Random Acts of Collecting

Every so often I like to take inventory of the ol’ comic collection. Even if it’s just to thumb through some pulpy old friends and reacquaint myself with my own comic book past, I enjoy the tactile sensation of pulling out issues and connecting the proverbial dots of the past via these unique works of art. The more comics I buy digitally, the more I realize that this simple pleasure, dusty and dull as it’s likely to seem to some, could someday become a thing of the past. Thus I indulge myself; revel in it, even. I’m like a mad scientist and my wife wonders what the hell I’m doing fidgeting with “those books” again. I’m constantly organizing and reorganizing, shifting books from sections divided by title to others divided by creator or artist. It’s good clean comic book busywork and it’s something I enjoy. But while this is usually a pleasurable activity that I complete with relish (and without much fanfare), my latest foray into the long-boxes of the last three decades has me questioning the way I do my comic book business.

This latest session of thumbing, organizing and perusing the time capsule that is my collection has made me realize that I’m a mess. A big unfocused mess. I think I need help. Simply put, my comic collection is a ringmaster-less circus of incomplete runs, sampled issues, random pairings, issues I should probably give away or throw away and other just plain inexplicably purchased conundrums. Simply put, I’ve sampled a ton of books, but never really made a concerted effort to focus my attention on one character or set of characters in any genuinely meaningful way. And when I say “meaningful way” I mean in a way that the experiencing of something edifies you and becomes part of who you are as a being on this big blue marble we call Earth. Okay, that’s being grandiose, but I’m talking about the expertise that comes from true unadulterated focus and study, areas where I seem to be sorely lacking. Simply put, that stray copy of Dazzler #17 that I bought for lord knows what reason back in 1982 and its random comic brethren in my collection aren’t doing a lot for me as a person or as a comic book fan.

This certainly isn’t how I planned it. Various times in my comic collecting life I’ve told myself that I’m going to focus my mental laser beam on fewer titles and really delve into what it means to be the consummate Avengers fan or a diehard X-Men fan or the expert in all things Fantastic Four. And while there’s always the risk of limiting oneself, there’s a certain nobility in mastering something and becoming an expert in a particular field of character study. Truth is, I love the idea of immersing oneself in something so fully that it becomes second nature, that it becomes a part of your very being. Unfortunately, that sort of laser focus has never come naturally to me. Can you force this sort of comic book knowledge osmosis into oneself?  Or, does it have to happen naturally over time? I aspire to be the person who knows their stuff, to be that crackerjack Amazing Spider-Man aficionado who can pull out minute details from any issue that comes up in conversation.  Unfortunately, the smorgasbord of comics that’s out there makes it tough. I’m impulsive and prone to random excess; at least that’s what my collection is telling me.

Reading comics is entertainment and escapism first and foremost for me, but being a student of the medium, the stories and its history, is also something I feel is essential to the experience. I want to know about the artists, the writers, the history and all the rest. There’s so much to learn and that’s what makes the hobby so great.  But damn it, to look at this hodge-podge that is my collection, someone on the outside looking in might comment, “I guess this guy really likes Groo the Wanderer #4” or “Those four scattered issues of World of Krypton must be there for some reason.”

I suppose you could say that when it comes to comics and how I experience them, I’m a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. I don’t for the life of me know why I have random issues of DC’s Loose Cannon or that strange old one-shot featuring Obnoxio the Clown. But I do. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t get me wrong, amidst the randomness are lengthier runs and fits of cohesion, but all in all, it’s a printed potpourri reflective of a mind that wants to taste a little bit of everything.  I wander into the comic store, determined to buy one thing and come out with ten. I can’t help myself. 

Can I change? Should I change? Should I commit to focusing my attention on specifics and becoming an expert on Wolverine or aim to be that person who knows every last tidbit about Batman and his world? I can’t help feeling that I’d be better served by narrowing my view and abandoning my tendency toward knee-jerk purchases. Random issues be damned! Ultimately, my collection is a testament to a brain that is capable of liking many things and is willing to jump around willy-nilly to validate the notion that variety is the spice of life. I suppose that’s okay, but I’d still like to be the go-to guy for something, whether it be the Defenders or the Guardians of the Galaxy or Dazzler, for that matter. Maybe 2013 will be the year I become an expert on Doom Patrol in its various incarnations.  Or maybe it’s the year I fully commit to a crash course in all things Martian Manhunter. Or maybe 2013 is the year that I accept that I’m just a big old kid who can’t help but randomly gorge on a plethora of comics because immediate gratification is…well…immediate. Come to think of it, that sounds about right.

Gabe Roth is a TV writer trapped in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He believes the universe is utterly random. He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.


  1. My collecting focus tends to be the following in order of importance:

    1) My first focus is to just buy what I want to read and enjoy them.

    2) My second focus is to collect issues about a specific character.

    3) My third focus is to collect issues regardless of character that I think are good investments.

  2. I struggle with the same thing… I used to try to be an expert in all things Spider-Man (which is unlucky because I was born almost 30 years too late). It was either that or latch onto an obscure character that no one else has heard of (“hipster” reading). Now I feel people are more likely to follow artists or writers more than characters.

  3. Regarding collecting (or “hoarding” as I sometimes call it) – I’ve REALLY let things go. I have piles of comics, boxes full of who knows what in no real order… I have to get it together before Thanksgiving, so company will have a place to sleep! Seems like in life, like comics, I get to a point where I just have this obsessive need to organize everything. When my feng shui reaches the feng shit stage, I have to take action!

    I also have a need to know what comics I have so I don’t re-buy things. I would estimate I’m around 7000 floppies. It’s hard to remember what I have and don’t have. One of the things that helped immensely is a database program. Well, it helps if you keep it up to date! But there is a nice, affordable one from http://www.collectorz.com/ that I’ve been using for several years. It can dump out a file to excel or text, and there’s a smart phone app as well, so I can have my collection at my fingertips wherever I go. I can also note which box each individual issue is in, which makes finding things a breeze.

