CALL TO ARMS: RE-ARRANGE YOUR BOOKSHELF NOW
If you're anything like me, you take your bookcase for granted. Today, it's time to look at those shelves with fresh eyes.
Comics are a physical medium (mostly) that fits neatly into boxes. A lifetime of collecting monthly comics leads to longbox euphoria. The more you have, the better you feel. At a certain point, though, that number overwhelms you. That neat lineup of boxes against the wall piled six high or stuffed across a closet that's not quite walk-in but still bigger than a breadbox begins to spread out. Boxes occupy any space you have free, from the corners of the home office to the basement closet where, of course, the boxes start a few inches off the ground in case of water issues.
In modern times, hardcover collections, trade paperbacks, Absolute Editions, Artist's Editions, Omnibuses, albums, manga, digest-sized format and what-have-you create a new opportunity and a new problem. We feel more respectable with a properly presented arrangement of comics on a bookshelf in a noticeable space. Rather than longboxes organized by chronological release dates and kept out of view, bookcases are arranged by series, by creator, or by genre. Do you separate your superhero collections from your more artsy books? Are certain creators given a place of pride? Are there characters that stretch out across a three-foot span of shelf?
As much fun as this new opportunity is, it has also created a problem. We're far enough into this brave new world of collected editions that we likely have more books than shelves. Bookcases line available walls, but so does the furniture. Desks, beds, couches, tv stands, dressers, etc. There's precious little space for bookcases, even though they use the available vertical space far more effectively than the rest of your furniture.
Many books sit in boxes while a percentage of the collection gets to reside on the bookcase for all the world to see and access. Admit it: your bookcase is arranged in such a way as to show off a part of your collection as much as it is to organize it.
In my case, I have a single large IKEA Billy bookcase. It stands about seven feet high and three feet wide. The shelves are adjustable, so I have tall books on the bottom and top two shelves, with the smaller standard trade paperback sized editions in the middle. The bookcase holds an enormous number of books, but it's still only part of my total collection. I wish I had space for more, but right now there's only another three shelf bookcase in the master bedroom. That only snuck in there because half of the top shelf holds my wife's books.
It is the taller case that is the pride of my collection. Here's the problem: It's remained stagnant for far too long. I did a mini-"Shelf Porn" write up of the bookcase in 2008. Until recently, it looked largely the same. There's a messy part in the middle that's always evolving, where I keep recent books I want to read or recent reads I might review or random things I have no space for. I love that shelf; it's the most chaotic and often enjoyable shelf. Everything else -- especially above it -- is neatly arranged and looks impressive, but it's not reflective of the comics reader I am today.
I want my bookshelf to mirror me and my reading tastes, not my decorating tastes. So I folded up two new boxes and began dumping books from their long term home on bookshelves into the cardboard domicile. These are not books I dislike, by any means. They're books I still have fond memories of, whether it's for the story or art, themselves, or the memories of reading them originally and the time and place they've fit into my life. I don't mean to sound so grandiose about it, but we've all known that feeling. We've all cracked open an old comic and had a flood of memories wash over us of that comics shop, the weather that day, the conversations we have about that issue, that time the book's creator signed it, etc. We often have emotional ties to our comics. It's OK to admit to it. It's why you haven't thrown out so many of the crap comics you thought were awesome when you were eight, isn't it? (Hint: They're likely not all that good if you go back to them today. Trust me.)
But those books had to go. I wasn't about to pull them out to reread them. I hadn't done that for much of the last five years, and there's little chance I'd be doing it again in the near future. The Brian Bendis/Alex Maleev run on "Daredevil" was a fantastic run for the character and made for a nice set of hardcovers across the shelf, but I have no desire to reread them all again right now. I haven't even flipped through any of those books in years that I can think of. I don't need them sitting three feet away from the desk where I write Pipeline every week. They're OK in a box that I can get to later, should I need to.
It hurt a little more to dump the "Ultimate Spider-Man" hardcovers, but I never picked up the last couple collections, one of which is now long out of print, and Marvel pulled the rug out from under me and stopped publishing those glorious oversized 12 issue hardcovers. I think I'm still bitter about that. The six issue hardcovers that came after those books look and feel puny. Still, I think that series is the best extended run of a Marvel/DC comic book series in the last 25 years. Love the book. But, again, I haven't opened them up in a long time and don't think I will anytime soon.
Also heading out: the "Ultimate Fantastic Four" and "Ultimate X-Men" collections. They looked nice when lined up together, but none are high on my Must Re-Read list at the moment.
