May 22, 2015

Constructing a Collection - Don't Knock the Quarter Bin

Five years ago, I started what I'd hoped would be a series of articles about constructing a comic collection. Five years later, all I have is that introduction, but I still think it's a pretty interesting thing to talk about. I do love talking and thinking about collecting (as this currently-fallow blog attests), so I'm resurrecting the series. We'll start with a consideration of the quarter bin.

(I'm going to pepper this post with actual scans of things I've found in dollar bins, just to give a sense of the scope and quality of comics available in such places.)

 Probably the first question/comment would likely be "What the heck is a quarter bin?" It's a testament to the time in which I was beginning to think about these articles that I would think of the bargain bins of many comic stores as "Quarter Bins." Sadly, the days of quarter comics, except at the occasional garage sale, are over. It' much more likely you'll see a "Dollar Bin" nowadays. But if we consider that some comics hit upwards of five dollars per issue, a dollar is pretty good.

Secondly, let's expand our definition of a Quarter/Dollar bin, which will actually place the notion of a 25 cent comic back on the table. Dollar Bins don't have to be located in comic stores. A flea market might have comics kicking about on a table for anything from a quarter to a dollar. I've found packages of comics for $10, which turned out to mean 50 cents per comic. The Quarter/Dollar bin is a collecting metaphor. Really, we can consider it as any place where one can procure comics for less than they are likely to be new or as collectibles in a comic store.

As far as I've ascertained, there are four categories of comics, one of which I've not yet been fortunate enough to procure. Every so often one will hear a story, be it online or from an acquaintance, about someone who is pouring through a stack of old comics at a flea market or garage sale, and comes across something ridiculous like Action Comics #1. It may not be in pristine condition, but, really, who cares?! Imagine finding that comic, regardless of condition, and getting it for a dollar. Or less. I live in hope that one of these days something similar will happen to me, so I have that kind of story. But not yet. This is not to say, however, that the other categories of comics one can find are not every bit as fun and exciting. It's just in different ways.

The above comic is The Adventures of Mighty Mouse #132, published by Pines Comics in, according to the GCD, 1956-ish. My old copy of the Overstreet lists this issue at $65 Near Mint, and $5 Good. I got this one for 50 cents. The staples are still good, the center page is still there. It's missing a cover, but, really, the cover is simply there to, well, cover things. For readers, at least, it's what's inside that's important. My point for this comic, and similar ones in my collection, is that I likely wouldn't have paid even $5 for a copy of it. I like the mid-eighties Mighty Mouse from Marvel, but the character's not a particular favourite. This comic, however, coming in a stack of similarly aged and conditioned comics, was a wonderful find. It's utterly, utterly strange, and revealed to me that the attributes I admire in the aforementioned Marvel version of Mighty Mouse are not unique to that era of the comic. And if I'd turned my nose up at cheap, coverless comics, I'd never have discovered it. The Quarter/Dollar bin can be a treasure trove of strangeness. Weird independent comics that never got much play on the shelves, battered up copies of old comics from the fifties (a decade that really was another planet). In my delving into these troves, I'll often pick out the strangest covers I can find (I know, I know, judging books etc.). Often they'll be bad. But occasionally, they'll be good.

Comics like this one are often shunned by collectors. They're in bad condition, they don't give the full presentation of what the original material artefact was. I prefer to see these comics as being well-loved. The rounded corners, the slight oil stain at the edge of each page, the dulled almost to brown pages and equally dulled colours. They've been around, seen a lot of wear. They've been read. And really, for a narrative in any medium, to have been told and retold, or to tell and retell, I suppose, is really the highest praise it can receive.

Further up the page is the Steve Gerber-penned Cybernary #1. A good portion of Gerber's output in the nineties was with Image, and much of it suffered from the fact that he had to cleave to the shared universe within which he wrote, a universe of gravity-defying breasts and psychotic superheroes. It is no secret to anyone who's read this blog for a while that I'm a huge fan of Gerber's work. But he's not one of those writers, like Gaiman or Moore, who is voraciously, and more importantly popularly, collected and read by the general comics reading public. Gerber's writing demonstrates another of the categories of dollar bin finds. I've found many, many of his old works in such places, the one-offs he did for Creatures on the Loose for Marvel, his 4 issues of Captain America from the late seventies. They're not well-regarded comics, likely because they were fill-in issues for the regular writer/artist team, but they do have something about them that's intrinsically Gerberian (a notion I'm exploring over at Sequart). If you've a propensity for the work of someone like Doug Moench, or would love to read the old adventures of Morbius, the Living Vampire, the dollar bin is a good bet. That said, I've definitely found obscure works by the likes of Moore and Gaiman in dollar bins. The popularity of a writer/artist/title is no guarantee of high cost for all of the associated works. If you're clamouring to read all of Neil Gaiman's comics output, have a look in your local dollar bin for Elric #0 from Topps, beautifully illustrated by P. Craig Russell. Or Moore's old Time Twisters from 2000 A.D. in Quality's Time Twisters series. The dollar bin is a wonderful place to find oddities that fit your collection that, in some cases, you never even knew existed.

"Those three types of comics are all well and good, Tom" I hear you say, "but what about new stuff?" Well, you're in luck, but only in a few places. The coverless old stuff, the quirky collection stuff, they're staples of the dollar bin. The rare find is just that, rare. The fourth category I've discovered isn't ubiquitous, and often only happens in comic stores that are quite small. My local store in Calgary (Phoenix Comics N.W.) has very limited space, and no back issue boxes, so when comics get too old and don't sell, they're relegated to the dollar bin. To the right is issue #3 of Dark Engine, publication date October 2014. So the comic's just slightly more than 8 months old. I found the first three issues of this series in Phoenix's dollar bin, and picked them up because, well, a dollar! And it turns out to be a really great and intriguing series, which, again, I very likely would not have picked up for the cover price. That said, I'm going to keep reading the series, and pay full price for subsequent issues. This particular use of the dollar bin is quite wonderful, I think. I get to try a new comic for a substantial discount, and the store stands a chance of creating a new reader who will then pay full price for the rest of the series. Phoenix Comics has been remarkable for this sort of find for me. A number of the series I am currently reading I initially found in that dollar bin, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to try new series without too much of an "am I wasting my money?" feeling.

(I probably shouldn't have mentioned where I got those new issues. All you Calgarian readers are going to go and scoop up all the good stuff now!)

I'll never stop shopping in the dollar bin. At the moment it's a nice way to grab a pile of comics and stay within a graduate student budget, but even when I start making actual money (that does happen, right?), I keep going to the dollar bin. For me, it is the place where the real wonder and fun of collecting comics is crystalised. There is the thrill of finding something cool and unique, of discovering the new or re-discovering the old. The smell of old newsprint wafts from them, the dust of years accumulates on your fingers as you search, your heart leaps when you think you've found something great. Were I ever to counsel someone on starting to build their own comics collection, I would say this: Take $50, go to a comic shop that has a substantial dollar bin, and get 50 comics. Base your purchase on how the comic looks, the characters on the cover, the genre it seems to be. You'll find great things and terrible things. And it will be one of the best $50 you spend in your life.

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