Introduction to "Comic Book Numbering"
Comic book numbering used to be a very simple issue - each issue was incremented one number from the preceding issue in a simple natural number sequence starting at issue #1 until infinity.
Occasionally there would be some complications when a series was re-named (often when a key character in an ongoing anthology becomes popular enough for their own title), such as "The Incredible Hulk (1968)" taking over the numbering from "Tales to Astonish (1959)" or "Captain America (1968)" taking over the numbering of "Tales of Suspense (1959)".
However, DC Comics started an inadvertent trend when John Byrne re-structured the Man of Steel in the mid-1980's. All Superman comics (Action Comics and Superman) were taken offline for a few months, and a re-launch re-started Superman (1987) with a new #1, and continued the pre-existing Superman (1939) numbering with "Adventures of Superman (1987)". Superman (2006) re-merged Superman (1987) and Adventures of Superman (1987) to a single title.
Both DC and Marvel comics insisted on the occassional oddly numbered comic (0, -1 for Marvel, 1,000,000 for DC) which made continuity of numbering strange.
Marvel had a mathematical psychotic break and sold off key characters (e.g. Hulk, Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America and the Fantastic Four) to a group of artist/writers in the ill-fated "Heroes Reborn" period of about a year in the mid-1990's, each series being re-started as a new #1. This experiment lasted about a year from 1996 to 1997, where the characters were re-introduced into the "real" (616) universe of Marvel in "Heroes Return".
Marvel's marketing department, realizing that "#1" issues had extra purchase value, began randomly re-starting series to generate new #1's. Later, someone woke up and realized that they were missing the chance to capitalize on significant milestone issues (500, 600 etc.) and began to re-number the ongoing series, with mixed success. Some re-numbering was simply the inclusion of series X and series Y of the same character, with the new numbering being the sum. However, with other series, the effect was somewhat confusing (see Hulk).
This site is an attempt to make sense of the numbering issues.
Friday, October 19, 2012
An Alternative Perspective to issue numbering
I've argued that this messing with numbers is a bad sign - it signals a change from a long-term view of comic characters to a shorter term view (e.g. 6 issues or so) - which manifests in focusing on shorter storylines, even if it conflicts with the character history, or even if it is limiting in the long term view of the character. Marketing of graphic novels, which typically collect 4-8 issues of a monthly series in a quality paper, bound format, may be pushing storylines to fit this format.
I don't have any problem with graphic novels - I actually like them. What I'm concerned about is the change in focus from long-term to short-term, and my ultimate fear that the major companies eventually stop producing monthly comics.
My basic comparison is a Superman, or Spider-Man vs. a character like Tarzan. Tarzan has been published in multiple media formats and is a semi-consistent character. However, aside from the basic "abandoned in the jungle as an infant" origin story, each depiction, each story, is independent an unconnected. He can get married, he can die, he can start a revolution of animals against humans - all is possible in an uncontrolled character development environment.
Contrast that to monthly comics, which (as Marvel made it's fortune on), can be considered serial storytelling - each month is a continuation in the life and times of character X. Marvel was revolutionary in the 1960's by connecting their different titles in a single universe - crossovers between books, some of which were very brief and passing, made the world feel "real". The carryover effects of events provided a depth a Tarzan-type universe can't match. Think of the Gwen Stacy death (Amazing Spider-Man #121) - long term angst, plot fingers showing up repeatedly over the history of the character of Spiderman.
There are problems with long-term serial storytelling, such as ageing characters (who wants to see a 75 year old Peter Parker swinging around Manhattan, chasing a 105 year old Vulture?). For creative teams, there is a problem in that they have a significant amount of homework required to fully understand characters before they can take a serious run at a title (e.g. they have to know Uncle Ben's death, Gwen's death, Peter's guilt over both, how to keep a 200 year old Aunt May going...). Sometimes there might be great stories that can't be told with Spider-man or Superman - their histories won't necessarily allow it, requiring some creativity to make it match, or porting the idea off to another character, or to create a one-shot ("out of continuity") story - the brilliant "What If" series by Marvel provided lots of opportunity to play in an imaginary universe, as did DC's Elseworlds -take what you want from the "real" universe, and branch off into new directions. Marvel has occasionally created new universes for creators to play in - Marvel Knights allowed for more "adult" geared themes, the Ultimate Universe was a whole-scale re-launch - characters were re-defined from scratch in the present as opposed to 1960's world.
Thus, while I understand that there is homework required to understand a character, I think that is the price to play in the "big leagues". Creators are only interested in Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Superman, Batman etc. BECAUSE they are iconic characters. Having to abide by some consistency-based rules seems to be appropriate. Making Wonder Woman a lesbian, or having Superman have a psychotic break and kill Batman's whole rogues gallery may be an excellent one-shot, or mini-series idea, but would not match the characters' history, nor prove positive for the long-term "iconicness" of the character.
I'm also convinced that there is a happy medium - you can create a history that is consistent, without being anal in the individual details of every single story ever written. I think this is where the big companies need to maintain in-house expertise, who can help creative teams understand the relevant issues (the internet helps a lot) that may influence any ideas being contemplated. Keeping a strong historical consistency with respect to the last 5 years or so suffices, with an awarness of key issues from prior generations (e.g. the death of Gwen and Uncle Ben still being relevant, the almost-marriage of Aunt May to Doctor Octopus less so). The referencing to recent history provides the feeling of belonging for the readers, and provides the depth to the characters, and the momentum to the serial-storytelling medium, and consistency with the "serious" elements of the longer term provide the necessary "iconic" status earned by the characters over time.
The comic world is varied, there are options for creators that didn't exist when the "iconic" characters were created - lots of smaller companies, lots of ability to do owner-created characters, direct-to-customer online methods to do large-scale comics virtually for free.
However, my opinion is not universal - here is a site (http://www.mania.com/5-ways-comic-books-can-fix-issue-numbering_article_116150.html )that argues that the messing with issue numbers (re-launches and re-numbering later to get anniversary issues) is best handled by moving toward a mini-series driven universe - drop long-term issue numbers for the most part and provide new #1's to new creative teams for their 6, 10 or 25 issue runs - making it very clear that they are free to re-vision the characters during their run.
This model may provide interesting outcomes - e.g. there may be 3 or 4 different creative teams on a single character with three or four different views and takes. I think that would be very interesting for a few years, but I suspect that the ultimate outcome would be a real diffusion of the definitions of the characters - less of an iconic "feel" for Superman, Batman or Spider-Man if there are lots of different views, likely mutually incompatible with each other.
The monthly comics provide a re-visit to the "real" Peter Parker, the "real" Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, which keeps the key aspects of the character intact. Ultimate Spiderman is great - I loved the run, and like the new (non-Peter) Ultimate SpiderMan, but it is a new character, it is not the "real", 616 Marvel Universe Spider-Man. I think this is great - both can exist, sell and have fan bases - why not? This is the best of both worlds - a re-visioned character AND the iconic one. I like this a lot more than the damage Marvel has done with the "real" Spider-Man ("Sins Past", "Spider-totem", "Clone Saga", "One More Day", "Brand New Day") where they've significantly messed with the character history (e.g. chipped away at the iconic character), which only servers to make the character seem much less "real" and much more a marketing tool. As serious as the money and marketing issues are, they shouldn't be so overt that they change the characteristics of the product.