The completist age is over
Is there just too much to ever buy and read?
I remember when the CBR forums were young and spry in the late ’90s and early 2000s: People would share which comics the plan to pick up every month or every week, and a good number would have massive lists. Today, I see what people post in their replies to the solicitations, and most are more selective. It’s obviously a very narrow sampling, but I can’t help feel that it reflects a general shift in comics culture.
When I first got into comics, part of what fascinated me was the unknown history told in back issues I didn’t have yet, and I became obsessed with hunting them down. In those days, maybe 25 to 30 years ago, comic shops were on the rise and most stores had a healthy selection of back issues because that was really the only way to read those stories. As such, they tended to be pricy, but it didn’t matter when you could spend nearly your entire allowance on comics alone.
Part of the joy was the the thrill of the hunt: Trying to fill a hole in my collection, I’d get my father to drive me to a store I tracked down in the Yellow Pages, and there it was — some weird issue of Bill Everett’s 1970′s run of Sub-Mariner that I just had to have. On the drive home, I would have to flip through and maybe read a few pages. I also had a tendency to get terribly car sick if I didn’t watch the road, so that was a real challenge: Keep looking at the awesome comic and not get sick, or stare at the boring road. When I finally got home, I would have to re-read the issues I had before and after the new addition to my collection, to fill in the missing pieces. I didn’t simply read comics, this was a full-on career in archeology; I was discovering lost history. I eventually got so absorbed by comics that, for a time, I was getting virtually the entire X-Men and Superman lines. If I didn’t buy them as they came out, my only other option was to pick them up later as back issues, almost guaranteed to be marked up from the original cover price. Getting single issues as they were released and buying back issues were basically the only way to learn what was happening, and had happened, in comics. There were very few reprints then, either as single issues or graphic novels, no Wikipedia entries, and certainly no digital comics.
About halfway between those days and today, just as the millennial clock was switching over, I briefly worked at a comic store that for good reason no longer exists. I remember it had a few customers that obsessively bought what must have been every comic listed in Diamond’s gigantic Previews catalog; every Wednesday, they received several boxes of new comics. I don’t know how those guys afforded them, much less how they imagined they could read everything. Did they have no jobs? No human interactions to distract them? And that was at one of the all-time nadirs of the comic industry. Marvel was still trying to recover from bankruptcy, and the entire industry was only starting to drag itself out of the crash of the ’90s. Trade paperbacks and graphic novels were still tiny sections in bookstores; Diamond didn’t even provide numbers on how they sold to the direct market, they were so inconsequential. And digital comics were still about a decade away.
Today, the industry is in much better shape, and as such, there are more comics than ever from an expanding pool of publishers and creators on an ever-increasing selection of platforms, both in print and digital. At one time, you could buy 200 to 300 comics a month, and have about the entire industry’s output. Now, that much arrives in comic stores every week. Plus all of the webcomics updating every day and digital exclusive comics and … basically just throw your eyeballs away now. They’re never going to absorb it all.
The rebound of comics is awesome, but there’s still that obsessive completist kid inside me who wants to get his hands on everything. Even if I focused on just one of the five Diamond premier publishers (Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse and IDW), I would still burn through a lot of money each week, and basically have to spend every spare moment reading comics. That would actually be a pretty awesome way to spend time, but I think my wife might have an issue with that. Heck, my cat yells at me if I’m on the computer too long. It’s just not going to happen.
Being an adult with responsibilities and a life is lame, but that doesn’t stop me from imagining getting every Marvel Masterwork and every DC Chronicles. Or how about everything Valiant releases? That company is still kind of small and manageable. I hear people talk about an awesome new run, like when Mark Waid and Marcos Martin took over Daredevil with a shiny new #1, but that’s not good enough for me. I instead first want to fill in all my gaps from Brian Michael Bendis’ Daredevil run, and then get everything from then until now. That’s ridiculous! I’m just reading stories about Daredevil, I’m not living with him. I don’t need to be staring at him when he wakes up in the morning so I don’t miss him brushing his teeth.
It’s such a weird compulsion when I think about it, and I’m sure there’s some perfectly good psychological theory about emptiness or loneliness that would make me cry. But I know I’m not the only one. That kind of mentality was the driving force of comics for a long time. It’s still lingering, but comics have gotten so big that the pure volume of releases makes it easier to draw lines, and once you start drawing lines, it’s easier to cut back more. I find that I definitely enjoy what I choose to read more today than I did when I was just reading everything out of habit and compulsion, even if that pang of nostalgia is still there.