A Musty Magic (Or . . .The Counterintuitive but Wondrous Nature of Collecting )

So . . . what do you do?  Where do you go?  How do you deal?

For me, when life gets too hectic; when the creative process is blocked with thick, rough-hewn logs; when the rage tweets emanating from Washington become more numerous and unhinged by the day, even the hour; and when the world just seems like too much to take, I have several “safe places” where I turn.  Places that calm me, allow me to escape the madness, if only for a little while, to get grounded again, to become reacquainted with the magic and the wonder.

 

Old movies provide comfort–I have always enjoyed films that predate my birth.  I often say, “If the film is black and white, I’ll probably like it.”  Walks in the woods or along winding country roads provide the opportunity to de-stress and re-center myself.  Vermont, my adopted state, is replete with quiet, pastoral hideaways, and for that I am thankful.  Books–fiction and nonfiction alike–have been my friends for as long as I can remember.  Stepping away from the cacophony to enter a well-plotted novel or an engaging biography or historical tome is, and always will be, bliss.  And sports and the long-standing family and friends fantasy football league I have been the commissioner of since the 1990s have always offered a fun diversion.

 

But if there is one thing that never fails, one thing I can count on just as surely as the sun rising at the break of day, it is comic books.  I fell in love with them when I was a little kid, and it’s been a lifelong love affair ever since.

 

I remember where it all began, too.  In my older brother Dave’s room, back when I was six years old.  Dave was a collector of sorts–he’d amassed a collection of several hundred issues by then–primarily The Amazing Spider-Man, Conan the Barbarian, and The Defenders.  He kept his comics in protective Mylar sleeves, and the most valuable ones also had a firm, thin cardboard backing to keep them from being bent or folded.  I enjoyed leafing through his issues, admiring the covers, sniffing their distinct comic book scent.

 

Indeed.  That has always had a lot to do with it for me.  The smell.  That old comics smell.  In The Singularity Wheel, Mitchell Brant is sure “that if you could store magic in a bottle, it would smell just the same.”  He won’t be getting any arguments from me.  And when I began collecting seriously myself, around the time I entered junior high, there was nothing that thrilled my senses more than visiting the local comics shop.  The musty scent was all around me, engulfing me like a fantastical cloud, full of wonders and adventures and history.

 

I spent all of my teenage years saving up what money I had to buy collectible comic books.  People would ask me, “Why not just buy the reprints?”  Why plunk down so much extra for an often ragged, beat-up original from 1955 or 1960 instead of buying a fresh, new replica for a fraction of the cost?  It was–and still is–a difficult question to answer.  It goes against everything practical, economical, utilitarian.  Whether you buy an original or a reprint, the story’s the same.  So why do it?

Countering with the old-comics smell isn’t sufficient.  While it’s true that newer comics don’t have that musty magic about them, it’s not enough.  There is more to it than that.  A lot more.

An original comic book from the 1950s predates my existence by two decades.  For me, that increases the charm exponentially.  There is something almost mystical about opening an issue from 1955 or 1956–or 1946, for that matter–and knowing that I am holding in my hands a treasure trove of memories.  If only the comic could talk, I think!  But it can.  If you listen, it can.

 

The artwork, the story, the dialogue–primarily aimed at children and teenagers of the day–feels dated, quaint.  It’s a window into a time sixty years in the rearview mirror, when adventures and imaginative tales were presented in a far different manner.  Reading such stories, I am transported back to a decade when my parents themselves were just teenagers.  I am, quite literally, stepping into a time machine, the years peeling away, reversing, autumn to summer to spring, fifty times over, crashing through the speed of light.

 

But even so, the skeptic says–can’t you still experience all that with a reprint?  Just read the stories . . . And that’s true, I suppose.  A reprint can offer a peek through the partially opened door, a glance through the window.  But it’s not the same.

A reprint is new, contemporary, a facsimile of something that came before.  (Though, it must be said, comic books have been around so long now, some reprints are, themselves, decades and decades old.) The original, the vintage comic book from 1945 or 1957 or 1962, was picked up, leafed through, handled (often roughly) by kids back then, when the story was conceived, when the writers and artists who created it were thinking of the children and teenagers of that day.  Every time I flip through an old comic, I think of the sandy-haired boy at the corner drugstore, sixty years ago, who may have grabbed the same issue from the spinning, squeaky comics rack in the corner, drawn by the cover and the promise of adventure within.  Did he have a dime to give to the store proprietor, enough to buy the comic and take it home?  Did his sister or his younger brother steal it from him later when he wasn’t looking?  And did he wrestle it back?  Is that where the spine roll came from?  The small rip in the upper right corner?  The creases that line the cover like wrinkles, forged by the passage of time?

 

There are two stories to enjoy in vintage comic books.  The one the creators cooked up, the twists and turns of the plot, the nuances and renderings of the art.  This is the same story available in reprints.  But the second story–the story only the original can share–this is the story of the physical comic book itself.  It’s the wear and tear, the yellowing of the pages, the mouse-chewed corner on page 6, interfering with a thought balloon.  It’s the ads for X-ray-vision glasses and sea monkeys, magic wands and moon monsters.  It’s the interweaving of past and present, of memories and moments, and of childhood dreams that have spanned the long years, bridging one century to the next.

 

You can’t get that kind of story in a reprint.  And you can’t put a price tag on it.

And, after all, there’s nothing quite like a tank full of sea monkeys.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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