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Reboot or Relaunch: Does the Numbering of Comic Books Matter?

Reboot or Relaunch: Does the Numbering of Comic Books Matter?

I had the fortune–or misfortune, depending who you ask–of becoming a comic book reader in the ’90s. This era of excess is known for folio covers, the birth of Image comics, and the speculator market that ballooned the industry into a massive cash cow. Comic books had yet to take over movies and television, but being a comic book collector was a popular as ever. It seemed like every week a new series launched or relaunched or rebooted with a new #1 issue and the words “Collector’s Edition!” stamped on the many variant covers. Everyone gobbled up these comics, carefully placed them in plastic sleeves and filed them away, believing that one day these comics would make them filthy rich.

Comic book fans know what happened next; the bottom fell out and the industry collapsed. The speculators who bought all those folio copies realized no one was going to pay a fortune for their Ninjak #1 and they abandoned the collecting game. Comic shops closed, publishers went bankrupt. It was ugly, but comics survived and slowly but surely began to blossom again. Still, many fans and creators look at the ’90s as a dark era, a time when the industry got greedy and we almost lost everything.

Now, nearly two decades later, we’re in a real boom. Comic books have taken over the world and are insanely popular. Sure, books aren’t selling in the kind of numbers the used to, but things are steady, if not growing. There is a constant influx of new series, new creators, new reimagining. If you have ever felt like jumping into the world of comic books, the argument could be made that there has never been a better time.

That said, those of us who collected in the ’90s are seeing a lot of familiar patterns. The special covers, the reboots, rebirths, relaunches, the all-new, the all-different, and, most precariously, the #1s. Seems like every other week, the Big Two–that’s Marvel and DC–are slapping a #1 on a comic. Sometimes this comes with a line-wide relaunch, sometimes it’s when a character’s title gets a new name, sometimes it’s when a new creative team steps in, and sometimes it seems like they do it for no reason in particular. If this makes you nervous, it probably shouldn’t, because these #1s are catering less to speculators and more to new readers. The methods may seem similar, but the thought process is different. Marvel and DC seem more focused on gaining readers, as opposed to people who carefully but books in protective sleeves and file away 14 copies of the recent Daredevil #1.

The question is, then, do these new reboots and relaunches matter? Are they grabbing a new reader or just pissing off the old ones? Does it even matter if the cover says Batman #1 or Batman #743? I decided to ask some comic book industry professionals to get their take on what effect, if any, a Rebirth or All-New launch has on readers and the industry as a whole.

“It just seems stupid and shortsighted to me. Nothing is gained but an initial bump and that’s long gone by issue #4,” artist and writer Erik Larsen (Savage Dragon) told me. “Books often settle in lower than they would have without renumbering because there are readers who use this as a good excuse to stop buying a book. It’s a good jumping-off point for old readers.”

This is a fair point. In creating a new “jumping-on point” for potential readers, Marvel and DC are also creating an ending for long-time readers. The argument could be made that more readers jump on a #1 than jump off at the end of a previous volume, especially if it’s a high profile book with a big following (I’m not sure Batman lost a lot of readers by jumping to a new numbering, in other words). Still, there’s a valid fear that pitfalls of the ’90s are returning.

Larsen acknowledges that #1 issues can grab new readers, but that also comes with the looming threat of the speculator market. “Yes. Some readers will try out a new book. Some ‘investors’ will stock up on a new book and frequently those new readers leave and those ‘investors’ get burned. It’s much like the gimmick covers from years ago. A gimmick cover attracts new readers but sheds old readers,” Larsen said. He noted that the constant rebooting and relaunching also meant publishers missed out anniversaries and milestone issues. “Overall it makes your company look bad if nothing is able to hang in there and sustain a decent run.”

Savage Dragon, Erik Larsen’s own series, is one of the higher numbered comics on the market. Larsen noted he sees value in the higher numbered runs, as opposed to constantly retelling the origin or beginning of a character. “Any idiot can do a first issue. It takes no particular skill or ability or staying power to do a #1. But #215? I’ve never done one of those before and each successive issue is another achievement.”

Writer Charles Soule (Daredevil, Poe Dameron, Letter 44) sees the #1 issue a little differently. In fact, he thinks the number on the front of an issue isn’t all that important. “It doesn’t matter much to me at all,” Soule told me. “I see it as a signal to readers that a given issue is the fabled ‘jumping-on point,’ where they can read the start of a story. Whether that’s due to a change of creative team, new creative direction or other reason doesn’t really matter. I think of #1s like a new film in a long-running series. Sometimes that’s a sequel, sometimes it’s a reboot or relaunch; all of which are valid approaches to a character or team.”

Soule has a solid point here, as #1s are often used to signify the start of a new creative team. Marvel often launches a new volume of a book when new creators step in, and the takes can be drastically different. Comparing it to a new movie in a a long running series makes sense, like the James Bond series, for instance. New actors, writer, and directors take a crack at the character, and their takes vary greatly in tone and feel.

“I can see many reasons to do new #1s. I can’t see as many for sticking with high-numbered sequential runs if it’s not the same creative team telling one long story. (The) Walking Dead #155 makes a lot of sense to me. The Flash #679, less so, at least in today’s market,” Soule said. You can see where he is coming from, as The Walking Dead has had the same creative team for nearly its entire run. It’s one long story and it’s easy to start from the beginning, as it doesn’t cross over into big events or have drastic overhauls. Superhero comics do both of those things often, so their companies might steer towards renumbering.

You can look at sales figures and see the bump that #1 issues create, but I had to wonder, are those new readers? Marvel and DC’s goal, at least on some level, is to bring people into the comic reader fold. Are these sales bumps merely the feared speculators, buying up multiples or are folks walking into comic shops in order to try out comics for the first time? Turns out, based on the folks I talked to, it’s a mixture of both.

“You will always see new people with #1s, especially if it is across the whole line,” Nick Romeo told me. He works at Bill’s Books and More, a comic shop in Ohio.  “Existing customers may try (a) #1 but they don’t want to commit to a whole new title right away.”

I asked Nick if he sees speculators coming in a scooping up multiple copies of #1 issues, and if those “investors” were still a prevalent force is the marketplace. “We have multiple shops around us and depending on how they order and stock their shelves we could see even more traffic. The key is to not expect those numbers to continue, because of exactly that, people buying multiple copies for the future and the instant drop of 10-15 copies per title at #2. Cause no one speculates past #1,” Nick said.

“I find legacy numbering confuses customers especially if it isn’t constant,” Nick continued. “Going back and forth scares them away cause they don’t know where to start or jump on. Big Anniversary issues that are renumbered works but that’s it.” This might be the key to the whole thing. It’s the constant shifting back and forth that disrupts the marketplace. It makes things more confusing instead of creating a welcoming environment for new readers. It’s all about consistency. Renumbering is fine, but stick with it or don’t.

Long time readers and neurotic organizers can’t help but love the big, consistent numbers and it’s easy to see way. As Erik Larsen said, “I’d keep the legacy numbering. Hell, now that they’re a few issues in it would give them a bump to return to that with many of their books. I think it’d be awesome to see a book get to issue #1000. How great would that be?” #1000 does sound pretty cool, even if it’s not a great jumping-on point

There’s no easy answer here, unless you are the Hellboy series, which has had this numbering thing done to a science since it launched. New #1 for each story arc, inside cover shows you the issue number in that whole series. Simple, effective, and not disruptive to the flow. It might help Marvel and DC to read some more Hellboy.

Featured image: DC Comics


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