Telling stories

You Can’t Have What You Already Own

Posted by southwrite on August 17, 2014

The familiar rotating comic rack.

The familiar rotating comic rack.

I decided to pay a visit to a local comic shop. You know the kind of store I’m talking about. If you’re a fan, you’re intimately acquainted with the racks of new books that line the walls surrounding tables filled with cardboard boxes of older books. There are also the glass cases filled with toy replicas of the super heroes now familiar to anyone who has visited a movie house in recent years.

Comics are big business now.

It’s been a long time since I had been inside a store like this one and it brought back a flood of memories – of childhood pleasures and adult years trying to recapture them. I thumbed through some of the new titles. They are quite different now than when they became part of my life in the mid-1960s. For one thing, they’re more costly (several dollars compared to the 12 or 15 cents) and much more adult in their story lines. The cheap paper has given way to quality stock and brighter, more vivid colors.

My visit also confirmed again for me a hard truth– owning is not the same thing as having. You might think that the two are the same. That owning is at least necessary for having something, but it’s not.

This is also why I’m no longer a comic collector – or collector of anything for that matter.

Oh, I do own a lot of things which might be considered collectible in one sense of another. Like most writers I have hundreds of books. Some I have with me, but most are in storage. I own, yes, but I don’t really have them. The difference between owning and having is in part about access, but it’s also an intellectual and even spiritual experience.

The realization that owning prevents me from actually having a thing really came home when I went from being a comic reader to a comic collector.

The colorful pages of comics were one of the delights of my childhood.

The colorful pages of comics were one of the delights of my childhood.

My love of this popular art form  began when I was a young boy spending  Saturdays in the small town of Eastman where I grew up. While my parents shopped for groceries and other items, I found my way to the corner drug store with its rotating rack of comics in the window.

I always faced an agenizing choice. With just 12 cents in my pocket, I could only have one. But which one? Superman? Spiderman? The Fantastic Four? The Challengers of the Unknown? Or maybe a western? With limited funds and wide choices, I leafed through each one carefully before making a choice.

I learned early on the loss that comes with each choice. By saying yes to Iron Man, I was saying no to Batman and all the other super heroes left in the racks. I would take a selection to the counter and carefully count out my coins. Then it was back home clutching the issue and eagerly devouring the latest exploits of my heroes.

Once read, it would go into the small cardboard box on the floor of my bedroom. I treasured each one. As time passed each comic book became well-worn as they opened up that world of excitement and wonder that every small town boy needs.

For one reason or another I lost most of those early treasures. They went to trades with other kids or were left behind as I moved on to other things – like college and non-comic reading friends. They were forgotten and thrown away – after all comics were designed to be quick and cheap entertainment.

Eventually, I ceased both buying and reading comics. Years passed and then I came back to them.

With a job and income, I could afford to buy back what I had once loved. And, I did. Comics that I had spent 12 or 20 or 25 cents for were now big money as they acquired collectible status of examples of the so-called Silver Age of comic publishing. I paid for them and began to amass a new collection. Instead of throwing them into an old box, I had to store them in special plastic bags. The cheap paper on which they were printed aged and faded quickly. In fact, finding a well preserved copy of older titles from the 60s and 70s was difficult. For those produced in earlier decades it was nearly impossible.

Today's comics have become more popular and more adult.

Today’s comics have become more popular and more adult.

As my desire to flesh out my collection grew, I began to acquire professionally graded issues encased in hard plastic. The cases certified their condition and value and also prevented further deterioration – the real enemy of any pop culture collectable.

The one thing I couldn’t do was read them. No creasing the spines as I lay in bed engrossed in epic battles between heroes and villains. I was a collector now – not the small boy clutching his beloved comics.

I assembled hundreds of comics. Many such as  a pretty decent copy of Fantastic Four #1 were quite valuable. At last I owned them, but I couldn’t have them.

One day, I don’t remember exactly when, it came to me – collecting is a profoundly disappointing experience. I only really enjoyed it when I didn’t have what I wanted. Hunting for a title was exciting. So was getting it, of course, but the thrill quickly faded.

Once I had a particular book, it was in a real sense lost to me. I had it, but I didn’t have it. The only thing left to me was to gaze at the collection and try to draw some excitement from the idea that a part of my childhood had been recaptured. It was a delusion. The thrill of comics for a young boy was in the holding, the reading, the talking with friends and the trading. After buying all those now valuable items, I was right back where I had started – I knew they existed, but I couldn’t touch them. I couldn’t recapture those days. They truly were lost.

With that realization came another. Owning something that I couldn’t use and enjoy meant not really having it. I stopped being a collector.

I haven’t given up on comics as I did before. I still read them, but in digital form on tablet. Most of the old issues that I had loved as a child can now be downloaded in electronic format. Once again I can read them as I did as child — without worrying about the horror of leaving finger prints on the cover. I can also see them through the eyes of an adult knowing that I can’t recapture that childlike wonder. That too has been lost, but in the process I’ve gained something else.


2 Responses to “You Can’t Have What You Already Own”

  1. Was the raunchy cover intended for kids? If so, shame on them! Time to turn the clock back a few decades.

    • southwrite said

      Mickey, for good or ill, comics have become much more adult and have a much more adult audience. While some comics are still produced exclusively for kids, most I would say are not.

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