Mo’ Meta News: How Collecting Shapes The Middle Spaces

…And now it is time to fulfill the tradition of the Year-End Meta post!

Those who have been following this blog since 2013 know how resistant I am to year-end lists and round ups that re-package the events of the year or try to make a coherent list that evaluates the “best” and/or “worst” films, books, TV shows, albums, whatever… I am all for thoughtful reflection, but very little year-end discourse is actually thoughtful. Lists just serve to stoke a sense of instant nostalgia, draw clicks based on the seasonal expectation of the form, and maybe do some cross-promotional marketing (if you can include links to cooperating marketplaces that pay tiny kickbacks).

Last year, I used the opportunity of the Year-End Meta post to announce that I would be paying guest writers a small honorarium, and I finally got a chance to pay one (another guest writer declined the honorarium and asked that I pay it forward to allow me to offer more to some future writer). I also discussed the possibility of using this year’s year-end meta post to announce a Patreon, but I am still not ready to do that. I am just not sure we have enough regular readers to make the effort of creating and maintaining a Patreon page worth it. The recent announcement regarding the change to Patreon’s fees and payments also made me question if I’d still be using Patreon even if I did decide to adopt a crowd-sourcing model, but thankfully they did withdraw the announced changes.

This year, I am using the space of the annual meta-post to look back at my collecting practice of the last year or more and how that might shape what the blog covers in the year to come.

I have written about my approach to collecting back in July of 2014 in a post entitled, “On Collecting Comics & Critical Nostalgia,” but since then the rate at which I seek out and buy comics has increased dramatically. At the time I had eight short boxes, not all of which were full. Currently, I have 14 short boxes, all of which are stuffed to the point of endangering the condition of the comics within. Soon, I will have to get a 15th box even though I don’t know where the heck I will put it.  This does not include the box of magazine-sized comics I have (not quite full) and the countless graphic novels and trade paperbacks on my shelves.

My fourteen short boxes pulled out from the various spots I have them tucked away in my home office.

My comic book back issue collecting is still mostly motivated by critical nostalgia, a desire to interrogate memory, and reflect on my impressions of cultural artifacts in conversation with a more rigorous examination of their claims and the contexts in which they exist. And yet, despite this high-falutin’ way of thinking about searching for old comics, the truth is that in action it can often be a lot more spontaneous. Yes, I still keep a little notebook of back issues I am looking for (and a weekly checklist for what to expect in my pull-box at Midtown Comics), but often times just the look of a cover or a vague memory of a book will lead me to pick it up if it is cheap enough (always less than $5, but in most cases $2 or less). Sometimes I don’t discover the appropriate critical lens until after I’ve discovered the actual comic book.

Back in 2016, when I presented a paper at the International Comics Art Forum, one of the questions I was asked was why these comics, why some seemingly random and unremarkable issues of Marvel Two-in-One? The answer I gave then, and that I gave when I ended up posting an expanded version of that presentation on The Middle Spaces, is that I am not always interested in exceptionality, but rather, typicality. That is, I am not only interested in exploring representations of race in superhero comics in what Ramzi Fawaz calls “the urban folktale,” which explicitly (and most often, reductively) addresses race or other related social issues in the superhero milieu. I am also interested in the “everydayness” of race as represented in comics. What happens to representations when the mostly white creators are not consciously trying to comment on race? And yet, some part of me also wanted to answer the question of “Why these comics?” with “because I happened to find them.”

