This column has been in the works for awhile. It was originally intended to be a lighthearted thing, a regular Showing off the Shelves. But much like writing as a whole, like life as a whole, it has been difficult in recent months due to the sudden passing of my dad. I’m dealing with that now, as much and as well as a person ever really can – but I wanted to share a piece of what and why I collect, because it is perhaps the most enduring part of what he left me. Perhaps letting this out raw and unrefined is for the better.
I’ve often described myself as a second-generation nerd. My mom collected Star Trek fanzines and novels, and was annoyed by the 2009 reboot of the series for failing to take the EU in to account (my delight in watching her act like I do when I’m annoyed by something nerdy was also what had me start watching TOS in earnest). My dad, however, was the first person to tell me that a season of television was bad – the third season of Trek, to be precise, and the budgetary issues that caused it. It was the first time I was aware that television had seasons, and would set the stage for my interest in the behind-the-scenes aspect of television. Not for the sake of knowing, but to better understand the art form that would spur me to become a writer. I am, at heart, someone who will always enjoy serial media more than a standalone piece, and it is comics and television that made it so.
His dislike of Specter of the Gunmen aside, his positivity and pleasure in comics was my first introduction to the idea of collecting at all. As a child, I knew how to deal with his old Silver Age collection; scrub up like it’s time for surgery, bring a single bagged and boarded comic to a clean area, take the comic out, read it in such a way as to not cause tears, creasing or bending… then put it back and start again, because one was never going to be enough. The comics I first read were the same ones he read as a child, possibly the same copies in some cases, though I admit I was generally not allowed to handle material in Very Fine condition or higher, or material older than he was. That still left me hundreds and hundreds of pre-Crisis DC titles to explore, and so I did.
While I got my start with floppies of Batman and Superman, my real love was always television and the DC Animated Universe. My very first memory, in fact, is episode eight of Batman TAS. While cartoons were generally not to my dad’s taste, even Batman The Brave and the Bold (a delight to anyone who has even a passing interest in the Silver Age Batman), and Adam West’s Batman wasn’t much to mine, we went to the comic book store every month and usually found a Bat-title that piqued our interest. And when we couldn’t, we branched out for more. There is a strangeness seeing my Batman TAS box set next to his Batman ’66 Blu-ray box set that the family got him for Christmas last year. I’m going to need to give that another try, now that I understand what the show is supposed to be.
It is no wonder that when my parents wanted to give me a Christmas present a decade back, they chose a comic I had never read, one which served as the template for Batman to this day: Batman Year One. I’m not going to review it here, but I will say it is unquestionably the Batman story he and I agreed on the most. There is nothing about that series I dislike, and the same went for him. I think we both bought Year One titles in the hopes that they’d be anywhere near as good – and while they never were, it was always fun to read.
From that first comic came my collection of trade paperbacks, bolstered by Knights of the Dinner Table, from one with Batman Year One to the current count of 484. I had just started to get dad in to the post-Crisis period of DC, a period he generally disliked due to the art and eradication of his childhood stories, though he enjoyed the post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint era tremendously. I got to share in his distaste when Flashpoint hit, canceling every single title we were reading at the time. It’s strange how I’ll never be able to say, “Look, I broke five hundred.” It’s stranger that the last comic he read, the final issue of Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner’s Starfire, will see its place on my shelves in trade form without him taking it out to enjoy – and rue that it’s just not quite the same without Conner’s interior art. He was like that even as a kid. He could spot Curt Swan, Carmine Infantino, and followed their work in DC end-to-end. I honestly think eighty percent of the reason that he disliked DC post-Crisis was because Curt Swan was no longer the primary artist for Superman. I don’t blame him.
You might think, reading this, that my collection is an imitation of my dad’s. While there were comics I bought for him, like the collections of Silver and Golden Age DC newspaper comics (Pete Poplaski’s cover art is so gorgeous that I own three copies of the Superman Sunday books just because they have different covers), our tastes diverged after about 1969 in that he didn’t like that era and I did, and only meaningfully met up again around 2005. Even then, it was never totally in sync. While I enjoyed trades more and more rather than the hassle and cost of single issues, expanding my interests even further than DC, he never quite found that fervor… with the exception of tens of thousands of pages of material that collected material from the era he enjoyed, stretching back to Action Comics #1. And oh my, was it ever wonderful to see that original version of Superman with Siegel and Shuster.
