Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Catching the White Whale: A Collector's Story

The young’ns call them blogs, but I call them “essays.” I wrote the following essay the moment I got home from a very successful trip to a near-by comic convention, I was still riding the emotional high and was very excited to capture the energy, the emotions, and the experience. I needed to get it out and to share it. Since I originally wrote it, I've gone back in and edited things for clarity and humor. Please forgive me if you catch a screwed up past or present tense verb. If you make it to the end, thanks for your time! I even heard that two of my friends teared up while reading it. When you’re done, tell YOUR collector story in the comments!

On May 15th, 2015, I completed a collection. That doesn’t sound like much of a to-do for the “normals” who aren’t into that sort of thing. “That sort of thing” being, “the compulsion to seek out trivial bobbles that fill some imagined hole in one’s life.” But today ended a quest I’d been on since I was eleven years old. This isn’t the first time I’ve completed a collection, either. I completed my video game collection a few years ago. (that didn’t end well for the video game collection, but that’s another story) I don’t fully understand why my brain chemistry makes collecting things so important. The importance of objects has diminished greatly since my son Oliver was born, of course. In some ways, however, he’s a catalyst to inspire more collecting. We just had to track down the complete set of the preschool, Rescue Bot Transformers. Yet my love for his social well-being inspires me to make sure he understands how collecting, left unchecked, can be a harmful distraction from an authentic, stable, social and financial life.

All Things in Moderation.

Knowing the Difference Between “want” and “need.”

Be in Control and Conscientious in Everything You Do.

Know when you can throw all of that out the window. . . responsibly of course. Right?

At Motor City Comic Con, I found issue 29 of volume 4 of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For me, that completes every main-line book Mirage, Archie, IDW, and Image ever printed on the Turtles. Every one of them is a first print, except for the original, 1984 issue 1. No one NEEDS to spend $3000 on a comic book printed on the cheapest of yellowing newsprint. I didn’t know I had begun collecting anything at all when I walked into a used bookstore with my mom—maybe in 1992—off of 36th Street near the corner of Division Avenue in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a colorized, trade paperback reprint of the original three issues of the Mirage Ninja Turtles. It might have even been my first comic book ever. It was darker and grittier than the cartoon I loved, but it was awesome to my little 12 year-old brain . . . despite the perceived errors of having all their masks colored red, and Splinter having originally been a rat and not a human. Of course I didn’t know the comic WAS the original. And gosh, that old book smell. I love the smell of that book. Between that trade paperback and the first two regular issues of the Mirage run my Aunt Marie got me for a birthday (issues 48 and 49), these were my first Ninja Turtles comics and they’re still in my collection. Only now? I have EVERY issue.

Having every book in that run means a lot to me. I don’t know why. It’s very comfortable. Like having sorted your record albums autobiographically.

Realistically, in the grand scheme of life it means very little. Logically I know that. Maybe those feelings come from the simpler time of my life when I’d get on my bike—sometimes with my friend David—and ride down Division Avenue to the Shell Station on 28th street to buy the Archie Ninja Turtles series off the spinner rack. Remember when comics were sold at the grocery stores and gas stations? Fond memories. It’s part of my childhood. Maybe it’s not part of who I am now, but these books, these characters, these friends and memories are the runway on which adult Joseph Reed was launched. Having all these books is a physical connection to that time.

Dang, I’m old. I’m old enough for comics to come off a spinner rack?

Marrying my wife Jennie, hearing Oliver thudding through the house, being a teacher to many wonderful students . . . these things make me feel complete. These things make me the man I truly am. Having a complete collection of silly paperback books with anthropomorphic amphibians is . . . different. Having a family and a good job is the food. The nourishment. Collecting funny-books and toys is the candy of life. It’s the sprinkles and novelty wax candle number on the birthday cake. Totally unnecessary, but absolutely fun. Being a complete adult and being a complete geek don’t compare at all . . . except I just managed to make a food metaphor of it so maybe I did compare them.

I’ve been hunting for this book for . . . well . . . about twenty years. I didn’t know it; it was printed in 2008, but it was always “destined” to be released. So yeah. Twenty years. I’ve been specifically and actively hunting for this particular book for two years. I saw it at Motor City Comic Con one or two years ago and passed on it. At the time, I was purchasing the Turtle books sequentially from low numbers to high, based on how much disposable cash I had budgeted for myself on that particular outing. I saw it in a bin of back issues. At the time, I didn’t know how rare it was. I just bought the rest of what I needed to fill the gaps in the set. So once I got some of the other books out of the way and started looking for the later issues, I realized how gosh darned difficult 29 was being to find, I kicked myself for not knowing better and buying it when I saw it.

