For all of my big talk about eschewing tradition in favor of storytelling, there’s one little gremlin that hangs in the back of my noggin, gnashing at my skull/cage. It’s something that annoys me to no end and, try as I might, I can’t even figure out what the solution is. Comic book numbering will forever confuse, confound and mystify me. I firmly believe that those damn numbers on the covers of every comic book are the most confusing thing about them, more confusing than Cable and Psylocke’s origins combined (which together involve time travel and no less than four different bodies).
Comics come out in a sequential fashion, one after the other, with the numbers on the cover increasing with every installment. This gives the series a sense of order. That’s how numbers work, and that’s how comics worked for the first fifty years of their existence. Sure, there were weird exceptions — “Tales of Suspense” turned into “Captain America,” but kept “Tales of Suspense’s” numbering — but those dealt more with the book’s title than numbering. And if anything, “Journey Into Mystery” getting its title changed to actually reflect the star of the book, Thor, helped lessen confusion.
Modern comics’ #1 craze didn’t really take hold until Todd McFarlane’s “Spider-Man” #1 was released in the summer of 1990. And crushed sales records. Crushed them. Crushed them harder than anyone thought a crushed thing could be crushed, until the following summer when “X-Force” and “X-Men” #1 proved that a record can be obliterated after getting crushed. The early ’90s gave us variant covers, arched backs and impossible crotches, and they also gave us the awful phrases “#1 Collector’s Item” and “Bold New Era.” Comics companies learned that first issues were a goldmine just waiting to be exploited. Twenty years later and there’s hardly any gold left in them there hills, but that hasn’t stopped comics companies from digging. #1s still sell, but their frequency has dulled the excitement they once created.
Since the early ’90s, Marvel has used the relaunch as a gimmick repeatedly. Marvel did it in 1996 with the “Heroes Reborn” storyline, and then a year later with “Heroes Return.” There were two number one issues for four of Marvel’s flagship titles in a year, which is pretty mind-boggling now that I think about it. This occured again with “Daredevil,” “Thor” and “Amazing Spider-Man” near the turn of the century, and then with “Captain America” and “Incredible Hulk” a number of times in the following decade. And if a movie was coming out, then by golly you could bet on a new #1, too (this happened to “Iron Man” and, yet again, “Thor” and “Captain America”).
Then in 2003, Marvel realized that its flagship title was approaching issue #500. Actually, volume three of “Fantastic Four” was approaching issue #70 which, when added to the 416 issues of the first volume and the 13 issues from the “Heroes Reborn” volume, equaled the majestic-sounding #500. So Marvel decided that all of those numbers could be added together to create “Fantastic Four” #500. Marvel then did the same thing for every long-running title as they approached their own milestones. Just recently, Marvel seized the opportunity to magnify the significance of Jonathan Hickman’s “Fantastic Four” run by canceling the title with issue #588 and relaunching the series as “FF” for eleven issues before returning to the original numbering with #600. Please note “Fantastic Four” has had both issues #500 and #600 published without a #499 and #599. “FF” kept on going, meaning that the first eleven issues of “FF” count towards both the numbering of the “Fantastic Four” ongoing and the “FF” ongoing.
If you think that’s confusing, I cannot — my brain cannot even begin to explain the absolute mess that is “Incredible Hulk.” The issues of three volumes of “Incredible Hulk,” all of the issues from one volume and some of the issues from the second volume of just plain “Hulk,” issues titled “Incredible Hercules” and the old “Tales To Astonish” anthology series, all contributed to the numbering of a series named “Incredible Hulks” (plural) which was relaunched (of course) with a new #1 as the fourth series called “Incredible Hulk” (singular). What are the benefits of this mess, and how do those benefits outweigh simply telling a Hulk story regardless of what the number is?
With Marvel NOW!, we’re getting nothing but new #1s for series that already have too many. Come this fall, “New Avengers” will have its third #1, “Fantastic Four” its fourth, “Avengers” its fifth, “Iron Man” its sixth and “Captain America” its seventh. And this is where my fanboy and fan-adult start duking it out, giving me a red onion-sized headache (I recently discovered I’m allergic to red onions, by the way). I know, objectively, the amount of new #1s does nothing to change the story. I’m not bummed that no series will ever reach issue #71. If the stories are good, then what does a number on the cover matter? But then the fan-adult, the one that tries to view comic books as an outsider in order to pinpoint the barriers new readers face, gets absolutely livid.
My fear regarding numbering is twofold: one is that newcomers will perceive these new #1s as faulty advertising. The very essence of a new #1 is that of a totally fresh start. I recognize that the new #1s coming our way as part of Marvel NOW! represent changes in long-standing creative teams and status quos, but they are the continuation of stories that Stan and Jack started 50 years ago. This is not a continuity-clearing exercise (at least it hasn’t yet been revealed that it is…!). The wider population is aware “X-Men” comics have been published regularly for almost 50 years; embrace that history. Slap the big number on there and be done with it. New #1s should be reserved for characters and teams getting their first ongoing series and characters and teams getting a new ongoing series after five or more years spent out of publication.
