[8 August 2014]
I’m a single issue reader. I don’t avoid trades or anything, but I refuse to wait for them, either, preferring to consume my comics one chapter at a time. More specifically than that, I’m a hard copy single issue reader. Call it stubbornness, masochism, Luddism, whatever you want, but I weirdly refuse to make the (inevitable) switch to digital. I like going to the comicbook store, having a folder, bringing home stacks of varying size each week that I then excitedly sort through and organize, always saving the titles I’m most excited about for last. That’s all very much a part of the fun of comic fandom for me.
This is not to say that my approach is without flaw. The worst of it is forgetting something—-a new title not yet added to the pull list, a tie-in I meant to read, or any number of other stray issues can get overlooked while wandering through the stacks. And if I make it all the way home without everything I intended to buy, there’s no way I’m making another trip to the shop just to make up for the mistake. All there is to do at that point is facepalm and try harder to remember next week, assuming they haven’t run out by then.
The shop being out of stock is another regular hassle. They forget to order something or Diamond shorts them or both, and suddenly I’m in limbo, waiting for the indeterminate arrival of the books I follow. Sometimes I end up getting the next issue before the missing issue is restocked, so not only am I left hanging, but there’s an obnoxious teaser sitting on my desk, a physical reminder of what I’m still missing.
Even on the worst visit, though, I always leave the store with something, and every new comic obtained is a tiny victory. The collection gets a bit bigger, and hopefully stronger, and gradually harder to contain.
The biggest/most obvious downside to sticking with hard copies is that they all have to go somewhere. Firstly, into plastic bags with cardboard in the back, protecting the comics from dust/time/insects/other people’s sticky fingers/what have you. There are, of course, standard sizes these bags are supposed to come in, but in the course of building a collection, one ends up with bags of differing capacities. Some are so thin they barely fit a single issue, while others can hold entire arcs or runs without difficulty. This leads to inconsistencies and mistakes; you stick a four-issue series into a bag that could hold twice as much before you realize how big it is, and then later have to split up a major arc of an ongoing into three smaller bags because who has time to figure out exactly how much each bag can hold when it’s tough enough just organizing the comics themselves? Once in a while I do try to reshuffle everything to optimize my bag space, but it’s too daunting a task now with too many bags and no clear way to sort them all. So I live with the less-than-ideal packaging of my collection and try to tighten things up when it comes to shelf space.
I say “shelf space” because that’s my current set-up: all my comics on two bookshelves, held in magazine files. There was a time not long ago when, instead, the appropriate term would’ve been “box space” or “closet space,” since everything was in longboxes stacked atop one another in my closet. Every home has its own requirements and limitations, so it’s good to be a little flexible about how and where the comics are kept. I’d imagine shelves and boxes are probably the top two choices among fans for comicbook storage, but there are probably people out there using drawerss, folders, cabinets, storage units, and who knows what else to get the job done. The most important thing when deciding how to store comics, for me at least, is accessibility. As a comicbook critic and frequent rereader of things I’ve already read, I need to know that I can get to any issue of any series at any time. So that’s the biggest factor in deciding where to keep everything: how easy will it be to navigate through later?
ALL of these snags would be smoothed over immediately if I went digital, this I know. I wouldn’t need bags anymore, or devoted space in my house for my issues, or to worry about retrieving anything in the future. It would all be searchable, automatically sorted, and stored on whatever technological device(s) I wanted to keep it on. And there is a certain appeal to that notion, I must admit.
But just as I get an ineffable joy from going to the store, there’s also s real satisfaction that comes with having all my comics put away. I like looking at my collection, seeing the physical size of it and patting myself on the back for keeping it all in one place. Every time I need a particular book for any reason, a small part of me is grateful and proud of myself when I find it in the right spot. These are selfish reasons to stay analogue, based entirely on making me feel good about my own hobby, but nevertheless, the happiness and slight smugness I feel when admiring my shelves it something I’d dearly miss if it went away.
Eventually, inevitably, the time comes to get rid of some stuff. No matter how big your shelves or how long your boxes, nobody has infinite space, and the collection grows every single week. Choosing what to eliminate is often fairly easy, because as much as you try to avoid it, everyone ends up with garbage comics they don’t want. Titles with promise fail to deliver, creative teams change and significantly lower the quality of a current book, a creator you always follow produces something uncharacteristically terrible, Free Comic Book Day happens and you get an armload of pure junk, etc., etc., etc. The bad material piles up right along with the good, though ideally at a much slower rate, so when culling time comes there are plenty of strong candidates for the chopping block.
The difficulty comes instead from, a) actually having to sift through the whole collection to find all the crap, and b) figuring out who to unload it on. Flipping through hundreds or thousands of issues to dig up the handful that aren’t worth keeping anymore is a time-consuming process, and it often involves some tough choices. Just because something is bad doesn’t necessarily mean it should go, because there may be other reasons to refer to it down the line. And not all good comics are worth hanging onto, either. If you know you’ll never revisit it, might as well send it back out into the world for someone else to enjoy. It’s no Sophie’s Choice, but it can be a tad tricky to make these calls, and it’s a tedious process to explore the whole collection from top to bottom no matter what. Most of it is going to stick around, but you’ve got to look at everything anyway to ensure none of it gets accidentally skipped.
Once the hard decisions have all been made, there’s still the matter of finding a place that’ll take all the comics you don’t want. Local shops are usually the best bet, but they only ever want what they know they can sell, since that’s their whole business. Other readers are always a nice way to go, whether it be friends you’re giving stuff away to or strangers online or in person who are willing to give you some cash for your wares. And then there’s used bookstores, flea markets, and other second-hand vendors galore. More often than not, it takes a few of these options to get rid of everything, because no one buyer is looking for everything you have to offer. So after the tedium of looking through everything, there is additional tedium involved in finding new homes for the comics with which you want to part.
