Days of Future Imperfect Past: The 2019 Year-End Meta Post

Editor’s Note: Welcome to another edition of The Middle Spaces Year-End Meta post, where instead of following the typical tradition of simply looking back over the last year we step back to think about the work of the blog itself.

from the cover of Comics Cavalcade #9 (December 1944) [art by: Everett E. Hibbard]

The problem with traditions—even self-imposed ones like The Middle Spaces tradition of the Year-End Meta Post—is that they come to feel like obligations. It may be for this reason that I am generally not a fan of holidays in general and “Christmastime” specifically (whatever holiday cheer I demonstrate is mostly an effort to not be a downer among family and friends who do enjoy this time of year). Every holiday celebration competes with the burnished memory of some past one and is inevitably found wanting. This is how I have been feeling about writing this Year-End post: like I have established this obligation for myself and have inevitably gotten to a point where I am not sure any new “meta” view of the site and my work here lives up to past efforts to do the same.

As I explain nearly every year, the Year-End Meta post is my response to the year-end tendency of sites ranging from social media accounts to personal blogs to corporate news and culture sites to post “best of” lists and other reflections on the year. I am not a fan of that best/worst style of curation that tries to reify the arbitrary apportion of time called a year for some dubious and pointless ranking. This site is called The Middle Spaces for a reason. I am much more interested in that liminal zone—the place where the past, present, and future converge into an eternal becoming. It is from this idea that I took this post’s title. The past imperfect tense refers to an ongoing or repeated activity in the past. The future imperfect refers to gradations of future events some of which may be ongoing—so for example, I might say, “The Middle Spaces will have been paying guest writers for three years when you read this.” I love these tenses (and ones like them) because they disrupt simple perceptions of past, present, and future, and force us to think of time with a more nuanced understanding of their relationship.

As such, I take the year’s end as an opportunity to break from the usual mode of posting on here and look under the hood a little bit—to think of it as an ongoing enterprise—whether it be exploring how my comics collecting shapes the work available here on The Middle Spaces (and vice versa), considering which past posts need updating/revisiting, or making announcements about the future of the site.

But this year I find it harder than ever to avoid that reflective urge, probably because it has been a hard year, and if anyone were paying attention to The Middle Spaces analytics with even a fraction of the obsession that I do, they’d notice it in the blog’s output in 2019. So, I indulged that urge a bit before moving on to analyze my current rate of acquiring comics and then the future I have started to envision for the site.

Previously on The Middle Spaces

Typically, I aim for 25 new posts a year on The Middle Spaces (including guest posts, but not including comic book reviews). This allows for a post every other week, plus two “bye” weeks for when other priorities or unexpected events delay a new post. Usually, we surpass this goal. For example, in 2016 The Middle Spaces published 29 new posts, and in 2018 there were 26. But this past year we’ve only had 18 (including this one!).

So, what was happening in 2019 to account for this dip in production? A lot. Some of it is too personal to go into too much detail here but this past year: I left my job at NYU, I abandoned the tenure track job search (getting off that merry-go-round feels simultaneously like a liberation and an admission of failure), my wife and I moved to Pittsburgh and spent a lot of time renovating a house (which was fun, but hard work) and while trying to get that work done I traveled back and forth to Brooklyn several times to deal with an ongoing family medical crisis that compounds the complications of aging parents. I had a friendship of nearly 25 years unexpectedly curdle. I still don’t have a job. I traveled to both ICAF 2019 in Iowa (which I helped to organize) and to Toronto for Comics/Politics the second annual Comics Studies Society conference. Both of those conferences were great, but travel is exhausting and expensive. We also got a new dog, which lifts my heart daily, but as any dog-owner can tell you, acclimating a new dog to your household is a lot of work.

Adjacent to all of this was the passing in July of Derek Parker Royal, and Tom Spurgeon in November. Royal was a comics scholar whose work was among the first I read when I decided to make comics a more direct subject of my graduate work (and whose podcast, The Comics Alternative, was one I listened to occasionally). Spurgeon was a one-time editor of The Comics Journal and the force behind The Comics Reporter—a site that comics fans, scholars, and professionals of many different stripes all rightly respected (but that now, sadly, seems taken down). I was saddened and shocked to hear of their passing, but their loss was much more profoundly felt by people I know who were much closer to them. Yet, if I am being honest, the reason why their deaths have stuck in my mind is the intersection of their interests and their ages. It is always shocking when someone dies too young, but when that age is close to your own the blow resonates with your own mortality. In this case, however, these deaths also made me feel a sense of questioning the value of the work I do here. What will it all matter when I eventually shuffle off this mortal coil? Is this a legacy? Isn’t it silly to even ask myself that question?

In 2019, The Middle Spaces editor-in-chief, Osvaldo Oyola, was awarded the Comics Studies Society’s first Gilbert Seldes Prize for work published in 2018.

So, it was against this backdrop of busyness, emotional turmoil, life-changes, and travel, that I struggled to keep The Middle Spaces going. Even when I wasn’t simply busy with something else, getting motivated to research and write has been difficult. I’ve never been depressed (at least not clinically), but having to fight against this daily lethargy while feeling a profound sense of meaninglessness weighing down my limbs seems like a version of what that’s like.

