The New 616

When DC Comics announced their “New 52” company-wide reboot and renumbering two and a half years ago, one thing there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about was the fact that long-running titles wouldn’t reach the big, round numbers they were headed towards.  Action Comics wouldn’t reach #1000 in 2019!  And the year that DC One Million takes place will be wrong! It’s just a gimmick and they’re ruining everything!  Horror! (Pro tip: If DC thinks there’s money to be made from a 1000th issue special, it will happen, regardless of the issue numbers leading up to it.)

The mass renumbering DC did was unusual, but restarting series from #1 has become a major trend in the past decade or so, with Marvel doing so much more often than DC.  I hadn’t realized quite how much Marvel had been doing it until I was putting in my orders for the comics coming out in March.

For reference, the New 52 titles that DC rebooted in the first wave in September 2011 will be releasing issue #29 that month. (Due to Zero Month and Villains Month, these will be the 31st issues of these titles.) 31 of that wave are still going.  There are 2 from the next wave of titles that are on #21, and the rest range between #4 and #17.  The only #1 issue they’re releasing this month is a one-shot (Suicide Squad: Amanda Waller).

By comparison, the highest numbered issue Marvel is releasing that month (with one exception that I’ll get to) is Superior Spider-Man #30.  That’s been running biweekly, so #1 came out in January 2013.  There are eight other titles with issues in the 20s.  There are ten #1 issues for ongoing series (plus a one-shot, Captain America: Homecoming, and three “Revolutionary War” Marvel UK one-shots).  The longest-running title, Avengers Assemble, started in March 2012.

The exception is X-Men Legacy, which is being renumbered as #300–but it’s #25 of the current series, which started in November 2012.  The issue before it is #24, and I would be surprised if the issue after it is #26.

Now, I know perfectly well that this is is a deliberate part of the Marvel Now strategy, which from what I can tell seems to be to restart series from #1 fairly often and to provide jumping-on points for new readers.  The part that’s throwing me is that it now seems to include restarting the numbering for either a) new creative teams or b) new storylines.  For example, the Daredevil #1 that’s coming out in March is part of a new direction where Daredevil goes back to San Francisco–and while that is a new direction, it’s under the same writer and artist as the previous series.  Before Marvel Now, this would have been a new storyline in the same title with the same numbering.

I have to wonder how this is working out for them, and whether it will continue to work or start to backfire.  Looking at six months’ worth of sales figures on ICv2 (June to November, 2013), there aren’t any major shifts or surprises from either Marvel or DC–the same titles keep hitting the top ten (Batman and Justice League titles from DC, SuperioSpider-Man from Marvel), filled out with event miniseries (Age of Ultron, Forever Evil).  #1 issues are hitting the top ten, of course (Superman Unchained, Batman Superman, Superman Wonder Woman Mighty Avengers, Amazing X-Men) but the DC titles have stayed there while the Marvels haven’t.  (Mighty Avengers went from #7 to #29 #34.) The top ten has been pretty evenly divided between DC and Marvel, with the occasional issue of The Walking Dead to mix things up.

There are two major ways I can see this backfiring (apart from readers simply burning out on the gimmick, or the fact that long-time fans like big, round numbers).  One pitfall is alienating readers through frequent stops and starts.  There are advantages to a deliberately finite series: in theory the entry point is less daunting (although when you’re rebooting the same titles over and over again the distinction becomes meaningless) and a story can be told with a real beginning, middle and end. However, this also means the potential of putting the brakes on a series just as it starts to build readers, and the ill will that can be generated by cancelling a series someone enjoys.

For example, two somewhat similar series ended this week: Avengers Arena (#18) and Young Avengers (#15).  (Arena is getting a followup series in Avengers Undercover, while YA’s closest followup seems to be Loki: Agent of Asgard.) Arena was a good choice for a run that’s limited but longer than an average miniseries: the Battle Royale/Hunger Games premise is inherently self-limiting.  There’s no reason that Young Avengers couldn’t have had a second storyline, and going by the lettercol it had a lot of devoted fans that were unhappy that it ended.  There’s no particular reason for them to move on to Loki; it’s not by the same writer and features a different version of Loki than YA did.  Do they have a series ready for the audience who enjoyed YA’s use of LGBT characters?  If not, they may be throwing away potential new readers.

