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October 18, 2009

A Few Words In Praise Of AbeBooks


I wanted to write something positive today. One thing I feel most positive about when it comes to comics is our collective ability to find and purchase them. This may sound silly, but surely one of the transformative experiences of comics culture over the last 30 years is a move from scarcity (not being able to find or perhaps even learn about the comics one desires) to sorting (finding the comics one truly wants in a sea of availability). The comic shop with all its faults is best understood by looking at a spinner rack in your local Osco's. A convention's identity as a gathering of tribes or fulfillment of on-line social networking seems more grounded and less frivolous when you realize that it used to be the place you went to find comics you wouldn't see otherwise. In the promise of a small-press show, or when one hears about a certain kind of convention sketchbook, it may still be that way.

A final step in bringing all of the comics into play has been ease of access to various seller via on-line sources. Comics fans today frequently make use of publisher sites, cartoonist sites, old-comics sites and mail-order sites with an on-line component. They may even judge their brick and mortar comics shop against the discounts, ubiquity and ease of service of

These are all great; I use them, too. But the one service that has changed the way I buy comics more than any other and the one where I think there's the most potential growth in terms of its everyday use by serious, devoted comics readers is the used bookstore listing service There are similar services out there; much of what I like about AbeBooks applies to them, too. I'm sure folks' experiences vary, and there are those out there with bad experiences in terms of that kind of service, specific or general. I'm also quite certain that there is something about the purchase of the site by a couple of years ago that people find alarming or distressing either in practice or on principle. It even seems likely to me that this kind of on-line listing has had a horrific effect on people keeping brick and mortar stores of the kind you used to find a flat dozen or so worthy representatives in every major city. I can't speak to those things, partly from ignorance, and mostly because I almost always have a good experience that suits my needs perfectly. It may not be an overall boon for everyone, and I'll explore anyone making that case, but it's been a general boon to me.

Here are few words on each of seven ways I use that site -- and similar sites -- to supplement my comics buying needs.

1. It's a place to collect all those cartoonists who still exist mostly in older, forgotten book form.
I don't know if there are any comics being published today better than the best Peter Arno or Charles Addams books, two New Yorker cartoonists I think are best served by classic collections of their material. While we wait for the Barnaby deal to be struck, there are two great hardcovers from the 1940s and a handful of paperbacks from the 1980s that are out there ready to be brought home. The image at the top of this post is from a cartoonist turned kinetic sculpture artist named Rowland Emett -- the interest in most of his books died out with the train culture they gently satirized, but they're still out there to be had and enjoyed by fans of delicate linework and clever cartooning. Anne Cleveland, Chon Day, Abner Dean, Oliver Harrington... they're all out there waiting for you to read them ahead of any publisher who may or may not give them back to you in as full, lively or well-designed form. It's worth hitting that search button at least.

2. It's a way to access single volume needs or fill-ins -- reading copies, in particular -- and flat-out lost books.
I don't buy my standard comics trades through the sellers who list on AbeBooks, but I have certainly filled holes and bought single-volumes I needed in a hurry. For instance, I purchased an Essential X-Men trade for an essay I wanted to write on Dave Cockrum and received a sturdy copy about four days later for less than $5 total. The problem with a lot of buying these kinds of books this way is that you build up a lot of postage charges, so I've relegated the service in this case to my need-soon pinch-hitter and buy in fits and flurries elsewhere, qualifying for free postage. AbeBooks has an excellent on-base percentage, though, in terms of those single opportunities, and I use it about once a month this way. The sites also provides an easy way to find outright obscurities that aren't likely to be found in your local comic shop, or, really, any such store. For example, James Vance recently linked to an article that profiled the 1980s furry scene comics figure Kevin Duane and mentioned his anthology The I Hate Unicorns Book. I snagged a copy for less than $5 total off of one of the four booksellers offering that title.

3. It's a place find all those sort-of comic books out there.
The used bookstores and book sellers left out there don't make the same distinctions we do between books that are obviously comics and books that aren't quite what we think of when we think of that word. It is therefore very easy through AbeBooks to locate copies of Terry Gilliam's book of animation art, Animations Of Mortality, pictured above, or one of the joke captions over photos books that Stan Lee has done intermittently throughout his career, more than one under the basic title "You Don't Say." I once spent six years taking a few seconds in every bookstore I entered to see if I could locate a copy of the artist Tony Fitzpatrick's poetry and paintings book Hard Angels; it took the site less than six seconds early today to track down more than a few, plus copies of the same artist's Max And Gaby's Alphabet. With more and more sort-of comics hybrids hitting the market, this could be the place where I buy the one or two a year that catch my interest.