I also fear what will happen when a new fan takes a look behind them and sees a sea of relaunches and re-titlings (new Hulk fans, are you okay?). Are there clear guides, outside of diving into the depths of wikis, informing new readers that “New Avengers” volume one continues from the brief return to “Avengers” volume one’s numbering, after having previously been “Avengers” volume three? Yes, the internet exists and it’s not that hard to find the proper reading order for these materials, but wouldn’t it just be easier for everyone if “Avengers” had kept one consistent numbering since its debut in 1963? Of course, the assumption that a new fan will even seek out older stories is flawed; as I stated in my first IYFJ column, even though I’m digging Marvel’s cosmic characters now, I don’t plan on digging up ’70s Marvel comics starring Starlord.
The most common reason given for books being relaunched, aside from the fact that #1s make cash fall freely from the sky, is that large numbers apparently drive readers away. This reason really boggles my mind because it reeks of comic publishers being surprised that numbers do what numbers do. Numbers get bigger. When the Ultimate Universe was launched in 2000, it was done to present the classic Marvel characters in a new, continuity-free light. What we have now, 12 years later, is an Ultimate Universe mired in extreme events (New York flooded!), multiple relaunches and rebranding (“Ultimate Comics Spider-Man”) and an absolutely confusing string of miniseries (what came first, “Ultimate Avengers,” “Ultimate Avengers vs. New Ultimates” or “Ultimate Comics New Ultimates”?). Having a string of complex, similarly named miniseries is incredibly more off-putting than buying the 82nd issue of an ongoing series. Or is that just me?
There is some truth to the Big Two’s assumption that high numbers turn away new readers. Many of my friends have told me that they want to start with a #1 even after I explain that starting with “Uncanny X-Men” #94 or #281 or #475 or #500 will work just as well. Can you imagine having to read through 400 issues of “Batman” before getting to Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s “Year One”? Comics do not have to be read from the beginning. In every other medium, it seems natural to start with the first novel, film, episode, etc. Comics are full of jumping on points; the number on the cover is more for organization’s sake than story order (except when it is for story order’s sake), but that’s unlike how any other medium is numbered. See how confusing this is?
DC Comics’ New 52 got some of my friends reading comics, even if some of the #1 issues weren’t as new reader friendly as older issues with higher numbers. To be honest, there is a streamlined sensibility to DC’s newly consistent numbering and once-a-month scheduling. The thing is, comics can be confusing. It surprised me to find out that a few of my friends have trouble just reading them, as In figuring out what order the panels go in. Superhero comics also involve such a leap of faith (the abundance of archers in modern stories, Power Girl’s boob window), it’s best to remove as much confusion as possible. A new reader should be concerned about the story, the characters and the process of reading the comic book. A number on the cover or a volume number on the spine should be the least of their concerns. Keep it consistent and keep it simple.
In order to keep comics clear of confusion and honest about their heritage, numbering should remain consistent from start to finish. But on top of that, new readers need to be convinced jumping on points exist within the numbering. Numbering wasn’t created with the intention to become complicated. And truthfully, any solution to the confusion caused by comic book numbering involves discussing the merit of the single issue format and continuity. If comic book stories were all done-in-one, with little bearing on what followed and could be consumed in any order (you know, like most episodes of “Full House”), then numbering wouldn’t matter. But as evidenced by the success of “Marvel’s The Avengers,” we, as a society, kinda enjoy big, epic, multi-part stories and larger canon. I can’t imagine Marvel or DC comics without a shared universe and history, and maybe that’s a failure on my part to see the big picture. Maybe I’m not done growing up as a fan.
The only solution that I can think of is one that some of Marvel’s writers have been acknowledging when talking about their NOW! comics: simplicity. Both Kieron Gillen and Matt Fraction have stated that their goals for “Iron Man” and “Fantastic Four,” respectively, are to tell stories that are standalone adventures. That’s really the key. Numbering is going to be insane, no matter what. Marvel isn’t going to stop producing #1 issues since they are the only kind of comic that consistently sells. However needless and annoying I find all of Marvel NOW!’s renumbering, I find the creative ambition of each new ongoing series just as thrilling and exciting.
I started reading comics set in the Marvel Universe with “Uncanny X-Men” #298. I recognized Gambit, Storm and Jean Grey from the cartoon. I only knew Bishop from his trading card. I had no idea that Tom Corsi and Sharon Friedlander had a backstory and there were a dozen Acolytes, all in the same costume with weird powers. I loved it. I didn’t care about the number on the cover, I didn’t care that I had no idea who the bad guys were, and I didn’t care that Gambit was hanging out with characters he never talked to in the cartoon. It was a fun story that left me wanting more. The only thing comics can really do to combat numbering is telling a great story, one that anyone can understand and enjoy. Ultimately, a good comic is the best defense against confusion.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre sketch team Everything Rabbits. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).