by KC Carlson
When I first started collecting comic books, back in the mid-1960s, there weren’t specially-made comic book boxes for storage, so my early collection had to call some place else home. That would be an old desk/cabinet that my mom probably found at an antique store, stripped off all the varnish, and re-stained before giving it to me. That was her hobby — our house was filled with old furniture that she had worked on and made beautiful again. When she wasn’t doing that, she was reading. She used to read four or five novels a week. I used to think that she really liked the time she was working on the furniture, as that probably gave her the time to process everything that she read.
I got reading from her. Collecting, too, as our house was filled with books. (I suspect that we bought the house we lived in because it had so many built-in bookcases.) My dad built bookcases — and big rack shelves to hold his huge jazz record collection. At least he did — until he accidentally cut off the tips of two of his fingers on the table saw out in the garage. Then he stopped building stuff. On his dresser, he kept a block of wood, upon which he wrote: “This is it.” and the date it happened. I always thought that was a weird thing to do, but I couldn’t help myself going into his room quite often as a kid to stare at that piece of wood. I never learned any basic carpentry. I didn’t want to ask my dad.
Anyway, I loved that old cabinet that my mom found. It had five shelves, so I could collect five different comic books. There was a shelf for The Flash and a shelf for Justice League of America, and Batman and Superman, and The Brave and the Bold. There were also shelves under the desk, where I stored my Walt Disney Comics and Stories. (My grandma got me a year’s subscription for my birthday, every year until high school.) All my other “kids’ comics” lived there, too, including Sugar and Spike, which I continued to buy until it was canceled in 1992.
I hadn’t discovered Marvel Comics yet. Their distribution in my area was pretty lousy at that time, so I really didn’t buy them until I was in high school. I was pretty happy with my initial collecting. After all, I only had a 25¢-a-week allowance, so unless I was saving up for parent’s birthday presents, I could only get two 12¢ comics and a piece of Bazooka bubble gum every week. I was lucky to not have brothers and sisters — more comics for me!
Eventually, I outgrew the cabinet. That coincided with me getting old enough to get my dad’s hand-me-down turntable and amplifier. This required a sturdy shelf for the turntable to live on, so my dad pulled the table saw out of retirement and — carefully — built me a a wall unit with a strong shelf and lots of cubby holes for my future album collection. But I wasn’t quite ready to dive fully into music yet (that would happen in college), so I put those cubbies to use for something else — places for Challengers of the Unknown and Green Lantern and Showcase and DC war books, and, well, you get the picture. I used the turntable to play my dad’s Stan Freberg, Bob Newhart, and Bill Cosby (and even George Carlin, before he got weird) records. Then I discovered that I could check out rock records from the library, and soon I was reading comics while listening to Beatles albums, plus Tommy, and Bridge Over Troubled Water. Since I wasn’t buying albums yet, those cubbies lasted a long time for comics storage — until I went to collage and my parents sold the house, complete with the wall unit, still attached.
We still have that first cabinet, though, and I look at it today in awe — I can’t imagine that it once held my entire comic collection. Now it’s the home for some of my wife Johanna’s manga collection. She’s already outgrown it, as well.
Today, my comics live out in our converted garage — in a room by themselves. At last count there were over 60,000 of them. Somewhere around 400 short boxes. Oddly, I didn’t ever buy any large collections — never more than 50 or 60 issues at a time. Most of them just arrived, a few every week for close to fifty years. Things add up.
Many of them, I received free as comps (from several publishers) from my almost 10 years at DC. Even more were purchased, usually with an employee discount from my 25 or so years working for various distributors or retailers, starting when I was 14. Most of the back issues I’ve purchased, I bought in the early day of comic collecting. Back then, I bought the complete original run of Doom Patrol for $40. (That was about a buck a book.) I used paper route money to purchase stacks of Silver Age books, while it was still the Silver Age. My collection is not high grade, but it was very well-read — especially those early books which got read and re-read over and over.
WHAT AM I DOING?
