The Twilight Years of the Back Issue Hunter


Once upon a time, at the very first comic book shows I attended as a teen, rooting through back issue bins for missing comics was the only thing I wanted to do. Once a year or so, my mom would drive me to the Marriott out at 21st and Shadeland, where the Ash Comics Show brought a bunch of dealers and collectors into a single ballroom and let them sell the heck out of comics — shelves, spinner racks, and packed longboxes from wall to wall. A few published artists would come in as guests. A TV and some chairs set up near the entrance passed for an anime viewing area. There may have been related events in another room or two. But mostly I wanted to plug the holes in my comics collection. The thrill of the hunt, the joy of discovery, the satisfaction of completism — whatever you call it, that’s how comics were my anti-drug.

I tried to get into the spirit in time for Wizard World Chicago last month. I took the above pic while going through my organized accumulation as a reminder to myself of the joy I once had rifling through hundreds of comics at a time in hopes of striking reader gold. I spent a couple of nights shifting from box to box, reuniting with old series, reliving classic arcs, stumbling across #1s I forgot I had (Reign of the Zodiac? That was a thing?), and generally immersing myself in the old-timey smell of newsprint and the nostalgic sight of crinkled, battered covers from decades past.

I was thiiis close to wanting more back issues. It almost worked.

I’ve been in the throes of lamentable back-issue withdrawal for a while. Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

While I’m thinking about dealers: my long-standing back-issue want-list largely comprise two kinds of comics: issues that were part of storylines from previous decades that mean nothing or make no sense if read today; and the really obscure stuff you’ll never, ever bring to sell at a con because no average customers would want them. To this very day my run of Alan Weiss’ six-issue Marvel/Epic miniseries Steelgrip Starkey and the All-Purpose Power Tool is one issue short. I would pay double cover price to buy the last several issues of Steve Moncuse’s Fish Police in person instead of online, and finally find out whatever happened to Inspector Gill. But when I’m surrounded by bulk supplies of Spider-Man and X-Men and Avengers and DC’s New 52 and dozens of Marvel Ultimate trades going for a dollar a pound, I know better than to waste my time searching.

We planned to be at WWC for three full days. We’d have a lot more time to spend than usual. I was worried about finding ways to make the most of the experience. A week before showtime, I got the idea of returning to the hunt once more. Somewhere out there are old comics I never got to buy or read, a lot of which have never been collected in trades and probably aren’t in line for legal digital purchase in the near future. And I thought maybe diving into my stash — the immediate, tactile old-book experience — would rekindle that old flame.

I had a second reason for box-diving: I had no idea what I was missing anymore. Back in July we suffered the heartbreak of a surprise hard drive crash that wiped us out and had virtually nothing backed up except photos:

My comics want lists, what I used to search for missing back issues at conventions, are likewise lost. The idea of going through all 10,000+ comics and writing down all that info again is not tempting yet. At all. I’m not sure my back could take the strain of lifting that many boxes in succession anymore. I have until our next comics convention (i.e., August’s Wizard World Chicago) to decide if I still really want to have a complete run of the original Incredible Hulk and am willing to go back and see which issues I need, or if I’d rather drop that longtime personal goal, among several other fan-based goals that just got a lot harder. A small part of me that’s angry at the rest of me wants to set the collection on fire and start a new spreadsheet tracking just the survivors.

So I gave it a shot. My current plan is I will never re-catalog all my comics ever again for the rest of my life. I love making lists, but I hate recreating former lists from scratch, especially one that would need a weeks-long undertaking. But at the very least I figured I’d skim quickly through each box, see which series jump out at me as works I want more of, and track only the gaps in those select runs. Focusing the hunt might be easier than a scattershot approach across the board, I reasoned.

I ended up with a short makeshift want list, 90% of whose prospects fit into one of four categories:

* Series I’d been slowly amassing for years exclusively from bargain boxes: Quasar, Incredible Hulk (of the original 454-issue series, I have a complete run from #224 to #454, but lots of gaps before that),.
* Christopher Priest books I missed back in the ’90s: The Ray, Steel, Extreme Justice
* Milestone Media books, which I lost track of in the mid-’90s: Hardware, Static, Xombi, Blood Syndicate, Kobalt, Shadow Cabinet, and especially Icon
* The earliest Marvel/DC books I collected as a wee lad, if they’re affordable: The Flash, Brave and the Bold

…and some other obscurities. Fun trivia: dealers routinely bring none of these to shows. They’re slow-moving non-starters, so much dead weight that only an frazzled old loon would be interested in buying off them. These stay behind in dealers’ basements or on their shop’s sales floor, and instead they bring wheelbarrows full of unwanted X-books on the hunch that someday their fortunes will change and suddenly everyone will once again be dying for anything with Wolverine’s face on it.

(Just once I’d also like to see a single dealer at any Indianapolis or Chicago con carry a single item from Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, or trendy bookstores. This never happens. Might be time to start looking into cons in other nearby markets.)

While the longbox run-through was fun for its own sake, its primary objective turned out kind of pointless in the moment. I took my list to WWC and hit the dealers’ rooms, but only took it out of my pocket once. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t look through un-alphabetized, unsorted piles of randomness. I couldn’t bear to look up one more Incredible Hulk divider only to see their “early” issues were published in my college years. I couldn’t weigh myself down with ten pounds of non-sequential yesterdays rendered irrelevant by time passage and reboots. I couldn’t bear to see how many thousands of blank looks I could net by asking all comers if they’d ever heard of Pirate Corp$.

Maybe it’s one of those symptoms of old age, even for geeks, watching the things of this world fall away and recoiling at the thought of chasing after all of them. I’m really not feeling that “Gotta catch ’em all!” spirit. Maybe I’ve hit Peak Collection and, outside of a couple dozen Marvel Essentials omnibuses I don’t have, have reached the point where I’m just burnt out on old-school super-hero stories. Considering that my weekly new-comics hauls keep getting more selective over time, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see my back-issue cravings wither likewise or worse.

In the eyes of those who make a living selling comics of all ages to readers of all ages, I’ve become one of the hundreds of things that are What’s Wrong With Comics. Sorry, dealers. Call me when you change your mind and bring some Milestone books with you.

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