Like most things made by people, the comics industry is rife with frustrating institutional problems that will probably never be solved in our lifetimes. If you ask five different people about the worst thing to happen to comics, you’d probably get five different answers (or one cheating answer: the 90s). But, as someone who writes about comics, here’s the one that I find the most destructive, the one that gets in the way of a lot of people reading and enjoying great work: the idea that comics are supposed to be collected.
Note how I worded that. There is nothing inherently wrong with collecting comics, but the idea that it’s what you’re supposed to do is what’s destructive, because of what it implies. First and foremost, comics are meant to be read and enjoyed. Collecting comics just sort of happens as a natural extension of that—they pile up, and since they’re serial narratives, you want to hold on to them while seeking out gaps—after all, who wants to have just part of a story?
No, this is about the other kind of collecting.
For a long time (the 90s), comics speculation was huge. Limited edition covers, ridiculously hyped first issues, and The Death of Superman all contributed to this weird atmosphere that led to people treating comics as a sort of commodity, something that might be worth a lot of money someday. A lot of this speculation turned out to be baseless. The economics of it all are complex and fascinating, but the end result is this: it is highly unlikely that you will make a fortune off your comic book collection. Unless of course you have something truly valuable—which isn’t most people.
Following comic books of the mainstream, superhero sort popularized by Marvel and DC is a very active pastime. Much like professional sports, they inspire a culture that’s not just about reading/spectating, but the compilation of knowledge specific to the scene. A huge part of the appeal in reading a comic published by Marvel, DC, or a similar publisher is the fact that it’s part of one very long story going back to that publisher’s earliest work, one that will hopefully never end. Frankly, it’s a ridiculous notion—the sheer number of creators with wildly different ideas that have worked on these characters have made story continuity hopelessly convoluted—but that’s part of the charm. These are living, breathing universes with their own history, and if you’re lucky enough to find a way in, the excitement of knowing so many great stories are out there waiting for you to find is a pretty hard feeling to beat.
It also makes you heavily invested in the stories that take place in this universe. While they aren’t the most accessible things, the kinds of stories you can get that are steeped in a rich and crazy decades-long history can be so meta and weird and rewarding on levels you probably didn’t think possible. In a strange, academic sort of way, there’s hardly a comic out there that isn’t in some sort of conversation with every comic ever made.
However, there are ways in which a collector’s/completist mentality can turn you off to comics. A lot of times, a book’s direction can be editorially mandated by people outside of the main creative team. Sometimes, these decisions can severely damage how much you enjoy a particular book—DC’s New 52 initiative in 2011 is an example so apt it hurts. And while comics publishers, more than almost any other entertainment industry, really listen to their fans, these sort of frustrating decisions are incredibly regular.
One of the first pieces of advice given to me when I started reading comics as an adult—years after the primary color blur of early childhood, where I didn’t care so much about quality—was to follow creators, not characters. Characters, you see, are owned by corporations, beholden to sales, or the whims of people who may not share an interpretation that matches up with yours. Find the right creator, though, and you’ll gain appreciation for characters you already love in a completely new way, or find yourself fascinated by characters you never gave a second thought. With the right writer/artist teams as your guides, comic books can be wonderfully new to you all over again. And thanks to the current boom in creator-owned comics at publishers like Oni Press and Image Comics, you’ll find inroads into things that you never thought you’d see in a comic book before.
Am I suggesting that this is the One True Proper Way to enjoy comics? No, of course not. It’s a good one though, one that I’ve found rewarding and have rarely been disappointed with. If you’re someone who prefers to really burrow into a universe until you feel that universe doesn’t work for you anymore, that’s fine too! Comic books are ludicrously expensive, after all—there is absolutely no reason you should be in it if you find you’re getting diminishing returns.
But I do find that it makes for an easy way to fall into a trap of overt cynicism, in which one of any number of potential game breakers will be all it takes for a certain kind of reader to swear off a book. Like we discussed just a couple paragraphs up—big dumb decisions are an integral part of the comics biz. But for every big, money-making decision you may not like (maybe Superior Spider-Man?) there’s usually a creative team that’ll finally get the chance to do something truly interesting and great (like The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, the best comic you’re not reading). So maybe you don’t like Axis or Future’s End or whatever the hell Secret Wars is going to be—that’s totally cool, I’d just hate to see you miss out on something truly unique and interesting by quitting a medium/publisher wholesale as opposed to changing up what you buy or putting your consumption on hold while you wait and see what becomes of things.
But seriously folks what the hell is going on at Marvel?