Once upon a time, I didn’t buy comics at all.
Then, I did.
And at some point after those early delightful days of title-sampling, I started “collecting,” which only meant that I bought certain books every month and turned them into fetishes by encasing them in snugly fitting plastic bags.
At first, I was very selective about which comics I collected. This is hardly surprising, since collecting anything is not a neutral activity, and collecting illustrated fantasy narratives least of all! The urge to collect, to say nothing of the things one “chooses” to collect (our degree of volition is questionable), is deeply bound up in our sense of who we are and who we are becoming, perhaps especially when we are young.
So, my “collection” was more than just an enjoyable pastime. It was, in a very real sense, an idealized externalization of the identity that I was at once creating and discovering (very hard to tell creation from discovery sometimes!).
Of course, to call a comic collection a “thing” is imprecise. Because unlike a bike or a marble or a doll a collection is always growing and changing; it has porous boundaries and is always absorbing foreign matter. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it was “just a bunch of comics.” But, when you’re talking about shoring up the fragments of your kid-self and imagining who you might become, the danger of polluting your collection with unwanted books becomes a distinctly uncomfortable prospect. If “pollution” isn’t a big deal now, it is only because my choice of reading material is no longer quite as obsessively and inflexibly all about me as it was when I was eleven. (I reserve the blog for that!)
To put it a bit (but only a bit) more melodramatically than it felt, comic collecting involved a flicker of psychological risk when I was little, and this is no doubt why I had so much trouble knowing what to do with those few comics I accumulated that I regarded as babyish, ugly, or, for some nebulous reason, uncool. Where did these comics come from? I don’t know for sure. But they were there all the same. And I had to deal with them. Certainly they could never enter the ranks of those prized books that I bagged, boarded, and (to my mother’s horror, I’m sure) nailed to my walls to make-believe that my bedroom was actually a comic store. They weren’t even good enough to be stored in the same box as the rest of my collection. Instead, they were relegated to a drawer, the basement, or, in serious cases, given to my sister.
This was the “purity” phase of my comic book collecting. It’s vaguely embarrassing, but I can hardly deny it. And though you’d never be able to tell (if you saw the pigsty that is my office), the fastidiousness of that early “phase” is still very much with me.
From time to time, this fastidiousness reappears. Not as an urge to unclutter my comic collection by sorting the grain from the chaff (who has the energy? and besides, this is why god invented longboxes, as his prophet has shown us). But it does come back: as a kind of ascetic impulse to pare back my pull-list to it’s smallest possible size. To make it lean and mean. To hone it Emma Frost-sharp.
This impulse invariably strikes after periods of voluptuous expenditure, gross indulgence and wanton consumption. Those times when I’ve felt flush and added titles to my pull-list willy-nilly. When I’ve allowed my subscription to become bloated with second-rate books. Sure, that kind of gluttony is exciting for awhile, but even too much ice-cream will make you sick eventually. (Yes, Colin, I am admitting that I overate at the DC buffet this past year!)
The tipping point is always the same: the realization that I’m buying more books than I’m actually reading. So begins a new era of austerity and restraint. The nature of pleasure becomes converted into its opposite. Delight no longer resides in addition but in subtraction—a metamorphosis often marked by a symbolic excision, the cutting loose of a long-cherished darling.
Like the early era of collecting, the ritual curtailment of the pull-list is an act of self-fashioning. It’s a renewal of the commitments of that old fastidious self. A desire to be seen as someone who chooses quality over quantity. Someone who is shrewd, discriminating, exacting. A snob. Everything I’m not—except of course, when I am.
Sunday, May 20, 2007