by KC Carlson
One of the more frustrating parts of having a large collection of comic books is trying to keep it organized. Last time, I discussed some of the physical things (boxes, large enclosed areas) needed to keep comics from blowing around the neighborhood. But as they say, the job’s not over until the paperwork is done, so this time it’s all about the paperwork.
Some people with modest collections don’t even bother to document what they have — it’s what they don’t have that’s important to them. Want lists are almost as important to comic collecting as the comics themselves. After all, how many comics fans carry actual comic books in their wallets or purses?
According to an unofficial survey that I just didn’t bother to do, 100% of people who collect comic books have a want list. Many of us have a little piece of paper that’s tucked in the back of our wallets that tells us what we need to finish our collections. Mine’s a little bigger — I have a three ring binder I carry to shows. (I have a big list. I also have an aversion to tiny type, due to being old.) Even if you’ve ever thought, “Hey, I have to pick up the new Tiny Titans collection next time I’m at the comic shop” — well, that’s a want list also, even if it doesn’t physically exist.
FUDGING THE NUMBERS
In our goofy little hobby, you kinda have to know what you have before you can know exactly what you don’t. Which is complicated by the fact that sometimes your favorite series actually begins with #105 (Silver Age Flash) or if you want the first appearance of Amazing Spider-Man, you need a completely different comic book title (Amazing Fantasy) and issue #15, to boot. And three different title changes to get to that point.
Figuring out the last issues of canceled series is also occasionally problematic. I’ve spent decades futilely tracking down issues of Archie comics that never existed, due to lack of documentation about the final issues of some series. At one point, I was told by the editor of a leading price guide that they occasionally would deliberately publish an incorrect last issue number on a title that “didn’t matter” (frequently Archie titles, because “who collects those?”), in order to determine who was “stealing” their data. Said editor never realized how close I was to murder on that day. (I doubt that a jury of comic book fans would have convicted me.) Unfortunately, these “errors” were in their publications for years, although hopefully, the practice of deliberately printing factual errors is now long in the past.
In more recent years, where long-running titles have stopped and started with alarming frequency (and no rhyme or reason to consistency), you now also have to know the volume number of the books you are missing. And lord help you on the titles that have switched back and forth from whole numbers to volume numbers.
PREPARING A LIST AND CHECKING IT TWICE
What you actually need to help you both effectively figure out your comic book inventory, as well as formulate your want lists, is something akin to a checklist system.
In pre-computer days, that meant a lot of time pouring over the Overstreet Price Guide (the only one at the time) to figure out all the mysteries of comic book numbering. Back then, it was kind of like archaeology in a way, because even Overstreet didn’t have all the answers. The Overstreet Price Guide first appeared in 1970 — which meant that there were at least three decades (and now we know there were even more!) of comic history that was not completely documented. Mostly because the comics publishers themselves largely didn’t bother to keep track of their own history! Modern fans owe a huge debt to the hundreds of collectors and historians who have managed to find out not only who did what when, but a lot of the “why?” as well. And new things are being learned all the time.
My early comics inventory lists were typed sheets of paper with strings of sequential numbers that I would later “X” off when I got an acceptable copy of that issue number (i.e., not beat up or stripped). I didn’t care much about grading comics back then — nor now. Comics were either “good” or “bad”, condition-wise. I did the best that I could with carbon paper (photocopying was not available to me back then), but it was still a lot of typing. I’m amused at my youthful enthusiasm in typing out long-running titles like Action, Adventure, Detective, Batman, and Superman from #1, assuming that I was going to get them at some point. That was never going to be within my means, but I am amazed that I do know people today that have full runs of these titles. I think I still have these early self-inventory checklists in a box somewhere. I have everything in a box somewhere…
TAKE A CARD, ANY CARD…
Later on, I discovered collector cards — 3 x 5 index cards, preprinted with a 100 (or 50) block grid, that you could check off as you acquired books. I had hundreds of these (at least seven card boxes filled with them), until the companies that produced them sadly went out of business. A retailer friend of mine actually wrote to the defunct company to inquire about getting more, but they wrote back that they were done — and amazingly sent stats of the original blank cards if we wanted to try it ourselves. I think we did run a small batch, but quickly discovered that getting them properly cut (trimmed) was either going to be incredibly expensive or very time-consuming by hand. Somewhere in my files, I think I still have the original stats of these, but I haven’t seen them in years.
