An Issue with Back Issues

I’m sitting in front of my computer and I’m about to pull the trigger on a “Buy It Now” purchase on eBay. It probably comes as no surprise that the item for sale happens to be a comic book; issue #239 of The Avengers, to be exact. It’s the one with a special appearance by David Letterman. You may know Letterman from his inappropriate intern relationships and also his TV show. From what I remember of the issue a villain wants to get some live TV coverage (What villain doesn’t?) so he crashes Letterman’s Late Show. The Avengers then assemble live in front of a studio audience and kick some proverbial villain ass. All the while a smiling, seemingly unfazed Letterman cracks wise about the goings on. It’s a silly and pleasingly strange issue that I’ve wanted in the ol’ collection for some time. Truth is, I’m sort of obsessed with comics where real life celebs appear, which is probably one of the reasons I’m drawn to the Marvel universe more than DC. But for some reason I never procured this particular Avengers issue. I may have owned it at some point in the past, but it’s nowhere to be found in my wall of long boxes and its absence sort of bothers me.

So here I am on the interwebs, about to make that purchase that will fill the slightly less than gaping hole in my Avengers collection.  It’s a mere $2.25, plus$1.99 shipping, a bargain by any measure. All I have to do is hit the damn return button and it’ll arrive in the mail in mere days. I can fill the gap, get my Avengers/Letterman fix and get on with my life. The guy selling it even has a hundred percent seller rating.  He’s an exemplary eBayer. But I can’t do it.  Am I nuts? Why can’t I press that damn button? Why? I close the browser and lower the lid of my laptop. It’s a purchase that will have to wait for a different set of circumstances.

Full disclosure, this is a fairly recent development in the way I will or will not buy back issues. I’ve purchased comics via EBay in the past many times. My complete run of Nova was purchased on eBay, as was my run of Booster Gold.  I bought a complete collection of Concrete comics with eBay’s help.  I even bought a near-complete run of Marvel Premiere some years back.  I don’t know why I did that, but I did, and eBay made it pretty simple to get a big old hunk of comic mediocrity for a good price with very minimal effort. The key word here is “effort,” however. Simply put, without the actual “effort” that’s seems to me to be an integral part of comic collecting, you’re simply shopping and it’s that which gives me pause when it comes to purchasing comics on eBay.

Though there are certainly many comic book fans who don’t keep their comics after reading them, but I’m very much a true collector. And on top of that, I’m a “completist” (despite my spellchecker’s rejection of the word) and I hate having gaps in the various comic runs I’ve chosen to complete. But while it would be very easy to just go on eBay and buy all the issues I need to attain complete comic book run nirvana, there’s something more important than simply filling the gaps.  Simply put, it’s all about the quest, the journey to find the necessary books. And in my humble opinion, that wonderful collecting journey is somehow undermined by simply plugging a book title and issue number into eBay, pressing “Buy it Now” and then sitting by the mailbox. That’s just too easy.

The comics I’ve purchase through EBay feel like mail order brides chosen from a catalog or fish hooked in a stocked hatchery pond. Sure, they fill a void in some way…but there’s no love, no chase, no courting. It’s just not sporting. And it feels like a cheat. There’s something about the hunt and the meandering sometimes-fruitless pursuit of a particular issue that makes collecting things (in this case comics) special. And to simply go to this Internet clearinghouse, where they basically have every book you could imagine for the easy picking, feels, to put it plainly, bogus. Like fishing for trout in an overstocked pond, you of course catch your limit of comics on eBay, but your catch comes with a bit of a wink and a nod, an acknowledgement that it wasn’t exactly a pure collecting experience. Yes, I’m a purist. Deal with it.

For me there’s something special about the hunt. The diving into back issue bins at a convention or a comic store is a joy not a chore. There’s a unique type of reward there, especially when the questing pays off. I don’t fault anyone for collecting with the help of eBay. If filling in the gaps is paramount for you, then by all means, hit that “Buy It Now” button early and often. There is no “right” way to collect. To each his own. But for this completist, in the spirit of keeping it sporting and pure, I’ll just simply leave it in the hands of the comic collecting fates. I’ll keep my eyes open for David Letterman’s smiling face next to Hawkeye and Wonder Man. And I have the utmost confidence that at some convention or random Goodwill store or comic shop clearance sale I’ll find what I’m looking for and this particular back issue quest will come to a satisfying end.


Gabe Roth is a TV writer and producer trapped in the suburbs of Los Angeles, CA.  He’s @gaberoth on Twitter. 