I waited in line outside the Suburban Collection Showplace on May 15th, 2015, got my ticket to MCCC, and walked straight for the booth I knew would be most likely to have it. This particular booth, run by the guys who put on the convention, always had a lot of Turtle books in their bins. It’s consistently been the most respectable selection of Turtle books I’ve been able to find in three states. No dice yet—they were still setting up the booth. I was too early. At the back of the booth, behind the long boxes of comics set up on tables, the racks (where the valuable comics usually were) were still empty. “If it’s going to be here, it’ll probably be back there on that rack,” I told the clerk. He agreed and I left to hit every other comic vendor in the building. I ran into Gavin and Deanna who manage a local, Grand Rapids comic store, Tardy’s Collector Corner. We’re pals, and they know what I’m into and what I’m looking for. “I’m on the hunt for that book. It’s the only reason I’m here,” I tell them. They’ve had their eyes open for me in the store as well and I love them for it. Compassionate people with the hook-up are awesome. I owe them for their awareness. The search continued. Over the next hour and a half, I had hit every comic booth and didn’t find a single thing I wanted or needed.

Defeated, I walked through artist’s alley and celebrity row. There were several folks there who broke my brain. Realizing Lieutenant Dax from Star Trek is a real human being complete with a waist, legs, feet, and shoes you don’t usually get to see on screen—and has a real life outside of the alien make-up. As a clear-thinking human, you know she’s an actor when you see her on TV, but seeing her and these other celebrities in person shocks you awake to the reality.

By then, I had given up on finding the book. I was sad and feeling it. It’s an investment using a personal day from work, driving across state, buying a ticket to a huge convention. . . and all for this one book, essentially. It ends up being a gigantic waste of time and money considering there are real-life things I could have been accomplishing. Still defeated, I head back toward Don Rosa to get an autograph for Oliver on his Scrooge books. I picked up a few other things here and there. Star Wars on BluRay for cheap. There was a heartfelt sadness as I walked by the Tardy’s booth again and talked to Deanna about not having found it. But you know? It’s a rare book. I knew very well I probably wasn’t going to find it. There were only 1000 of them printed and, as far as I’ve been able to research, were sold ONLY through the Mirage website. You had to KNOW the book was coming out AND you had to order it before it disappeared. There are fewer of these books than there are of the original #1 which had a print run of 3000. The likelihood of finding this book in the hands of someone who wasn’t keeping the book for his or her own collection was slim. Realistically, it ain’t gonna happen that easy. Keep in mind for over a year, not one week of my life had passed without my heading to Ebay and searching for, “tmnt turtles comic –idw –cover –variant –archie.” I usually searched daily if I managed to remember. I hadn’t seen the book online in those two years. Not once.

I am very literally on my way out of the building when I noticed, while walking by that first booth, behind the long boxes, the shelves were finally filled with the rare comics. I immediately stopped mid-stride to head over there.

On a rack, (oh my god there it is), I can see half the cover sticking out from behind a Peavey guitar box leaning against the shelf. Weeks ago I predicted I would be a blithering, weepy mess when I eventually did find it and I was not wrong. My trembling hand pointed at issue 29, volume 4 of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and my literally-quavering voice managed to eek out, “that’s the one I need.” Those words were all I could manage to get out. The clerk took it off the shelf and initially tried to tease me by picking it up and holding it just out of reach, saying, “you mean THIS one?” I think he saw the very real tears welling up in my eyes because he handed me the book pretty quick after that without another word. He realized that this grown-ass man was about to have a breakdown. There are all kinds of socially awkward at conventions and he had no idea which one I was or wasn’t. I managed to keep it together (mostly) for never actually expecting to see it in person. The book is within the price limit I had set for myself. Better yet, it was even autographed by Peter Laird.

Yeah, I’m done. Bam. Cash.

I didn’t even put the book in my satchel. I just carried it around with me like a security blanket in my trembling, numb hand. I took it over to Gavin to show him—the nearest person I knew who would give some sort of shit about what I just done. He was happy for me. I didn’t realize right away that he was holding out his hand wanting to see it. He probably thought I was keeping it like My Precious, but I’m not THAT crazy. He took it, gave it a discerning, experienced once over with his comic-shop-owner eyes, congratulated me and confirmed it was a good price. I certainly agreed. With that, I was officially done and could leave the convention. There was nothing else in that building I could possibly want. Were there more obscure turtle books I could have found in some bins? Unlicensed appearances? Crossovers? Yes. But I really didn’t care and I left the convention three hours earlier than I had scheduled. No other Turtle book out there will be as hard to find. And I can say that literally having searched E-bay for over a year.

What do normal people do with their spare time? People who don’t have this psychological candy to live for? What do they do to occupy their hands? I might call them, “boring” except the adult in me knows they’re probably living a social, spiritual life that is more complete than my superficial, material-based second-life. This is who I have though, in the little corner of my psyche: My inner child still plays there. That 9 year-old boy playing with Todd Binsz’s little plastic turtle toy. He was a grown man who received it as a gag gift, but he let me play with it. I had no idea what I was committing myself to by falling in love with that little thing as a child. It’s finally come full circle and his journey is complete. I mean seriously complete.

Whatever that means.