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.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Big Issues in publishing long-term comics - Aging Characters

The second big issue facing comic book creators is whether or not to age the characters.  This is, of course, related to the idea of continuity.  If you have a very soft, or absent, continuity, you never have to age the characters.  For example, Archie, Veronica and Betty don't age, but at the same time, there is little reference to earlier adventures.  Each month, the same "world" is built - Archie pines for Veronica, Betty pines for Archie, Moose is the jock, Reggie is the smarmy one, Jughead is the innocent - this doesn't change even if in a particular story, Moose shows he has a good handle on life, or Reggie does something meaningful.

Marvel pushed the limits on continuity in the '60's with explicit references to earlier stories (with footnotes and references) and this was part of their marketing plan with the readers - it made you feel "involved" when you got the reminder, or inside information, on when this character appeared before, or when this particular story took place with reference to another title or storyline.

However, there are costs to this strategy. As outlined in the "continuity" article, creating a fixed history does tend to cause creative issues with incorporating new events into existing history and may remove some options (e.g. once married, always married....unless you make a deal with the devil).

The other issue is how to provide lasting characters with the gravitas that comes with history (e.g. we don't always want to pretend this is the first day out on patrol, and the first time they've run into bank robbers) without having the characters become "old".

Basically, you are stuck - if you want gravitas (that is, if you want Superman to recognize that he's been around and is world-famous in the comics) you will run the risk of aging the characters.

However, it is a fictional world - you can keep them looking youthful, and still recognize growth (e.g. Peter can learn "responsibility" every few years, without looking like a slow learner, as you can recognize that time has elapsed in the readers world, and some fraction has occurred in the comic).

My pet "solution" is to keep an active, accurate and vibrant continuity for a period of about 5 years for most events, and "forever" for sentinel events - Uncle Ben's death (or Gwen's) shouldn't fade from Peter's mind, even if the character of Spider-Man is 50, 75 or 100 years, similar to Batman's parents.  However, I think it is fair play to have other events fade from time, maybe have the "scarecrow" appear "new" for Batman if he hasn't appeared for a number of years - drawn from the nether-regions beyond the grey timescape of the comics.  It's not so bad if Dr. Octopus "forgets" that he was engaged to Aunt May and it in effect stale dates out of continuity.

I think it would be great to have a solid, fixed, forever continuity, but realize that only us 50+ers remember the early '70s stories of our youth so fondly - they are still there, particularly the big events, but maybe it would be bettter for new readers to have many of the issues fade to keep the main and secondary characters fresh.

This is kinda' what happens to characters anyway - what war was Tony Stark injured in anyway - Vietnam in the original, but Iraq/Afghanistan in the movie - the main elements of the story remain - we can be hazy about the present-world linkages.

I think this is preferable to the 100th #1 of Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four.  Or re-imaginging the Hulk as grey, smart, weak, with Banner's brain etc. constantly.

My fear is that the medium will move to short series (like Marvel seems to favour now) and graphic novels, and lose the monthly, sequential storytelling.  My main fear for this is that we will lose the essence of the character if it is disjoint - like Tarzan, and not linear like Superman/Spider-Man.

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