Thursday, March 20, 2008

Comics' Numerical Nightmare

I was reminded today of something that both annoys the hell out of me, and which cannot ever really be fixed. After nearly two decades of reboots, restarts, and relaunches, there are precious few comics left that have kept their original numbering.

It used to be a good thing to be a long lived comic book series. I can still remember when anniversary issues were a big deal, proudly proclaiming a book’s staying power. Such was the prevailing sentiment at both Marvel and DC, until DC and John Byrne relaunched Superman out of Crisis on Infinite Earths. Superman restarted at #1 and the old Superman series numbering continued with Adventures of Superman #424. Adventures of Superman went on for almost two decades, and only recently reverted to Superman with #650, after which the numbering resumed as if never interrupted. Unless you're a comic shop trying to stock Superman back issues. Or a collector trying to store Superman back issues. Or if you're rich and/or lucky enough to own a complete run of Superman. Then you've got to deal with Superman #1 through 423 in your "S" boxes, then schlep waaaay back to your "A" boxes for Adventures of Superman #424 through 649, then back again to the "S"-s for #650 and up.

Click diagrams to enlarge

After the success of the Superman relaunch, the floodgates were open and DC started renumbering books left and right, often resetting the continuity to dire effect in the process. Marvel took longer to get to it, but when they started, they pissed away their legacies with gusto. Of course, a lot of their titles were screwed from the get-go in that regard. Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Thor, to name a few, picked up their numbering from Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, and Journey into Mystery respectively. Any high numbering equity that other books had built up was trashed starting when the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Iron Man, and Captain America all had their ongoing titles canceled in favor of "Heroes reborn". Relatively more successful reboots of Heroes Reborn followed, and a wave of line-wide restarts followed that and have continued since. The Hulk was launched anew…into an ill-received John Byrne revamp, and Amazing Spider-Man was restarted for Howard Freakin' Mackie.

Today, the numbering of Marvel's longest running titles are all over the place; some got their old numbering back, others are on their 5th restart. Avengers resumed its traditional numbering for a whopping 4 issues before being cancelled and restarted with New Avengers. I think Marvel’s longest running title may be fucking Wolverine at this point. DC, for their part, are on their 20th iteration of JLA, Green Lantern is up to fifty-something of his 4th or 5th series, and Wonder Woman’s on her 3rd or 4th volume.

Sales are the major determiner of these moves, of course, but any gains made by the restarts are usually born of panic, and accordingly short-lived. Abrupt editorial fiat is often what leads to sudden cancellations and restarts, all in pursuit of the almighty minor sales spike that comes with yet another garish, multi-covered First Issue Spectacular. I think that it is very much a diminishing returns thing, as any jumping on point is just as easily a jumping off point. This practice also devalues the very concept of the First Issue and the Complete Set of a series. Anyone can say they have a full run of Iron Man with a straight face, when their volume 3 has just been shitcanned to make way for NEW! SHINY!! Iron Man #1 (volume 4) by superstar writer T.V. Whimsmith and artist Slo-Poke Jonezz (with DragonzLate Studios).

Does "first issue" even mean anything when you've just been offered the 12th "first" issue of Ghost Rider?

But more than that, more importantly, any sense of momentum, history, and legacy these books have has been destroyed in the constant search for the new and hot. Detective Comics. Action Comics. Batman. Those are about the only titles from the big two that haven’t been rebooted yet. Every other title in both Marvel and DC’s stables are numerically compromised. I concede that sometimes a restart is appropriate, but they can’t even do that consistently. Green Lantern relaunched several times with Hal Jordan starring, but when Jordan went nuts and Kyle Rayner took over, the book retained its then-current numbering. When Hal returned, he got a new first issue. Of course!

Unfortunately, there's not much to be done for it. The damage has already been done. Now we're stuck with an indexer’s nightmare, without even mentioning "zero" issues, "1/2" issues and “1 Million” issues for Pythagoras’ sake. The publishers can go back to the original numbering, and that helps, but they can't travel back in time and un-fuck up their entire numbering scheme. Wouldn't be cost effective, you know. So I guess we’re stuck.

You know, those baseball card guys have it easy.


Anonymous said...

Who buys a book because it says "number one" but WOULDN'T buy a book if a brand new creative team was on it???

Ya John Byrne is great but I'll skip this book...wait a sec!! NUMBER ONE!!! I AM ALL OVER THIS!!!!

every book should go back to the orignal numbering.

Stephen said...

i think numbering changes or trends really reflect the generation that is reading the comics and the sensibilities of that generation. i like the idea that comics with big numbers prove that books are good or perennial favorites. i just need to know on the cover when the jumping on point is. like action comics i would love it if it said right on the cover part 1. or in a series like blue beetle if the cover said jump on here. the only time i've really felt safe picking up a book with high numbering is during a crossover. I started a lot of books due to infinite crisis that i'm still reading.

PATCH said...

Heck, how about when cover dates actually let you know when the book came out?

Collected volumes are the only way I can get into a comic I haven't followed.

sschroeder said...

Since first issues usually sell the best, I'm almost surprised publishers have not managed to come up with a series where "every issue is a # 1!"

Anonymous said...

Any love for "The Incredible Hercules"?

Brian Hughes said...

Those fifth week events that were popular a few years back were sort of a "every issue is a # 1!" kind of deal, I guess, but they weren't specifically marketed as such.

I do like the Herc book, anon.

Anonymous said...

I'm still freaking out from learning that the Mary Jane - Petey marriage has been unmamde. So like the last decade of continuity is no more? Personally all these relaunches of long running comics devalues not just their past but their future. How can one trust a new direction for a character won't get flushed away just as quickly as the last one.

But what I wanted to mention was how much I enjoyed the recent Simpson's Super Spectactular that criticized all these writers who always want to "deconstruct" some long running hero in a grim and cynical way. I don't read comics* to be depressed and discouraged. These guys are crap artists, and I wish they would stop.

(*actually I stopped reading comics about ten years ago.)

Brian Earl Brown

Peter said...

I totally agree. It's insane. I think it's interesting that Spider-Man went through a renumbering thing a few years ago, and then for a while they included the old numbers in smaller print below the "new" number, remember that? Now Amazing Spidey is back at #554 or whatever, and since it's 3x a month, it'll surpass that puny Action comes soon! If it lasts that long.

Anonymous said...

DC actually has four series that have been continuously published for decades: Action Comics, Detective Comics, and Batman that you mentioned - plus Superman.

Just because the title changed to Adventures doesn't mean that it was rebooted. The key point here is that Superman/Adventures/Superman never ceased publication, and is still in volume one. So it's no different than Journey Into Mystery becoming Thor. It's the same publication even when the title changes. Yes, there was another series called Superman that ran from 1987 to 2006, but that series is a totally different comic, imo.

What really burns my metaphorical biscuits is when Marvel cancels a title like Amazing Spider-Man, starts a new volume two, then goes back to the old numbering and tries to pretend that the series is still on volume one. Sorry Marvel, but it just doesn't work that way. If it did the concept of "volumes" would have no meaning. DC has so far resisted these kinds of shenanigans.

Swinebread said...

I guess the renumbering goes along with the crappy storytelling.