Armagideon Time

My back issue buying habits up until the mid-Nineties had been fairly scattershot. The solitary longbox which held my stash of treasures mostly contained quarter bin books that caught my eye, issues of “importance” referenced in some series I was currently following, or miscellaneous appearances of favorite characters.

If there was a particular back issue I was looking for, I’d ask Lil Bro to keep an eye out for it at one the many conventions or comics shops he frequented during his time as a serious collector of Silver Age Marvel fare. “You should just tag along and check for yourself,” he’d tell me and I’d respond by saying that I didn’t care enough to be bothered.

This state of affairs changed dramatically during the mid-Nineties, for reasons I’m still trying to piece together. There was no single cause behind what would become known as the Great Back Issue Buying Spree, but rather a cascade of events that would see my comics collection expand tenfold.

My employment situation had switched from sporadic work-study gigs to a permanent (if part-time) position, enough to justify a few more minor extravagances. One of these extravagances was a Firestorm action figure from the 1980s Super Powers line. It was a replacement for one that got lost in the chaos following my mom’s death. I had a strange obsession with such artifacts during those years, as if reacquiring all these misplaced totems of childhood nostalgia would lead to some cosmic revelation.

That revelation never came, but having the figure in hand did remind me how much I used to love the character back in the day when artists like Pat Broderick could make ‘Stormy’s Bronze Age baroque fighting togs somehow appear less than ludicrous. (I’m sure being ten at the time also helped with that heavy lifting.) It also tied back to the early Eighties retro thing I had going at the time, abetted by stuff like Rhino’s Just Can’t Get Enough series of compilations and the Namco Museum series of classic arcade game collections.

It made me want to go back and read those old comics again, except that my copies of those issue had either vanished or disintegrated via hard-loving wear and tear. Replacing them was no easy feat. All my go-to places for comics in the Boston-Cambridge axis had given up on back issue bins to make room for the unceasing torrent of current comics and associated merchandise. The quest stalled out after the combined efforts of Lil Bro and I barely turned up a half-dozen issues.

Not too long afterward, I found myself waiting for a chronically late friend to show up at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Harvard Ave in Allston. Looking for ways to kill time, I wandered into the New England Comics store across the street and began flipping through its modest selection of quarter bins. By some weird twist of fate (or excess inventory dumping), the bins were packed with a shitload of issues of Fantastic Four, most from John Byrne’s long tenure on the series. It was was another childhood favorite of mine, though collected imperfectly and skewed towards the latter half of his run. Most of the issues in the bin were new to me. Though I’d never considered seeking them out before that moment, the combination of nostalgia rush and low price point carried the day.

I read through my haul on the bus ride home, and that’s when it hit me.

“I should go back and revisit more comics from my younger days.”

The next time my brother suggested I join him on a back issue buying expedition, I agreed to go. Our first stop was Webheads in Wakefield, which was like stepping into the gates of paradise. Its selection of back issues was more extensive than any shop I’ve set foot in before or since. They had the Firestorm comics I was looking for…and the Fantastic Four ones…and every single Jack of Hearts appearance I hadn’t yet acquired. They even had full runs of comics I’d long dreamed of owning — like the Charlton “Action Heroes” offerings from the mid-Sixties — right there for the buying.

A full set of Fleisher/Aparo “Wrath of the Spectre” issues of Adventure Comics, along with the Black Orchid issues that preceded it? Yep.

The entire run of Miracleman for an average of a buck-fifty per issue? Oh, yeah.

And then the shop burned down a few weeks later.

It was up and running again at a new location, with a still-impressive stock of back issues, in a matter of months. That time was well spent on our end, as we explored some of the other shops that would become regular stops on our grand tour of MetroWest Boston comics retailers. There was Comically Speaking in Arlington and Reading, very much a product of the Chromium Age but it did have half-off back issue sales on a regular basis, which enabled me to complete my New Teen Titans and Bronze Age Dr. Strange runs of the cheap. There was the Outer Limits in Waltham, a bit of a hike but with a reasonably priced and quite deep inventory of amazing stuff to justify the trip.

I filled out and replaced my runs of childhood favorites. Then I moved onto comics I’d been mildly interested in but never faithfully followed for various reasons. Then I’d just pick up stuff based on the creators, price point, and my prevailing mood. With the exception of a handful of older or arguably “valuable” comics (like DC Comics Presents #26, the 60s Charlton stuff, or Dr. Strange #1), I don’t think I spent more than two dollars on any given issue. Most ran in the vicinity of a buck.

By the time the fever cooled, I had over a dozen longboxes filled with a modestly comprehensive cross section of mainstream comics from 1978 through 1989 with a specific focus on c-listers and also rans.

Avengers, Action Comics, Atari Force, All-Star Squadron, Alpha Flight, Adventure Comics, Blue Beetle, Blue Devil, Blitzkrieg, Brave and the Bold, The Cat, Dr. Strange, Fantastic Four, Firestorm, Hulk, Infinity Inc, Marshal Law, Justice League, Suicide Squad, Superman…so many mini-series, so many one-offs and isolated arcs…so many goddamn funnybooks…

While the origins of the Great Back Issue Buying Spree are a bit hazy, its ending can be attributed to two factors.

Firstly, I eventually ran out of stuff to buy. I can recall flipping through the quarter bins at the Outer Limits and slowly realizing that I’d picked them clean, and nothing else was really catching my interest.

Secondly, at some point around this time, the fonts of delusional optimism which compiled Overstreet’s and Wizard’s price guides decided that Bronze Age trash previously set at seventy-five cents in mint condition was the new hawtness and decided to increase the book values by a factor of ten. Reputable retailers didn’t buy into this nonsense, but that left the other 99% of shops marching in lockstep in a vain hope for some inflationary windfall. The few series I was still marginally interested in suddenly skyrocketed out of my “willing to pay” price range.

Also, the collapse of the speculator’s market changed the character of quarter bins, and not for the better. Once a great source of remaindered inventory from the 70s and 80s, they became a mass grave for Chromium Age hoop dreams. Great shit could still be found, but the act of digging through a billion issues of Deathmate and Turok to find it took too much effort.

My back issue buying habits settled back into their pre-Spree pattern of oddball impulse buys at cons. It’s just as well, because Maura doesn’t need more longboxes to shift around and curse out while she attempts to bring order to our attic. (Her comics collection isn’t exactly small, either, and grows by the month.)

Related posts:

  1. Me and the Terrible ’90s: Part 1
  2. Me and the Terrible ’90s: Part 4
  3. Me and the Terrible ’90s: Part 3

2 Responses to “Me and the Terrible ’90s: Part 4”

  1. Joe Gualtieri

    Sadly, at some point between 2011 and late 2015, Webhead purged the vast majority of their back issue bins and now only have half of the space they once did at the new location.

  2. BK Munn

    Firestorm and Jack of Hearts do have similar costume designs, don’t they? Overcomplicated, puffy shirts, nebulous powers, etc.

    Looks like you managed to accumulate all the stuff I was never tempted to pick up and still generally avoid, with the exception of those Byrne FFs which are starting to look good again (my own early 90s back-issue binge centered on Bronze Age Superman Family titles). 80s DC still seems a wasteland, but I am more catholic now and able to find virtue in most comic art, if not in most comic writing, meaning a dive into ROM or Marvel’s New Universe can’t be far off.

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