That may not seem like a very thoughtful and scholarly answer, but I think luck and happenstance have a major role to play in research. Sure, research should be guided and framed, but it should also be capacious enough to allow for other ways to get towards where you are headed or to even change the destination altogether. At this year’s ICAF, Blair Davis of DePaul University presented a paper entitled “‘#1 in a 4-issue Limited Series’: Marvel Goes Mini.” As I wrote about it in my overview of the conference, “While Davis’s main point is that these series serve as evidence of comics history having multiple co-existing formats and thus a sign of the medium’s malleability, what really stood out to me was his simultaneous claim of the quarter bin (these days more likely to be the 50 cents or dollar bin) as a great source, and even a methodology, for finding forgotten or maligned comics that are worthy of scholarly attention.” It felt so affirming for Davis to pose this possibility and inspired me to consider how to articulate the frame of this methodology, which is something I am still working on and hope other scholars will consider. It might be fun to do a round-table this coming year called “Rescued from the Quarter Bin.” Heck, there might be a whole scholarly collection in that.

Anyway, along those lines, the focus of this meta-post is a look at some of the comics I have been hunting and continue to hunt for and what I am thinking in terms of interrogating them. However, as frequently happens, what I imagine a comic might reveal and what it ends up revealing to me when I get around to reading it, in the context of whatever else is going on, can end up very being very different.

But before I get to the specific comics I’m seeking out, I want to briefly mention my experience at…

New York Comic Con

Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson at the Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men Live Episode recording at NYCC2017.

This year was the first (and possibly the last) time I went to New York Comic Con. I went there early on the first day of the convention and it was already so crowded I felt like leaving when I’d barely arrived. But the whole point of going was to see the live episode recording of Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men, featuring Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson as guests and that was not until 4 pm. I am not into original art or signatures or toys and while I admire cool cosplay that is not really my scene either. I certainly had no interest in film and video game trailers or sneak peeks, or any of the industry-related panels. Thankfully, I found booths with tons of back issues for sale and went to town at the $1 and $2 boxes and at one booth where any four back issues in their boxes were $10. I even splurged for a couple of $3 to $5 comics, but my rule still stands, never pay more than $5 for a comic. Normally, I would have factored in the cost of the $45 one-day ticket to NYCC, but since the podcast panel was why I looked into going in the first place, I decided the ticket price was for that regardless of whether or not I found anything worth buying. But I did find a lot—some of which contributed to the comics I write about below—including cheap copies of Marvel Team-Up #100 (first appearance of Karma and first story retconning Storm and Black Panther’s history of knowing each other), Marvel Two-in-One #3 (which is an important part in a storyline involving Nekra and Mandrill I have been chasing down), and Fantastic Four vol. 3, #56 (which I wish I had for my post “‘Yo Soy Groot:’ El Thing About Place & Identity,” as it features the first time Ben Grimm was explicitly identified as Jewish). Oh, and in keeping with the Fantastic Four theme, I also found issue #119 (February 1972), which features Black Panther (called “Black Leopard” in this era to distance him from actual American Black Power politics) as a prisoner of a fictional analog to apartheid South Africa.

While NYCC was not for me, it did make me consider making more of an effort to research smaller cons with more a specific focus on comics, where the entrance price will be cheaper and the selection of back issues might be wider. I am happy to hear recommendations in the comments (or hit me up on Twitter) of conventions worth checking out in the New York area where I can soothe my cheap back issue jones.

Black Lightning

Cress Williams as Black Lightning

This summer I posted a two-part essay that followed up on my 2013 post, “Black Lightning Always Strikes Twice: Double-Consciousness as Super Power” based on some further longbox digging type research I did into the character in the era between his two short-lived solo titles. In searching for World’s Finest Comics #260, which was where BL’s stories from his original series were continued, I discovered he also made an appearance in Green Arrow’s regular back-up feature in that anthology series so got my hands on World’s Finest Comics #256. I’d write about that story in part one, and then Justice League of America #173 and #174 in part two. In the latter two issues, Black Lightning’s refusing an invitation to join the JLA is a potentially powerful rebuke of the white supremacist framework of superhero society, while remaining conscious of the necessity to couch that rejection in terms of white fragility. Anyway, this is a great example of both how long I can be looking for a particular issue (I started looking for World’s Finest #260 back in 2013) and how finding one issue can lead to a cascading set of comics that I need to track down, especially when they are part of comics series I normally don’t seek out, like DC’s JLA.

