Comic books have issues. Or perhaps I should say that I have issues with issues of comics? No that’s not right.
I have a problem with the way in which comic books are numbered. There it is.
If I haven’t mentioned it before (and I have), I’ve been reading comics for a long time—as I would suspect a fair number of you have as well. And as a long-time comic reader it’s sometimes easy to forget that comics—and I’m talking specifically about superhero comics here—can be incredibly intimidating to the uninitiated reader.
Comics have a learning curve, and use a particular symbolic language to convey the story which you have to understand before you can really appreciate them. Learning to read a comic is not difficult, but unlike a movie or a television show you can’t necessarily glance at a comic page for the first time and just “get” it.
Beyond that, however, there are elements of the production of comics itself that can be incredibly confusing to the uninitiate. For a new reader looking at a shelf of comics, there are no clear indications of where to start, nor what order to proceed in. The modern comics landscape is littered with renumbers and relaunches which might very well change in the middle of a story—such as when Thor suddenly became Journey into Mystery again because it was time for a big round issue number. Or Daredevil going 30-some issues, and suddenly going back to #1. This is of course not to mention all of the various series which are either non-canon or take place at some vague other point in continuity.
Compare all of that with a TV show where you have a particular run which is presented in a specific order which is broken down into seasons or series. You start at one end and come out the other. Novel series are typically the same (prequels notwithstanding). Point is, it’s very hard for a new reader—or perhaps even an experienced one—to be able to follow along and understand exactly what order to read things in. The biggest question I hear from people interested in comics is “where should I start?”
For an industry that struggles to push 100,000 copies of its all-star titles, that’s a problem. Compared with the recent premiere of Game of Thrones season 4—which had 6.6 million viewers—Batman and Superman are jokes (and not the funny kind). Teen Titans Go!, a relaunch of the popular series from 10 years ago, debuted with an audience of over 2 million. The Young Justice cartoon which preceded Go! averaged more than a million viewers an episode, and that show was considered a flop and was cancelled after only 2 seasons.
Marvel’s current big idea fix—slapping a #1 on every issue every couple of months—might be worth a small sales bump, but it’s highly questionable what the long term benefit is, or whether they are attracting a single new reader or simply appealing to current readers and a bunch of speculators. The fact that sales quickly flag again after a new #1 suggest to me that it’s likely the latter. Meanwhile from the perspective of someone, say, trying to figure out which of six #1 issues of The Avengers that have come out in the last 10 years to read, finding the right place to get started is daunting at best.
Marvel and DC’s sales numbers aren’t a problem I’m going to pretend I know how to fix (although getting your comics out of specialty shops and into places people who don’t already read comics shop wouldn’t hurt). But a confluence of two events started me thinking more closely about the way in which comics are numbered.
The first was the most recent issue of New Avengers, which is numbered both #16.NOW and also #1. What is it #1 of? Not a freaking clue. It’s not even the beginning of a story arc. Not to mention that this is a Jonathan Hickman book. I think you literally could not pick a worse comic book to hand someone and say, “This is a #1, it’s a good starting point if you haven’t been reading Avengers up until now.”
The second event was an episode of the PBS show Idea Channel, on Youtube, which did an episode recently (which I recommend watching) about a shift in the way TV shows are produced which has taken place over the last decade. This shift is due in large part to the increased prevalence of what are known in the industry as “time-shifting devices,” which is essentially anything that allows you to watch a show at a time other than when it was broadcast.
Indeed, between “on-demand” streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, as well as digital download services like iTunes, Amazon, and (let’s face it) BitTorrent, the concept of a “broadcast” is becoming as anachronistic as “dialing” a telephone. We may still have live-streams, but in the context of popular media outside of news programs very few things that you watch on television are live.
More and more our popular media is being decoupled from the concept that once a thing has been presented you have to wait until it is presented again at some arbitrary time in the future to see it; in the case of television presumably during the also increasingly anachronistic “summer repeat” season. Missed an episode? Only found out about a cool new show when it was on its 10th episode (or the 10th season)? Not a problem, just fire up the old internet machine and spend a Sunday getting caught up.
Thus—posits Idea Channel—we are now experiencing a shift in the way that many TV shows are written. No longer are we beholden to the “episodic” format, where each installment of a series is a stand-alone story with a beginning, middle, and end which neither references nor is beholden to any specific previous event. Which is to say, TV production companies are no longer beholden to the fact that some—perhaps most—of their potential audience may not have seen the previous episode, or any previous episode of the series before and have no plausible way to watch it now.