It's a bit of a work in progress right now. I don't have many pictures to share because the results are uneven. The books don't line up neatly yet. The shelves are a bit chaotic. They're not even full. I'm still attempting to piece things back together. For example, I'm lining up all the "Groo" and "Usagi Yojimbo" collections I have to put across one shelf. Those have been scattered for too long, but I'm slowly bringing them together.
It's another side effect of this project: It's focusing my wish list. I'm finding myself more interested now in buying books to fill out this bookshelf. It's helping to re-prioritize the series that I sometimes set aside for other items of interest. I have more "Spirou and Fantasio" books to get from Cinebook. I'm missing a lot of "Usagi Yojimbo" volumes. I'm a few volumes behind on "Largo Winch" now, and Fantagraphics is putting out those "Donald Duck" books faster than I originally thought they might. Or, you now, time flies and you lose track of what's out there...
I'm also bringing more of my European comics back together. I'm sure that comes as a shock to none of you who've been reading this column lately. But the top shelf is predominately "Lucky Luke," "Asterix," and Carl Barks Duck books. I have far too many Duck albums from when Gladstone put them out in the 90s to fit on the shelf today. I did manage to put a sample of them alongside the beginning of the Fantagraphics reprints on the top shelf, though. Do I need both sets of reprints? Yes, of course I do. Fantagraphics is doing an amazing job with the recoloring efforts, and their annotations are always thought-provoking, even if I do sometimes thinks they're overthinking things.
"Blacksad" is up there, too, as are the Marvel reprints of "Ythaq," from the late, lamented Soleil series. The small collection of French language albums I have starts at the end of the shelf, featuring "Les Femmes En Blanc," "Melusine," and "Marsupilami." Can't get enough Lewis Trondheim. "Belladonne" is too tall and got pushed down to the next shelf. A man could go broke buying Pierre Alary's work at StuartNgBooks.com. I'm tempted to try it. They would certainly pretty up the bookshelf, right?
Because it's the only shelf they'd fit on, I have the "The Ulimates Omnibus" up there alongside "Batman Hush Unwrapped," "Spawn" volume 1, and the first year of "Haunt." I still haven't read that last one, but I do want to. The other two are up there for the art, as I try to spotlight (for my own purposes) more of the different art styles of comics. The next shelf down features art books by Todd McFarlane, Frank Cho, and Francois Schuiten. Picture a buxom woman with a long cape blowing against the odds of physics in the wind as she stands in front of a ridiculously detailed drawing of a bizarre cityscape. I love comics.
The other Marvel Omnibus in my collection is on that shelf, as well, collecting the Todd McFarlane-era "Amazing Spider-Man" run. I still pop that book open from time to time to random pages to relive my earliest comics collecting days. I remember the pages I slavishly redrew for myself and the ones I got most excited about.
I have a selection of Will Eisner books on that shelf, from "Last Day in Vietnam" to "The Building" and even "The Princess and the Frog." Eisner's work is still hugely educational, entertaining, and inspirational. It's a couple of generations on now, but his work still influences today's artists, likely in ways they don't even realize.
Rearranging my shelves also gave me the chance to dig back up the three "Leave It To Chance" hardcovers from James Robinson and Paul Smith. The "Smurfs Anthology" series will go there. The Eric Shanower/Skottie Young "Oz" series will be there, as well.
I'm not sure you could be on further opposite ends of the art spectrum as Lewis Trondheim and Francois Schuiten, but they do share shelf space at my house.
On and on it goes. There's a small section for comic strip collections, though the pride and joy of that section of my collection are too big to fit on a bookshelf: the complete "Far Side" and "Calvin and Hobbes." Still, I love having "Bloom County" up there. The Artist's Editions, likewise, don't fit on the shelves and are still stacked in the closet, still in their original packaging for protection. When you want to lug one of those out to read, it's worth the extra effort to dig in. There's nothing casual about an Artist's Edition.
Currently, the bookshelf looks far messier than it ever has. There's a greater diversity of shapes and designs to those books. There's a problem with books of similar theme being too different in size and forcing me to break them apart in different ways. I wish the whole thing looked neater, but I'm very proud of the collection of books I have up there to glance over at. The bookcase looks new and refreshed. It's been far too long.
What about you? Do you have that one bookcase that's been stocked full of the same books for years, while newer books languish in a dark corner somewhere? Have you noticed your interests in comics changing? Have you been thinking that with all the books you've accumulated over the years, that you could have a themed bookcase?
Why don't you try changing it up? The books you put away aren't going away. They're just moving out of the way. Give something new a try. Rotate some books. It might be just the shot in the arm you need right now.