So there I was, for the first time in my life, drifting out of a comic book shop empty-handed–not for lack of money or delay in shipments or some sort of act of God or epic tragedy, but simply for lack of desire. There was nothing in the store that I wanted.
This was a huge shock to me. During my seven years in Japan, I had dreamed of this moment, of the grand reunion between me and American comics. It was going to be epic. I was going to drown under wave upon wave of four-color fantasy, my mind spending restless hours updating continuity maps, revising origins, revisiting old friends and making new discoveries with every page. There would be fireworks, and rare champagne and tidings of great joy all around! Or so I had imagined.
Instead of the grand reunion, I was forced to confront the fact that maybe I just didn’t need comics anymore. It was a lot like when I quit smoking. Instead of actually quitting, I just challenged myself to go twenty-four hours without a cigarette. When I hit my target, I decided to stretch it out to forty-eight hours. I wasn’t planning to totally quit, and I had kept myself going thinking about how good it was going to be when I hit my goal and would celebrate with a nice tasty cigarette. But when I passed my goal and went to go claim my prize, I realized I didn’t want a cigarette anymore. I was over them.
So I was off the comics. But not completely. Later, at a chain bookstore, I did decide to pick up a couple of trade collections of two series that had looked interesting when I was reading comics news sites back in Japan. House of M was the first one, being Marvel’s big game-changer and the mysterious whispering of “No more mutants…” and Infinite Crisis was my DC pick, as I had always dearly love the original Crisis on Infinite Earths comic and figured Geoff Johns and Phil Jimenez was a pretty much unbeatable combination.
They were both pretty meh to be perfectly honest.
House of M was a confusing mess, and I realized I would have to pick up numerous other Marvel trades in order to make sense of the story. Too many tie-ins, too many cross-overs…I don’t want to be forced to buy a library just to make sense of a single story. The price of entry was just too high.
Infinite Crisis was better but also failed to deliver. The original Crisis on Infinite Earths had not only re-created the DC Universe from scratch, making everything old new again, but it was also a perfect combination of writer and artists, with Marv Wolfman somehow magically able to make me care about a character I had never heard of until his death. Infinite Crisis was more flash-bang, style-over-substance and, ultimately, story-without-consequences. Don’t get me wrong; it was well done. But it seemed more like an exercise in continuity clean-up rather than real bold change. The false-start of bringing back the multiverse had already happened with hypertime in 1999’s series The Kingdom, and anyways, that is going backwards not forwards.
House of M was quickly abandoned, and I didn’t bother picking up anything connected with it. But Infinite Crisis had interested me enough to grab Identity Crisis (a very nice little mystery that I enjoyed immensely) and the four-volume 52 (an absolutely awesome series, and everything that a comic mini-series should be). Some of the things I saw in 52 got me interested in a few other characters, and so I went to check out those series as well. By this time, I had assembled a nice little collection of trades, and was hit by a sudden realization.
I was no longer a comic reader. I was now a trade paperback reader.
This was a bit of a shock for me because I had never been a trade paperback reader. Comics were comics! They were little floppy magazines that I treasured and placed in plastic bags and pulled out and looked at and read and then treasured some more. Old comics were like a piece of history and carried so much more weight than the stories within them. And they were designed to be read in installments, sampled in monthly tidbits like a rare cheese–not gobbled down like a bag of Doritos.
Trade paperbacks, on the other hand, are more like books. They are readable and disposable. I don’t mind using one to set my coffee mug on. I don’t mind passing them on to friends when I am done reading them, never to see them again. After all, if I ever want to read a book a second time, I can always run down to the used book store and pick up a copy for far cheaper than it would be to get one new, and the contents inside don’t change.
And there it was. Being able to buy them used was the part that really hooked me on the trades. Near my house was an entrepreneurial used-bookstore owner (a shout-out to you Chris, at Spine and Crown books in Seattle!) who decided to specialize in used comic book trades. He put all trades up for about half-price, and you could bring in your old ones for store credit when you were finished with them. His store had a massive collection of comic trade paperbacks, and all for reasonable prices.
I think the first series of trades I picked up from Spine and Crown was Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run. I had always been a Kitty Pryde fan, and John Cassaday draws the X-Men better than almost anyone alive. The series was beautiful: great story, great art. It was the X-Men that I loved, resurrected before my eyes.
From there, I went on a feeding frenzy, buying whatever I could from Spine and Crown’s used stock. Barry Kitson’s 2004 Legion of Super-Heroes re-launch (awesome!), Marvel’s Civil War series (the main book is fantastic, but pass on most of the side books), The Ultimates (the first two are perfect, with Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch, but the third series, with artist Joe Madureira, was a let-down), All-Star Batman and All-Star Superman (lovely), and Kurt Busiek’s Conan (a rare tribute to Robert E. Howard). If I didn’t like it, I took it back and got credit for something new. It was a win-win situation.
I finally had the grand re-union with comics that I had hoped for. We would still be together, still be buddies, but just in an altered form. Instead of floppy friends that I treasured and placed in little plastic bags and treasured again, I would have comics in a more esoteric medium, in the disposable softback. Reading comics in the trade paperback form made it more about the stories and the ideas rather than the physical product. I could read one in the bath and not worry about getting it wet.
And realistically, that is what comics originally were anyways. Disposable. Most people didn’t hoard their early Whiz and Action comics. They read them and passed them off, traded them or tossed them. Things could often be read in re-prints if you needed them, and a re-print was as good as the original if the story didn’t change. Maybe making the switch from “floppies” to “trades” is getting back to the original spirit of the American comic.
I did try, by the way, to pick up a few old-fashioned floppy comics off the shelves of my local comic shop. I made a decision to buy only mini-series: where the end was already
decided, and it wasn’t an indefinite commitment. Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis was a huge disappointment, and now I can’t even trade in my old issues for something better. The new Ambush Bug series probably won’t make it to a trade, and I enjoyed that immensely. Hellboy and Astro City are books of consistent quality and the only books that I bother to collect both the original issues and the collected editions.
Because that is just how much I love them.