This is another one of those posts like my last couple based on random thoughts I’ve had while doing my current research. Right now, I’m reading Jeffrey A. Brown’s Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. It’s a very interesting book. I’ve had it for a while and read part of it before but never read it all the way through. Anyway, as the title suggests, it’s obviously focusing on minority (specifically black) representation in comics (specifically Milestone). Yay for descriptive titles. However, the last section of the title, the fans, also plays a big part in Brown’s argument.
In the section I am reading right now, he’s specifically talking about the construction of fandom communities. He just made a particularly interesting observation about the difference between comics and other fandoms:
Comic fandom is rather unique in relation to other popular culture fan communities because it is almost exclusively centered around a physical, possessable text. For Star Trek, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Grateful Dead fans, it is the experience of viewing the show, hearing the band, or participating in ritual consumption that is of prime importance. And while reading the comic is obviously fundamental to comic fans on an individual basis, it is the possession of the actual comic that acts as the focal point for the entire community. Other fan cultures can own a New Kids on the Block album or videotape all the episodes of The X-Files, they can even purchase all the T-shirts, dolls, and posters they want, but none of it carries the same ability to substantiate fan authenticity in the way that owning a copy of Wolverine #1 does.” In discussing comic books as popular icons, Harold Schecter goes so far as to claim that it is the physical book that is of prime importance. “When a Batman fan sees a mint-condition copy of Detective Comics #1 in a display case, he doesn’t want to take it out and read it,” Schecter argues. “But, for the true devotee, there is a special potency-magic, luminosity, call it what you will-about the original. It’s enough for him just to stand nearby and gaze at it, to be able to go home and tell his friends-veneration in his voice-that he actually saw a copy of Detective #1. Some comic books have so much of this potency that they endow their possessors with mana, so that, at the comic book conventions, the owners of especially rare issues are themselves regarded with a certain sense of awe” (1978, 264). The awe that such noteworthy collectors lectors are often regarded with, despite Schecter’s claim for a magical transfer of mana from a rare comic book to its owner, is due more to the owner’s earned reputation as a skillful fan.(Brown 73-74)
I’m trying to decide if I believe that. Or moreover… do I still believe that? It’s worth mentioning that Brown published this book in 2001, in reference to a study that he conducted throughout the 90s, so obviously his view of the comic book fan is a bit dated. But it’s still a pretty valid distinction. I know lots of movie fans, but I know very few who have a 1000 DVD collection like I do… even the ones who have switched to digital media don’t buy EVERY movie. I don’t think ownership has the same cache over film that it does over comics. Music is a little different, I think Brown is probably overreaching in that people have always bought music to own, from vinyl to 8 track to cassette to CD to mp3. But there it feels like its more a measure of control. You buy the White Album or the Black Album because you want to be able to listen to the Beatles or Jay-Z at a moment’s notice whenever the fuck you feel like it.
I recently mentioned Amazing Spiderman #267, “When Cometh the Commuter” to someone. It is one of my favorite comics ever written. It’s brilliant. I haven’t read it in years! But I know that I have it in a long box downstairs, and somehow that’s comforting. I also know that I have a copy of The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones #30, a comic that I couldn’t care less about and didn’t care about in 1985 when I got it, except that it came in one of those annoying comic three-packs that you used to get at the store and you had to get all three to get the one you wanted. It’s also in a long box, bagged and boarded, just like Amazing Spiderman, because getting rid of it would just be wrong somehow. Similarly I love music, and I have the album Seven Inches of Snow on CD… but if I ever needed to level a table or something, that’d be perfect to stick under one of the legs.
Part of it is probably the idea of collectorship and reselling. But that’s never REALLY been as important to comic collectors as they pretend. Most of us never sell any books. There’s the idea that one day you might sell your rare copy of Detective Comics #1 and buy a mansion, but most of us don’t own Action Comics #1 and never will and I sure as hell don’t have any delusions that Indiana Jones #30 its is ever going to net me enough money to pay a parking meter for 10 minutes. It’s 2016 now and comics as a speculative market have been dead for a long time now. No one really cares. There’s not really a scarcity of reading stories in now either, almost anything anyone wants is perpetually available as a trade paperback and you don’t even really need that because everything is available digitally. Hell, some of the most popular comics being read today are web-based.
But comic book stores still exist. People still hunt through back issue stocks. People still want to OWN the comics. I’m just not sure there’s as much social capital in owning them the same way Brown and Schecter are implying. And I’m not sure there ever was. Because Schecter is right. No one would ever want to actually READ an original copy of Detective #1. You’d keep it under pressure sensitive glass, in a special room with like one of those Mission Impossible laser grids surrounding it. It’s more just worth owning as a piece of art.
So I wonder if that’s really the key to comics ownership. It’s art. Since comics are innately visual, there’s something special about owning a visual piece just so that you can look at it. If you’re a fan of Van Gogh, you don’t just say “I love Van Gogh,” you buy a Starry Night poster to stick in a frame and hang on your dorm room wall just so that all of the other kids know how much more cultured you are than the people who just have posters of Bob Marley, a pot leaf and whoever the most fuckable celebrity is that year. Of course you know your Starry Night poster isn’t “worth” anything, but somehow ownership of the visual art is just sort of “special” in a way that somehow connects you with it in a way that other media doesn’t? And maybe comics fit in that same bucket in a way that movies, tv shows and music (for most people anyway) don’t? You probably earn a certain amount of geek cred points if you own authentic original artwork that you keep framed, just like you would if you owned an original of any other artist, but that’s not what Brown and Schecter are talking about I don’t think. To an extent, really rare comics might reach the level of prestige because of the their rareness; Detective #1 would cost about $10,000 if you could find one. But no one really cares if your Watchmen trade paperback is a first, second or ninetieth edition. It’s irrelevant. So the rare comics just end up being collectors items in the same way that owning the ACTUAL Starry Night would be. Everyone else is just happy to own a print.
So I’m curious, does Brown have a point here or am I right and it’s not so much the perceived value of the comics as it is being able to own the visuals? Or is he overstating it and media ownership in comics is no more important than any other media type, it’s just that it took longer for there to be an alternative?
Also, should we discount Schecter entirely since he seems to think that a Batman fan would be interested in Detective Comics #1 at all, when everybody knows that Batman WASN’T EVEN IN THAT BOOK and that a real Batman fan would be far more impressed with Detective Comics #27? Be honest how many of you were really annoyed by that for this entire post?