One of my current pet theories – to be tested this summer when I go to my ten year high school reunion – is that in many ways, our teenage years form the basis for the people we become. Perhaps I don’t yet have sufficient perspective to truly judge in this matter, but another small data point appeared on the graph as I played with Human Computing’s ComicBase Encyclopedia of Comics CD-ROM. Human Computing bills the $69 CD-ROM as "the ultimate reference source for comic book collectors," and although far from ultimate, it does an overall good job.
As a teenager, I collected comics. I didn’t do it for the investment value (my best friend in high school had a tremendous collection along those lines), but because I was intrigued by the characters and the storylines and, to a lesser extent, the artwork. At some point, I outgrew my fascination with these fantastic worlds, abetted perhaps by the price increases that made 35 cent comics cost a dollar or more. I was also bothered by the increasingly dark subject matter that shattered much of the fantasy and humor I had grown to appreciate. But, a few years ago when I moved from Ithaca to Seattle, I brought my two large boxes of comics with me, most of them nicely bagged and organized.
Checking out the ComicBase Encyclopedia then, was a trip back in time as I browsed through the descriptions of comics from before, during, and after my years of collecting. I read about the characters whose stories I’d devoured and looked at a number of the representative cover images from over 2,000 titles. Many of the titles come from companies I’d never dreamt of beyond my limited universe of Marvel and DC comics. The range is impressive, and for those who perhaps do have an interesting collection, the ComicBase Encyclopedia includes pricing information for over 45,000 near-mint condition issues. You can even see a graph of how the price of any given issue has varied over the last four years. Also included in the list of the issues within a title are milestones that helped me remember what issues I have – things like first appearances of specific heroes or villains, deaths, crossovers with other titles, and origin myths.
Within the descriptions, hypertext links take you (somewhat sluggishly since the browser is written in HyperCard) to other appropriate title descriptions. Or at least they usually do – clicking on any of the characters in the X-Men description moves you to a description of another title in which that character stars, with the exception of the Beast, whose link jumps to "666: The Mark of the Beast," a completely different title from a completely different company. It’s often a bit unclear where the links will end up, since multiple links tend to use the same name, but can point to different titles. After a while, though, I stopped worrying about where I was going and enjoyed the ride. The descriptions are well-written, and as much as I can remember, accurate. I only found one typo, and if I’d remembered where it was, I could have fixed it, since an Edit Title Descriptions command unlocks the text fields for editing.
You can browse forward and backward alphabetically (but oddly, there’s no Back command to return to a card after following a link from it), and you’re given a good interface for finding specific titles and any of the milestones, as well as any piece of text in any description. However, the window for Titles (for finding a title), although modeless, won’t stay on screen after you select an entry and click the OK button. If the window remained on screen, it would be much faster to use as an ad hoc index to the encyclopedic information.
Although the ComicBase Encyclopedia of Comics is essentially a massive 9 MB database of text descriptions and pricing information (the 175 MB of cover pictures are stored separately on the CD-ROM), it let me down as a database. I would have liked to use typical database querying and categorizing functions, which would help me with exploring genres and companies I know nothing about or, for example, to query for all comic titles published between 1978 and 1983 by Marvel (such a search and reporting feature is slated for the next release). And, speaking of dates, I think the data field I missed the most was the date of publication, although this is apparently the most common request Human Computing gets, so they’ll be working on satisfying it in the future as well. Without knowing when a comic was published, it’s difficult to figure out where it fits into a genre or comments on a current society (and believe me, comics often contain rather biting commentary). Sometimes you can tell this from the cover image, but it’s not always easy.
The ComicBase Encyclopedia does a fine job, but it ultimately left me wanting more. I’d like to see more in-depth information on specific characters and situations – the one-screen descriptions often tantalize more than satisfy. I did run across entries for titles like the "Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Master Edition," and information from a book like that would be tremendously welcome in expanding the textual and graphical content of the CD. Of course, that involves getting the Marvel media empire to help, but hey, I never said my suggestions were easy.
For truly serious collectors, Human Computing also offers a $149 ComicBase CD-ROM that melds the encyclopedic information with a collector’s system for managing a comic collection. (This CD is available as an $89 upgrade from the ComicBase Encyclopedia, and there’s also a six-disk Personal Edition for those without CD-ROM drives.) It lets you track a collection’s value over the last four years, print price labels and reports, and generate checklists of missing issues, among other features.
So if you want to travel back into the alternate reality of the comic book universe without removing your books from their bags, check out the ComicBase Encyclopedia. It’s specialized, sure, but it’s neat for anyone who’s ever enjoyed comics. Hardware-wise, you need a color-capable Mac (though a color monitor isn’t necessary – there are black and white versions of the cover images), 2.5 MB of free memory, 10 MB free on your hard disk, and System 6.0.7 or later.
And, for the obligatory Internet link, I searched for information on comic books and found a lot of relatively detailed, but random, material, as is common on the net. Check it out in Yahoo’s Comic Book page:
Human Computing — 408/774-9016 — <[email protected]>