One of the big advantages of the collector cards were that they were reasonably portable. A lot of my cards were “completed”, so I was able to separate them out from the cards which had “holes” in them. The incomplete cards would fit nicely in just one file box that I could take to shows. While I was looking for back issues, I could hold the specific cards in one hand while flipping through the box with the other. Worked pretty well, I thought, until I dropped the file box, scattering the cards all over the floor.
By this time, computers were evolving to the point that it was inevitable that they were going to be affordable enough to be in homes. So pioneering folks started building their own databases for comic collecting, and various programs were soon being offered for sale. I almost got one of these inventory systems, but just as I was about to plunk down the money, they decided to stop offering it for the Mac. I wasn’t about to get a different computer system just to have a computerized inventory, so I never went down that road. Today, I’m aware of many available online inventory systems, but I’m not really interested in getting one any more — having decided that doing it myself is a lot more fun and makes me feel like more of a real collector again. I still don’t have a lot of time to mess with it too much, but then again, I’m not looking for a lot of back issues these day’s either. Setting up an effective computer inventory/checklist has evolved into a slow-burning project for my semi-retirement. It’s kinda fun learning (or re-learning) a lot of this stuff.
PLEASE LEASH YOUR PET PEEVES
Tracking and inventorying comics is a lot more complex these days than it was when I was a kid. Back then, you just had long-running series to follow. Back then, a “limited” series was one that was canceled within a year or so from when it started, like Bat Lash (7 issues) or the first Silver Surfer series (18 issues). Even when planned miniseries began in the 1980s, they weren’t too hard to track.
Nowadays, almost every long-running series has been stopped and restarted at least once. My least favorite is when they restart a series with a new number one, switch it back to the original numbering, just in time for an Anniversary issue, then cancel it again for a new number one… ad nauseum. When a series or character has a large number of miniseries and one-shots, that can be challenging to inventory as well — especially hoping you haven’t missed something. My Wolverine-related inventory page has over 100 separate title entries on it — Wolvie has a lot of one-shots and minis. I dread getting to Batman. I know that I have at least four or five boxes of minis and one-shots for him. I think there’s at least one box with just Batman Elseworlds projects in it.
Besides the current explosion of brand-extending titles, doing a proper inventory also includes acknowledging all the variant covers being published today. Even if you don’t buy them all (I don’t), you still have to deal with them in some way, even if it’s just to eliminate the ones you don’t want — because years after the fact, unsold variants routinely get dumped into dollar boxes along with everything else, and if you don’t know the difference, you could end up buying a lot of “wrong” covers. Worst new trend in covers: Covers that have nothing to do with what the comic itself is about — or even feature a completely different character (i.e. Thor Goes Hollywood). What Th–?!
Since we’ve talking pet peeves here, one more before I finish — and one that is not so much an inventory problem, but a logistical problem if you have a large collection. Say I wanted to go back and read all the Onslaught tie-ins again. (You may ask why, but that’s not the point.) There are somewhere around 40 chapters to this story, not even counting aftermath stuff, like Thunderbolts. In my collection, they are all filed in boxes by their original titles (Uncanny X-Men, Avengers, etc.). Which means that they are most likely in about 20-30 different boxes — which probably would entail moving 50-75 boxes to get to them all. It would also mean that spending a couple hours finding and reassembling all the pieces again. (Not to mention going online to research the correct reading order.)
I’ve done stuff like this a couple of times with other crossovers, and by the time I was finished, I no longer felt like reading them again.
Might be smarter to get the collected editions of these, no?
Or not bothering with crossovers altogether.
Large Comic Book Collections: Good reading or good cardio exercise? You be the judge!
KC CARLSON: In the “old days”, when comic books were cheap, and crossovers were short, I’d solve this problem by buying “doubles” of the crossovers I really liked. Can’t really do that anymore when comics are 3 or 4 dollars a pop — or more! And current crossovers like Flashpoint and Fear Itself run for more than 50 tie-in issues!
Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.