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.