I only really managed to get him interested in one of my favorite artists – George Perez –a few years ago, and that was a feat in and of itself. Thirty years seemed about right for him to heal from the wounds Crisis left on him, so much so that he went through the Absolute Edition just to enjoy the art. And just a week ago I got hold of a copy of JLA/Avengers, something we had always planned on getting but could never find at a price that made sense. It’s strange to hold that book in my hands now, because he can’t and never will. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to read it.
Still, collecting comics is never something someone does in isolation. There’s always a secondary bit of nerdery there, or tertiary, or quatenary, quinary… in my case I collect old television shows, things that never had official releases. Along with alternate cuts, deleted scenes, pilots, leaked content, all from shows I enjoy, having these is a pleasure. I doubt there’s anyone out there who didn’t actually work on the show with a more complete collection of Motorcity than I have. From this clip alone I was inspired to find copies of Boston Common, among dozens of other shows that never came out on DVD, just to make sure someone had a copy of them.
Television, for all its flexibility of narrative, will always be my favorite medium. When Doctor Who came back (and I do have copies of Doctor Who Confidential in full), it took me several years to go back and see the Fourth Doctor. Imagine my surprise when I found a kindred spirit with the seasons by Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, and imagine further my surprise when my dad mentioned that he used to watch that Doctor when he was growing up. The only Fourth Doctor pieces that I own that Holmes wasn’t a part of are Shada and City of Death. If you can believe it, of the two stories I prefer the animated reconstruction of Shada. Proving that even as a nerd, I’m a bit of a weirdo – I don’t take pride in that for its own sake, but I’m glad I’m comfortable with my own likes to say it.
After all that, why do I collect things? The easy answer is to say it’s something passed down, or it’s genetic in me to collect and complete things, or because I always have. The genetics thing may be a bit true, but dad was a completionist, a Silver Age and DC fanboy. The collection I have has just a fraction of those Silver Age or 2005-onward era titles we shared, with webcomics, manga, newspaper comics, Disney, Marvel, the original Eastman and Laird Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Spirit, those are mine. It just so happens to be something of mine that would never have happened without him showing the corner of comics that belonged to him.
I originally started this paragraph with a small list of things that I enjoy, from games to comics to television to even the occasional movie, that came from him. But I deleted it because it was too long, and because it was his influence that was the gateway to those mediums as a whole. And each of the way I appreciate them came in part from understanding why he collected things. Simply put, there is no other, better reason to collect than to enjoy what you find… and that there are thousands upon thousands of things that can fit the bill.
The influence of that attitude facilitated getting in to Pokemon (my dad once got to the kill screen on Donkey Kong), computers and the internet (he learned very quickly that Usenet could rack up a phone bill, and taught me the foundations for everything I use to work with technology. At the age of three years old I used to wake my parents up at 6AM if I couldn’t remember the DOS commands to get in to Reader Rabbit Teaches Typing) being able to share Calvin and Hobbes with my mom, talking to my brother about One Piece, arguing about whether Supernatural should have ended with its fifth season (it should have, though his showing me the episode with God from season eleven is a pretty good argument that I’m wrong), a thousand other joys and irritations and ways to learn about stories and how to tell them, and to never accept that something that’s just ‘okay’ as good enough. I could understand people better because of him, make friends because of him. Even if he didn’t share the things I liked, they came in part because of him.
What I do in life is not an imitation or a tribute. I’d be a far different person, and lesser at it than he was, lesser at it than the skills I have worked to cultivate, if I tried. What I am and what I do is the result of what any good parent does – helping their child find what they’re good at and what they love, and encouraging them to pursue it. From this criteria alone, setting aside with countless other things that belong in separate articles and the eulogy I gave, the only thing I could think to do to pay homage to him, I can say without reservation or hesitation that I have good parents.
Thanks, dad. Check out the shelves – they’re looking pretty amazing right now.