  1. I understand your point, and it makes sense in the context you describe. But my typical eBay experience is a bit different. I am looking for a particular run, in a particular condition, with consistency in direct vs. newsstand upc boxes; so it’s not always easy to find what I’m looking for on any given day. And price is key. I shy away from Buy It Now and bid on actual auctions where I have a price limit in mind with regards to what my research says that particular set of comics is worth. I use some standard eBay techniques (sniping for instance) to try to increase my chances of winning, and I don’t overbid beyond my price limit. So sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. When I actually find what I’m looking for and manage to win the auction, I get a similar sense of satisfaction as I do after finding something at a con or LCS, haggling for a fair price, and obtaining it in the traditional way.

    • I echo your point exactly! I put a complete Spawn set together mostly through eBay, and it was all about the price. I bought a few Buy it Now, but when the hard to find (and expensive) books came up on auction, their ending earned a prominent place on my schedule. To get them for a great price was invigorating (Haha).

  2. Complete run of Nova? Jealous. Which volumes?

    • Volume 1. It lasted a very manageable 25 issues, though there are some loose ends that were tied up in some issues of Fantastic Four and, of all things, Rom the Spaceknight. That reminds that I need to put those on my “find and buy” list.

  3. Someone who collects as a hobby (whether it’s comics, pins, air sickness bags, etc) has a completely different view from someone who uses eBay to get a new drill for the garage. That feeling you’re getting Gabe, cheating and no chase to fill runs, is a lot like how technology destroyed the music buying industry. No one goes to records shops anymore, so those of us who did have lost the satisfaction of earning the money, driving over, flipping through the stacks, holding it in our hands and buying it, and it was a satisfaction we really enjoyed. Kids today have the intant gratification of getting music at the click of a button, so they have respect or want of the effort.

    My eBay rule for comics is as follows: I buy after I’ve been to every shop in town, I’m not traveling to another place anytime soon, and there isn’t a convention for months. But I still get that feeling too. In the end, it’s great to have a full run (I’m a fanatic about completing runs to the point of insanity-just ask my wife), but when I’m flipping through a particular series, that eBay issue I see for just a moment as I pass by, always causes an eye twitch (like it’s saying, “you didn’t earn it.”) Hate that.

    So to buy or not to buy? I’m a completist. All that matters is the run, and the run can’t wait. I say don’t let it get to you and buy the thing.

    • First paragraph last sentence: Kids have NO respect for the effort. Sorry about that.

    • Bah Humbug!
      As one of these new fangled “kids today” you’re talking about I feel the need to give the flip side of that argument.
      “Adults today are luddites”
      Doing something the hard way isn’t automatically better.
      Children in Africa have to walk miles to get fresh water, which means they sure as hell respect it more than us but that doesn’t mean we should go back to doing it that way.
      It’s the same with everything else. The idea that you make some artificially hard on yourself and end up spending time, money and effort when you don’t need to seems slightly masochistic to me.
      I understand there is a satisfaction in physically going to a store and flipping through music CDs, or in my case, DVDs and Blurays, but I’ll always check on my phone and if they’re not offering a competitive price then I’m not wasting my money.
      Maybe eventually physical shops will fade away, which will be a shame but it will be a shame in the same way stable hands started to loose there jobs when the automobile was invented and less people rode horse drawn carriages.

    • kzap – I suppose my comments could be interpreted as insulting to “kids today” but I’m not completely disagreeing with you. People have always looked for ways to make life more convenient. Sometimes you have to wait until the technology exists to take a next step. Sure, I used to go to record stores to buy albums, but never once did I consider it a chore (“well, ah better go to the barn and milk the cows so we have something to drink tuh-day.”) And actually, since I’m not a fan of getting a whole album these days, iTunes is the perfect solution for me. One click, one song, I’m done. Five years from now, maybe less, someone will create an even more convenient way to get entertainment media, and you and I will say, “Huh, didn’t see THAT coming. Remember when we had to move our mouse to a button and click on it to get a song (or a comic)?”

      It’s a hobby. Some hobbies are influenced by technology like media collecting. Others will never change, like rebuilding cars. And to some people, the chase is as fun as the acquisition. I’m a little of both.

