Getting Physical

The primary task of the What Were Comics? team over the past two months has been acquisitions. There are 3, 563 comic books in our corpus, ranging from Bringing Up Father (1934) to Young Avengers #14 (2014), representing a randomly sampled two per cent of the comic books published in the United States from 1934 to 2014 inclusive. To date, we have worked with three comics shops (The Beguiling in Toronto, Lone Star Comics in Arlington, and Mile High Comics in Denver) to acquire physical copies of our corpus. Just over two-thirds of the collection is now in our greedy little hands.

Even though we have a fairly substantial budget line item for comic book acquisitions, one thing that has become clear to us quickly is that we will not be able to acquire all 3, 563 comic books that we are studying with our current funding envelope. One reason for this is that many of the comics in the corpus are bank-busters. Even with the remit of buying the lowest grade copies we can find, a comic book like Action Comics #17 is prohibitively expensive. Lone Star, for example, has an incomplete copy of this item (coverless, and missing parts of its pages) on sale for $444. That’s just too rich for us, even if it were complete. The second reason, of course, is that some of our sampled comics we simply cannot locate for sale at any price. We are on the lookout for four different issues of Gulf Funny Weekly, and we haven’t found any issues for sale.

 Too rich for us, alas...

Too rich for us, alas...

Needless to say, the combination of expense and scarcity has hit us particularly hard in the earliest part of our study. Currently, we own physical copies of three comic books from 1940 and none at all from the 1930s. As we move closer to the present our success rate improves dramatically. Without actually running the numbers, we probably have greater than 98% of the comics we want from the 2010s, and greater than 95% from the 2000s. Basically, we have picked almost all of the low-hanging fruit and what remains to be bought is material from the first forty years of our study. Particularly notable gaps in our collection fall in the areas of early romance comic books and horror comics, while the most surprising gaps may be children’s comics from the past two decades (think Nickelodeon).

So, what to do about these gaps?

Well, in the first instance, we will do provisional work on comic books that we can find digitally. While we may only own physical copies of about fifteen per cent of our comic books from the 1940s, we own electronic scans of probably eighty per cent or more of them.

Initially, I was quite content to work from scans that are available on ComicBookPlus or the Digital Comics Museum. Not only would we save funds, but they are easy to handle and easy to share with our research assistants. Over the course of the past two months, however, I’ve really changed my mind. I now see the scans as a back-up and a tool of last resort. Let me explain why.

As our comic books have rolled in, we have been cataloguing them and tagging them with a unique identifying number. This week they were all arranged chronologically and deposited on industrial shelves in the WWC office. It only takes a glance to see the importance of dealing with physical objects rather than electronic copies. For instance, simply looking at the books on the shelves highlights the way that squarebound comic books were much common in the 1960s than may be generally assumed. Moreover, look at the spine for Lone Ranger #47, with its factoids about jaguars. In the words of Nick Sousanis, “it’s almost a random encyclopedic entry and nonsense poetry all at once”. We don’t have an electronic copy of this book, but if the spine weren’t scanned I think we would be missing something important.

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More generally, the physical arrangement of the comic books on the shelves tells its own story: you can actually watch the books shrink in physical size, for example. Moreover, we wind up with somewhat wacky looking shelves like this one:

 Magazine-sized comic books stand out like a sore thumb in the 1970s

Magazine-sized comic books stand out like a sore thumb in the 1970s

Here we see a series of magazine-sized comic books all arriving in a short time span: Mads, Crackeds, Crazys, Spirits, Eeeries, and even Planet of the Apes. While we have earlier magazine-sized comics (including a Humbug on the top shelf) we have nothing else like this many of them and by the mid-1990s they almost completely disappear except for a couple of late-era Mads.

Similarly, we can see at a glance the rising move towards graphic novels and collected editions that begin to show up in volume only on our final three shelves, where we find several books of several hundred pages that are hell-bent on skewing our page count averages.

