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?
The Detective #1 thing was annoying me, I must admit.
Yeah, I figured I wasn’t the only one.
Yeah me too. That’s to big of a mistake.
I guess I’ve always been an outlier. I have collected comics (and Magic cards, which I feel are treated similarly to how you are describing comic book collecting) and I always wanted to read them (play with them). Even when I knew I was devaluing my Uncanny X-MEN #266, I read it again and again. And yes, since I have made the comparison a few times, I played with an unsleeved Black Lotus in my deck even knowing it was worth hundreds of dollars.
Honestly, though, I always considered myself to be the true comic book fan (don’t we all) compared to those who stored comics in boxes and then never touched them (or just showed them off), and certainly never read them. I couldn’t understand, and still don’t really understand, how someone could claim to be a comic book fan, but not actually read the darn things, no matter the chance they would drop 0.1 in collector rating.
See, I’m not sure how much of an outlier that is. There’s this weird dichotomy with collectors… or at least geek collectors. If you’re a comic book buyer who DOESN’T read the books and just collects them for future resale value, you certainly lose a lot of respect from other comic buyers. Brown goes into this more later in the chapter, though I didn’t quote it. He’s right.
But there’s also a thing where comic fans DO have a certain amount of respect for the physical medium. You might have read X-men 266 a million times, but you’d never have read anything once and then said “ok, done with this” and tossed it in the garbage like you would with a newspaper. And with this being your favorite comic, I’d assume you must have been a big fan of Gambit, but it would have felt sacrilegious, even as a little kid, to say “OMG! This Gambit guy is awesome! I’m cutting him out of the cover and hanging it on a collage on my wall with all my other favorite superheroes!” Right?
So it’s almost like there’s a respect for the medium that isn’t disrupted by “proper” activities which might be destructive, like reading, but is by other’s that are “carelessly” destructive.
At least that’s what I’m thinking as I sort of causally consider it.
I’d argue that most collector cultures are about ownership instead of resale, though comics are missing the trading culture that can commonly be found in many other collector cultures.
And while I hadn’t really thought of it before, all collector cultures I can think of are visually artistic in some way (coins, stamps, toys, figurines, etc). Actually comics might be a collection where the owners are least likely to display what they own. It is certainly an interesting anomaly though because it doesn’t fit cleanly into any one box (collectable, entertainment/pop culture, art, sociopolitical commentary, etc).
Hmmm… I hadn’t considered that before. Let’s think it through.
OK, Art collectors, that is to say, traditional ones, totally display their paintings. The way to gain cultural capital is to stick your original (or even replica) van gogh on the wall so that your friends can marvel at it.
Toy collectors too… whether they’re 8 years old or 88, people have displays of action figures, barbies, my little ponies, beanie babies, whatever…
Do small collectibles people really do that? I don’t know many even though I know it’s a popular hobby. Do coin collectors and stamp collectors really put things on display any more than comic collectors do? I know they have trade shows and scour flea markets and the like, looking for rare finds… They store them in special cases and books and stuff. But do they really have them “on display” the way an art collector or toy collector would, or do they just keep them put away in a special protective filling collection the way a comic book collector would. I feel like trading card collectors do this too. In this situation they only come out when another collector is around and you’re like “hey, do you wanna see my [Uncanny Xmen #266, 1810 Indian head penny, Darryl Strawberry rookie card] in near mint condition?” It doesn’t seem like these are things that get displayed on a regular basis.
Or am I wrong?
Chris Maverick My dad has been a coin collector since he was a kid. These days his collection lives on the bottom shelves of his walk-in gun safe. I can’t remember any time in my life where anything other than those annual “mint sets” were ever on display…
Matt: so his ownership of them is a personal thing. There’s some amount of pride that comes with it and he never really shows anyone unless it just comes up that “Oh my god, Bob… you’re into coins too?!?!? Well, let me show you this…”
The hilarity of his name being Bob…
I don’t think he honestly shows anyone. I think at this point its a convenient cache of pure silver…
To a degree I think your right, and I think that’s probably largely do to size. It’s easier to put coins/stamps/cards into a book or the like that is more portable and easier to share than a long box. Meanwhile comics aren’t as easy to display on a shelf as figurines or toys, and aren’t as likely to be framed as photos or paintings (barring special highly collectable issues of course).
And yeah you do make an interesting point that while a stamp collector may have a couple books displaying his stamps he isn’t likely to pull that out for every random house guest, and similarly a comic book fan would have no problem pulling out The Amazing Spider-Man #129 to show to another fan of Punisher.
And amusingly I just realized I almost used the first appearance of Gambit rather than Punisher but changed it thinking the Punisher issue was more well known, not noticing you had used the Gambit issue in your example 🙂
I honestly just used that issue because it was fresh in my mind form Michael Strauss saying it in the other thread.
As for your comment about shelf display. Interestingly I have tons of trade paperbacks and graphic novels “on display” on shelfs. But really that’s not In a value sense. They’re no more protected than any of the other books on those shelfs. If someone were ro walk by and pull out my copy of Watchmen and start reading I don’t really care anymore than I would if they pulled out my copy of Great Gatsby.
But obviously, if I had an Amazing Fantasy 15 and someone did that I’d go nuts.