      Last thing I’ll leave you with (and thanks for your perspective BTW): Just the other day I was telling my 8-year-old about how, when I was a kid, all stores, gas stations, etc., shut down 6-7 pm every night (and not open at all on Sunday). No late night visit to Target for beer, cat food and a birthday card (for tomorrow). He said, “wow,” and went on about his business. Doesn’t mean anything to them because they never experienced it. Just a fact of life. I felt sorry for them only for a moment in that they don’t appreciate how good they have it. Then I realized something like what happened in my childhood will happen to them and they’ll tell their kids about it. And I smile. And I’m not old.

  4. Personally I don’t get it. There is no variation in my emotions whether I got a back issue from the store VS buying it online.

    There is, however, a variation in emotion when I’ve taken all this time out to get to the my local shop and search for something they end up not having: Disappointment.

    Where is the thrill of being let down? Its makes no sense.

  5. eBay does help you in your quest for that elusive Avengers #239, Gabe.

    Even if you don’t buy it from the site when you “discover” it in some back issue bin you have an idea of what’s a reasonable price and can potentially haggle for a better one.

    Good article.

  6. It’s still good to know that one has that option though.

  7. I’m definitely of the collector/hoarder variety, and there is nothing more exciting than finding that long-sought after comic, book, etc. at a bargain. It’s as much about finding the deal as getting the item, since as you point out it’s easy to order online. I would much prefer to happen across it in person, but I have picked up a few online when desperate. I don’t get the same thrill though. When I go to Half-Price Books and come across a complete or near-complete run of something I’ve been after (especially if it’s in the 25-cent clearance boxes!), it’s like being a prospector finding gold.

  8. I am fond of both digging through bargain bins and ebay shopping. I find unknowns (to myself anyways) gems both ways. I like to dig around an ebay seller’s shop and see what else they have that I can grab to combine shipping. I’ve found countless new books this way, just like when I dig through a dozen long boxes at a convention or a LCS.

  9. The absolute JOY i felt when i completed my “crisis on infinite earths” run around 1989 at a market stall in Swansea will stay with me forever.
    The delivery of Newell’s Catwoman #1 from in 2004 felt somewhat tawdry in comparison.

  10. I feel the same way. Sure I could on Amazon and buy all the Philip K. Dick books I want or I could go about my life and check out the occasional used book sale and maybe find one.

    The Chase is better than the catch.

  11. Hysterical. There is a great feeling find a good old book (at a good price) at a Con by rummaging through a variety of bins from different exhibitors.

  12. A big chunk of what I’m looking for right now is B- and C-list series from DC and Marvel from the late 90’s. Stuff that at the time wasn’t wanted enough to buy it, but now if I can get it cheap I want to. One way of getting that stuff is digging through “3 for a dollar” boxes at cons and when the local shop has a big sale. My problem is, after flipping through every single issue in 15-20 longboxes, constantly comparing to my list to confirm that I need this issue or that, I’m freaking exhausted. I realize they don’t have time to alphabetize and reorganize that cheap stuff, but man does it wear me out.

    I’d really prefer to be able to buy that stuff online (and I can, just not at those prices) and be able to not have it be such a pain. I’ll gladly pass on the “challenge of the hunt.”

  13. Torn. I’ve purchased runs/issues both ways. I think the biggest obstacle to shuffling through back issue bins – especially at conventions – is when the comic shop owner or convention proprietor can’t be bothered to put two cents of organization into anything. Yes you may find that not so beat up X-Men Dark Phoenix issue but only after shuffling through 20 boxes filled with Warriors of Plasm. If they can’t be bothered I can’t be bothered. On the other hand if they can give me some semblance of organization – say this box has Vertigo, that one has 80s Marvel, etc. – I am happy to take a look.

  14. I totally agree with the sentiment behind this article. The only things I’ll hunt for online are expensive, limited edition hardcovers that I know I won’t be able to find at a decent price elsewhere (such as almost every single English language translation of anything by Moebius) or, if my LCS forgot to order the latest issue of some indie series I’m pulling, I’ll order it online and look up a few cheap issues of something else interesting from the same seller to make the shipping costs cheaper on a per-issue basis. I have a lot of obscure and weird tastes, so the things I’m looking for aren’t always easy to find.

    I love to volunteer for and go to events for the local charity Superheroes for Hospice (Google it if you live anywhere near NJ), they have hundreds of longboxes full of nearly everything you could imagine. I help them sort the collection, it’s reaonably well-sorted by title (at least as much as you can expect from a handful of volunteers on the occasional weekend before each sale). I’ve found almost complete runs of many Vertigo, Dark Horse and other indie titles, and they have a MASSIVE amount of DC and Marvel stuff I’ve barely looked at yet (and I’ve gone to three of these sales already!).