There is also a decent chance that with the new CW Black Lightning TV show coming out next month, I will return to the character to think about how the program meets or falls short of the potential I saw in the original cancelled comic book title.

Campus Protest & Spider-Man

Peter Parker’s matriculation into Empire State University in Amazing Spider-Man #31 in 1965 allowed the book to consistently return to the university as a site for engaging with politics. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t know about Peter’s sneer against student protesters that Ditko slipped into Amazing Spider-Man #38 (July 1966), and I was even more familiar with the sit-in plot with Randy Robertson in ASM #68 (January 1969) from its reprint in Marvel Tales, but there are many many more. Recently, I picked up a couple of issues of late 80s Web of Spider-Man that feature Rocket Racer trying to get his life straight by going to college, but running afoul of some protesting skinheads. Someone I follow on Twitter also posted a pic of Marvel Team-Up #101, featuring Spider-Man and Nighthawk and the ghosts of protesting hippies, so I had to seek that one out. I am not sure what shape this exploration will eventually take, but in the meantime, I will keep my eyes open for more possible examples, and if you know of any possibilities let me know in the comments.

Love and Rockets

Despite how much time I spend on this blog writing about Marvel and DC comics, my all-time favorite comic series is Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez. I own the whole original run in the original trade collections, and even some duplicates in the newer collections that separate out the work of the two brothers (and that I dislike), but I really want to own all the individual issues of the original run. I want them for their covers, for the letters columns, to see the original layouts, the ads and editorials, and for some material that may not have made it into any collection. I was able to find quite a number of these mags at a used bookstore for two bucks a piece a couple of years ago, but am still short 21 of the original 50 issues and finding the first and last might be so difficult as to be nearly impossible. Regardless, when I do get around to writing about these original issues, the chances are I will try to submit to a scholarly journal rather than publish it here, but it really depends on what they reveal to me.

The wrap-around cover for Love and Rockets #50 (April 1996)

Power Man and Iron Fist

There are a lot of reasons why I am working on collecting a full run of the original volume of Power Man & Iron Fist. It was a series I only got to read a handful of issues of when I was a kid, but I remember really liking them and enjoying something about the seedy side of the Marvel Universe it seemed to spend time in. I am curious how accurate that memory is. I am also curious to see both how it handles race, and what Jo Duffy’s serialized storytelling was like, as one of the few women writing Marvel Comics in that era (and really ever). The series is also interesting as an example of a narrative influenced by marketing considerations, given how the cancellation of the failing Iron Fist title led to the character being added to the struggling Luke Cage: Power Man—something I wrote a bit about earlier this year in “The Pleasure of the Comic Book Serial.”

Of course, when I read a whole series like that I inevitably find things I did not imagine I would, including ads and letters that might lead to a post or further research. My biggest worry is that some issues will be difficult to find cheap for no good reason. I mean, I get why issue #50 is pricey, but PM&IF #66 and #78 both tend to be a little pricier because they are the second and third appearances of Sabretooth. Who the heck cares about a second or third appearance? I’ve seen the latter for over $10!  Comic book speculation is really absurd. I am still 17 issues short of the full run, but just put in an order for cheap copies of about 12 of those from Midtown Comics, so getting closer all the time.

Sensational She-Hulk

She-Hulk is one of my favorite Marvel characters. While her original series—The Savage She-Hulk—is pretty terrible, I warmed to the character when she was made part of the Avengers (Avengers #221 – July 1982) and then fell in love when she took over for Ben Grimm in John Byrne’s run of Fantastic Four. Dan Slott’s two volumes of She-Hulk in the 00s cemented this for me, but I missed out on the Sensational She-Hulk series of the late 80s/early 90s. Since I once wrote about She-Hulk’s role as a derivative character making her an ideal vehicle for meta-comic stories, filling that gap became more important to me. Her meta-aspects and breaking of the fourth wall was established in that Sensational run. I am very close to having the full run (just seven issues short), and plan to write one post (if not more) about that series when I do (and find time to read it all).

