[21 February 2006]
Collecting is a dirty business. The pursuit of things can ensnare a person like the nastiest of drugs, swallowing time, money and youth like a hungry animal. This lust is a dangerous part of comic fandom no matter the reader’s taste. Whether you prefer self-published, black and white indies or proclaim “Make Mine Marvel” as your personal mantra, getting that next issue, that limited edition lithograph, that alternate cover is an all-important goal, an itch that must be scratched every Wednesday.
The early 1990s were the apex of the collecting boom. Poly-bagged multiple covers featuring foil-embossing and an exclusive trading card announced half the issues on the stands as “collector’s items” and “guaranteed” a comic’s future resale value. This diabolical sales tactic boosted sales of mediocre books and created a speculator’s market for people too stupid for the Stock Exchange. Unfortunately, publishers produced truckloads of these books, flooding the market with dozens of “special” issues every week. Now, well over a decade later, greedy fans are stuck with books barely worth their cover price and retailers find themselves sitting on a mountain of unsold copies of X-Force #1.
But what if collecting was more than just the sad, empty pursuit of things? What if high stakes collectors were not just celebrities but LEGENDS among fans? Somewhere in that variant, hologram-enhanced dream world one finds Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World.
Billed as “a story from the sketchbook of the artist Seth,” Wimbledon Green is the story of a mysterious, rotund comic book collector whose obscure taste and knack for finding rare issues frustrates and delights his fellow collectors. The book is split into episodic, mostly documentary-style strips that reveal Wimbledon’s character, his triumphs and defeats. The different testimonials on the character and episodes of his adventures make up a larger tale that’s a comment on the sometimes humorous and sometimes harmful effects collecting has on its victims.
Interestingly, the book begins with an introduction which writer/artist Seth suggests reading as an afterword. Then, for those too stubborn to heed his warning, the author begins to tear his work apart, practically apologizing for what he perceives as its lack of meaning and quality. Seth claims this story, begun as an exercise in his sketchbook, was “created on a lark” drawn in the spirit of “good enough.”
Unfortunately, this admission—though it seems somewhat disingenuous—holds sway over the book’s beginnings. The strips are first person accounts of the title character’s legendary collecting habits and are repetitive; as the claim on the cover suggests, they read like an artist’s exercise rather than part of a complete narrative. Seth is clearly trying to figure out who this character is, where he’s going and why the story needs to be told.
Fortunately, the individual stories soon begin to gel and the larger narrative is refined as the book progresses. Despite his claims to the contrary, Seth’s art is crisp and clean, laid out in small, neat panels that still convey a wealth of information. Green is an impossibly geometric, plus-size version of Mr. Monopoly and the supporting cast of collectors—“Cuts” Coupon, Ashcan Kemp, Waxy Coombs—are all well-conceived collector archetypes created with a keen eye and strong sense of humor.
Some of the book’s funniest moments feature comics as characters. In a continuing series of one page lists, Seth treats us to a peak inside Wimbledon Green’s vast collection. The objects of Green’s obsession are imaginary books like Alimony Comics, an “ill-advised romance comic” graded as Very Fine and valued at $4500. Other selections include Gee #48, featuring the death of Captain Well-Being, and the “infamous flatulence issue” of Fatsy. These snapshots of Green’s collection aren’t just funny, they hint at other exercises possibly hiding between the covers of Seth’s sketchbooks.
In the world of Wimbledon Green, collecting is about more than variant covers and poly bagging. Collecting is an intellectual quest, a school of philosophy dedicated to the advancement not just of the graphic art form, but of the whole human race. The single-page vignette “Young ‘Cuts’ Coupon-1949” is Coupon’s manifesto on the the rewards (and perils) of collecting. “I innately [understand the] deep meaning in these tales of masked men and anthropomorphic animals,” he says. For him, the wisdom and truth hidden in the four-color world offer more insight and depth than any other art form ever could.
The reverse of this, of course, is simple greed. The characters of Wimbledon Green don’t merely seek out the latest hot artist’s work, they seek the lost treasures of comics’ Golden Age. Digging through the basements of used bookstores and attending strangers’ estate sales occupies the time of these art-obsessed archaeologists. The prestige that comes with finding rare comics in pristine condition is second only to the book’s inflated value.
Normal comics fans like you and me will probably never know of the joy that comes from owning a priceless issue like Action Comics #1 or Amazing Fantasy #15, but perhaps it’s for the best. In Wimbledon Green‘s world of high stakes collecting, seeking out a rare comic can turn into a James Bond-style adventure, and your competition, in the words of Green’s fellow collector Ashcan Kemp, are “a lot of morally corrupt assholes” that will easily lie, cheat and kidnap their way to collecting glory. Maintaining that level of enthusiasm in the real world is rare, unless you have the money or freakish desire for collectibles like uber-collector Todd McFarlane.
Sadly, the underlying message of Wimbledon Green is being ignored. The comics industry is currently trending toward collecting again, with a number of big name books carrying alternate covers by big name artists. Even this book, in which collecting is portrayed as hollow and hilarious, features cover enhancement in the form of embossing and metallic ink. But it’s not a point of sale and it’s a not a false claim about the book’s collectibility. Unlike so-called “special editions,” this cover doesn’t announce the book’s future monetary value, but rather the potential value of the contents within. For its humor, message and reverence for comics as an art form, Wimbledon Green is an investment that’s worth the risk.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/wimbledon-green/