About seven years ago, my mother came to visit us for a few days. Along with the luggage she typically brings on her trips up to Minnesota, her vehicle at the time, a black Jeep, was tightly packed with boxes; specifically, these were boxes from the basement of the townhome she had been living in for almost a decade.
To be even more specific, they were boxes filled with artifacts and ephemera from my childhood, and as she was, at the time, pondering moving to a new place, she needed these boxes out of her basement.
So, from a basement in rural Illinois, these boxes and artifacts traveled far, only to wind up going directly into a basement in Northfield, Minnesota.
* * *
For around a decade of my life, I collected comic books.1
Long before spending more money than I should on overpriced t-shirts, limited edition vinyl reissues, or expensive coffee, between the ages of roughly four to fourteen, a bulk of my money—mostly my allowance—went toward my comic book collection.
You’d think with something that I dedicated so much time, money, and energy to, I would be able to remember the very first comic book I ever bought, as well as possibly the last, during this time of my life when I was seriously collecting—but I can’t. I want to say that it all began innocently enough with a Walt Disney comic, published by Gladstone, purchased in 1987, that I seem to have a very vague and fragmented memory of.
At one point, probably at what I would call ‘peak comic book,’ during the summer of 1993, the collection I had put together was preposterous in size, spilling over from special comic book filing box to filing box, nearly every issue housed in special poly bags with a cardboard backing to keep them all in pristine condition.
The thing about life, and memory, is that there are pieces and moments that you have a better grasp on, and you carry those with you through ti
I remember the tangible anticipation, every Tuesday, as my mother would cart me to Garrity’s Drug Store in Freeport, Illinois, so I could piss away parts of my allowance on the comic books that had just recently hit the shelf; I can recall the euphoric jubilation I felt when, as a kid, I was turned loose2 in a comic book store—AN ENTIRE FUCKING STORE DEDICATED TO COMICS—and the agonizing struggle over which titles to buy, how much money to spend, and if I could just get a couple more minutes to look around.
I am not sure when, as an adult, was the last time I felt euphoric jubilation, or anticipation—and the very idea of being that excited about anything is simply exhausting and difficult for me to fathom. But I guess what I’m saying is that I have a lot of memories associated with the acquisition of comic books, and the occasional memory of actually sitting down to read these comic books, but what I can’t quite remember is when I began letting go.
* * *
My wife and I bought our house right before Thanksgiving in 2009. It was a foreclosed property—meaning that our realtor, as well as the bank that had the lien on the home, gave literally no shits about us as buyers. We were supposed to close on the sale in October, but it had been delayed, and we were left waiting for weeks, wondering when things would move forward.
Once we had made the decision to buy a home, and began making offers, only to have, like, all of them be declined or countered, we had been, more or less, living out of boxes in the duplex we were renting—knowing that at any moment, we could be property owners, and things would need to move quickly. Things that we didn’t really need every day, like books or our vast array of movies and compact discs, were all packed up early on.
A number of boxes were filled with things that we’d want to unpack right away, as they were necessary to our day-to-day life—like our plates, or other things for the kitchen.
There were boxes packed very late in the game, and those had less thought to how they had been packed, and had exponentially less important items packed into them. When the house was eventually ours, those boxes—the ones filled with the less important items, went right into our basement, which, almost from day one, became a dumping ground of things we didn’t know what to do with, and just didn’t want to think about.
In some cases, for example, it’s like one of us took our arm and slid it across a surface, carelessly knocking everything in our path into a banker’s box, then slamming the lid down on it.
And now you would think that, over the course of the last nine years, one of us would see that box, sitting in the basement, covered in dust and cobwebs, and we’d think, “Oh, we should go through that box.”
Or, one would think that there was at least one thing of a marginally important nature in it, and we’d wonder, “Hey, were is that thing? Maybe it’s still packed away in that random banker’s box, banished in the basement.”
You see, neither of those things happened.
Recently, however, my wife and I had an unexpected and unfortunate lifestyle3 change, and in the deafening silence that now courses through our home, we really have no more excuses—we have nothing but time to do all of the things that we have been successfully avoiding for a number of years.
On a dry erase board, I made a short list of things that we should try to accomplish within the next year or so—some of them were simple, like aggressively cleaning the house in order to have a number of guests over for a family gathering; some of them are projects outside, and aren’t exactly exciting, like resealing our back deck for, like, the third time, or finally painting the sketchy shed that sits at the edge of our backyard; some of them are things that require an investment of our finances, like getting a new front door, or changing the flooring in a bulk of the house.
