(A warning: This is a story about seeking and finding a book. Like most book-finding stories on this blog, this has a happy ending)
About a decade ago, I wrote this, after buying a copy of the first oversized Fantagraphics Popeye volume, called I Yam What I Yam.
Popeye, to most people, is this wisecracking cartoony sailor who woos the awkward Olive Oyl and occasionally pops a can of spinach to knock out baddie Brutus. It comes as a surprise, when one reads the original Elsie Segar stories from the 1930s, to find out that Popeye was originally conceived as a hot-headed, muscle-bound brawler. The original character used his fists to make his way out of an argument just as casually as he went about decimating the rules of grammar while talking, his romantic life secondary to his penchant for fisticuffs.
The Segar Popeye stories hold up surprisingly well. You wouldn’t binge them, true, but unlike the staidness of the venerable Prince Valiant and Gasoline Alley, Popeye is much more rambunctious. The characters are inappropriately zany, and prone to antics that have me laughing out loud. It’s strange how Segar’s humor holds up despite our standards for comedy having changed in the last 80 years. Especially as I get older, and I find that work that tickled my insides a decade ago no longer carry the same power. Sad but true.
The Fantagraphics reprints were solid gold. Printed on stiff paper with excellent production values, each volume had a die-cut opening on the front, and was accompanied by essays from the likes of Bill Blackbeard, Rick Marschall, and Donald Phelps. Every volume had its own title, a famous Popeye-ism (or is that Segar-ism?). But my favorite design touch of all was the fact that the six volumes had the letters “P”, “O”, “P”, “E”, “Y” and “E” imprinted at the bottom of the spine. Which meant you would always shelve them left to right, the correct way, and the six books would look great together.
It was annoying, therefore, that I neglected to buy Volume 5, Wha’s A Jeep, before it went out of print sometime around 2012.
I have a valid excuse — I was in the midst of a cross-continental life-reboot, and part of setting up one’s presence in a new country was the thought that I should stop with the endless materialistic pursuits that marked my twenties. I put a moratorium on book purchases as much as possible, and the newly bought iPad became my gateway to all reading material.
So when I got around to noticing that what should be spelt “POPEYE” on my shelf showed up as “POPE”, I decided to get the two missing volumes, cocksure in the assumption that prices would have probably come down, especially in the secondary market. Volume 6, called “My Li’l Sweepea” was easy enough to find, but Volume 5 was nowhere to be seen!
Mild correction: it was to be seen, but at prices that caused volcanoes to explode on Jupiter. The book had gone out of print, and like bees who do the Waggle Dance, the listings on all online bookshops featured exorbitant numbers. Don’t take my word for it, dear reader. Go search for “Popeye” or “Segar” on Abebooks, sort by highest price. The last I checked, some acolyte of Beelzebub (and in LA, no less!) was asking for $1190. The next person on the list has a modicum of shame, and is asking for a mere $501. Looks like the free market works for some people. (Editor’s note: these are asking prices, I can’t imagine anyone buying at that price point)
Oh, did I throb and fret with torment. The books on my shelf now read POPEE, and that of course got my gut churning with the kind of indignation that is accompanied by the sound of bells and matronly voices repeating the word “shame” really loud. From the foggy recesses of my checkered past, there arose a Quest Monster, a single-minded creature that creates Ebay search filters, sends missives to all corners of the globe; and nudges book-sellers and book-buyers alike to go poke around ancient shelves. I found myself once again haunting aisles of local bookstores, a near-extinct practice that reminded me, as I stood up after having squatted for 45 minutes, that I was once a fierce and tireless Book Fiend that had fallen out of practice. Friends asked whether translations of the book were acceptable (no) or damaged copies (nope) and if I had contacted Fantagraphics about publisher’s copies (yes, and they had laughed in my face. Gently enough for me to still care about the publishing house though).
Then one fine day in August, the Quest ended. A seller on Amazon put up his “new, undamaged” copy for sale at the grand price of $50. Turns out I had a 30$ gift card from an office event, and 14$ in Amazon points. I swear I could feel the spindles on the server whirl in a symphony of mutual happiness as I clicked on the Buy button. In the back of my head, I wondered if “new, undamaged” meant the covers were barely intact, and if the seller was hiding secrets that were dark and deep. The book arrived ahead of time, and as I gingerly snapped the cardboard envelope open, I held my breath.
It was perfect. It was better than my copy of Volume 4, to be honest. It looked like it was meant to be on my bookshelf.
So what is the moral of the story, dear reader? There are several, actually. The first, of course, is that the story never ends until the series is complete. Banal, I know, but them’s the facts. But wait, wait, yes, we’re talking morals, not facts. So how about this –– consumerism is a vile and insidious parasite, slowly gnawing away at your reason for existence. You don’t really need any of this shit, you know, but somehow you are compelled to add just one more series to your shelf, and make your life feel whole.
The last and most important moral is that if you are into classic comics, it is both a fine and terrible time to be alive. There are more high quality comics in print than at any other point in human history. But, yes, you knew there was a but coming, but FOMO is real in the comics business. Books keep going out of print in a manner similar to series being released on Netflix –– which is, all the fucking time. Do you want to read Chic Young’s classic Blondie strips that IDW reprinted a few years ago? Vol 1 of 2 is out of print. Buz Sawyer by Roy Crane? Vol 2 is out of print. George Herriman’s Krazy Kat? Nearly all of it out of print. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts? The bulk of the 24-volume set is no longer available. Perilous times, friends.