And yet, there were plenty of good things that happened for me and the site in 2019. Of the 17 posts, 10 of them were guest posts (if you include the four that were part of the Seeing Sounds / Hearing Pictures academic roundtable I co-edited with Joshua Kopin), which means The Middle Spaces got to include the voices of 24 scholars that weren’t me. This is a plus. As much as I love writing this stuff, my ultimate goal is to make this a place for a diversity of voices. Perhaps most gratifying was winning the Gilbert Seldes prize for public scholarship and being awarded a plaque and a check(!) at the aforementioned Comics/Politics CSS conference. Three different pieces were listed as winning (one of which is being reprinted in a forthcoming issue of INKS: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, one of which is actually named on the plaque I was awarded, and the last of which was just mentioned by Charles Hatfield when he made his remarks at the awards ceremony). Nevertheless, it felt great to be acknowledged for my work by the award committee and the anonymous (to me) folks who nominated it. Additionally, I hope this will not be the last Seldes Award associated with The Middle Spaces as I plan to continue to nominate strong examples from among guest writers in the coming years. Furthermore, The Middle Spaces patreon has been very successful. We recently reached a new goal that will allow me to offer some nominal payment to our copy editor, Eric Gershik, who has been helping with the site for going on five years. Hitting this goal also helps us move towards affording a custom site.

All of the above felt like necessary context for understanding what is going on with The Middle Spaces and the related issues and goals that I have with and for it. It may even be a little bit of an excuse if this post does not live up to previous year-end meta posts. But now that we’ve indulged in some looking back, let’s do a Dickens and check out the present and the future.

Meanwhile…

Anyone who follows me on Twitter, knows of my Notes from Comics Collecting tumblr, or has read one or more of the various posts here on The Middle Spaces where I discuss collecting in reference to this or that consideration of comics reading practice, knows I am a bit of an obsessive about organizing and cataloging my comic book collection. As I wrote back in 2017, my comics collecting practice shapes The Middle Spaces, even as the site shapes what I collect. I am not, however, great at keeping track of all the numbers and details related to collecting as I wish I was given my interest in analyzing them and trying to figure out what, if anything, they mean. So when I recently found records of my comics buying for 2014 through 2016 that I tabulated three years ago, I decided to compile some numbers the best I could for the years since and plot all that info on a graph for easy reference and get a sense of where my collecting practice has arrived in the current moment and thus, where it might be going.

My having to reconstruct my records from fragments means we have to take all these numbers with a grain of salt (a bigger grain than even most numbers should be taken with). So for example, while I have a pretty accurate accounting of how many new monthly comics I acquired over the course of a year because I keep a  list of what to look for in the stack my comic shop pulls for me (so nothing is overlooked), I had to settle for a folder jammed full of receipts for back issues purchased in a variety of stores scattered over several states and Canada! There is no way that covers all the back issues I’ve bought in that time. It is easy to misplace a receipt (especially when it is mixed with other non-comic book purchases) and I can’t always get an itemized receipt when buying at a warehouse sale or convention. In other words, there is a lot of guessing and filling in the blanks, so these numbers are only meaningful (if they can be meaningful at all) in a broad context when the inaccuracy of plus or minus a dozen comics or so is not going to make much difference.

Tabulations of comics purchases from 2014 to 2016 in my little comics notebook. [click to enlarge]

So, what do these numbers show? Well, mostly they seem to show that my comics purchases are leveling off. In 2016 my pull-list was very long, but these days I have it pared down to the ten or twelve books I most want. Furthermore, as space became a premium in my little New York City apartment, buying back issues became a potential problem. I was running out of places to stick short boxes. My recent move into an actual house, however, means that number may rise again. Not only is the nearby New Dimension Comics, an amazing source for affordable back issues but I was privileged enough to be able to dedicate an entire closet in my home office to comics! I have 20 short boxes in there not counting one magazine sized box (holding issues of Love and Rockets and Rampaging Hulk, among other titles).

I have included a short video that lets you see what the closet looks like. It is designed for relatively easy access to any box without having to move other boxes from atop them, but I refrained from having the shelves go all the way down so there are still some stacked boxes on the floor. Nevertheless, I still have room for at least eight more short boxes. (Remember back in 2014 when I wrote “On Collecting Comics & Critical Nostalgia” and only had eight short boxes period?). I know I will soon need to add at least two more.

Monetarily, these numbers also mean that I am spending a hell of a lot of money on comics every year. Even if sticking to my “never pay more than five bucks for a comic” rule is pretty easy to follow because I find most back issue comics for two or three bucks each, that is still an average of a few hundred bucks a year (for example, in 2018, the 143 back issues I purchased averaged $2.60 each, but that is still $372.24). And since new comic books are usually $3.99 each and I average 189 new comics a year that is…well, a shitload—I’ll let you do the math—I am probably spending more a year on new comics than I did during my entire comic-buying childhood (even if you account for inflation). If my fiscal circumstances ever change for the worse, I can cut out current serial comics and save a substantial amount.