 Our comics get thicker as the years go by...

Our comics get thicker as the years go by...

We’re still on the hunt for more books from our corpus, of course. Sometime soon we should have a better sense of which comics might be impossible to find in any form – physical or digital – and we will then need to address that issue through a selective re-sampling. This is the main reason that we have not yet published the corpus list to our site – we know that this is likely to be only the semi-final version. Nonetheless, we’re excited to be sharing the corpus document here in the near future and we will write about it in greater detail at that time.

Acquisitions Mode

We've been horribly negligent in terms of updating this blog, and I'm hoping to write something a little more substantial in the next few days. We (Ben Woo and Bart Beaty) provided an update to the comics scholars community earlier this month at ICAF in Seattle that is certainly worth expanding on here for the record. This isn't that post.

In a nutshell: This past summer we concluded the work of assembling the What Were Comics? sampling frame. This meant cross-checking our three data sources (the Grand Comics Database, the Overstreet Price Guide, and the database at MyComicShop.com) for works that are in all three. The resulting Excel spreadsheet was then organized by year, and we randomly sampled to generate a corpus that amounts to two per cent of the comics in our sampling frame, by year and rounded up. This is the What Were Comics? corpus and it amounts to 3,563 comic books.

 Hand-checked copy of Overstreet required seven highlighters...

Hand-checked copy of Overstreet required seven highlighters...

So. We are now in the process of acquiring those comic books. Ideally, we would like to have physical and digital copies of each of them. Realistically, this may not be possible. For instance, our corpus includes four different issues of Gulf Funny Weekly from 1934 to 1940, and we have yet to find any copies for sale. It also includes things like Action Comics #17. MyComicShop currently has two of those for sale, both of which are incomplete and which cost in the hundreds of dollars. Budget realities will work against us.

 Off to the library with this lot, space cleared for the What Were Comics? corpus

Off to the library with this lot, space cleared for the What Were Comics? corpus

That said, we are making progress. This month, I donated my collection of American comic books to Special Collections at the University of Calgary, but before I did I rifled through it for comics that appear in our corpus. At the same time, we have begun purchasing what we can - including buying more than 1,500 of the comics today in one fell swoop.

This has been an interesting exercise in comics buying. Notably, the vast majority of what we have bought so far has cost us less than $2 per book. It turns out that random Black Lightning comics from the 1970s are not that valuable. We are currently focussed on the lowest hanging fruit, acquiring as much as possible at prices below $20 per book. Once the dust settles, we will see about getting the older works that we need.

I think that the most interesting things that I have noticed so far is that two categories of books are trickiest to find: the first is reasonably contemporary children's comics (like Nickelodeon books), which are probably not in high demand and which don't have a big secondary market. The second are almost any kind of romance comics, which are causing huge gaps in the Excel spreadsheet. War comics from the 1950s? Easy. Western comics from the 1950s? Here you go! Romance comics from the 1950s? No way. There is certainly something substantial to be written here about gender and collecting...

Speaking of collecting, the one thing I was telling people at ICAF was that it was striking how the random sample turned up so few "important" comics. No Fantastic Four #1, no Detective Comics #27, and so on. This is mostly good news for the budget conscious researcher. However, yesterday I went to buy Marvel Super Heroes (2nd series) #8 from 1992, fully expecting it to cost about $1.70. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to learn that it is a "historically significant" comic book:

 Squirrel Girl is REALLY popular!

Squirrel Girl is REALLY popular!

So, the first appearance of current fan favourite Squirrel Girl is highly collectible. We've passed on this comic at those prices - just can't mentally justify it. We'll have to hope her stock goes down before the end of our project.

So. Sampling frame = Done. Corpus = Complete. Acquisitions = Ongoing. Coding Protocols = Drafted. Data Entry = About to begin beta-testing.

Back soon to talk about a couple of the larger issues. If you'd like to donate a copy of Marvel Super Heroes #8 to comics research, hit us up!