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Feb 9

Some #1 thoughts…

Posted on Sunday, February 9, 2014 by Paul in x-axis

The X-books are all mid-storyline this week (or just starting), and I haven’t had time yet to read some of the other new launches that we didn’t cover on the podcast.  But with Marvel swinging into another phase of relaunches, it seems an opportune time to make a few comments about their – shall we say – increasingly relaxed approach to whacking #1s on the cover.

Even in the boom period of the early 1990s, an issue #1 normally came attached to at least a revival of something long dormant, or a new spin-off.  Then, from roughly “Heroes Reborn” onwards, it was good enough just to be a major relaunch of a continuing title.  After that, any old relaunch was good enough.  Then a change of creative team.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing in itself.  I touch on Marvel’s numbering weirdness in my final Beat sales column (which I don’t think has gone up yet), but it’s worth remembering that the numbers have never been intrinsically all that significant.  In the sixties, a new title was seen as a bad thing, which is why the numbering of Captain America and Thor was inherited from utterly unrelated anthology titles.  So both titles reached “issue #400″ long before they had actually published 400 issues.  This has never stopped Marvel celebrating those round numbers as if they meant something.

The speculator boom of the 90s led to ill-informed fans (and even sicker-informed outsiders) treating issue #1s as a sort of tulip boom.  Price guides showed that issue #1s went up in value, therefore any new issue #1s would also go up in value.  What these speculators didn’t understand was that the issue #1s of earlier years were in short supply, partly because the successful titles had actually grown in sales subsequently, and partly because so few copies had been sold to people who bothered to preserve them in decent condition.  The heavily promoted issue #1s of the 1990s were entirely the opposite of this, and the whole exercise was basically an extended display of fleecing the gullible, for which the industry ultimately got exactly what it deserved.

The current use of issue #1s is quite different.  While somebody is presumably out there buying all those variant covers, they’re mainly a response to a market in which the overwhelming majority of titles launch with the highest sales they’re ever going to see, and then fall from there.  This happens in part because a generation of readers has been trained to believe that you just don’t join a story in mid flow.  While the occasional freak title bucks that trend (Hawkeye being the current example), the reality for most titles is that the question is not “will it gain sales” but “how quickly will it lose them”.  In this environment, it becomes logical and attractive to periodically assure people that they are witnessing a genuine jumping on point.

But a “genuine jumping on point”, in this context, pretty much means “a fresh start” – not merely a point where you can join the story in progress.  This, I think, is one reason why Marvel’s Point One programme never worked; even those issues that were genuine jumping on points (which was by no means all of them) were still inviting people to join the story in mid-flow, something the audience has been trained for many years not to bother attempting.

Today’s Marvel is willing to relaunch a title at the drop of a hat, but it largely does so to signal a genuine fresh start – a new creative team taking over with a clean slate.  The numbers never had any true meaning anyway; using an issue #1 simply to indicate the start of a new run, and to assure people that it’s a fresh start, is at least signifying something that genuinely draws new readers to the title.  This, I think, is why they continue to be largely successful as a sales driver, long after any sensible person must have ceased to regard them as a special event.

But now we’re seeing erosion even of that use of the gimmick.  Editor-in-chief Axel Alonso has compared Marvel’s use of issue #1s to signalling the start of a new season on television, and it’s hard to figure out what else is meant to be justifying this week’s Wolverine #1.  This is the same writer, continuing a story already in progress.  It does involve a change of status quo, and could fairly be described as the start of a new phase in the series, but nobody could sensibly describe it as a starting point of anything.  It is the next stage in a character arc that has been in progress for a year, and the whole previous volume of the series consists simply of the build to this point.  You could call it a new season, but is that really a hook for anyone?

The “Point NOW” issues take matters even further.  A Point NOW issue, it seems, is what a title gets when even Marvel has too much shame to relaunch it.  The issue is officially numbered something like #20.NOW, and it gets a bloody great #1 on the cover, to signify… what exactly?  The solicitations for these comics offer unexplained gibberish such as “Avengers #24.NOW = Avengers #1 in all-new Marvel Now”.  The reasonable reader, groping for meaning in this syntactic wilderness, might be forgiven for assuming that a Point NOW issue is at least a jumping on point of some description.