One of the things was a little more abstract of an idea—“Get rid of shit we don’t want.”
Part of getting rid of the shit we don’t want involves spending a lot of time in the basement—a part of our home my wife avoids almost completely, simply because of the nature we’ve let it take on. Getting rid of shit involves pulling out those boxes of my childhood artifacts out from the space underneath the stairs, and sorting through them; it means finally sifting through things we never bothered unpacking over the last nine years, and probably could have lived without in the first place.
* * *
I refer to 1993 as ‘peak comic book’ simply because, as I began combing through the three boxes of various size, filled with of old comics that have been stored, undisturbed, in my basement, since 2011, one of the things that many of them have in common is that a lot of them were purchased throughout 1993.
There are, truthfully, a lot of factors that contribute to the fast rise and subsequent collapse of the comic book industry in the
early to mid 1990s, including, but not limited to a number of high profile writers and artists leaving their jobs at mainstream publishers like Marvel and D.C. to form an independent and at times, controversial company, as well as an oversaturation of the marketplace—gimmicky variant covers and perpetual new titles being published at such a fast rate that, at one point, there was simply not enough space to display all the comics being produced.
It was also during this time that a number of very large-scale storylines took place.
The decision was made to kill Superman in an effort to boost sagging sales of the completely unnecessary four Superman-related titles that hit comic book shelves every month—Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman, Superman: Man of Steel, and the simply titled Superman. The “Death of Superman” story began at the tail end of 1992, and ran for an astounding 10 months, spread across all four of those books, ending with the man himself returning from the dead—a bait and switch planned all along that infuriated readers who spent almost a full year purchasing book after book to read the ongoing saga.
If what is read on Wikipedia is to be believed, the writing staffs at D.C. Comics never cross paths—had the writers of Superman’s titles4 and Batman5 talked at all, the decision to break Batman’s spine during the summer of 1993, ushering in the lengthy “Knightfall” storyline6, would have been pushed out as not to be in competition.
Not to be outdone, Marvel Comics, publishers of the ‘X-People’ titles7—The Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Force, and X-Factor, spent four months on a crossover story entitled “The X-Cutioner’s Song,” structured around the events after a violent attack on Professor Charles Xavier.
* * *
There are some parts of getting rid of shit we don’t need that are easy, or at least less time consuming, than others—the giant drawer full of old, tangled cords to mobile phones we no longer have, or to car stereo cassette player adaptors, takes almost no time at all—nearly all of it ends up in a box to be ‘e-cycled.’
The are parts that take slightly more time—like unearthing what was carelessly tossed into the aforementioned banker’s box.
Do we still need, like, a dozen Uni-Ball Impact pens with blue ink? Sure, I guess, but why did we have so many of them and why have they been in this box for nine years? Do we still want our copy of For Richer, Not Poorer—The Money Book For Couples? My vote would be absolutely not, but my wife would disagree, because she, a number of months ago, was actually wondering where this was.
Do we still need unopened packages of Post-It notes that a mouse has more than likely urinated on? Not really.
Do we need to hang onto pages, and pages, of information about houses that we had put in rejected offers on?
There are boxes stored underneath the basement stairs that are dedicated to books (not comic books, mind you) from my childhood. Some of the boxes, smaller in size, are packed densely, and are dedicated to a specific collection of books, like a multi-volume Charlie Brown themed “’Cylcopedia,” 15 books in all, procured week after week, if memory serves me correctly, from our local grocery store when I was very, very young; the same goes for the Sesame Street Treasury.
The thing about looking through old artifacts and ephemera is that, it becomes almost all too easy to fall prey to nostalgia; before I can wrap my head around what exactly to do with all the comic books I still have, my wife suggests I go through and catalog them in a Google spreadsheet. There are moments when it goes quickly, and I can group titles in numerical order, enter them in, and try my hardest to rate their condition—however, there are other moments when my mind begins to wander and I begin to page through certain books, looking at old advertisements, or at the absurdity of the characters and artwork.
I understand now that comic books, at times, could be an important medium for both artwork, and for storytelling, but in paging through some of the books in my collection, I have to wonder if both of those took a backseat to marketing and advertising. Comics, themselves, were a product, pushed at a frenetic pace. When the market was so saturated that there wasn’t enough space to accommodate all the titles being published every month, it didn’t matter—they all touted themselves as being important.
Foil covers, embossed covers, die-cut covers, hologram covers—all ploys to get people to buy because it, at the time, was a speculators market. These were, allegedly, an investment. An embossed, die-cut, holographic, foil cover was going to worth money someday.