One of the most interesting and simultaneously problematic aspects of that run is its engagement with the character as a sex symbol and the use of her in various states of undress as a way to try to make the series appeal to the imagined pubescent male audience for comics.

Teen Titans vol. 1, #41

My guess is that a post about this issue will make its way to the top of The Middle Spaces by the end of February. I found out about Teen Titans vol. 1, #41 (October 1972) from an episode of Teen Titan Wasteland, and as soon as I heard the premise I knew I’d have to seek it out and read it for myself with the hopes of writing about it. DC Comics has a terrible early track record for including black characters, and Mal Duncan is a prime example of that. This synopsis  (from the DC Database) should make it clear why this one issue is in my wheelhouse when it comes to critical inquiry:

Mr. Jupiter and the Titans are present at the death-bed of Jupiter’s black adoptive aunt, who presents Mal with an ancient voodoo fetish, the Moojum doll, as she dies. Over the next few nights, Mal, who bears a resemblance to Ned Jackson, Jupiter’s aunt’s father and a former slave in pre-Civil War times, finds he is being haunted and pursued by the ghosts of slave-dealer Ahab Barstow and his hunting hounds. Despite the Titans’ efforts in his behalf, Mal is saved from the spirit-beings only when the Moojum doll comes to life as his giant protector and destroys the phantoms forever.

I was psyched to find a cheap copy of this issue at Midtown Comics online store.

The Hunt for Uncanny X-Men #221

Back in the late 90s I sold off the vast majority of my comics collection. Most of what I sold I don’t care too much about.  I was sure to hold on to the comics that meant the most to me at the time, all my Spider-Man issues, and my complete run of ROM: Spaceknight, plus a handful of other comics with sentimental value. However, I definitely regret selling off all my X-Men comics. I now find myself in the position of hunting them all down and buying them all back. I took this opportunity to put together a complete collection that runs from the time I first became aware of the X-Men (Uncanny X-Men #144 [April 1981]) to the end of the Fall of the Mutants event in 1988, which is about when I stopped caring about X-Men and stopped buying comics until over 10 years later. In other words, filling the gaps of all the issues I was missing back in the day when I had to rely on newsstand availability. Ideally, I would prefer my collection to start with #129 (the first appearance of Kitty Pryde)—which I own—but the Dark Phoenix Saga and a couple of other issues between that and #144 makes owning them impossible except as part of a collected trade. Anyway, I am nearly done with this project, save for one issue: Uncanny X-Men #221 (September 1987)

As I have mentioned, I have a rule when it comes to buying back issues: never spend more than five bucks for a single issue (including shipping). I have been able to abide by this rule while reacquiring these X-Men issues, but issue #221 continues to elude me. I do have some flexibility when it comes to this rule. For example, if I am buying two or more back issues at the same time, as long the average price of all the issues is under five bucks, I am willing to pay more than $5 for an individual issue if necessary, but not much more. The problem is that the issue features the first on-panel appearance of X-Men villain, Mr. Sinister, and thus the cheapest I find it for is $20. I refuse to pay that much. All I want is a reading copy, something with the cover still intact and otherwise readable, but not necessarily any better than “Good” condition (as speculators define “Good”). It doesn’t help that I don’t really care about Mr. Sinister. I don’t have any warm feelings for that character or his influence on the X-line. To me he was just another new villain, and the only thing that made him remotely interesting was his connection to the Marauders and their part in the Mutant Massacre storyline. I basically bid on cheap copies I find on eBay every week, but am consistently outbid. Sigh.

One day I’ll find a cheap copy and when I do, I hope to use my experience of collecting and re-reading that stretch of Uncanny X-Men to serve as the basis for another post on collecting, exploring what I call “selective completism.”

