The Contrarian Collector: Non-Fungible Friendships

by Koom Kankesan

In the last couple of columns, I talked about some negative aspects regarding collecting art (the difficulties of selling and the changes that digital art has wrought). I’ve learned (perhaps unsurprisingly) that I’m much more interested in writing about the ethos of collecting and its psychological effects than cataloguing pieces of art and what they might be worth. Therefore, let me end this series of columns with a more positive reflection.

There are many aspects to collecting. Whereas in most instances it can be a solitary affair, driving people inwards to focus in fetish like manner upon the objects they pursue and forcing collectors into competition with one another, creating the pyramid like structure discussed in the last column, it can also engender good friendships. At the very least, it allows collectors to learn something about themselves. The best thing about having a passion is that it enriches life and allows you to connect with others who share that passion.

My main reason for loving comics (and collecting memorabilia from their production) is that they communicate knowledge, ideas, insights, and feelings in a highly creative and unique way. Comics are special because they speak to our hearts and minds in a different way than novels or movies do. Thus, finding a creator whose work really speaks to you is like being able to have a conversation through space and time. Finding a friend you can discuss the same things with is just as good or even better.

A fellow collector who also focused on pages from the works of Alan Moore told me that there was a seller on eBay selling Supreme pages Moore had penned. This collector bought a page from the seller in question (Mike Shea) and found him quite adaptable in terms of striking a bargain. This collector suggested I should buy one too. Normally, I wouldn’t have because I already had a Supreme page and I don’t like stockpiling too much of the same thing but I’ve regretted many purchases I could have made and so, since I was on the fence and the price was very reasonable, I ended up buying this Supreme page by Chris Sprouse featuring Bill and Hillary Clinton. Clinton was president at the time and though I don’t like pages that don’t have the writing on them (after all, the reason why I collect Moore pages is because of his writing), I thought it would be interesting to have a page with a cameo from a real life political head of state, and a funny one at that. As we communicated while engaging in the transaction, Mike and I talked about why we found Moore interesting, what we liked, and the transaction actually became sort of a trade with him bundling in printouts of some of Moore’s scripts and me sending him a book and other materials.

Fast forward a few years and I’m no longer friends with the original acquaintance (oddly enough, we fell out over a minor disagreement regarding a comic art auction; but that’s a boring story). However, Mike has become one of my best friends. I’ve never met Mike in person and have only talked to him on the phone two or three times. He has an aversion to talking on the phone because he’s always multi-tasking (he holds down a full time job, has a family with two kids, and passionately runs his own micro press publishing his own comic, Miskatonik High). I, on the other hand, have an aversion to texting, hate multi-tasking, couldn’t publish my own comic to save my life, have no kids, although I do hold down a job on top of my creative work. Mike has jokingly wondered why we’re even friends. Though I have an aversion to texting, slowly over time, I’ve become used to having long conversations composed of texts with Mike (where time allows) during the day. I find the eye strain and tiny typing difficult but the breadth, depth, and richness of the conversation has won me over – it is infectious. Often, we talk about comics or the comic industry or comic art but we’ll just as easily talk about our personal lives, the creative process, politics and current events, writing and art, pretty much anything. The conversation picks up and stops throughout the day and though we don’t converse every day, it feels like an ongoing, neverending uber-conversation. This is what comics can do.

Miskatonic High #1 - Comics by comiXology

Mike’s proved to be a good friend in other ways. He lives in the U.S. and I live in Canada. Sometimes sellers will not sell to people outside the U.S. In some cases, Mike has stepped up and either bid for me or outright bought things on my behalf and had them shipped to his address before redirecting. In most cases, I wouldn’t feel great paying for a piece of art and having that shipped to someone else’s house but I implicitly trust Mike. Once, when he’d dropped off a package for me at the post office but it hadn’t been scanned and thus was unavailable for tracking, he offered to refund me the cost of the items. This was a new one – here he was already doing me a favour and then offering to pay me on top! Luckily, we were able to put an inquiry in to the postal service and they turned up the package and all was well. Fairly humble and self-deprecating, Mike’s character is impeccable and trustworthy. Hating self-attention, he’ll probably be cringing and blushing, red-faced as he reads this.

You measure temperature through Fahrenheit and warmth through joules. You measure a piece of art’s worth through currency but how do you measure friendships? Even more so than art, friendships are truly non-fungible. We actively collect collectibles but we also inadvertently collect acquaintances, friends, feelings, and experiences. Our experiences of friendship exist in the mind but so does our appreciation of art. In a very real Platonic sense, our attachment is not to the art itself but to the feelings, meaning, and nostalgia it evokes. Then, are our experiences of friendship and art essentially the same thing? There are qualitative differences of course but it begs the philosophical question: is one more ‘real’ than the other? If it’s all in our mind, what’s real and what’s not?

To me, Mike is a series of pixels, an impression through space and time, that has direct impact. Perhaps I am the same to him. What must I be like – this avatar of me that is as ‘real’ as myself – missing a conventional body and voice, I must be nothing so much as an essence – a sequence of opinions, observations, and reactions. A waveform of myself. A quantum echo. Art too has its psychic imprint, its soul if you will, that exists beyond lines of india ink, yellowing zipatone, rubbed out pencils, and fading editorial comments. This is why, as we move into increasingly digital realms, NFT’s herald a millennial/post-millennial comfort with living in virtual spaces. For these people who grew up with video games and social media rather than comic books, there is no difference between a digital friend and a ‘real’ friend. The two are interchangeable. There is no difference between the meaning inherent in physical versus digital art – both are equally ‘real.’

Collecting in this Platonic sense, this realm of ideals and philosophical abstracts, teaches us something about ourselves. Furthermore, it makes us realize how malleable these practices and feelings can be. Just like the energies that normally go into the ‘pyramid-like’ nature of collecting, there is nothing to say they cannot be inverted, that they can’t be directed towards sharing, building, creating, and bonding. It’s a lot more fun to build and extend ourselves beyond our physical limitations and identities, to understand ourselves as more than discrete units, than it is to tear things apart. Sometimes comic nerds get a bad rep; we can be seen as obsessive compulsive hoarders, weak at socializing and communicating, bitter and driven, nursing grudges and other vindictive tendencies. We’re essentially the corporate world dressed in dorky robes. But it doesn’t have to be that way: it doesn’t always have to be about market share and breaking things apart.

Mike and I have talked about co-owning a piece of expensive comic art as a way of circumventing the inflationary demands of the market. This sort of flies in the face of the idea of acquiring and owning a coveted piece as a way of pumping up one’s ego. It’s an unorthodox idea and with most people, I wouldn’t dare attempt it, but with Mike it feels like a creative and innovative solution. We haven’t figured out all the logistics but since collecting is ultimately about the feeling of ownership and satisfaction (once again, ideas that exist in the Platonic realm), this doesn’t really seem to matter as much, as long as the result is positive rather than negative.

After all, when it comes to the essence of things, what is it that is truly important – and what do we truly own?

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