Despite the time and effort it always takes, cutting stuff out is maybe my favorite part of the entire organizational side of comicbook collecting, and certainly it’s one of the things that keeps me on hard copies. I don’t like buying and reading bad comics, but they’re worth it for the pleasure they bring later when I ditch them. There’s a good riddance to bad rubbish element, of course, since that’s true of any activity that removes unwanted things. Better than that, there’s the feeling of hope and possibility that accompanies the creation of so much new space in my collection. Most of the time, having room for everything is a challenge, but after a nice culling there are gaps that can be filled with new material. The collection opens up, suddenly able and eager to take on more. I always feel reenergized after cleaning house, like I’ve given myself license to buy even more comics than usual for a while to make up for what’s been sent away. I don’t necessarily do that, but I feel as though I could, which is counter to my typical state of guiltily wondering whether or not I ought to be cutting back. Can I really afford all of these titles? How much more are my shelves reasonably expected to hold? These questions fly out the window with every round of cuts, and the result is remarkably freeing.
Without question, the worst part of the hard-copy-single-issue lifestyle is when it comes time to move. Not just because arriving in a new home means figuring out where the hell all the comics are going to go (see above), but also because the whole collection has to be disassembled in the old home, packed, and transported. The comics take up a not-insignificant amount of space in any moving truck, adding to the cost of the already expensive undertaking and getting in the way of considerably more important things, like furniture.
I’ve moved kind of a lot in the last several years, and every time it happens I kick myself for how many comics I own. My hard copy habits are most frustrating and least rewarding when I have to make numerous trips loading and unloading heavy-ass boxes. It feels like a mini-move within the move, a task so exhausting and comparatively unimportant that it stands apart from all the other aspects of moving. I’ve got to move, and I’ve got to move my comics. It’s disheartening to say the least, and for some of the longer-distance moves in my life, it’s made me properly second-guess my collecting habits on a new, deeper level than I have before.
There is some fun to be found in moving with comics, though, if you know where to look for it. Because after all the heavy lifting gets done, moving necessitates reorganizing the entire collection, and that means all the enjoyment of sorting, storing, and culling rolled up into one activity. Once everything has been packed, loaded, unloaded, and unpacked, there is a fresh round of ground-up organization that takes place. The storage gets rearranged or fully reimagined in the new house. Awful books get discarded at different stages throughout the process to make the move as a whole easier. The remaining issues get consolidated into better bags, they’re sorted more intuitively, and they generally end up in a better situation than where they began. During the move, the comics are a nightmare, but when all is said and done and they’ve been fully and successfully transitioned from one location to the next, there is an overwhelming sense of the collection being as clean, good, and structured as it can possibly be. The comics, as a group, realize their full potential for a brief moment, where none of the usual waste nor chaos is to be found. This cannot last long, of course, because soon it’s time for another trip to the comicbook store, but right at the finish line of the whole moving process, things reach a state of near-perfection, and that’s wonderful to be a part of when it happens.
With all the storage and organizational problems that apparently plague my life, why is it that I so insistently stick to what is fast becoming an outdated form of comicbook collecting? What’s in it for me? I mentioned above the enjoyment of my weekly trips to the store, and the satisfaction of having everything put away just right, accessible but out of the way. Yet these things on their own would not be worth the aggravation, the cost, and the time spent gathering and arranging these comics. I know it feels like too easy an answer on the surface of it, but the bottom line is that I just plain like to read my comics in their hard-copy, single-issue format. It’s a taste thing, a personal preference without any firm logic to back it up.
Admittedly, there is one clear disadvantage to reading comics this way, and that’s ads. When issues are collected in trades or released digitally, they tend to be ad-free. These formats are therefore arguably purer, offering less diluted and uninterrupted versions of their narratives. I can think of nothing quite so obnoxious as being heavily invested in the story of a comic and then having a pointless full-page house ad for a series I’ll never read pop up and throw everything off-rhythm. Ads get stuck in the middle of key scenes, sometimes in the middle of sentences. Wherever they are, they’re always jarring because they represent a sudden break in aesthetic, focus, and tone.
The good news is that, compared to, say, TV commercials, comicbook ads are relatively easy to ignore. I almost never actually read them; I identify them as what they are immediately and turn the page as quickly as my fingers will allow. So while their presence is infuriating on principle, in practice they are really just a minor nuisance, skipped in a hurry and forgotten right away.
Besides, the pros of reading hard copy comics far outweigh this one glaring con. There is a level of interaction that comes from the direct, tactile connection with a comic that digital will never be able to recreate. It’s sort of hard to put into words, I find, now that I’m trying to do so. In part, it’s the fact that you can quickly go back and forth between pages, though that sort of navigation is technically possible in a digital, too, just not with the same ease. Being able to take in the whole of every page and also get intimate with each panel is a major attraction of the hard copy, too. With the comic in your hands, you can narrow or widen your attention on a whim and as often as you like. Digital comics do allow for this to a degree, with guided views and such, but there’s less fluidity and flexibility there. Though I’m not as consciously aware of it, I’m sure nostalgia plays a role in my steadfast commitment to hard copies, too. I grew up on them back when they were the only option, and as a creature of habit, I’ve never strayed from that format.
None of this is truly it, though, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to pin down precisely what the draw of the glossy paper single issue is for me. I’ve sampled digital comics on several occasions, and will continue to test them out now and again until either they finally win me over or there’s some kind of catastrophic techo-emergency that sends all of modern society back to the Dark Ages. Thus far, digital comics have reliably failed to capture the same magic that diving into a fresh stack of issues gives me on a weekly basis, and though I may not know exactly why that is, I’m not the sort of guy to go against his gut just because it would make his life easier.
Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.