This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on January 17, 2014.
Marvel Comics has published 31 first issues of ongoing series under their Marvel Now! initiative since 2012. Before the end of March they will have added 25 more debut issues, including various re-launches of successful titles like Fantastic Four and Captain Marvel. It’s proven to be a successful business model. First issues sell very well. Three of the top ten best sellers in December 2013 were #1’s. It is certainly good for Marvel’s bank account, but is it good for the comics?
There has been a backlash against the assortment of new titles being published in such quick succession from both fans and retailers. From a fan’s perspective there are concerns about respect for the audience. Re-launches are often viewed as gimmicks or cash grabs. The obvious, and very real, desire for Marvel to earn money creates a less-than-honorable motivation that is attached to a #1 issue. Unlike films, the comics market has a very small collection of decent critics. When a handful of companies control access to their creators, many comics websites choose to flatter most releases, whatever their quality. With little information to go on, fans typically have to buy the first issue of a series to decide if it is worth their money. Consumers may be comfortable paying for their favorite entertainment, but they don’t want to feel as though they’re being bilked for sub-standard products.
There’s also a loss of continuity, which many collectors hold sacrosanct, both in terms of story and prestige. Action Comics had been published for over 900 issues since 1938, before the New 52 initiative at DC Comics knocked it back to #1. The loss of history, the connective tissue that strung Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original creation to its most recent publication, was mourned by many collectors with hundreds of issues safely stored in long boxes. #1 issues also allow creators to discard much of the in-story continuity of old series, minimizing previous tales or ignoring them altogether. Whatever the reasons, this loss of history can feel disrespectful to fans who have been reading the same comic for decades.
Retailers face an even larger problem, as these releases affect their livelihoods, not just their collections. Retailers are forced to order comics months in advance and, generally speaking, cannot return any unsold product. The system in which they function makes new releases hard to predict. There are no previously established trends to judge the number of copies that may be needed of any given series. If a retailer orders too little, their customers will be forced to look elsewhere or wait a month for the next printing. If they order too much, then they may take a loss. The splash made by Sex Criminals, now on its fifth printing, proves that it is impossible to predict how a debut issue will be received.
Despite all of these problems, with both perception and ordering, the Marvel Now! initiative and flurry of #1’s hitting comic shelves are a really good thing.
To understand why this trend is a good thing, it’s important to first understand how it is affecting comics. This is not something that will change the medium. Heck, it barely has anything to do with the medium. It really has to do with how the two largest comic publishers choose to distribute their already popular intellectual property. This is a very niche market, when considering the diversity of comics in existence. It also happens to be the largest market of comic readers.
The superhero fare published by Marvel Comics and their primary competitor, DC Comics, is the most significant point of contact between Americans and the medium (newspaper strips coming in a distant second). For better or worse, people in Western culture tend to associate comics with the superhero genre which has been dominated by the same characters for more than half of a century. The explosion of superhero blockbusters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight has only cemented this relationship for the foreseeable future. It has also stoked interest in the original medium of these characters as well. Potential comic readers walk into comic stores looking for superhero comics. These people, if they continue to read, will develop their taste and expand their horizons. They will eventually read masterworks like Maus and Persepolis, but they will start with Batman.
That’s why #1 issues are so very important. Comics are a niche market. Despite having as much potential as any medium for storytelling (I would say the most), they have been ghetto-ized for most of their existence. The growth of the medium and its evolution as a studied and accepted art form is dependent on encouraging new readers, not servicing old ones.
As enjoyable as the 900th anniversary issue of Action Comics was, that number is incredibly intimidating to anyone unfamiliar with superhero comics. The number 900 proclaims that 899 previous stories led to this one. No other medium brings this amount of continuity to the table. Movies and books are self-contained volumes which contain an entire story. Even the longest running television shows don’t come anywhere close to that number of episodes. Cheers, which ran for 11 years, only produced 270 episodes. When a potential new reader is considering whether they want to purchase a comic, this number alone is enough to put them off.
There are plenty of resources (like, the entire internet) which could help novice readers understand what a good starting point would be and where they could find it. Yet that assumes they have a burning desire to read comics, which a new reader would not possess. Gains come from the margin, from persuading as many people as possible to try comics, are what help to expand the audience. Every new reader helps to expand the market, which can then support more creators. The number 900 may not scare everyone away, but it will certainly affect some and that’s too many.
Re-launches also make collected editions more accessible. The continued publication of series like Y: The Last Man and Preacher show a real interest in reading completed stories, even if they are comprised of nine or ten volumes. The limited numbering helps to denote a clear beginning and ending point. The same can be accomplished with entry-level superhero fare. Rather than having dozens of volumes of Daredevil, Marvel is capable of publishing the series collections based upon the creator. The collected Frank Miller run on Daredevil takes three volumes to read and is largely self-contained. The same can now occur with Mark Waid’s excellent work on the same series, when it is re-launched in March.
#1 issues also allow Marvel creators to focus more on story-telling. When asked about writing a first issue, Mark Waid (Indestructible Hulk, Daredevil) said, “the requirement is that it lays out the mission statement.” A well written first issue is capable of setting a unique tone and establishing themes, even if it uses decades old IP. By de-emphasizing continuity, a re-launch provides creators with a great deal of freedom to explore their ideas and create a unique style. This has proven wildly successful with diverse superhero titles like Hawkeye, The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, Daredevil, Young Avengers, and so on. This freedom also allows for an incredible diversity of titles ensuring readers will undoubtedly be able to find comics they enjoy.
These re-launches are not just valuable for new readers though. They are creating better comics for long-time fans. The most lauded runs in superhero comics often began with a symbolic re-launch. Frank Miller’s Daredevil took the series in a significantly different direction, one that ignored much of the character’s roots. It brought a new sense of style to a character with twenty years of continuity and is still read twenty years later. Encouraging creators to begin anew will reinvigorate old ideas.
Mainstream superhero comics are only a small niche of a vibrant medium, but they’re also its face. If superhero comics can be better and encourage new readers to pick them up, then all comics will be better for it. That’s why the number one is important. It’s representative of a new beginning, a change in perspective, and that’s just what comics need right now.