    • Hats off to you sir. I gave up about a year ago. No order what so ever. Just a rough grouping by when i bought and when i read them. Not even bagging and boarding anymore. It all started to make my hobby feel like a chore.

    • Don’t doff your cap to me quite yet – I blew off this work over the weekend. I’ll be starting tonight. I sorta dread it, but it’s very zen once I get going.

  4. I need to go through my boxes and piles today and tomorrow so my wife can give away my comics to a friend with kids this weekend. Hope I can reduce 75% of my “collection.” There’s some I’ll keep – all my Deadpools, Grendel: War Child issues, Planet Hulk, but the majority of the stuff I can’t wait to get rid of.

    Previously I would just throw them out.

    I am the perfect candidate for digital comics. Now I’m just waiting for the format to be right.

  5. Great article Gabe, I think the longest runs I have now are the Walking Dead 1-now, and Daredevil Frank miller. Now it’s more to do with writers and artist like you said, the days of reading comics just for a certain character are long gone for me.

  6. Good article, and I’m the exact same way. Every four months or so I go through my collection and take out any random single issues. If I have no compelling reason to keep it, I put these issues in a pile and give them to my LCS owner and get store credit in return. I’m definitely more organized than you are Gabe, not because I’m superior, I just force myself to be so. I’m also not an expert on any particular character or book, and I’ve never felt compelled to be.

  7. As far as knowing what you have I recently went through all of my comics and input them into an excel spreadsheet. Title, volume and number. My comics now come to me once a month in a shipment. When they arrive before I read them I input all of them into my spread sheet. I have one spreadsheet for comics I am keeping and I have another spreadsheet for comics I would like to get rid of.

    As far as reading for a character or whatnot I generally read for a character. That’s my base. For example I own every issue of every volume of Ghost Rider. I still will buy anything that comes out with Ghost Rider. But my main focus since 2008 has been Batman. I get all the Batman Family titles and enjoy them all. I get some other random titles too. If I do end up starting a title well after issue #1 I usually pick up the earlier issues in trade format. I like to know what is going on, otherwise it drives me crazy. But titles like Batman and Spider-Man for example have been going on forever. So it’s really hard to get every issue of course. But I will go back to a point, say issue #600 of Batman or something. But the newer titles, like Wolverine and the X-men, if I picked it up at issue #17 and liked it, I would get the first 17 issues, either in trade format or actual issues. Which I’m going to do by the way. 😉 I don’t have many random issues laying around unless I picked it up to see if I liked it and didn’t, or they were part of a crossover. I do realize part of this is also OCD, but I’m okay with it.

    • I have a very similar spreadsheet system as yours. In addition to the “Have” and “Get Rid Of” I also have a “Want” tab. I also have tabs for specific characters, my own “how-to-read Batman” (or whoever) that I add to as I become aware of important comics or trades to a specific character’s canon.

      One thing I started early on and am glad of is that I use “short” boxes instead on long boxes. Mainly, they’re just easier to carry when you move, but I also feel like it’s easier to shift comics around and keep organized.

    • I never tried the short boxes, but I might consider it. Yeah, I have a ‘Want’ spreadsheet too. It’s mostly trades I want to get. I love spreadsheets.

  8. I usually stick to my pull file, month in and month out. Sometimes I’m disappointed in a specifc issue or arc but I’m overall happy to know it will improve or that I have the whole run. Sometimes I pick up new stuff, for variety or to round out my purchases. It’s good to sample everything, and sometimes its nice to know everything about an obscure character (Moon Knight?). To each his own, but can’t you have a little of both? I’ve been collecting my way for about 8 years and I’m pretty happy, I just wish money wasn’t an issue so I could buy more every month, or at least not have to buy X amount this month because I’m alittle short on green.

  9. Alphabetical…10,000 comics and alphabetical is the only way to go. Any random comics like Godzilla#3 versus the Champions neatly goes into the G box. And random acts of collecting is a must for any comic fan because you are not getting the full experience if you don’t occasionally buy that oddball issue and jump headfirst into an ongoing storyline.

  10. I donate all of the old stuff that I would never read again to the high school that I work for. I have decided to only buy series that have retread value. My comic organizational skills are wicked mad tight yo.

  11. The only time I was serious about collecting issues was finding all of Doug Moench and Kelley Jone’s run on Batman. That was so hard to find back issues for some reason. I had to go to my LCS for half of the run, and then go to NYCC months later to find the rest.

    Other then that I don’t do much of collection. But when someone tells me of series that haven’t been collected I’ll try and find it. Like, someone gave me a recommendation on the last GAMBIT ongoing cause I liked the creators involved. And since DC decides to not collect a shitload of stuff that can be a minefield right there.

  12. I loved anything that looked like a comic back in my earlier days, that explains why I have those Caspers and Prof Coffin(good issue if you ask me tho) and most of those other single issues of a character(goes up to 2 or more issues sometimes). I also got comics on characters I like or a cover that jumps out at me, I still do. But these are the days of writers mostly and artist huh? Not really in my book, for example that Loose Cannon #1 has Superman on the cover, I have never heard of or seen that book before, but it has Superman(fan) on the cover I would get that in an eye blink, hopefully it has Superman in it fighting Loose Cannon and it turns out to be good.
    That inconsistency in a collection can be a pain though, blame it on lack of interest on a story line or series or just budget, well at some point I may get those missed issues, I have been saying that from the eighties and I’m not even close to closing the gaps.

  13. You’ve given me several ideas for future DC Histories articles here. For instance, Loose Cannon. I did just pick up his miniseries…