Instead an increasing number of shows are adopting the “serial” format, where each installment of a series is like a chapter in a book. Story-lines are introduced, advanced, or ended as appropriate to their position within the overall meta-arc of the story. However, in a given episode a character/plot may appear, advance the action in some way, and exit all without preamble or explanation because there is an expectation that the audience will have gone back to the beginning and gotten caught up on events thus far.
All of which was interesting in its own right, but it caused me to consider a similar shift which occurred in comic books.
As we discussed on the show at one point, back in the 40s and 50s comic books were sold at newsstands like magazines. And newsstands bought magazines in part based on their issue number. A high number meant that the magazine had been published for a long time, and therefore could be reasonably expected to sell.
So rather than putting out titles around particular characters and restarting the numbering when one was cancelled and another put out they would simply keep the title and the number while shuffling the characters around. Which is why you had so many titles like Detective Comics, All-American Comics, Action Comics, Whiz Comics, Strange Tales, and all the rest, all with big three-digit issue numbers. They were focused on a concept or particular kind of story, rather than a specific character.
These were the episodic days of comics, where you could pick up Timely Comics #218 with NO IDEA what happened in 217 because each issue had a full story (often several, a lead and then some back ups). They were being sold to kids who weren’t expected to collect every issue or follow along with complex stories that spanned months or years. There were no collections either. At best perhaps a popular story would be reprinted. So if you were missing an issue from 3 years ago, too goddamn bad. Unless someone had collected it, that puppy was GONE.
By the 70s the audience had started getting a little older and comics publishers were telling longer and more complex stories, that were much more strongly predicated on the adventures of a particular character. So you had The Fantastic Four or The Mighty Thor comics. They were still being sold on newsstands, so the numbers were still being kept. But there was increasingly a market for old comics as fans tried to build out their collections in order to get the entire back story.
Over time comics began paying more and more attention to continuity, and the history of the characters. With the advent of the direct market and corresponding shift away from the newsstands, Marvel and DC were more free to publish longer, more serialized stories, including ones that spanned multiple books. And while this shift has led to what I feel is a richer storytelling environment where a creator like, say, Rick Remender can tell a story over a 30 or 40 issue series (like Uncanny X-Force) and then continue that story in a different book (as he has with Uncanny Avengers), the way in which comic series are both sold and cataloged hasn’t changed with it.
When you buy a new comic book the cover of that book still presents essentially the same information that a comics cover presented 50 years ago. You’ve got the title, issue number, publisher, price, and an illustration which teases something about the story inside. Given the ongoing and interconnected way superhero stories are told these days, I’m not sure that’s really appropriate to the content that’s being provided. Especially given the tendency of publishers to do 0 issues, .1 issues, -1 issues, and whatever the hell .now, .inf, and .inh are (honestly Marvel, teh fuq?), and the fact that we now have our own comic book version of a “time shifting device” in the form of digital comics.
Gone are the days when you have to drive around to all of the local comic shops or trawl comics conventions, pawing through long boxes in order to assemble a complete collection. Even being beholden to the publication of trades or fat omnibus editions is likely to start going away in the face of Comixology, or Netflix-like subscription services such as Marvel Unlimited.
On the one hand having a digital archive makes curating these sorts of things easier, but on the other I don’t think that’s an excuse for allowing this sort of nonsense to fester, *especially* given the increasing visibility of comic books within the greater context of popular culture.
Superhero comics aren’t told in the episodic structure they were in the 1940s and 50s anymore, and I think at this point it’s ridiculous that they are sold that way. Many comics already bear subtitles, it would be simple enough to make that the rule. Novel series often have a series title like The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire above the title of the book. TV shows are broken down into numerical seasons.
I am not one to be so crass as to make demands or start petitions against the artists who create popular media (I conscientiously abstained from voting either for or against the death of Jason Todd), so I’m not going to make a call to arms here. However, I will humbly suggest that with all of the above as context, it would behoove the canny comics publisher to examine the manner in which other popular media is produced and consider the options available.
Comics are a great storytelling medium. Superheroes—for all the guff that they receive—serve as a potentially potent metaphor for dealing with the fears and anxieties of the modern era (and for some fun stories along the way). But I’m dreading the day that I see #1.NOW.1 #1 Alpha Prelude.INH #0 (of 6), because that’s where we’re headed right now and it’s only going to alienate more and more of the literally millions of people who watch superhero movies and TV shows, but have not ever read a comic book.
This is, ultimately, an easy problem to fix that would make life a lot simpler for—I would venture—entire swathes of your potential audience. So Marvel? DC? Fix this. Do it now while the movies are hot and you have an entire audience ready and willing to fork over their dollars if you just give them the right opportunity.