The new titles that were being pumped out at an alarming rate—nearly all of them had the words ‘First Issue, Collector’s Item!’ written on the front cover, somewhere, enticing impressionable young minds (such as myself) to plunk down their hard earned allowance for some more dumb bullshit that wasn’t going to matter in a few months, let alone, a number of years—e.g., the first issue of Static8, published in June of 1993 as part of a joint venture between D.C. and Milestone Media9. The first issue of many Milestone titles, Static included, reads ‘First Issue, Collector’s Item’ across the top. Currently, 25 years after publication, the ‘newsstand edition’ of Static #1 is valued between $7 to $10.
While companies like Image, and some other independent publishers (at least in the early years) refrained from welcoming advertisements into their titles—a trade off for their books costing slightly more—however, I’d say an average of a third of a comic book’s pages is dedicated to aggressive advertising. And while, in 2018, the demographic of readers may be a little more diverse (girls read comics now, right?) but in in the early 1990s, comic books were, as a whole, one big boy’s club, and the advertisements taking up space in titles published by Marvel and D.C. were pointed directly at the young men who were reading.
Another reason that I’d refer to 1993 as ‘peak comic book’ is that the number of advertisements—usually full page, almost always on the back cover—for the release of Mortal Kombat10 is astounding; like, almost every god damn Superman title published prior to September 13th, 1993, desperately needed me to get a copy of Mortal Kombat.
Other video games were heavily advertised too—like one for the Crash Test Dummies; no, not the Canadian band popular around the same time, but a game based on the anthropomorphized actual car crash test dummies. Movies of the day were also commonly promoted—like the obscure and forgotten Meteor Man, or the maligned Wayne’s World 2 and Coneheads. Sports related trading cards11 were advertised as well—football, basketball, and baseball, because if a young man is reading a comic, he also probably likes sports.
In later years, like in 1995, Sam Goody and Musicland began advertising popular alternative rock albums—reminding shoppers to visit the ‘B’ section of Rock and Pop to grab the new albums from both Better Than Ezra and Belly; while another ad suggested you pick up the debuts from both Elastica12 and Korn.
It’s certainly novel, yes, to see old print advertisements for movies, or popular video games, or for things that don’t even exist anymore (R.I.P Sam Goody), but it is all a distraction from the real focus. The comics themselves—the title or series, the artwork—those too can be a bit of a distraction, where time starts to slip away a little bit as you maybe leaf through one or two issues, taking you back to an almost forgotten time and place.
* * *
When I was young, once I had been cleared for purchasing music that had the ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker adhered to the front cover, there was a part of me would go after a lot of music simply because it had that iconic, rectangular warning on the front. A lot of it turned out to be not all that great, or at the very least, something I’d really want to listen to—but it had that element of danger to it that enticed me as a consumer.
In rummaging through the seemingly endless stacks of comic books (as of this writing, I still haven’t even started in on the third, and largest, box), I’ve glanced at a lot of titles and wondered what on earth I was thinking when I felt I needed to buy this.
I suppose it’s tough to get into the mind of a kid, at the age of 10 or 12, even if you were that kid, but I get the impression that, much like a CD with a Parental Advisory sticker, if a comic had certain things going for it, I needed it—is it a first issue? THEN IT’S GOING TO BE A COLLECTOR’S ITEM AND I NEED TO HAVE THIS. How many first issues do I have, only to not follow through with buying any additional books from that series?
Is it from a writer or artist that I like? Does the cover have huge, muscle-bound men, with colorful spandex covering their chiseled physique, holding weapons or preparing to shoot some kind of blast of energy out of their hands? Does it have a token female presence, misogynistically drawn to have a massive chest, with their impossible figure crammed into something skimpy?
There are some that are difficult to quantify.
The ‘Quarter Bin’ of a comic book shop could be a great place to a) bulk up your collection if you are just looking to buy comics
for the sake of buying comics, and b) possibly find some strange and/or interesting titles. While I was sorting through box number two, I found an incredibly obscure and marginally strange title called The Motorbike Puppies. It’s the second issue of the series, from 1992, published by Dark Zulu Lies, Inc13—what appears to be a vanity press for the series’ writer and creator, Nabile Hage. The title itself is, jokes aside, rough—pretty crudely drawn, and appearing to have been colored with a set Crayola markers.
