A few years ago, I was chatting online with Kurt Busiek, asking him about the differences he experienced between being a fan of comics versus a creator of them. At some point during the discussion, I made reference to him being a comic collector, to which he pointedly corrected me. He noted that a collector is someone whose interest is in the objects themselves, as opposed to their content or meaning. He made the analogy of a book collector.
A book collector is someone who buys original printings, leather-bound editions and otherwise rare books. Someone who buys books to read them, and then just never gets rid of them, is just an avid book reader, not a collector.
Busiek made the same distinction in comics. He was interested in the stories and read comics, but he didn't actively go around looking to buy a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #1 -- he was quite content to read the issue in one of its many reprinted forms.
While it was similar a value judgment I had made back in my early 20s, it was the first real articulation of differentiation in terminology. The collector mindset I had when I was a teenager -- when I was making an active attempt to get a complete run of Fantastic Four -- had changed while I was in college to the realization that I was more interested in the stories about the FF than I was in the actual comics they were originally printed in. The point was really driven home for me when I graduated and my parents got me, as a graduation gift, an original copy of Fantastic Four #1. I was very touched and appreciative, naturally, but I felt a little awkward in that I had no real reason to remove the issue from its mylar housing -- I'd already seen the contents a thousand times before.
The differentiation, of course, didn't used to be available. There was a time not that long ago when reprints were far from guaranteed and digital comics were unheard of. If I wanted to read Fantastic Four #24, my only option was to get my hands on an original printing of that issue. It wasn't reprinted at all until 2001, and then only in black and white. So if I wanted to be an avid reader of the FF's adventures, I also had to be a collector, looking for those rare issues.
But today, in the 21st century, we've got a great many more options available. The wealth of the reprint market is staggering compared to even a decade ago -- you can buy old Captain Atom reprints, for Pete's sake! How many people even knew the character existed before 2004? Not to mention the digital options that have become available, thanks to the ever-increasing speed of computers and internet connections.
My point is that I don't need to be a collector any longer. There's been a clear and successful distinction between content and its delivery mechanisms. I can focus my resources on the content, which is what interests me, and ignore the delivery system that collectors follow. (Not that there's anything inherently wrong with being a collector, mind you! If someone actively wants to own first print run copies of whatever comics they like, more power to them. I'm just not one of those people.)
So, let me ask you: are you a comic book collector or an avid reader who just doesn't get rid of his reading material?