Ultimately, however, the thing these numbers drove me to try to figure out is the percentage of my comics collection I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. It struck me that if I were going to use these calculations to figure out the rate at which I acquire new and old comics, I should factor how many of these I am actually getting a chance to read. There are several runs I have been trying to complete and have held off on reading until I do so. As such, I knew that there are a few hundred comics in those short boxes (like my nearly complete run of Master of Kung Fu) that I still need to read so why keep getting more at the same rate?

Like any of the numbers I have been discussing here, this was also difficult to figure out with accuracy. The difficulty arises from the number of comics from my childhood and teen years that I have recollected. While some have clear memories associated with them, others have familiar covers that I may just be remembering from seeing on the newsstand or unfamiliar covers that nevertheless may contain a story that I read back in the day. There are also a ton of comics I read when I borrowed them from friends in college (and immediately after) and that my memories are not always clear about. I’ve acquired a bunch of those, too (like Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run). Still, I feel pretty confident in my general ability to recall what I’ve read.

Tabulations of comics purchases from 2017 to 2019 in my little comics notebook. [click to enlarge]

According to my collection records spreadsheet, I have 3006 single issue comics in those short boxes (not counting magazine-sized comics or comics I keep in a “giveaway box”) and the best I can figure I have not yet read 812 of them, so about 27%. These unread comics are almost all back issues. (I read my weekly books as I get them.) That feels like a pretty substantial percentage of the collection, so I am planning to be a little more conservative in my back issue purchases in 2020, only getting issues that work towards the completion of the specific runs I am collecting and not starting any new ones. Well, unless I find a deal I can’t pass up…

So yeah, despite all this effort to use these numbers to influence the future of my collecting, in reality I love the hunt nearly as much as I love comics themselves so I am bound to breakdown and buy more comics than I strictly require for my various research and writing goals—at least as long as I can afford to keep doing so. So perhaps, what I really need to do is make some kind of reading schedule to get through that unread backlog. If I come up with something, it might even make a good topic for next year’s meta post.

Next Time on The Middle Spaces

Speaking of next year, as I suggested in the introductory section of this post, I want to make sure there is consistently new content on here and work toward meeting and surpassing that 25 posts per year goal. The way I hope to achieve this and diversify the site beyond being mostly my voice is by trying to recruit some people for new positions on a The Middle Spaces editorial staff.

To that end, I hope to find two to three people willing to commit to being regular writers, contributing new posts three to four times a year. Perhaps someone is interested in starting a regular series (like I did for Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown), and I could help them do it. In addition to earning the honorarium I pay guest writers, I hope to develop a patreon goal regarding the work of regular writers that would allow me to pay them more. In addition, I’d love to find an associate editor (or two), someone I can trust to have a sense of the work we publish here so they can solicit four or more guest posts a year and edit them. Furthermore, these editors would also contribute their own writing occasionally. We’d work out compensation.

Editor Osvaldo Oyola (right) with Joshua Kopin (left) at the U.S/Canadian Border on our way back from CSS2019 in July.

This feels like a grand wish to me. Typically, I’d express more humble aspirations, like “I want to make sure I do four posts on music each year.” I kind of think of this plan as an impossibility based solely on the fact that it feels ridiculous to expect people to work for a lot less than their labor is really worth. I get this feeling every time a guest post moves from the drafting and editorial stage to when it is scheduled for publication: How the heck did I manage to get this brilliant person to agree to do this work and let it be published on my blog? How is it even possible that they sought me out and pitched to me?! It still feels unreal. But since it happens—and with increasing frequency—I have decided to put this hope of expansion out there and see how it develops. I tend to take things slowly here on The Middle Spaces. I had the patreon site set up for TWO YEARS before I launched it because I did not want to start asking people for money until I felt like I had proved that the site was worth supporting. My hope is that the recent “official” recognition from my peers in comics studies will also help lend the site even more legitimacy and perhaps convince some folks it is worth their time to regularly contribute.

The details of these positions are still left to be worked out, but I can do that on a case by case basis, taking into account factors like folks’ interests, workload, and schedules. This is my first time doing this so hopefully we can figure it out together. But here’s wishing and working towards building The Middle Spaces into something bigger than just me and my work, a place that increasingly reflects a range of thinking on comics, music, and other forms of popular culture by the really smart people I know are out there already doing this work. However, in order for this to have a chance to work, to keep the blog going in the future and to compensate these great minds, we really need support from you. So, please consider becoming a patreon donor. Even a dollar a month can make a big difference, two dollars a month or more gets you access to goodies, and we’ll be adding new rewards soon. If committing to a monthly donation is not in the cards for you, consider a one-time donation of a dollar or more through our ko-fi account.

From the cover of Action Comics #81 (February 1945) [art by: Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye]

Finally, I want to wish all our readers a merry new year and all the best in 2020. May you shrug off the ennui of this grinding existence enough to create some joy here and there for yourself and for those around you. It seems like the best any of us can hope for.


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