It took a long time for me to come to terms with what I wanted out of comic books. I’ve never considered myself a serious “collector” of comics, despite the fact that I eventually had thousands of them. “Accumulator”, or maybe “hobbyist”, was more appropriate, but that didn’t actually sound right to me. To me, “comic book collectors” were the folks that spent time figuring out how to properly store them — with all their fancy acid-free backing boards and boxes and mylar comic bags. (Although a lot of them called them “sleeves”, as if that made them sound more refined. I could never figure out how these folks managed to get their comics into their “sleeves” with their raised pinky fingers.)
I never bothered with much of this stuff. I finally succumbed to comic boxes, simply because I had so many comics, I needed a standardized storage system — mostly so they could be stacked. Portability was important as well. Until I got married, I lived a fairly nomadic life, all over the Midwest and east coast — and generally, my comics went with me. When they couldn’t, they had to be stored, either at grandma’s house, or in rental storage units, and modular comic boxes were a godsend for getting a large amount of comics in a very small space.
Originally, I tried longboxes, but they were generally unacceptable, as comics changed in the 80s and 90s. With the advent of slick, heavy paper, the books themselves got heavier, especially in a box that held 200-300 of them. Between the weight and my short, stubby arms (too short to comfortably carry a longbox), I quickly realized that the short box was the way to go for me. A couple of long boxes that actually bent in half and broke while I was carrying them — spilling hundreds of comics to the ground — was also a factor in my choice. Besides, the short box was a lot more flexible in other ways: They fit more easily into closets and car hatchbacks. I eventually learned their true superiority — I could set them on end on a table while I was inventorying the comics within, without them tipping over or damaging the table with their weight.
I never bothered much with bags or boards. Never really felt the need for it , as I considered my collection to be a “reading” collection, frequently accessed. Since I grew up with no brothers or sisters, generally avoided roommates, and remained a bachelor for a long time, no one else was reading my comics. They pretty much stayed in near-mint condition since no one (but me) ever read or handled them. I do have a few books that are bagged — mostly very old and beat-up comics from the 50s or 60s that would disintegrate if handled too much. Mostly, I felt that bags were a waste of money. I do use backing boards a little, but not in bags. I buy Silver Age-size boards which come in handy as protectors between the comics and the inside ends of the box. And as dividers for multi-title boxes.
HOW THINGS STACK UP
Organizing a collection is essential, especially for a large one like mine, but I find that the decisions made in how to organize are usually very personal. One friend — a comics writer — has a huge collection similar to mine. Like me, he requires a huge room to store them all, and he’s decided that his comics all live in long boxes. By way of organizing, his method is straight alphabetically, by title, and all his boxes are labeled with the letter that all the titles in the box begin with. All publishers are mixed together. Since he has to constantly fact-check while writing, this is the system that works best for him.
My preferred system features everything separated by publisher. Indeed, my comics room is organized this way, with Marvels on one side of the room, DCs on another, indy publishers wherever they fit, and magazine and treasury formats in a closet that doesn’t get accessed that much. Since my comic room is in a converted garage, it’s not always comfortable to read comics in there (no room for a chair is another reason), so I keep like-subject comics together in individual boxes. Long-running titles like Avengers or Justice League require multiple boxes (all labeled with issue numbers), with related titles grouped together as much as possible. All Kirby’s DC work is together in a couple of boxes, and Marvel’s Epic line fits neatly in about four or five boxes.
Both the DC and Marvel areas are also organized by “families” of titles. Thus, the Marvel side of the room has a (large) mutant section, plus sections for Avengers (and their classic members), Spider-Man, Marvel Knights-style heroes, other superhero sub-groupings, plus areas for Marvel kids’ comics, non-Marvel Universe titles, reference (Handbooks and Indexes) and other ephemera. The DC side has huge Batman, Superman, and Justice League (and their classic members) sections, teen characters (LSH and Teen Titans), as well as Vertigo, Wildstorm, and other imprints, plus areas for the classic genre comics (mystery, war, romance, science fiction, etc.). The indy section features comics organized by publisher (the most noted ones, since many of the titles tend to migrate from one to another). The indy area is the one place where boxes frequently have more than one publisher. I also have about two boxes of cross-company team-up books.
All the comics are in the comics room with the exception of about 40 short boxes of Archie comics and digests, with a smattering of romance comics and teen humor (such as Millie the Model or Swing With Scooter). These are upstairs in an alcove in my office for two reasons: 1) the space isn’t much good for anything else, and 2) I’m still actively collecting these and access them frequently after recent back issue purchases.
