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What the Hell Happened to Comic Books for a Quarter?

We Lived in a Shoebox in the Middle of the Road.

As a kid I remember stepping up to counter at Clark’s news-stand, with my nickels and dimes and the latest issue of Hot Stuff or Detective Comics, and breathing in deep the sweet, rich smell of pipe tobacco. Comics belonged to kids then, and I didn’t know a single soul who kept their issues in mylar bags with backboards.

My good friend Matt has often said that the worst thing to ever happen to comic books was that we didn’t outgrow them. We grew up and grew older, and we expected comics to grow along with us. We demanded a higher level of sophistication from the comics we read, and we had more disposable income to spend on them.

By the time I was safely in my ‘tweens I had left Batman behind on the rack, and I was onto the Swamp Thing (my brother was the Marvel Comics fan). Comics were maturing, testing their limitations, and flirting with the idea of comics as literature.

Suddenly (or so it seemed at the time) I couldn’t buy my favorite titles at Clark’s any more. Within a few years, it was hard to throw a stone without hitting a direct market comic book store and the cover price of many of the titles I was collecting had leapt. The comics I had in a drawer at home were appreciating and I had to protect my investment, so I bought comic bags, and when I saw that they were getting bent I bought back boards. I looked after my collection.

I had nearly full collections of the first three Vertigo titles, autographed issues, and virtually every special, crossover or cover-variation going – but something was wrong.

I found myself missing the smell of the newsstand and the thrill of turning that spinning rack for a first glimpse of this month’s issue. I missed paying for my comics with the change in my pocket, and trading them with my friends after school.

I kept picking up the titles I had been picking up for years until they petered out or became somewhat bland and repetitive, and then I stopped collecting.

I don’t think that I can take the blame for this one, but the bottom seemed to fall out once I stopped. Comic book stores flailed and fell way, and only a few managed to struggle through over the next few years. My collection sat in boxes in my closet, and comics were something I thought of nostalgically.

Then along came webcomics, and I began to discover the long-lost cousin of the comics I grew up with. They were free, or nearly so, and anyone who wanted to could make one. It wasn’t the smell of pipe tobacco, or a spinning metal rack, but it wasn’t half bad either. My daily reading list grew and grew until I started to come across the odd creator who was publishing their work elsewhere on paper, and slowly but surely I found my way to the underground, and a world of comics that had more in common with those I grew up with than the stuff in vacuum-sealed bags.

Webcomics have rekindled my love of comics. They have reminded me of the raw excitement and enthusiasm I felt in Clark’s as a kid (and even Clark’s is long gone now). More than that, they’ve given me a better appreciation of what comics can and should be.

Fun.

I don’t have any children, but one day, when I do, I hope that they can sit down at their nearest terminal and pay for their comics with the nickels and dimes they’ve got in their pockets.

More importantly, I hope they enjoy them.