4. The search engine may inform you of an appearance with which you're not familiar.
I like the search engine much more than that offered by the other used bookstore listing mechanisms. A few of these sellers sell comic books, and while I tend not to buy comics from these sellers having them listed as books with an emphasis on the authors involved rather than condition or grade or character yields an advantage when working with obscure cartoonists. If you look up the late Pacific Northwest cartoonist Paul Ollswang, for example, you'll be reminded not just of his long out-of-print collections but a few of his anthology appearances, like the one in the comic above. If you're a completist, it's a place you should stop just to be sure.

5. It's a great place to check out other publishing efforts on behalf of comics you may already collect.
One of the growing joys of comic strips that are now being offered in these massive and admittedly wonderful complete volumes is that they absolve earlier and less complete attempts at publishing that work from failing to do so. They can thus be enjoyed as stand-alone works on their own, with a more rigid beginning and end, perhaps at a size or with a design that personally appeals to you. I've talked in the past about my fondness for 1970s Doonesbury collections, and noted that Barnes and Noble still seems to do a bang-up business with less-than-complete strip volumes like the original Calvin and Hobbes books and Peanuts Treasury, originally published I believe in the late 1960s. Sometimes it's not only about getting all of the comics, but the comics you like, presented in a way you like for reasons all your own.

6. It's an easy way to check out illustration and children's book gigs by your favorite cartoonists.
As is the case with the obscure books published by your favorite cartoonists, the search engine will also throw up the occasional illustration or even children's book gig. Searching Lorenzo Mattotti tosses up Eugenio and The Cranky Sun right alongside the comics Fires and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Look up the wonderful MAD artist Jack Davis and one of the common entries is his great-looking mid-'60s kids' book with Barbara Cary, Meet Abraham Lincoln. There are artists from whom each of us likely wants to see everything, not just the comics work.

7. And sometimes you see one or two things that make you wish you were really, really rich.
I've been tempted by a few of the very expensive things I've seen in standard comic book shops, but I tend to be more attracted to the things that drive values up in bookstores. Gross oversimplification: In a comic shop, a comic book that looks like it's never been touched is more valuable; in books, a volume that seems as if it were signed to and then manhandled by a noteworthy personality is worth more cash. If someone were to give me $1797 to spend on comics there's an 80 percent chance I'd come home with 1797 issues of Thor, I'd sure consider a copy of Passport signed by Saul Steinberg to designer Paul Rand complete with two pages of Rand's Steinberg-like doodles (!) before I'd ever look seriously at 18 selections from DC's Absolute Editions library. And I like those books.


20 Comics Or Comics-Related Books I Own I've Bought Through An On-Line Service

* Animations Of Mortality, Lucinda Cowell and Terry Gilliam, Eyre Methuen: 1978.
* Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, Crockett Johnson, Henry Holt: 1944.
* Curious Avenue, Tom Toles, Andrews McMeel: 1993.
* Emett's Domain: Trains, Trams, and Englishmen, Rowland Emett, Harcourt/Brace: 1953.
* Hard Angels, Tony Fitzpatrick, Janet Fleisher Gallery: 1988.
* Harlem as Seen by Hirschfeld, Al Hirschfeld and William Saroyan, Hyperion Press: 1941.
* It's a Long Way to Heaven, Abner Dean, Farar and Rinehart: 1945.
* It's Better With Your Shoes Off, Anne Cleveland, Tuttle Co.: 1955.
* Max and Gaby's Alphabet, Tony Fitzpatrick, Museum Of Contemporary Art: 2001.
* Night Becomes Day, Richard McGuire: Viking Juvenile: 1994.
* Peter Arno's Circus, Peter Arno, Horace Liveright: 1931.
* Peter Arno's Hullabaloo, Peter Arno, Horace Liveright: 1930.
* Peter Arno's Parade, Peter Arno, Horace Liveright: 1929.
* Richard's Poor Almanac, Richard Thompson, Emmis: 2004
* Sizzling Platter, Peter Arno, Simon & Schuster: 1949.
* The Best Ride To New York, Bob Levin, Harper & Row: 1978.
* The I Hate Unicorns Book, Edited by Kevin Duane, Protostar: 1984.
* There Are Ladies Present Helen Hokinson, Dutton, 1952.
* They'll Do It Every Time, Jimmy Hatlo, Avon: 1951.
* You Don't Say, Stan Lee, Non-Pareil: 1963.

There are many, many more. Isn't that great?

posted 4:00 pm PST | Permalink

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