THE COLLECTOR'S MASSACREE
BY ANDY IHNATKO
I couldn't shake that line from the Classics: "And when Alexander reached the sea, he wept...for there were no worlds left to conquer." That's pretty much what I was experiencing at that moment.
Of course, the similarities between myself and Alexander the Great tended to drop off rather sharply after that. In truth, I was standing somewhere near the thirtieth aisle of the San Diego Convention Center, site of the 1999 Comic-Con International. Not at the edge of a vast empire. And what I held in my hands was not absolute control over the lands, peoples, and resources of the known world. It was a copy of Spidey Super-Stories #21. Therefore, it was manifestly unlikely that this moment would ever be commemorated on a coin or a stamp...not even in one of those tiny Caribbean countries that'd happily put Joan Rivers on a stamp if the money were right.
Still, it was indeed an ending, a Momentous Moment of sorts. The quest had lasted nearly ten years and I now had them all: every single appearance, from feature stories to wordless, single-panel flashbacks and even less-significant appearances, of Tigra, The Were-Woman.
I started The Collection back when I was a freshman in college, which is usually the time when most comix readers stop reading stories about fights in tights and dive headlong into tales intended for Mature Readers. And by Mature Readers comics, I don't mean "porno." I mean dark, serious comics with lots of black ink and shaky linework and lettering, written by people with beards and hair that make them look like Jesus nine hours after being taken down from the cross.
In fact, the only superhero book I was still buying every month was "West Coast Avengers." It was a fun book based on great, classic storytelling but even so, I was buying it largely out of force of habit. It was my last real link to the sort of comics I read as a kid; dropping the title would have been a highly overt acknowledgement of something I didn't really want to explore too closely.
One day, I stuck the latest issue of "West Coast" on the top of my small pile of "Sandman" and "Cerebus" and "Hellblazer" and other suitably moody and gothic grownup titles and then I turned to head for the cash register. But something caught my eye from the front of one of the shop's fifty-cent bins: Tigra, a character in the West Coast Avengers. It was an ancient and much-battered copy of a comic entitled "Marvel Chillers," and clearly its editor didn't believe in wasting time on the soft sell. "Featuring TIGRA, the WERE-WOMAN!" the cover blurbs blared, "In her Pulse-Pounding PREMIERE!" Already I started to worry what Marvel would do to my housepets if I didn't purchase it, and then I read the final blast of text: "Because YOU Demanded It!!!"
Honestly, I didn't recall levelling any sort of ultimatum at Marvel but the fact that they had taken even the mere threat of a threat seriously made me feel drunk with power. I bought the comic to send the publisher a message that I was letting them off this time, but they'd do well to continue to tread carefully whenever I make a threat that I'm basically unaware of.
It was actually a pretty good comic. It featured a cover drawn by Bernie Wrightson, a true legend of horror art, with interiors by Will Meugniot. As for the story, it took place early in Tigra's career and featured what I would term as that wonderfully dense and direct 1970's style of storytelling. At the end of the book, amid the Letters To The Editor, I found a little box listing all of Tigra's previous appearances...less than a dozen, all told.
Well, this triggered my "Why the hell not?" intincts. Current superhero books weren't interesting but I wasn't ready to stop visiting comic-book shops just yet. Acquiring all of the books on that list would be a fun little quest and a fine excuse to go out and see what sort of shops could be found in the Albany area.
Little did I know. I soon discovered that the list was incomplete even on the day it was originally published...and as if that weren't enough, the character had been very, very busy since 1975. I'd track down a Marvel Team-Up from the list, and inside I'd see a reference to incidents that had taken place in Tigra's adventures in Marvel Premiere. And Marvel Premiere led me elsewhere, which would lead elsewhere, and wait, she was a member of the Avengers for a few issues, and then she spent some time hanging out with the Fantastic Four, and whoops, here's another list in a comics newsmagazine...
This was well before the Miracle of the Internet, of course. Today, sites like the Marvel Chronology Project can spit out a complete and nearly-authoritative list of character appearances in moments, and with that list in hand, it's all up to eBay to help you find and deliver the goods. Assembling a complete list of an individual character's appearances and acquiring them all is about as adventurous and exciting as paying a phone bill online...but take me at my word when I tell you that when I did it, it required Indiana Jones-style scholarship and derring-do.
Well, it officially became A Collection at that point. It was just too perfect a thing to collect. If you set yourself the goal of buying every single appearance of, say, Wolverine (an archetypical member of the X-Men) you're in for a world of hurt. You're going to have to rummage through every comic Marvel ever published, more or less, and many of his appearances sell for megabucks.
But Tigra? That cat-lady who was in the Avengers for about a nanosecond? Who cares about her? I sneered at thirty-year-old comics stickered at ten dollars. If I kept looking, I'd find another copy in even better condition in a bin somewhere for just a buck.
