A Collector’s Dilemma: Navigating Comic Book Universes over the Decades
Collecting comics in the 1970s was a real nerd-life, but it looked much different than now.
Recently, my partner began doing artwork on an iPad, and one afternoon, I returned to one of my passions as a teenager, drawing super heroes.
Over the past year, facing as I am creeping into my 60s, I have also returned to collecting comic books, focusing on Daredevil and now Black Widow. Collecting, reading, and drawing from comic books were central to my teenage life from about 1975 through the early 1980s.
Diagnosed with scoliosis in the summer of 1975, just before entering ninth grade, I took solace in those comic books as I struggled against not only the usual terrors of adolescence but also the specter of living life in a clunky body brace throughout high school.
The brace was incredibly uncomfortable, and standing at the long bar separating our kitchen and living room was an ideal place for me to draw from the growing number of Marvel comics I was buying each week.
Collecting comics in the 1970s was a real nerd-life, but it looked much different than now. I visited two pharmacies and one convenience store on comic book release day, carefully sorting through spinner racks. Eventually I had paper catalogues of the books I owned in a 3-ring binder.
Back issues were also a real challenge, but I scoured the for-sale section of the print newspaper and found comic book sellers in the ads of the Marvel comics I collected. Once, my father even took me to a comic book convention in Atlanta.
But in many ways, the 1970s were a very naive time, much simpler and incredibly problematic.
Even then, as I note in my full-length examination of comic books, Marvel seemed overly focused on new readers; comic book publishers know where their money is made — the foundational and enduring characters — and cannot resist returning over and over to their origin stories.
Adulthood interfered with my collecting, and in one of the worst decisions of my life, I sold my 7000-book Marvel collection to help make a downpayment on a townhouse. I squirreled away my full run of Howard the Duck (volume 1), but all the other magical runs — Conan, Spider-Man, Daredevil, X-Men, etc. — were handed over to a comic book store in Charlotte, NC, so that I could properly adult.
After the Frank Miller reboot of Batman and the first Batman films with Michael Keaton, I dipped my toes back into collecting briefly because several of my high school students were collectors. However, since the early 1980s, I really had mostly abandoned the comic book world.
One of the great pleasures of my career shift in 2002 — from high school English teacher for 18 years to college professor, 20 years and counting — was starting to write and publish comic book scholarship, and later, often blogging about comic books.
A couple summers ago, I made a huge change in my life, and with turning 60, I decided to allow myself my pleasures, even if they seemed childlike, childish. With the encouragement of my partner, then, I returned to actively collecting comics, and moved my collection into our apartment (from my office).
Even though I have much more disposable income at 60 than I (or my working-class parents) did as a teen, I recommitted to collecting with parameters of spending less than a few dollars per book (maybe $10 or $12 from time to time) even though I was targeting the 620+ issue run of Daredevil — to which I have added the much smaller run for Black Widow (after noticing a recent issue had a legacy numbering of 50).
From the naive and simpler 1970s until the 2020s, huge changes have occurred in comic books — the multiple reboots, the rise of the film adaptations, and the nearly fatal collapse of over-saturation in the 1990s.
But for me, a comic book lover and collector reconnecting with the super hero world, I find the constant renumbering and rebooting maddening.
The quest for complete runs is a nightmare of Dante’s Inferno proportion.
As I flip through back issues at the 2 or 3 local comic book stores, I have the Notes app open and typically have to click a Fandom link to make sure I am buying a book I need since Marvel provides precious little information for collectors on the covers (currently, however, most do have legacy numbering).
I find the reboots and renumbering some of the worst decisions made by comic book publishers, notably DC and Marvel. Again, these behaviors prioritize new readers, and leave life-long fans and collectors behind. Yes, I am well aware that comic books are a business and the market drives a great deal of what happens in the pages of my favorite titles.
It is maddening none the less.
A perfect example is Black Widow. I jumped into volume 8 of Black Widow, a wonderful run written by Kelly Thompson and drawn beautifully by Elena Casagrande and Rafael De Latorre (and others).
When I noticed that issue 10 of volume 8 was legacy number 50, I was motivated to collect the entire run of Black Widow, a seemingly doable project.
I turned again to Wikipedia and Fandom, constructing another outline on my Notes App. However, I soon noticed that if I collected every issues of the identified 8 volumes, I would own far more than 50 issues.
I reached out on Twitter and searched frantically on Google — but finding a clarification for how Marvel determined legacy numbering, and why Black Widow has 8 volumes with conflicting total issue numbering, was nearly impossible.
It seems, according to Fandom, that Marvel counts only volumes 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 in the legacy numbering — another maddening layer to collecting in 2021.
And this is just Black Widow, a relatively fringe character in print comics (although her status appeared to be much greater in the MCU); when I grabbed some recent Spider-Man issues (prompted by noticing Thompson writing there also), I am even more frustrated by the layers and layers of reboots and alternate universes.
Where, o where, is Spider-Man of my teen years?
I don’t want to be the old man shouting for kids to get off my lawn; I do want to stay reconnected with Daredevil and Black Widow, along with other loved characters such as Wolverine and X-Men.
But I must admit, Marvel isn’t making it easy, and I am not even sure they care.