On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: A parting toast to comics scarcity
Posted on June 24, 2015
June 24, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield
I’ve described myself on several occasions as a comics evangelist. Now, it’s fairly obvious that this is a pretty daft thing to call oneself, and it is partly tongue in cheek, but I genuinely believe there is immense value in sharing comics with people who wouldn’t ordinarily consider reading them, and also to introduce existing readers to stuff they wouldn’t usually check out.
Doing that is easier now than it has been for decades. For a start, the majority of decent sized bookshops have a dedicated comics section (even if they insist on calling them ‘graphic novels’ *spits*). Granted, it’s still weird that they choose to organise things by medium rather than genre, but poetry and plays get that too, so whatever. The point is, you can send a curious friend, family member, or workmate into a shop they may already frequent, and they can find comics there. That is fucking huge.
Obviously, if you can get them into a decent comic shop, even better. They have a better range, and the expertise to give tailored recommendations, something the better shops excel at; it’s in their long-term interests that new readers leave with something they’ll love, after all.
Of course, all this involves actually getting off your arse and going to a physical shop, but the advent of digital comics means you can now buy comics right from your phone, tablet, or computer, and read them nigh instantaneously. With webcomics, you don’t even have to pay for the things; just pull them up in your browser and away you go.
All of this is great for readers, creators, and comics as an artform. Making comics easy and convenient to engage with is great for the long term health of the medium, and seeing a continuing trend in that direction makes me bloody happy.
What these developments contribute to is an increase in availability, which is, necessarily, a decrease in scarcity. I’m old enough and ugly enough to remember when comics, especially the American ones of which I was so enamoured, were rarer than rocking horse shit. Where a kid these days has their pick of previously hard to find issues on digital platforms like Comixology, when I was a young Warthog, I had to go to a shop that had a back issue selection.
Just finding the shops was hard enough. I couldn’t Google them, because the internet was still in it’s infancy, I could only get on it down the library, and none of the shops had websites anyway. And I couldn’t ask someone where to find a comics shop, because I didn’t know anyone else that liked comics. We forget how easy the internet has made it for us to find like minds, but mid-90s Britain, contrary to popular belief and wanky talking-heads retrospective shows, was dire. Imagine a decade so utterly depressing that Tony Blair was a ray of hope. Seriously.
It’s hard to describe just how great it was to find a comic shop at this time, or even just a book shop that sold a few second hand comics; to go, in a blink of an eye, from a world where I had no way to find more of these things I adore, to a world where I did. In that moment, it barely mattered what comics they had, just that they did.
Even better, my parents and grandparents were so glad I enjoyed reading, and so keen to encourage the habit, that they actively encouraged me to dig through endless longboxes to find something to read. I understand now that this was less an indulgence for my sake, and more a tactical surrender on their part. A child with something to read is far more amenable to being dragged round department stores for hours at a time. Still, I take great satisfaction in the knowledge that my lifelong comics habit, the extent and cost of which is regularly decried by my family, was actively encouraged, and indeed funded by them.
My absolutely favourite shop to hit was the Black Cat Book Shop in Leicester. When I first discovered it, it was in the shoddy late-Victorian splendour of the Silver Arcade, before moving to Charles Street when the Silver Arcade closed down. It had a good couple of thousand comics, all bagged and boarded in great dusty longboxes, and it was my idea of heaven. Even now, the best part of two decades on, I can remember the quality of the light in both premises, the way the books smelt, the light yellowing on the price stickers.
In places like this, you’d occasionally find the thing you were looking for, but just as often you’d find something you weren’t aware of at all. Like I said, this was before the popularisation of the internet, so the young X-men fanatic couldn’t just pull open Wikipedia to swat up on X-men lore. I literally did not know that Impulse, my favourite character from JLA: World Without Grown-Ups, had his own series until I found a bloody great stack of them at Black Cat. Naturally, I bought as many as I could afford, and kept going back to snag more whenever I could. There was a sense of exploration, of discovery, and of genuine achievement when you found what you were after.
I don’t want to go back to those days, when most series were never collected into trade paperbacks, meaning if you missed something on release, you would have to really hunt it down to read the thing. Likewise, I don’t want to go back to a time when comics fans were far more isolated than they are now. Like I said earlier, availability and access is colossally important, and essential to the future health of the industry and the art form.
For almost nine years now, I’ve tried to avoid buying single issues when they come out, with the exception of a few series I really want to support (usually those written by Jamie S. Rich or Matt Miner). Single issues are just inconvenient for me. They’re awkward to store, often full of adverts, and it’s a pain in the arse reading a sixth of a story at a time (with most titles). Trades sit neatly on my shelves, are easy to carry around, easy to lend to friends, and have no bloody ads in them. They are the future of the industry, as I see it. Or at least the future of my relationship with it.
Still, when I have a light week or an hour spare, I can still be seen at Orbital Comics in central London, digging around in the back issue bins. If you hold you breath, and listen extra carefully, you may even here me inquire of an exasperated staff member:
“Are you absolutely sure you don’t have any issues of Impulse?”
I like to think eleven year old me would be proud.
Andy Waterfield is a fledgling comics writer living in London. Previously a contributing editor for Punknews.org, he divides his time neatly between reading comics, thinking about comics, writing this column, and planning elaborate comics-inspired drag looks. Sometimes he re-watches Robocop, too. He can’t for the life of him work out why he’s single. Follow his nonsense on Twitter.