The other problem is the sheer confusing preponderance of #1s and series with the same title.  DC has restarted comics under the same title, but they haven’t done it as often and generally at a reasonable breaking point.  For example, there have been 5 Flash #1s (of ongoing series, not annuals, one-shots, etc.):

  • 1940: Golden Age series, 104 issues. 
  • The Silver Age series picks up the numbering with #105 in 1959–this was a more common practice when companies had to pay the Post Office for new titles–so it didn’t have a #1.  This ran for 246 issues
  • 1987: Post-Crisis Wally West series.  230 issues (plus #0 and #1000000).
  • 2006: Flash: The Fastest Man Alive, the ill-fated Bart Allen series that ran for 13 issues.  The previous series resumed after this for another 17 issues.
  • 2010: Post-Flash Rebirth Barry Allen series, 12 issues.
  • 2011: New 52 reboot.

This is an unusually high number of resets for a DC series–many of the major ones have only had one or two (you’re not likely to confuse the two Action Comics #1s).  If you’re looking for Flash #1, the only point of confusion is between the 2010 and 2011 series, and those have easy descriptors (“pre-Flashpoint”, “New 52”).

By way of comparison, Marvel has published 7 Captain America #1s (again, not counting annuals, mini-series, and spinoff series with different titles like Priest’s Captain America and the Falcon):

  • 1941: Captain America Comics, 73 issues.  Becomes Captain America’s Weird Tales for a couple of issues and has a brief revival in the 1950s.
  • 1968: Takes over numbering from Tales of Suspense with #100, runs 355 issues.
  • 1996: Ill-fated “Heroes Reborn” series, 13 issues.
  • 1998: Post-“Heroes Reborn” series, 50 issues.
  • 2002: Post-9/11 Marvel Knights series, 32 issues.
  • 2005: Post-“Disassembled” Brubaker series, 75 issues (goes back to original numbering with #600).
  • 2011: Another Brubaker series, 19 issues. (Probably a restart to tie in to the release of the movie.)
  • 2013: Marvel Now! series.

This isn’t an unmanageable list by itself, but it’s the average, not the exception–Iron Man has had as many titles, for example, and for most of these the break point hasn’t been at a change of main character. (CA didn’t reboot when Bucky took over the identity, for example.)

I’m not sure at this point who Marvel is aiming the new #1s at.  We’re long past the point when collectors were advised to pick up #1s since they often became valuable (a practice Marvel helped kill with their adjectiveless Spider-Man and X-Men #1s).  It does signal a jumping-on point–but a) that’s less necessary in these days of ubiquitous collected editions, b) the same collected editions means that the perceived fresh start is reduced (if the bookstore has 20 Captain America collections on the shelf, the fact that one is labelled “Now!” won’t necesarily help you), and c) a new storyline/creative direction is not the same as a clean jumping-on point.  A number of the restarts have spun out of major storylines such as AvX, and a recap page and a bit of expository dialogue doesn’t always substitute for actually reading the story. (I had never seen the new Miss America before the latest Young Avengers series, and am still vague on what her backstory is.)

I’ve heard DC’s approach described as wildly throwing titles against the wall to see what sticks, but I have to wonder how much that’s true and how much is just due to fandom’s different perceptions of DC and Marvel at this point (or of DiDio and Quesada). DC has stuck with their scheme for two and a half years, and 62% of the original reboot titles are still going.  Marvel currently does not have a series that’s run as long as two years, and they’ve been increasing the rate and number of restarts as time has gone on.  This is not a judgment of the relative quality of the titles–there have been some very good Now! titles, and some very bad New 52 titles–but, on the other hand, DC has been cancelling or reworking the bad titles, while Marvel hasn’t necessarily used quality as their guide for which series to continue (again, Young Avengers, anyone?).  Marvel has also, in the past, done themselves harm by running the latest popular series or gimmick into the ground.

If this strategy works out for Marvel, more power to them, and we’re getting some good comics out of it (although it’s certainly possible to produce good comics without starting them with a new #1). Just looking at the numbers, though, the publisher that’s jumping around wildly isn’t DC.  Does Marvel have a better plan to take the company and their universe in a new direction–or are they just better at convincing fandom that they do?  I think at this point only time will tell–but I’ll check ICv2 again in a few months to see how the March #1s did in the charts.  And if it backfires, appears to be available.