I can think of several impulses that might drive collector behavior. Off the top of my head: Accessibility (the only way to have consistent access to the media is to own it); Completism (“I’ve got every New Order 12″ b-side on vinyl!”); Investment (“Man, this Death of Superman comic is going to pay for my kid’s college!”). I think Completism is the collecting-for-the-sake-of-collecting impulse, and the one that transfers across subjects most easily. It doesn’t really matter if you collect butterflies or coins or cats, people just like to accumulate stuff, organize that stuff into sets, and brag about it. However, for comics in particular, Accessibility and Investment used to be big components. For a long time, the only practical way to read and re-read the stories was to collect them or know someone who did. There was no cheap digital version, there was limited access at the library, there weren’t convenient collected editions. So Accessibility was a pretty big thing if you cared about the stories. All of that has changed or is changing. Some people are still probably going to claim that the “experience” of reading the physical comic book is better than the tablet experience (and vinyl is supposed to be better than MP3s), but for most people that won’t be true or the opposite will be true. Investment, as you said, is pretty much dead at this point. So I think in the future Completism will be the only driving impulse and collecting physical comic books will not be any more distinctive than collecting stamps or interestingly shaped driftwood.
Agreed. And Brown does speculate on similar motivations. Obviously he doesn’t (at that time) no how easy accessibility would get 15 years later.
Also, I have an extra 3 foot 1927 Sherwood pine branch that I’m looking to unload for a reasonable price.
Now this is an interesting aspect of his argument being dated that I wonder how it would play out today.
He is discussing two comic book fans that he interviewed for his study: the stereotypical comic book nerd Bruce, and the closet comic book reading jock, Darnell. They are longtime friends who share a love of the comics they read (especially Milestone) and apparently hang out at the comic store and comic conventions together but not often at school. He quotes Darnell:
Darnell has been reading comics for as long as he can remember. He describes scribes his reading habits overall as “voracious” but confesses that over the last two years he has been reading fewer and fewer comics. “I’ve been busy with other stuff … like my sports, and I got a girlfriend now that I spend a lot of time with. She don’t know about my being into comics at all … she thinks I’m at a baseball practice right now.” Not only does Darnell keep his comic book reading a secret from his girlfriend but he also has not told anyone on his football or baseball teams about his hobby for fear that his friends will ridicule him (even though he is the captain of both teams and seems very self-confident dent and charismatic). “People just don’t get it,” Darnell explained. “They think comics are just for little kids and geeks, that if you still like them there has to be something wrong with you. It just ain’t worth the grief to let them all know, I don’t want my girlfriend to think she has hooked up with some Momma’s boy loser. Besides [he looked sideways at Bruce, who was laughing at his insecurities], I’m more like the anti-Superman, you know, unlike mild-mannered mannered Clark Kent, who is really Superman. I’m more like super-Darnell, who has this hidden comic book fan side as his secret identity.”
For Darnell his continued enjoyment of comics is becoming increasingly problematic. He is at that stage of adolescence when he feels he needs to be careful about how his peers perceive him. Darnell’s concern about his girlfriend and/or his teammates finding out that he is a closet comic book fan influences his friendship with Bruce: “It’s not like I’m embarrassed of hanging out with Bruce at conventions like this, or of getting together to swap comics or anything; thing; it’s just that he doesn’t fit in with the rest of my life. I’m into other things right now and I don’t have as much time to obsess over comics as Bruce does. But he’s pretty cool in his own way. anyhow; he’s got lots of friends that I don’t know, too. It’s not like anyone at school really picks on him … Besides, if they did, I’d kick their ass. It does look kinda weird to people already; I mean, lots of them know we are friends but they don’t really know why. It’s a secret what we do together, but I guess I’ll have to confess soon or get out of comics altogether because I don’t want people thinking we’re fags or something.” Though Darnell intended his comment about his secret relationship with Bruce and his hidden passion for comics being mistaken for homosexuality as a joke, it does suggest a concern with presenting a proper masculine persona, a concern cern which parallels what is perhaps the most fundamental feature of superhero hero comics: their explicit function as role models for young male readers. (Brown 103-104)
Again, the book is from 2001, and since Milestone went out of business as an independent entity in 1997 (and the interviews elsewhere imply that it is an ongoing company at the time of the study) the quote must be from the mid 90s. So this is sentiment rom 20 years ago. But I wonder how this would play out for today’s youth. I certainly don’t doubt that there might be a schism between the cool kid clique and the geek kid clique. And I don’t doubt that there might be “Secret friendships” that overlap. Nor do I doubt the desire of the jock to protect his nerdy friend or the fear of homosexual stigma attached to a homosocial friendship.
But it does seem kind of out of place in 2016 for that stigma or the delineating social lines to be attached to comic books at all today. I just can’t imagine a 16 year old in 2016 saying “Oh god, my girlfriend and the guys on the football team better not find out I like comic books.” Maybe I’m wrong, but the mainstreaming of the superhero genre seems to make the idea that there might be any fear of ostracization because of it extremely unlikely. I can see not wanting to be associated with Bruce because he’s a nerd… or because “that’s gay.” But “because he reads comic books” seems pretty unlikely today.
I stopped reading comic books when I was a teenager mainly because they got hella expensive and I had other things I wanted to spend my money on. But then, I wasn’t on the football team.
And that certainly sounds reasonable. Even today. I’m more wondering about continuing to read them and lying about it.
I may start lying about being on the football team though. “Yeah, I was the long snapper for the practice squad. Quit though because I hated the media pressure.”