not much.

This lasted for awhile, but did not persist. Once I met my now-wife and started actually thinking about things like, say, a career, I tapered off on the comics for a number of years--- until I got a job at Computer Gaming World in 1996. This, for me, was the true moment of doom. Suddenly, from the first week of the job, I found myself surrounded by grown men, at least one of them older than me, who were obsessing over comics and--worst of all--were talking about them at all the time. If you like nerdy things, like I do, and like collecting things, like I do, and suddenly find yourself amongst a group of people all riled up about the Wednesday comic run, and then spending the week dissecting the latest developments in the Marvel and DC worlds, among other things, well, let's just say you'd have to be tougher than I was to resist.

I started out small. And at first I stayed away from the superhero stuff, gravitating instead to indie stuff like Jeff Smith's Bone, Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, and Mark Crilley's Akiko. But I could only resist the superhero stuff for so long, what with all the chatter around me all the time. I made a couple early choices, to limit myself. Like: Only Batman. But, as any follower of these universes knows, it's almost impossible, once you decide to get involved, to ignore the other books--not entirely. Both DC and Marvel are masters at sucking you in, if you're willing to let them. Crossovers, multi-arc stories, "events," all conspire to make you buy books you could have sworn a week ago you would never, ever buy, no matter what. Like, say, Catwoman.

And once that collector switch flipped in my brain, I was done. I was all in. Suddenly I was buying practically every goddamn book that came out every Wednesday. I had to. I had to have them all. I had to be totally caught up with everything. I started buying magazines about comics, so I'd know what was coming. I'd be at the store as soon as they opened, just to make sure I'd get the books before they sold out. I started buying longboxes to hold them all.

Eventually, it got to the point where I was buying more than I had time to read. I'd bag-and-board them only to have them pile up on my nightstand, in the To Read pile, which, at its worst was literally, seriously, a few feet high. And now the reading of the comics started to feel like homework. I couldn't spend time reading actual books (the kind without pictures), because I felt like if I had any free time, I had to get through some of the comics. Finally, ultimately, I just kind of got disgusted with myself. I was buying comics every week and not reading them. I made a vow to myself: I will not buy one more comic book until I get to the bottom of the To Read pile. And guess what? I never did make it to the bottom. That's how I quit my comic book obsession. Total cold turkey, based on a deal with myself.

It's been years since I've spent even a dime on comics. And I haven't really missed them, to be honest. I realized that I actually could live my life, as a man in my 40s, without necessarily knowing what The Flash was up to, and be just fine. I knew that there was probably a lot of great stuff I was missing out on, but I just had to stay the hell away, and felt good about it. My longboxes? They got covered up by a big blanket to become a de-facto stair for my cat and dog to use to climb up on our bed.

Now, however, I have an iPad. And, like with music, I am confronted with the wonder and magic of the digital age. I can buy comics, and not have them pile up in a To Read pile on my nightstand? I don't have to go to the store on Wednesday and feel bad, like a junkie showing up for my weekly fix? WHERE DO I SIGN UP. I am going to try to be prudent and circumspect about this. I am going to try not to go all-in again. I asked for recommendations on Twitter today of the current cool stuff, and got more than I can handle. As I did previously, I'm going to start with some of the more off-kilter stuff, and avoid superheroes. Chew, Orc Stain, Criminal, Atomic Robo and Locke & Key are the first ones I'm checking out. And maybe (hopefully?) the ONLY ones. (And yes, if you followed me over here from Twitter, I know there were a lot more, and maybe one was one of your favorites, and I promise I have a larger list, so don't be hurt.)

I worry, though. Because I know myself. I know I can say, "I'm only going to do THIS much", but then quickly rationalize it once I get sucked in. I know, for example, that not every book is available digitally. I know, too, that if I read a book and find a writer I love, I'm going to be tempted to seek out his/her other work.

So I need to stay vigilant. I need to keep a lid on it. I need to not have comic books become too important to my life again. I need to enjoy them without obsessing over them.

There may be no hope.


Ian McCullough said...

Jeff, I too am rekindling a romance with comics after many years away. My strategy has been to investigate major events and storylines (like Blackest Night in DC), then find a reader's guide online that tells me a logical order to read them in, and finally go out and buy the graphic novel collections. But recently, I had the brainstorm (mild drizzle really) to use the library. At least here in Nashville, they stock tons of graphic novels these days. I'm thinking that would be a nice way to limit your choices and do it cheaply.

Ryan said...

I saw the movie American Splendor (loved it) and I am trying to read the books now.

Travis said...

Ughhh you were just like me. I was buying crap I had no interest in just to keep up with what was going on. I too had a pile of unread books that kept getting bigger because I had no time to read them all. What saved me was dating and marrying a non geek girl who had no interest in them and to be honest while I do miss them from time to time my life is sop much more fulfilling now and I still have computer games to geek out on.

Tristessa said...

I get frustrated by most superhero books. I tend to wait until there's a complete story released in paperbacks before I going in. That way, I know there's a nice contained chunk, with the all important 'jumping off point'.

Criminal is a great book. I like much of Ed Brubaker's writing. Along with Greg Rucka, he had a great book that centered on Gotham City's police, called Gotham Central. It was interesting to see what being a cop might be like in a world a superheroes and their criminal counterparts.

My own personal collecting is with books. I can't borrow, from people or libraries. I very occasionally pare down my stacks...but currently I have over 2000 of them. I do read somewhat quickly though, so I have read most of my books.

And on one of my shelves (that one right over there!) is a collected copy of Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman.

Dick said...

This story sounds so familiar. I do love the idea of digital comics, but currently they are charging too much for them, often as much, if not more, than the physical goods. This is a failure in their understanding of how digital goods are more promotional material to sell physical goods. Eventually they'll learn. I've also been wanting to get a tablet PC just to read comics, but don't want an iPad and none of the Android one's have impressed me yet.

Scott said...

Buying a pile of comics and never getting around to reading them? That sounds like me, right now. I've got an enormous pile just waiting for me to read them and I... Am just not that interested in them anymore.

What I'd like to do is throw all of them out and only collect trade paperbacks from now on. From writers I'm a fan of (mostly Grant Morrison and Greg Rucka) or series I really enjoy (like Fables or Secret Six). It takes the stress out of it, so I can just read them like I did when I first started reading comics.

If you're looking for suggestions by the way, I'd highly recommend Planetary, Fables and Madame Xanadu. Oh and Grant Morrison's run on the Batman comics (starting with Batman, going to Batman and Robin and currently in Batman Incorporated).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for introducing me to Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman.

I have a different, probably very common compulsion too: I feel like I need to read everything that came before what's going on right now. It takes me months to start a character's current issue because I'm wasting all my time reading mostly useless stories decades old. I read around 1,000 issues of Spider-Man. Good thing I clicked anonymous.

I know you've got a lot of recommendations, but try Skullkickers. It's an action/comedy comic that makes fun of all the dopey fantasy cliches.

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