Elsewhere, I came across nine issues out of 13 total from a long forgotten DC Comics character named ‘Gunfire.’ “He doesn’t need a weapon—he IS a weapon,” the cover of Gunfire #1 proclaims. The first issue, from the spring of 1994, appears to be the only one that I paid full price for; there are a number of clues that lead me to believe the others (I’m missing some here and there) came from some kind of raid on a ‘Quarter Bin.’
There are the titles purchased late in my time collecting days that lead me to wonder if, after a certain point, I was just going through the motions—like the first year’s worth of Deadpool’s series from 1997, leading me to believe I was somehow collecting comics still well into 1998; or the random issues of Iron Man, Silver Surfer, and Fantastic Four that I have from this time as well. It’s also around this time—and it may still be the case now, 20+ years later, that the usage of computer assistance with the artwork became very apparent, and at times, laughably distracting in just how bad everything began to look.
There are times, while organizing and sifting, that I wondered how many of these I actually read. I mean, I guess it’s difficult to think back to if a book, less than 20 pages in length, that you bought nearly 25 years ago, was really memorable, but very few of these elicited an actual ‘I remember this’ out of me, leading me to wonder if, for a majority of those years, I was just collecting for the sake of collecting; consuming for the sake of consuming.
* * *
When you’re getting rid of shit you don’t need, where does it go when you are finally ready to remove it from your basement? You can try ‘e-cycling’ your old phone chargers and various other electronic bits that are found, but you, unfortunately, wind up generating a lot of garbage. Because we are middle class and white, we try to recycle as much as we can, hoping that what we put in our recycling bin actually does end up being recycled14—however, this process has, unfortunately, generated a lot more garbage than I’d like to make.
I ask a co-worker who is still a very active comic collector what he thought I should try to do. Because the collection stems from the mid-1990s, he said that a used bookstore would more than likely only give a dime per book, depending on the quality—even if I took it to a comic book store (those still exist in this modern world, I guess) I wouldn’t be looking at getting much more.
My best, he tells me, would be Ebay—trying to sell off my collection in lots. He said that there are a lot of collectors in my age demographic who got rid of their comics years ago, and are suckers for nostalgia and looking to start collecting again—a lot on Ebay, with a general description of what is in each lot, would be a way to go.
I tell my wife this, and that once I’m finished sorting through them all, that I am seriously considering this option, simply because I feel like it would be a huge pain to take three boxes of old comic books to a used bookstore and be there for, like, an entire day, while they assessed each one.
She points out that which is worse—taking an entire day to stand at Half-Price Books while a book buyer places a value on my priceless childhood artifacts, and the immediate gratification of leaving the store with, like, $50 at most? OR—housing these comics in our basement for an undeterminable amount of time after they are listed on Ebay?
She reminds me that it’s not like they are going to sell the second I put them online—a fact that I, in all of my wisdom, did not take into consideration.
* * *
There’s a reason people don’t deal with things right away, and they are stored in the basement—both literally, and figuratively.
There’s a reason that people try to suppress things like grief, depression, or anger. And there’s a reason that we put boxes in the basement that we let sit, untouched, for nine years—trying to get rid of shit you don’t need is hard. It’s overwhelming. It’s a bit of a commitment in time.
But I have the time now. And if I don’t use this time, when will I next feel up to sitting, cataloging another entry in a spreadsheet, and trying to determine if an issue of X-Men is in ‘Very Good,’ or just ‘Good’ shape?
If I don’t use this time, when will the deck be resealed? When will the pads of Post-It notes that a mouse has most certainly pissed on be thrown away?
This hasn’t been an entirely awful experience, but it’s a very slow moving. It isn’t just me, alone, in the basement, rummaging through things we’d rather not deal with, sorting them into piles, or pitching them directly into the trash. I mean, there is a great deal of that, but at least the comic book sorting and cataloging has been done from the comfort of my living room floor.
Sometimes taking a hour, or whatever, looking through old, yellowing comics15 isn’t exactly how I want to spend every afternoon—it is very easy to get a little antsy or impatient as you work your way through a stack of comics—that restless feeling that comes when you get the sneaking suspicion that what you are doing is actually a waste of time—or is maybe not as important as something else might be.
Because you’re not really just sorting through old artifacts and ephemera; at least not in the case of these boxes of comic books. I certainly don’t remember sitting down and reading every single issue in my possession, cover to cover, but, outside of questioning why I have so many of these, this has taken me back to a different time and place, and of people I haven’t really thought about in a very long time. You’re not really just sorting through old artifacts and ephemera; you wind up spending more time sorting through the memories that, too, had been packed away in boxes.
