Last week we took a brief dive into the beginning of photography and how it fundamentally changed our relationship to imagery, laying the foundation for what would become the first collectible cards with the introduction of early tobacco baseball promos. Today we move further down the road to another cornerstone of modern collectibles: comic books!
Comics have been around since the late 1800’s, but it wasn't until the 1930’s and 40’s when comic book characters most people would recognize today began popping up such as Superman and “the Shadow”, who would go on to become Batman. Comic collecting didn't really get started until the 1960’s when shops completely devoted to selling comic books began to appear, though they were few and far between. Instead, early comics were entertainment mixed in with a healthy dose of propaganda. Superhero comics are naturally political, as for an enemy to exist, there needs to be traits that identify the evil and these traits are often dependent on the time period in which the comic book was written. Captain America punching Hitler in the face is a prime example, though perhaps not the most subtle. Like most pop culture, comic books give a snapshot of the time they were created. Many villains in the DC and Marvel universes had parallels to enemies of the United States, the USSR in particular.
These days, comic books can be read online, so if the storyline and the illustrations are what someone is after, they don't actually need a copy of the physical book. However, similar to sports cards, vintage comics represent a piece of history, a callback to a moment in time. First appearances of characters who would go on to be mainstays, illustrations by popular deceased artists, limited releases, and banned artworks all have their place in a high end comic book collection. Just as a Babe Ruth rookie card represents not just the player but an entire era of baseball, so does the first time readers got to see Wolverine, or Captain America. Even though the DC and Marvel universes are not tangibly with us, they have their own long history and many alternate universes even within themselves. To own a book is to have a piece of that history, whether you ever open the book or not.
Where does this all fit into the evolution of collecting? Comic books introduced a new kind of artistry and style, and though these early books were not meant to be collected, the popularity of the worlds they created have now made them so. Photography set the stage for our earliest sports cards, and I would argue comic books did something similar for modern trading cards such as Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh. Comic collecting is the first time a collection can consist entirely of fictional characters existing in a world outside of our own. It's not a perfect link between the beginning of photo collecting and Pokemania, and comic collecting is certainly quite different than collecting a TCG, but I think the devotion to certain artists and the cult followings of certain characters is a forerunner to how many people collect and interact with modern TCG’s.
To close, I would like to say I think that while comics certainly have overlaps with other collectibles, their sense of time and place are unmatched. A comic book can tell you so much about the culture of the time it was written, the fears and hopes of our society, and who we despised or looked up to. Certainly an old tobacco baseball card is an interesting look into the past, but it really is just a passing glance, whereas comic books can give so much more. I myself have never been a collector of comics, nor an avid reader, but in doing research for this piece I have gained a new appreciation for their place in history and can completely understand those who go to great lengths for vintage copies. While I might find that old Japanese Pokemon promos can transport me back to 1998, it's more of a memory of my youth that it touches and not a snapshot of a different time entirely. The worlds that have come and gone in the pages of comic books take us through world wars, the Red Scare, Vietnam, the Satanic Panic, and so on.
Where does the road take us next week? Into a Topps trading card rabbit hole of course! How can we talk about the history of collecting without mentioning the company that has at one time or another touched almost every sport and non sport trading card ever to exist. Have a great rest of your week and thanks for reading!