White Tiger

While I have written several posts on Black superheroes like Black Goliath, Jack-in-the-Box, and Brother Voodoo, I have not written much of anything about Latinx superheroes. I have been wanting to write about White Tiger, Marvel Comics’ first Puerto Rican superhero for quite some time. Some years back a buddy got me a copy of Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #19, the black and white comic mag that at one time was the home for Iron Fist stories and where White Tiger made his first appearance. However, getting the rest of the original copies is way out of my budget. Slightly more likely, but still very expensive, is getting the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu omnibus, which re-collects the whole series and hopefully (if like the two volumes of the Fantastic Four omnibuses I own) it includes all the back-up stories and letters pages. We’ll see.

But even after that there are innumerable appearances of the character (both in original and two legacy forms) that I’d have to consider tracking down. Perhaps instead of trying for a full collection, I will approach the character piecemeal and focus on a story at a time when I stumble upon interesting ones. I did recently just happen to find Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #9 and #10 (1977), which feature a guest appearance by the Boricua martial artist, and if I remember correctly a story about neighborhood activism in Spanish Harlem. I may just start with that.

There are a number of other comics I am actively collecting (like a full run of Master of Kung Fu) and a few things I am (for the time being) just keeping an eye out for and grabbing issues here and there (Walt Simonson’s run of The Mighty Thor or John Byrne’s Fantastic Four), but random finds can be fun and/or productive. I recently grabbed a handful of issues of the original Elfquest, not because I have ever had much interest in that series, but because for a buck each, how could I not pick them up. I also grabbed a cheap copy of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1982) in which Monica Rambeau (aka Captain Marvel) makes her first appearance, which I have long wanted. At NYCC, I found Marvel Team-Up Annual #5 (1982), which was a favorite of mine as a kid, but I was disappointed upon re-reading it for the first time in probably 25 years. They can’t all be winners, I guess, but it is that possibility for re-thinking and re-discovering that ignites my imagination as I consider how I might approach writing about these comics and that consequently really pushes my acquisition of back issues. (And if you want to see a random sampling of comics in my collection, be sure to check out Notes from Comics Collecting every weekday.). Heck, just today at Half-Price Books, I found copies of the three Questprobe comic book tie-ins for a failed Marvel text and graphic-based video game from the 1980s that got cancelled long before the planned 12-issue (and game) series (a fourth story featuring the X-Men was published as an issue of Marvel Fanfare, which I already have). While these comics are not great, my interest in exploring the influence of comics licensing on serial narratives made me snatch them up, especially since they were my favorite price short of free, a dollar each.

The shape of The Middle Spaces in 2018 will greatly depend on the comics I finally track down or just happen upon, which leads me to wonder what this blog might look like if I had never gotten back into regular collecting and I had to dig deep into the comics I already had. I guess most posts would be on ROM comics or Spider-Man, with a handful of random things…actually, there probably wouldn’t be a blog at all.

So, here’s to 2018, may we all find the comics we’re looking for (and I hope that at least some of you will in turn be inspired to pitch a guest post about them).

4 thoughts on “Mo’ Meta News: How Collecting Shapes The Middle Spaces

  1. Another fine, enjoyable column- glad to read this followup to your previous post on collecting and critical nostalgia. Pardon my brevity but it’s after midnight and sleep beckons. But thanks for your insightful article; you provide fodder for much thought. Good luck with your comic search- I too am always looking for something ‘off my usual path, and usually in flea market bins.

    As for conventions, I can only recommend the Midwest shows such as Gem City, Motor City and Indiana Con. I’ve never been to a show larger than Chicago, but always find these smaller shows rewarding.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Like a Phoenix: On Selective Completion & Re-Collecting X-Men | The Middle Spaces

  3. Pingback: Days of Future Imperfect Past: The 2019 Year-End Meta Post | The Middle Spaces

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