Then there are the bookshelves. There are at least a dozen bookshelves — a couple of them HUGE — scattered around the house, and that’s where all the collections live — as well as just a fraction of Johanna’s manga collection. (Some pictures here.) Two large bookcases are pretty much filled with Marvel Masterworks and DC Archives and related volumes. One bookshelf alone is Johanna’s To Do shelf — filled with stuff she wants to read and review. Eventually, we will have to find space for these books to live, as new books arrive on a weekly basis, making it nearly impossible to ever get caught up. Since Johanna rarely ever goes out to the garage comics room, she would be horrified to find out that between there and my office, there are probably another two bookshelves of collections that haven’t found a permanent home yet. (Although I guess the cat’s out of the bag now, since she’s reading this.) That’s my next big project — either weeding out or trying to find more space for bookcases. Hmm… could use some experience in bookshelf-making right about now.
ADDING ON MEANS ADDING UP
Other than my current weekly purchases, I don’t add much to the superhero collection these days. My collection is pretty full from the Bronze Age up, and while I have a lot of both Marvel and DC Silver Age books, I don’t feel the need to spend big bucks on those missing back issues, since many of them are being routinely reprinted in Masterworks, Archives, Essentials, and Showcase volumes. Like I said, I’m sort of an odd collector in that I don’t really need the actual artifacts (even though I have several thousand already). I collect mainly for the story. So I’m happy with reprints, or DVD-ROMs, just as long as I can read the stories in the order that they originally came out.
When I first started collecting, as a young lad in the mid-1960s, I had no idea that I’d ever have such a huge collection all these years later — a collection so large that it demanded its own room, and at times, has overwhelmed life’s plans and decisions. But it also represents a pretty good life — one in which I met and became friends with literally hundreds of like-minded individuals. It also represents a career in comics I’m still amazed I got to have — not just in producing them, but also in the secret bowels of the industry, learning everything that a comic goes through to become real. From keyboard and drawing table or computer to publishing to printing to distribution to new comic retailing to back issue hawking — I’ve done a little bit of everything. Even though a couple of those didn’t work out exactly as I had hoped, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
TWO LAST POINTS
Back in 1983, when First Fandom’s Don and Maggie Thompson moved from Cleveland to Iola, Wisconsin (current population: 1,300 — it was probably 900 or less back then), to take over (and remake) The Comics Buyer’s Guide, a friend of mine named Harry Hertel (who’s since amassed a complete Batman and Detective Comics — at least the Batman ones — collection) thought it would be a good idea if some local comic book fans welcomed them in person to Wisconsin. So we drove to Iola one afternoon on the day they were moving into their new house (how Harry got this information I never knew) and drove up while two semi-trucks were being unloaded. Of course, turning up unannounced on the day that somebody was moving into their new house was a dumb idea, but the Thompsons were both very gracious (if bemused) and spent a few minutes chatting with us out on the street.
Before we left them to the work of moving in, I kept fixating on the two semi-trucks and had to ask about them. “Oh, one’s our furniture and the other one is our books and comics,” Maggie happily replied. Holy crap!
Little did I know that one day I would need a truck almost as big to move my comics on my last move. Or that less than a decade later I would be working in Iola alongside Don and Maggie when I helped launch Comics Retailer magazine. I wasn’t there long, but it was an incredibly memorable experience, and my thanks to Maggie for not only getting comics fandom rolling, but for keeping me sane against overwhelming odds!
Second, having a big collection also means being incredibly organized in maintaining an inventory — either on paper or computer. Something I was reminded of this past week, when I attempted to re-organize a huge chunk of the collection — and ran into some huge problems — that got me thinking about how current comics publishers need to both forget the past while simultaneously learning from it all over again. More on that next Monday.
KC CARLSON: Working for comics since 1970 (or so). Has the bad back and bruised brain to prove it.
Who the hell came up with the word panapictagraphist? It means one who collects comics. I think maniacobsessive is MUCH more descriptive!
Many Thanks to Johanna Draper Carlson for giving up the garage.
Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.