By Collin Colsher
The idea of collecting comic books is a complicated one. Having a really “complete” and eclectic collection is seemingly ideal. It’s also been said that building a collection is the first step to later selling it and making bank. For me, collecting was both of these things, but it was also a fun game of treasure hunting. I loved collecting.
And then I stopped.
I still have my collection hidden away in storage, but it’s been years since I added anything significant. There were a few reasons why I halted, but I did so mainly because the way I viewed comics changed. My insatiable materialistic desire to own comics morphed into a pursuit of subtext, weightier meaning, and pure enjoyment within those comics. But how, when, and why did this happen?
Eight years ago, I was a regular seller at the Philadelphia Comic Convention. The Philly Con was held once a month in a dingy, stained-carpeted ballroom in a Ramada Inn by the airport. (It’s currently held there, although the Ramada is now called “Clarion Hotel Conference Center” and I haven’t attended for years). I’m not sure what the average person knows about comic conventions, but this surely wasn’t Wizard World. No cosplay, no corporate sponsors, no guests of renown—no frills. This was more like a comic flea market. All the sellers were men in their late 40s or 50s and boy were they jaded. I’d hear lots of uncomfortable stories about “making the choice between a wife or a garage full of collectibles.” You can imagine what choice was made. I recall trading a rare early ‘80s Bernie Wrightson magazine for a Blob action figure, much to the disgust of the curmudgeonly snake-oil salesmen across from by booth. I also recall being the only person smiling.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of nice folks. But the average seller was not trying to have a good time. He was trying to make money by pushing big-ticket items in the form of signed original artwork—an autographed Spider-Man by Ditko or a signed copy of Fantastic Four #1. As a 22-year-old fanboy I had more interest in combing the maze of long boxes for cheap single issues. In fact, I’d sell most of my wares for 50 cents and barely break even, but didn’t give a hoot because I was having a blast soaking up the action at the coolest, weirdest ballroom in Philly. My rival sellers must have hated my youthful exuberance as I jovially collected quarters and darted around spending every penny I earned on other comics.
It was in this strange environment that I discovered a pile of inexpensive Nexus comics. After unloading a pile of Starlog magazines, I had enough cash to pick up the stack of “New Color Nexus” issues. (There was indeed a previous volume in black-and-white, which I would enjoy later). Little did I know that this was the start of something that would impact me profoundly.
Right off the bat things were different than the normal superhero book. Writer Mike Baron introduced the ostensible superhero Nexus, aka Horatio Hellpop, but made it clear that “Hellpop” wasn’t a secret identity. Hellpop simply was Nexus and he was famous all across the universe—notoriously as an executioner. And that’s when the layers began to multiply and I became unknowingly enrolled in Professor Baron’s “world-building for serial fiction 101.”
Someone at a party once asked me to describe Nexus in one sentence. An impossible task, but I thought for a moment and replied: “It’s a Judge Dredd-like superhero space fantasy akin to Star Wars, except if Star Wars had legitimate political intrigue and news media involved in its narrative.” I’m still fond of that response, but it barely begins to scratch the surface and doesn’t do justice to just how amazing Nexus really is.
In quick succession Baron introduced a myriad of incredibly unique characters: Dave, Tyrone, Judah, Raul, Sundra, the Heads, Mezzrow, and Ursula. Little did I know that all of these characters would be so fleshed-out and vital to the story even 100 issues later. But that speaks to the strength of Baron’s writing. Nexus was at-first-glance a fascist cold-blooded killer, but underneath that veneer was the tortured man who has powers from an unknown source and is compelled to punish the wicked or face dire consequences himself. Also underneath the veil of the vigilante was Nexus the Lover and Nexus the Friend and Nexus the Savior of Thousands of Refugees.
But what really hooked me was The Dude.
This was my introduction to Steve “The Dude” Rude, who remains one of my favorite illustrators—someone who I wish got more work today. The elegance of the bodies—the way they seemed to move with such exquisite life, the expressions on the faces, the complexity of the layouts, the sheer variety of alien plant-life and creatures, the perfect compliment to George Freeman’s vibrant coloring. I could go on forever.
Then I stumbled into a moment where Mezz bops Tyrone on the dome, mistaking his head-fin for a shark fin. This rare touch really wowed me—a calm moment that stepped back from the main narrative and showed the world as a snapshot of blissful simplicity. This was a world where people actually lived. This was a soapy world of spy games and space mystery and sci-fi fusion-casting explosions, but in spite of it all, this was also a world where banal things happened. And Baron and Rude made the banal ooze with charm.
And then I turned the page. Judah was returning from what was supposed to have been a cakewalk mission. My jaw dropped. In a single panel, the undefeatable hero was shown exiting his spaceship with his arms outstretched and a Tesla coil where his head used to be. My eye followed the scene sprawled out strikingly below: Dave fainting at the sight of his decapitated son and Nexus terrifyingly reacting. Like the gorgeous cover of an old EC horror book, it still gives me chills today.
Before Nexus, it had been a while since I had found a new title that struck me as being worthy of being added to my personal canon. Nexus was like finding a hidden gold mine. It’s hard to imagine returning to the Philly Con someday as one of those angry balding table-jockeys fighting for a buck. Did they once have the same gusto I had upon discovering something so great? Surely their introductions into the world of comicdom must have been happy, right? I guarantee my passion will never fade into a frowning countenance and furrowed brow caged-in by original art and towers of cardboard.
What’s that, you say? You haven’t forgotten about my rather large collection of comics in storage? And you haven’t forgotten that I stopped collecting? I see. You’re thinking that this is the classic origin of the “older angry comic guy” that wakes up at age 55, opens the vault, and realizes he’s saddled with a bunch of undervalued crap that he’s determined to flip into big bucks. Well, that’s an astute observation and fair prediction. But for me, Nexus serves as a reminder of why that won’t happen.
Back in the Ramada days, I was an adventurer, digging through long boxes to build the ultimate collection that other nerds would be jealous of. Now, I’m 30 and that era is behind me, but I’m still an adventurer. However, rather than making purchases merely for the sake of ownership, I pick up books with the idea that passion means cultivating richness from the stories inside them. For example, only in superhero comics do we get complex serialized narratives connected together by a seemingly infinite web built by hundreds of creators. While Nexus only had a few creators over its long run, it blew my mind with its own seemingly infinite web of plots, characters, and worlds.
I no longer treat comic books as objects.
Instead, I view them as complicated stories worthy of our admiration from a personal, scholarly, and analytical point of view. I’m more passionate about comics than ever, but I’m no longer lost in the “collecting game.” It’s funny. When you aren’t collecting, you can actually take the time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the very things you’ve been stockpiling.
Buying and selling will always be an important part of comic book culture, but when I think of Nexus, despite my introduction to the title amidst a “bag-and-board collecting atmosphere,” I’ll always think of love—how a love of comic books became a love of great stories.
Collin Colsher is a film scholar, writer, and teacher. He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and is the creator of The Real Batman Chronology Project.