As I anxiously await the birth of my first son (due in five days from the time of this writing), I can’t help but be immersed in a sense of nostalgia on a number of different levels – nostalgia for the bachelor life, for the freedom of mobility that comes with being unattached, for knowing that there is no one dependent on my actions or inactions save myself. This nostalgia, like all nostalgias, is infectious, and has also gotten me reflecting on my personal habits when it comes to comic collecting. My current collection stands at more than 20,000 issues, each of them bagged and boarded and housed in a monstrous custom-built library. In thinking about the collection as a whole, I find that I’m nostalgic not for the experience of reading them over the course of the years or for any particular storyline, but for what the collection represents in terms of the moments of acquisition that surround each particular issue. Flipping through long box after long box, as impossible as it seems I can remember the date of purchase of nearly every comic that I own. In each box is housed the memories of who I was at the moment I acquired these comics, and I carry the collection with me both cognitively and physically as I move through my life.
Here at Graphixia we infrequently acknowledge the materiality of comics as objects, items that are often collected for the sake of being collected, and that are just as often purchased not to be read but to fill in a gap in a run of issues. Many of my own comics were acquired for this reason, both online and at conventions. Though I ostensibly buy my comics for the stories they contain and do value them for this reason, the larger collection is more important to me for the very different rationale of the order that it represents. Walter Benjamin is well aware of this aspect of collecting, and I’m often drawn to his “Unpacking my Library” when thinking of my own collecting habits. He writes:
There is in the life of the collector a dialectical tension between the poles or order and disorder. Naturally, his existence is tied to… a relationship with objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value – that is their usefulness – but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate … Everything remembered and thought, everything conscious, becomes the pedestal, the frame, the base, the lock of his property (60).
Though Benjamin is writing about his books, the application is the same for the comic collector – these often simple superhero stories, diverse and unrealistic as they are, are intertwined with my own. One could argue that the same could hold true for all literature, that comics don’t hold a special place for the collector, but this isn’t exactly true – comics lend themselves to memory and nostalgia because they are visual, allowing for a more immersive experience in the fictional moment. These images, grafted in juxtaposition with those of daily life, allow me to be nostalgic for the story in the comic, the physical properties of it, as equally as I am for the moment in time during which I experienced them. For me, owning these comics is, in a way, taking ownership of these moments as well.
As I reflect on my childhood (and, to be fair, my adulthood as well), I am immediately filled with all of the images of the comics I read as I am the places in which I grew up and the people who I met. Standing in front of my library, I’m standing in front of myself – in my mind’s eye I see the stark lines of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns as I, at eight years old in 1988, read the comic for the first time while waiting in the Surrey Public Library for my younger brother to finish his art class. Equally, I’m drawn back to the Time and Time Again Superman crossover arc, reading each weekly issue with a friend who, in junior high, skipped class every Wednesday to pick up the next installment. Even a few years ago, I’m sitting in my Aunt’s apartment, reading the final issue of Cerebus maxi-series, a comic I’d been waiting for for over a decade at that point. These and endless other characters, storylines, even particular panels surface in my memory, always juxtaposed with the moment during which I consumed them. The interplay of these forces and the synaesthetic quality of the experience makes comic collecting an important aspect of why I choose to hoard, alphabetize and maintain them and why I will continue to read and collect likely for the rest of my life – I feel a sense of pity that the next generation could be unaware of this facet of comics, as trades, digitals and webcomics replace the ephemera that are permanently bound to my most formative experiences.
This post has been, perhaps, more nostalgic than it has been about nostalgia, but this kind of self involvement is what reading and collecting fiction of any kind – and particularly tales of the fantastic – is ultimately founded on. I know that when I pass the vast number of comics in my collection on to my son, years from now, I’ll be quietly giving him all of the moments that make up who I am, stamped on these lifeless things, captured unassumingly (and unknowably) in the stories that he will one day hopefully read.
Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking my Library.” Illuminations. New York; Schocken, 2007.