The Journey Toward Collection

The Journey Toward Collection

September 26, 2014 0 By Chris Lawton

I can’t remember my first comic book. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do remember my first comic, but I don’t remember exactly what issue it was. While growing up, comic books were always something out of the corner of my eye, artifacts that hung out in magazine racks and near the checkout lanes of grocery stores. Visually interesting, but not something I ever actively pursued. Of course, as most of us may know, passion usually happens when we least expect it.

The first comic book I ever remember reading was an Archie comic from the late 80s. For the life of me, I have tried to figure out what issue it was exactly, but not even the Internet can help me out on this front. I believe it was Archie #339, but even that is a guesstimate at best. Maybe, someday, Archie Comics will digitize the issues from this era, and I can sit and pore through issue after issue until my memory kickstarts itself. Until then, my first comic book will most likely remain the greatest of my personal mysteries.

Whatever the issue was, I remember I got it from my dad. He had been out of town, and as was his modus operandi, he returned to us, gifts in hand. My gift was this issue of Archie. I remember reading it a few times, chuckling at the jokes, and then tossing it onto my bookshelf. I would return to the comic every now and then, when I needed something silly and mindless to read. There was no continuity within Archie comics. Each story was self-contained to a few pages, and when it was over, it was never referenced again. Had they included more of a continuity from story to story, it might have gripped me. But, at this point, it was more of a novelty than a hobby.

I wasn’t collecting comics, I was just reading them.

In the late 80s, my purchases mostly revolved around Archie titles, and the occasional Super Mario Bros. comic. I usually bought them on trips as something to read in the car. One of the trips my family would often take would be from Scottsbluff to North Platte, Nebraska, to visit family. It was a three-hour drive, and I remember a specific convenience store in Oshkosh, Nebraska, which was about the halfway point. We would always stop here, and I remember this store in particular, because their magazine rack had a healthy supply of comics. The second we stopped, I would hop out of the car and make a beeline for this rack. I would often pick up at least one issue, which I would read and re-read for the remainder of the trip. They were simple stories with simple punchlines, and I loved every one of them.

When I got home, the comics would still get tossed onto the bookshelf, where they would remain. Sometimes, the fate of the comic would be even worse, as they wouldn’t even make it home with their covers intact. I didn’t always take care of them, which probably explains why I don’t really remember my first comic book. Even by the time I started collecting, my first comic had most likely long been destroyed and thrown out.

I wasn’t collecting comics, I was just buying them.

I was probably 13 when a lot of that changed. I had just started 6th grade in a brand new elementary school, and I had no friends, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet any. If you’ve ever been to a new elementary school, you understand how insular the environment can be. Most of the people in my class had gone to school together for six or seven years at this point, and in the midst of attempting to understand the idea of finally being the official top dogs at this school (in Gering, Nebraska, elementary school went through 6th grade), they didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms. They weren’t mean; they just didn’t really throw me a welcome party.

Now, before I go on, I don’t want this piece to seem like many of the other stories you may read about how people got into comics. I wasn’t the social outcast who threw himself into comics for the sake of “finding a place to belong.” Comics did, however, have a hand in creating that place for me. I met a kid named Jason, and we quickly became friends. Early in our friendship, we connected over comic books and things quickly changed from there.

This was in the height of the comic book boom of the early 1990s. Our little town got a handful of comic shops, all of which experienced a fair amount of success. One shop in particular stands out to me as the place where I truly started to understand collecting. In downtown Scottsbluff, there was a little shop called The Fantasy Library–which I’m sure was (and still is) a totally unique name for a comic book store. I don’t entirely remember when I first found my way into Fantasy, but I remember that when I did, I was blown away by what I saw and heard. I not only saw shelves upon shelves of comic books, but I also heard the employees talking about their monthly pull lists with such excitement and conviction. I couldn’t help but get caught up in it.

I remember purchasing some X-Men comics, because that was what my friend Jason read, and instantly falling in love with the storytelling. I loved having to wait for the next issue to find out what would happen next, and I got lost in the epic continuity that was building before my eyes. I was firmly entrenched in the X-Men Blue team, because that was the series I read, though I definitely went back and bought issues of Claremont‘s definitive run on Uncanny X-Men, so I was more than familiar with all of the characters on both teams.

I collected books within the X-universe exclusively for a few years, branching off into the spin-off characters, like Cable and, my personal favorites, Generation X. Life went on like this for a while, as I collected X-Men comics, until I eventually started branching out into Batman comics, where I remained for a few years after.

I wouldn’t say that comics gave me a place to belong, but I can say with surety that these early years of collecting were a defining point in my life. Writers like Claremont and Lobdell gave me a love for storytelling, which has eventually carried me here. From this early time, I wanted to tell these stories; I wanted to make comics. In fact, Jason and I started working on our own comics, with our own original characters, but that’s a story for another day.

Through these early comics, I learned about not only characters and dialogue, but also the key concepts behind storytelling–pacing, movement, and major events. Has my understanding of these concepts grown since then? Absolutely. The more I read and write, the better of a reader and writer I become. But, the genesis of my understanding began with these funny books. Before the cynicism, and the criticisms, and the investment, and the collapse, there were only the stories, and I loved every single one of them.