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It turns out that Oxfam is a very good comic shop. This statement won’t be as surprising to American comic book readers as it was to me, but imagine that I just said “Goodwill is a very good comic shop” because that’s basically what it is, the English version of Goodwill. Admittedly it is a slightly nicer, cleaner Goodwill store (at least nicer and cleaner than the ones I’ve seen) and one dedicated to selling only books and comics, but it is basically that type of store.
Around this time last year I took the same trip I’m on now, back to London to visit friends and family. At that time the trip elicited all sorts of thoughts and feelings about the culture, and the British propensity for flawed, decidedly non-superheroic heroes. This time however, for some reason my first glimpse of the gray, wintery “sunlight” (let’s be kind and pretend there’s a sun involved somewhere) elicited slightly different feelings. Years ago when I first moved to San Francisco, one of the first things that captivated me was the yellow, Californian sunlight. This jubilant quality of light really does affect everything, and my return to Britain brought this idea home to me. “This” I thought ruefully “is the real world, no sunshine, no bright colors, just gray austerity.” Now keep in mind that I was getting off an all-night flight I hadn’t slept on, with only one rather poorly chosen comic book to read; A manga called 7 Billion Needles. I chose this book because the cover had the look of an old Penguin paperback from the 1960’s, which while beautifully designed is actually a rather simplistic and bleak story about about warring disembodied god-like creatures, one good and one bad, possessing and eating young schoolchildren. Combining this bleak tale with my hatred of early mornings, and you begin to see why the dim British light, filtering through the heavy cloud cover was getting me down. The last 15 years in California felt like a fantasy, this was not the perkiest way to begin my London vacation.
With these strange feelings rumbling around my head today, I went for a brisk walk to try and shake off the ridiculous mood. My parents suggested looking in to the used bookshop down the road, “They even have comics!” they offered cheerily, so of course I took a look and was very happily surprised. In the years since I left London, the charity organization Oxfam have enterprisingly realized that a lot of people read a book once, then don’t know what to do with it. These donated books are so plentiful that they have enough for many dedicated used book shops, with all the proceeds going to charity. Within these donated books there are a fair amount of donated comic book collections, random and varied, which make up a decent enough collection to happily browse at 80¢-$3 each.
Most of us remember the childhood pleasure of idly flipping through giant boxes of random comic books, blissfully losing hours in the concentration of searching for the odd treasure amongst all the weird comic books. It was a complete surprise to me to realize that the most time I’ve spent in years thumbing through random back issue bins is in Oxfam, a place usually associated with cast off clothing and unwanted random kitchenware.
In my rummaging, I found a 1982 Marvel Annual, which despite being named “Marvel” was actually all Hulk. I expect that is because he was on TV at the time. The art was horrible. Black and white, the thing looked like it was printed on sugar paper. I thought about buying it for a while, mostly for the amazing/terrible cover. I even pulled it out and held on to it, but then realized it was rubbish and left it. I also didn’t buy (but now regret it) a hardcover 1978 2000AD Annual. This was so early that 2000AD was still mostly soldiering and gore instead of the space and science influenced violence I’d come to expect. Half in color, this gem might be something I have to go back for, even if I end up giving it away later to more appreciative American friends (who didn’t get to see this stuff growing up.) More pointlessly, there was a copy of the 1988 Shadow Annual by Andy Helfer and Kyle Baker. This was great, I remember when it came out and I bought it the first time. For about $1.80 I bought it to give away. I know that sounds silly, but I like it so much that I want someone else to read it too, someone who might otherwise have no interest in it.
I did buy a little pocket-sized, British “boys” comic book called Time-Warp Warrior, part of the “Commando, War Stories in Pictures” imprint. Too funny really, this terribly drawn little black and white comic looks ridiculous, with a combination of time traveling folks from the future, a medieval battle and both the first and second world wars, but it was worth it. The title alone is pretty hysterical, but the interior is even better. I’ll definitely give this away when I get back to the states, it’s too funny not to share. There were also a handful of really early back-issues of Hellblazer. I considered buying these for quite a while, even though I have them somewhere, just because digging them out is a giant hassle and I want to read them again. After careful consideration I decided not to, just because I sort of hope that someone who’s never read Hellblazer might pick up that whole run (there were a lot of them) and it seems churlish to just buy the early ones and screw over anyone who buys the rest of them.
In total this was not a very big haul, but I’ll probably go back since it is just a short walk down the road. Most of all it felt great to spend time quietly and methodically going through the bins, just as I used to when I was a little kid, something I haven’t made the time to do in a long while. In many ways this indulgence helped me to stop categorizing this visit to London as a simple trip, and to begin thinking of it as an actual vacation.
As someone who’s often asked what to do with unwanted back issues of comic books, I can see the beauty of encouraging people to hand them over to charity. Why isn’t this a more common practice? I know a lot of people who want to get rid of their comic collections, but don’t know what to do with them. Some comic book stores will buy random comic book collections, but usually only by weight. I know of a comic shop that buys for 75¢ a pound, at which point you wonder why you’d bother selling them. It is essentially nothing, and in some ways we’re lucky that the comic shops don’t charge us for buying the damn things, since it is more and more unusual for people to buy them. With more compilation reprints than ever and now comic books being produced digitally for iPads and other readers, people just aren’t buying back issues. With all that to contend with, the best and most satisfying bet is to hand them over to Oxfam, who will not only sell them to benefit people, but also ensure that the marvelous books don’t just end up in landfill. I would love to see this become a practice in America too, as I would gladly give them 1 or 2 long boxes of entirely random comic books that I have lying about just taking up space. Clearly donation is something I need to look into on my return home next week.
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