Eventually, the Acquisition Curve flattened out. I'd managed to track down every last one of Tigra's appearances; major and minor, documented and undocumented. Captain America chats with Tigra for a page in his own comic: got it. The magical thingamobob that Tigra dealt with in "Marvel Chillers" causes problems for Spider-Man in "Marvel Team-Up." Is there a flashback, with new artwork? Yes? Ok, got it. I had them all...and so my focus shifted over to those appearances which (I plainly admit) are The Truly Pathetic Ones.
Here's an example. Out of the blue, I thought about a series that Marvel used to publish. "Classic X-Men" reprinted major X-Men stories. But the covers were brand-new. Hmm. Tigra played a major part in two X-Men issues...and as I recalled, she and the mutants beat back a brand-new race of aliens that would cause the team a whole pile of trouble later on. What are the chances that (a) these issues were reprinted, and (b) Tigra was included in either one of the two new covers? I didn't know, but I tapped a memo into my wristwatch all the same.
A few weeks later I found myself in a comix shop with a rather enormous inventory of back-issues. I looked through the "C"'s and, sure enough, there she was, lurking around in the background of a "Classic X-Men" cover drawn by Mike Mignola.
Must own every Tigra appearance? Well, no. Planet Ihnatko would have happily proceeded onward in its orbit if I'd I never begun The Collection. But if you already have almost all of them, or "all of them, within certain parameters," well, why not take that extra half-shove over the cliff? Was buying a couple of $2 comics every few months going to bankrupt me? If I abandoned the collection, would I then direct those funds and that effort towards acquiring every appearance of Brother Power, The Geek?
No, no, no. That wouldn't do at all. Depending on your point of view, The Tigra Collection is either 99.982% incredibly cool and interesting or 99.982% utterly idiotic. You make the call. Either way, I'd rather bump that figure up another .018% and make it definitively cool or definitively idiotic.
"If it's a new drawing, it counts." That's the only rule. Friends, you've indulgently read this far, so you might as well learn the true depths to which I've sunk here. One day in my friendly local comix shop, I was leafing through a comic and came across one single, solitary panel featuring an enormous crowd of superheroes. Well, I deployed the loupe of my Swiss Army Knife and moved to a spot where the light was better because I was determined to examine each and every corner and every last squiggle of ink, looking for telltale signs of tiger stripes. And whaddya know, there it was. It was just a forearm and a hand amid the shadows but it was unmistakeable under magnification, and when I found it, I bought it. It counts, dammit.
That's a good example of one of the unplanned bonuses of The Collection. These days, my interest in superhero books is practically nonexistent. They're just not written for grownups...which is only right, of course. I do keep up with a few comix-oriented news and message boards and I'll check out "Avengers" again just to confirm that holy cow...the writer really is making just as big a pig's ear out of the book as I imagined. But every few weeks, while I'm in a comix shop to pick up my snooty Highbrow Graphical Narrative Anthologies, I'll see something on the cover of a Marvel comic that'll make me pick it up and leaf through it, scanning the pages for stripes and fur. The Collection encourages me revisit some of the comics I loved as a kid.
But back to the San Diego Comic-Con, and our story.
The only "real" Tigra appearance -- i.e., one in which her presence can be actually detected with the naked eye -- that had consistently eluded me was that issue of "Spidey Super-Stories." It was my white whale. Sometimes it seemed like my Loch Ness Monster.
"Spidey Super Stories" didn't even really count as a comic book. It was the licensed tie-in to Spidey's live-action appearances on "The Electric Company" and as intensely cool as it would be to see Morgan Freeman appear in a modern Spider-Man story, Easy Reader's adventures with the web-slinger are decidedly non-canon and will never be acknowledged as part of current continuity.
In many ways, this book was a typical example of what made The Collection such a challenge. If there's one drawback to collecting Tigra comics (apart from people leaping to the unfortunate and wholly incorrect conclusion that I just have some sort of furry-fetish), it's that most of these comics wind up in one of two kinds of bins: the unsorted, uncatalogued and unadvertised "4 For A Dollar" bin, or the trash bin. If a dealer has it, he probably doesn't know it. And even if he knows he has it, he's probably not going to bother to bring it to a convention. So when a book's hard to find, it's hard to freakin' find.
Nonetheless: I'd given a guy in a booth at the San Diego Con about three dollars and it was mine.
I really hadn't planned for this moment and I really had no idea what my next step was supposed to be. Celebrate? Does Hallmark make a card for this sort of thing? Should I be relieved? I didn't feel like I was relieved. I did feel like I had finished collecting.
("But how can you be sure that you've got them all?" you ask. OK, that's a reasonable question. All I can do is consult the world's foremost leading authority on Tigra appearances for the final word, and he's telling me to tell you to shut the hell up.)
Hence, the Alexander the Great moment I alluded to at the top of this piece. I was standing at a crossroads: at that moment, I had to either declare that The Collection was done, done, done or else I could move it in a different direction.
The question required a far greater amount of lateral thought than what can usually be accomplished in a busy convention center. I chose to wander around a bit and defer my decision. Not two stalls down from the spot where I purchased my final Tigra comic, I happened across a booth filled with original comic art.
I didn't know boo about the stuff, except that it cost a hell of a lot more than fifty cents a throw. But what the hell: I asked the dealer if he had anything featuring Tigra.
