Comic book collector learns the fine art of letting go

SEATTLE — Jose Alaniz spent about a week sorting and packing each comic book — carefully, lovingly. There were 12 boxes of them, comics he’d collected since his mother bought him his first one at age 6.

He took time to look through them all. The Defenders. The Incredible Hulk. The Mighty Thor. Spider-Man. Each of them, even the bad ones, meant something to him.

And now here he was, preparing to let them go to the special collections at the University of Washington libraries.

Alaniz knows some would consider it silly that a 42-year-old man should be so attached to bits of paper and ink, books never really meant to last that long. A professor at the university, he sounds a bit apologetic for what he can only describe as his own sappiness (not an easy thing for a serious, somewhat nerdy academic to embrace).

Still, though he would soften the blow by keeping 10 of his most prized comic books, it would not be easy to let go.

Those he kept were “mostly stuff from deep in my childhood, which, in ways that still surprise me, remain part of my DNA and probably always will,” he wrote in a post on his blog. “Uh, can I get buried with some of these?”

He knows that he is not alone. There are others out there — collectors, pack rats, fellow closet sentimentalists — who will understand.

One of the 10 comic books Alaniz is holding on to is the one that started his obsession in rural south Texas in 1974: “Marvel Two-in-One Presents The Thing and The Guardians of the Galaxy.”

He’s not really sure why his mom bought it for him. Maybe it was because his older brother had comic books.

“For him, they were kind of a diversion,” Alaniz says. “For me, they became much more than that.”

Many nights, he would lay in his bedroom, alone, devouring each issue his mother bought for him. She only spoke Spanish, couldn’t read them herself. But they kept her younger son out of trouble, he says, and she liked that.

Even if she didn’t realize it, she also was introducing him to a whole new world, one that would teach him English and how to read. The comic books even helped instill an understanding of right and wrong, he says, a “moral code” he carries with him to this day.

They also helped him make sense of his brother, whom he looked up to but whose bursts of anger and run-ins with the law confused him. Was it any wonder, Alaniz now says, that the Hulk, who exhibited both reason and rage, was the character who most fascinated him?

“I realized there was something very special going on here,” says Alaniz. “This was not something to just read and throw away.”

Sal Buscema, a longtime artist for Marvel Comics who worked on the Hulk series, always knew there were kids out there who were devouring his work and that of other comic artists and writers.

Those kids wrote fan letters, some that were published in the comics. But Buscema could not have predicted that some of them would help propel his work into special collections, as Alaniz and others have done. That still amazes the 74-year-old artist, who lives outside Washington, D.C., and still works for Marvel.

In the early days, “If you were a serious artist, you certainly didn’t go into comic books,” Buscema says. “That changed over the years to a point now where we are extremely respected, something I never dreamed would happen when I got into the industry in 1968.”

He’s never met Alaniz, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Washington who’s among a growing corps of scholars who are teaching university-level courses on comic books.

But Buscema has met many like him.

“I’m so glad there are people like him out there because they kept me in business,” Buscema says, laughing. “I’m joking — I really do appreciate what he has done.”

Alaniz had been thinking about donating his comic book collection for a long time. Then, in 2009, he posted a query on a comic scholar listserv, looking for others who’d done it.

Anne Davis, an anthropology librarian at the University of Washington who has an interest in graphic novels and comic books, spotted the posting and eventually asked him to meet with her and the special collections staff.

“I knew it was going to be hard for him, so I wasn’t pushing him,” Davis says.

She left it up to him: “When you’re ready,” she told him, “We’re here.”

It took more than a year. But an upcoming move (and the idea of having to shift his collection yet another time) and an offer of tenure at the university (meaning he could stay near his collection) told him it was time.

He also knew that that the library staff could protect and preserve his collection in a way that he couldn’t. And he liked the idea that other scholars and comic fans could have access to the collection, to which he’ll add a few boxes of comic books he still has in Texas.

So, one day in August, a truck rolled up and a guy packed the boxes away.

“It was scary how easy and quick it was. It was all over in five minutes,” Alaniz says.

In one sense, it was an “emotional relief,” because now he doesn’t have to worry nearly as much about his collection getting damaged or destroyed. Still, he says, “I will confess to a bittersweet feeling of emptiness.”

So he sat down at the computer and started writing about it in that blog post: “Confessions of a middle-aged Marvel Zombie.” He also plans to write a book that will detail the emotional journey he has taken with the 10 books he’s keeping.

As the special collections staff prepares his comic books for public consumption — placing each one in a special protective plastic cover and placing them in dark, climate-controlled rooms — he also takes heart as he thinks about the card that will be included with some of them. It indicates that the comics are “A Gift from Jose Alaniz.”

“I think it’s important that people know that this came from someone who collected these things and who saw some value in them,” he says.

And, he adds, it’s nice to know that “there’ll be a little piece of me with them.”

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