Sunday, May 20, 2007

On Reduction: The Secret Joys of Pull-List Asceticism

I’m reducing.

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.


Jon Silpayamanant said...

I took the extremist ascetic stance and just stopped buying completely (this has happened at least four times) over the decades of collecting.

I'm slowly coming around to [very selectively] picking up things here and there. I've really been digging some of the Amar Chitra Katha comics--ever since my fiancée bought me the adaptation of Kalidasa's Malavika from one of the local Indian food stores.

Now I'm really interested in seeing what Virgin Comics has to offer especially after reading this little blurb in The Hindu (and no--this has nothing to do with my name meaning "Eternal Sculpture" in Sanskrit--really! :P ).

Maybe it's some "nostalgia" I suppose--I mean, I grew up hearing alot of the stories the comics are [re-]telling and too many other Asian comics are caught up in [i]being like manga[/i]--as much as I enjoy all the varieties of Asian manga(s)--for my tastes.

Anyway, I doubt that I'll start a pull list again. I'm content with picking up whatever catches my fancy for now...

Of course, it isn't helping my extreme asceticism stance that our new house is within three blocks of the local comic book store...ugh!

Jim Roeg said...

Of course, it isn't helping my extreme asceticism stance that our new house is within three blocks of the local comic book store...ugh!

Wow. Now that is a test of will. Be strong! I'm too much of an addict to be able to imagine true asceticism (I've never dropped my pull-list altogether--and it's been more than 20 years now), but the freedom of no commitment and picking up whatever catches my fancy is a bracing thought. Thanks for those links, jon!

Prof Fury said...

This is great, Jim. I think I'm getting ready to undergo a similar purification. When I moved here, there was only one comics shop, way on the edge of town, and not well run. Still, I started a list there. And when a new, cleaner, better lit, better stocked store opened up near me, I, overjoyed, started a list there, too, with all the stuff that I was buying regularly but not putting on my list. What this means, as you can imagine, is a glut of comics that I'm lukewarm about (ambivalence I welcome; lukewarm-ness not so much). So it's time to cut the other shop loose.

(This is the one benefit [for me] of the industry's move towards canceling and relaunching series every few years--my old list has dwindled just due to attrition...]

Matthew E said...

See, for me, the cutting back of the pull list is strictly an economic decision. If I had enough cash to throw around, I'd be getting way more comics than I am now. It wouldn't even be funny. As it is, I feel the need to exercise restraint, and so I look at the nine titles I'm currently getting and consider whether I really need all of them.

CalvinPitt said...

I'm in the same boat as matthew e. There are books I think about adding every month (Green lantern Corps, X-Men), but I just don't feel i can justify the extra cash spent.

I'm currently trimming my pull list just to make room for the Annihilation:Conquest mini-series I figure to pick up this summer. Fortunately, I've got a number of books that aren't encouraging me to stick around.

Jim Roeg said...

Professor - I love your two comic store dilemma. Buying comics is not quite the same thing as buying other sorts of things, is it? Just like I feel guilty about getting my hair cut at the mall instead of going to see my regular barber, I feel guilty about buying comics at a store where I don't have my subscription. It sounds like you've found a gradual way of cutting loose the less appealing store! And I know what you mean about the dangers of putting one's occasional titles on a subscription list and finding one's self suddenly innundated with mediocre comics. I do that all the time too, forgetting that one of the things I love is actually scanning the racks every week looking for something neat that isn't part of my regular pull list. (And it's appealing precisely because it isn't a subsciption book!)

matthew e. and calvinpitt - I hear you--and that's true for me too. Now that I (finally) have a real job, I have enough mad money each week to give me more flexibility than I was used to, but I just ended up wasting waaayyyy too much of it. Now, I'm planning to be a bit more strategic about which books I buy monthly, which I wait for the trade on, and which I just pass on altogether. The new Annihilation books are tempting me thoroughly!

Swinebread said...

I was thinking you were actually talking about me but then I realized that I downsized at the end of 2006

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Nothing to thank me for, Jim--but with luck, in a little over a week (after the wedding and move) I'll be blogging about some of those goodies! :D

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