Umm...sort of a tiger-looking cat-lady in a bikini? She used to be one of the Avengers?
Suddenly the lights came on and he dug something out of a distant pile of artwork that he clearly didn't expect that he'd be able to sell.
It was a big, detailed Tigra pinup drawn by none other than Will Meugniot, the artist behind the copy of Marvel Chillers that had started the whole mess.
Feeling the meaty, hairy-knuckled Hand of Destiny shoving me forward, I shelled out the dough. "Thy will be done," I said, but it came out sounding an awful lot like "Sure, if you have a bag, that'd be great."
I would leave San Diego with that pinup, a great John Byrne page from "Avengers West Coast," a handful of sketches I'd commissioned from the artists at the Con...and a photo I took of a "Claws Of The Cat" cover that I was way over my limit for impulse purchases.
Judge for yourself whether or not it's a happy ending. I'm happy. I have the Collector's Mentality, which many people have problems understanding.
I sometimes meet people who embrace minimalism to such an extreme that I wonder if they're actually some sort of foreign assassin. They own a gun and a toothbrush and a fake passport so that they can get the hell out of Dodge the moment they've liquidated their target. I understand this behavior about as well as an alcoholic understands people who stop after only one drink. I must keep my books. There comes a day when a book no longer means anything to me and I'll get rid of it. But on the whole, I enjoy having my books and I like being able to go back and re-read them occasionally. I like it when reading one book leads me to discover the title of another I want to read, and then I enjoy carrying the title around on a list and hunting for it in secondhand bookshops. I bought a panel of core memory because I thought it was an interesting object. A year later at the same flea market, I bought a master silicon wafer of solid-state memory and those two acquisitions make me look forward to buying some component subassembly of an analog accumulator.
That's collecting in its purest form. It's a real-world version of the Web. One item contains hyperlinks to any number of different items, and the path you follow depends on your particular interests and curiosity. At its best, collecting expands your understanding of -- and your fascination with -- the world around you.
Granted, collecting can be about just dumb, materialistic acquisition. In the interests of fairness and accuracy the twin pillars upon which the whole of the World Wide Web were built, as you well know I must confess that there was a dark summer in which I had, simply had, to own every single Star Wars action figure there was. In my defense, they had just begun making new figures again after, what, a ten-year drought, and if you've read this far and you still doubt my geek cred I can show you my driver's-license photo, which shows me in my Jedi Knight costume.
(No it doesn't, actually. I found this one costume house that makes high-quality props and costumes for TV commercials and such, and they priced it out at like $600 including the boots. I seriously considered having it made and then wearing it during a keynote address I was scheduled to deliver, thus making it a tax-writeoff. Ultimately I decided against it. But the fact that I feel like I have to provide you with A Good Excuse For Not Having A $600 Jedi Knight Made For Me should in and of itself serve as proof of my geekish pedigree.)
But to get back to the original point: ultimately the difference between a Collection and a set of Acquisitions is obvious. Acquisitions are anchors that bleed your money away and demand that you come over and dust them every so often. A Collection is a creative endeavor. You're creating something new by virtue of putting these far-flung elements in the same place and attatching a label to the aggregation.
That belief is the core of The Collector's Mentality. One copy of "Spidey Super-Stories" #21 is nothing interesting. It's worth maybe two bucks on eBay. A couple of boxes containing that and every single other appearance of Tigra published over the course of 25 years...that's unique. One name-badge from the last conference I attended is junk. A big box containing every name badge I've acquired in the past ten to fifteen years of attending conferences and trade shows is a document. And someday, they'll all look damned cool covering every square inch of a living-room wall.
In the course of finding all these comics, I've learned a lot about some truly great artists. Tigra was in so many comics over such a period of time that the Collection is a legitimate Who's Who of the art form. And I have taken some wonderful walks through some fantastic cities, because I had a day off during a business trip and I arbitrarily chose to stroll a few miles from my hotel to a comix-shop whose address I had plucked, page and all, out of the Yellow Pages.
And now I'm collecting original art, and discovering the pleasure of holding and examine the actual page that was passed from artist to inker to letterer during the production of a long-familiar comic. When I first encountered most of these images, they were smudgy, poorly-reproduced blotches on yellowed newsprint. As original art, they're crisp and rich with detail and they're over a third larger than their published dimensions. I can see details that were obscured by the coloring job. I can see how the the penciller changed his mind halfway through and started a panel all over again. Sometimes I see that he used the back of the page for warmup sketches, or even just to take some notes during a phone conversation. I can see how the inker did his job, how he switched inking tools three or four times in a single panel of art, or how an entire section had to be cut out and replaced because the artist accidentally drew two right feet on someone and the inker didn't notice the mistake until the whole page was finished.
This, and getting to meet and talk to artists, is giving me a new appreciation for the form. So if the price for all this is to occasionally have to explain that it's not some sort of twisted furry-fetish or having to explain it pretty damned often, actually that's okay.
Though it bears repeating that this really isn't just some sort of twisted furry-fetish. Honest.