1– Hey, so, here’s the thing—because I collected and probably read a lot of comics for a decade of my life, and have, like, a working knowledge of comic book characters up to a certain point, it doesn’t really make me some kind of subject matter expert. When my wife and I would still go to Marvel movies, she’d ask a lot of questions w/r/t certain characters or to the storyline, and inquire how close or accurate it was to the comic. There were a number of times when I was like, ‘I have absolutely no idea.’ We no longer go to Marvel movies, but my lack of complete knowledge and inability to answer her is not the reason why.
2– One would think that, as someone who spends entirely too much money on vinyl records, that if I were to be ‘turned loose’ in a record store, I would have the same kind of euphoric response. That is, however, not the case, and you would be wrong if you presumed that about me. Going to the record store is kind of fun, sure, but because of my anhedonia, it’s also a source of stress, anxiety, and sometimes depression for me.
3– I think this is maybe the second or third time I’ve alluded to some kind of awful experience my wife and I recently went through. There will be a time, I assure you, in the future, where will be able to tell that story. Please be patient with me.
4– In organizing all of the Superman related comic books I have, I recalled that, up until the summer of 1993, I didn’t even like Superman all that much. I wound up buying/reading those titles because of a friend I had during this time period—Paul, someone who I haven’t spoken to in 25 years.
5– Batman was one of the first comics I would regularly buy, though I think I was entirely too young to understand that the characters, and dark tone of 1980s Batman was different from reruns of the Adam West series that I would watch.
6– For what it’s worth, “Knightfall,” spans nearly two years of time—beginning in 1993, and ending sometime in 1995. The catalyst is when Batman is attacked by Bane, and his spine is broken—a plot device borrowed and loosely used in the final Christopher Nolan Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.
7– There was yet another lengthy crossover in 1995 involving the ‘X-People,’ entitled the ‘Age of Apocalypse,’ where Professor Xavier is killed by his own son, and the timeline, or multiverse, or whatever we’re calling it, is altered and for four months, all the ‘X-People’ titles were called something else and featured variants of the characters, until they could send someone back in time to stop the attack and revert back to what is called ‘Earth 616,’ the place of primary continuity in the Marvel Comics universe.
8– Static would later be adapted into a cartoon called “Static Shock.”
9– Milestone Media was launched originally by artists who felt there was a lack of diversity (e.g. African Americans) in comic books, and they wanted to rectify that.
10– In talking with my wife about Mortal Kombat, I mentioned the phrase ‘the blood code,’ and after I told her what it was, she was like, ‘YOU SHOULD WRITE ABOUT THAT!’ There is no way to expand a short aside into a full length column (even one less than 4,000 words) but this is what ‘the blood code’ is: in 1993, home video game systems were simply just not ready for the sheer, unadulterated violence found in Mortal Kombat. This was a time even before the first attempt at a video game rating system—Nintendo’s answer to adapting Mortal Kombat for home systems was to simply censor it: the blood was turned into sweat, and many of the graphic ‘Fatality’ finishing attacks where toned down or altered completely. Sega’s response to this was to hide the gore in the game, allowing players to access it with a special code when the game started—‘The Blood Code.’ If you failed to enter the code, you received the censored version of the game. Within a year, the marketplace on violent/adult video games had grown and changed so much that Nintendo relented and published an uncensored version of Mortal Kombat II, with a large warning printed on the box.
11- Maybe not worth getting into within the body of the main piece, but worth mentioning never the less, is that, along with all of these comic books I collected, I had a very large stash of comic book trading cards as well—many of them I still have in a huge binder, packed in one of the boxes, alongside the comics.
12- Elastica were best known for their ‘Buzz Bin’ hit, “Connection,” a nice slice of glitchy, nervy Brit Pop from 1995.
13-Upon further inspection of The Motor Bike Puppies, I realized that there are some very, very heavy handed Afro-centric messages elsewhere in the book—like in the description of another title published by Zulu Lies, as well as in the closing message from Hage himself.
14-The sad fact about our environment, and trying to recycle, is that a lot of what we put in our recycling is thrown away for various reasons.
15– While sifting through all these comic books, I found a number—not a large amount, but enough to raise an eyebrow—that are from well before I was born. They aren’t especially collectable, at least I don’t think they are, but I am not entirely certain how they came into my ownership, though I do have my suspicions.
Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the Southern Minn Scene magazine for roughly three years. He occasionally contributes to Bearded Gentlemen Music, and his writing has appeared in River Valley Woman and The Wagazine. You can follow him on ‘the socials’: @KevEFly (Twitter), or @kev_e_fly (Instagram.)