Such a reader might be surprised by this week’s two offerings.  Guardians of the Galaxy #11.NOW boasts a huge #1 in the top right hand corner, but the story within is “The Trial of Jean Grey”, part 2.  Yes, it’s a crossover with All-New X-Men, so it’s the first chapter to appear in Guardians.  And yes, the first two chapters could technically be read in either order, since they show how the two different teams got to the same point.  That’s a structure Bendis did to death in his Avengers events, though it makes more sense here, spread across two different titles.  Even so, the bottom line is that it is the second part of the story to appear, and Marvel have stuck a #1 on the cover.

This is nothing compared to X-Men #10.NOW, which is billed as “Ghosts, part 1″, despite being quite plainly the continuation of the Arkela/Sisterhood storyline that began in issue #7.  The issue opens with the resolution of mid-story cliffhangers from the previous issue, principally Monet having charged into battle alone and been beaten down by the villains.  In the upcoming trade paperback edition, this issue will be “Muertas, part 4 of 6″.  And even that storyline is a sequel to the original Arkela story from issues #1-3.

Nobody could describe this comic as the first issue of anything, however generously and broadly that concept is defined.  It is, in reality, a middle chapter of a lengthy storyline.  So why does it have a big #1 on the cover?

The answer, I can’t help but suspect, is that Marvel has decided that it wants everyone to have a pseudo-#1 as a publicity stunt, and that the compromise was just to stick the issue #1 sign on the cover while utterly ignoring it inside.  In the short term this might be a good thing, in as much as giving lip service to the marketing department is better than compromising the content.  But if so, it’s a tension between promotion and content that ultimately can’t end well.

The #1 gimmick is one of the few things that can reliably attract attention to a comic even today.  It is not, as Marvel sometimes appear to think, a promotional talisman which has always worked in the past and will therefore always work in the future.  It works because it still sends a message, however altered and attenuated, which attracts the attention of potential readers.  So to start using it on comics like this seems, at best, deeply un-clever.

These things come in waves, of course.  If Marvel do screw it up too badly, they’ll just rest it for a while until it seems new again.  But it’d be nice to think Marvel appreciated the need for there to be some content in their numbering – not because of tradition, or because of respect for counting, but simply because any promotional device still needs to convey something in order to have value.

Bring on the comments

  1. Nemo says:

    The All-New Marvel NOW #1 approach is actually working pretty good as far as fresh approaches go accross the rest of the books, except maybe for Avengers, which even Hickman admits is a terrible jumping on point.

    But man, did they really miss the whole point with the X-Books… Wolverine being the worst offender, the .NOW #1 branding on X-Men was just ridiculous.

  2. errant razor says:

    Final sales column for the Beat?

    Does that mean you’re moving it here? Because I’d love to read it anywhere but at the Beat. Navigation over there is a nightmare.

    Or does it mean you’re just not doing them at all any more?

  3. Billy says:

    I forgot about the Sales column… wow… probably several years ago…

    I read it every month on Usenet. I at least tried to keep up with it when it moved to the Beat, but the posting dates were seemingly random. (From what I recall, if one sales column was running late, the Beat would hold all of them until it was ready. And it seemed to happen a lot, sometimes with posting delays measured in weeks.)

    I read absolutely nothing else at the site, so I’d just check it every few days to see if a sales column had been posted. That gradually turned into skipping for months, and eventually just forgetting about the whole effort entirely. I don’t think I even have had the Beat in my browser bookmarks for my last two computers…

  4. halapeno says:

    @Billy – You’re not missing out on much. Unless you’re into columnists bickering with readers.

    http://comicsbeat.com/market-research-says-46-female-comic-fans/

  5. Living Tribunal says:

    As an old time reader (collector?)the renumbering is nothing more than a sales, marketing, and hype engine to mask the fact that their (Marvel, DC, whoever) stories are just not very compelling or interesting anymore. They have to rely on gimmicks to sell their books instead of focusing telling good, coherant storytelling where characterization is consistent with what has come before, and where the story is contained within the particular title. What is surprising is that modern readers have been trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to think the above is as it should be, i.e.: crossovers, events, fanfiction interpretations of heroes and the like. Now we are told there is a new gimmick – the fresh start of a new season. Again, I want good/great stories and art; not marketing and hype without any substance. I know my views are probably in the minority of those that comment on such blogs, but there you have it.

  6. Jerry Ray says:

    I saw the mention over on the Beat that you were giving up the Marvel sales column (for, I assume, child-related lack of time). I’m sorry to see you leave it, since like other folks, I’ve been reading it since the Usenet days.

    Also like other folks, I’ve been frustrated with reading it on the Beat, too, what with the irregular posting schedule, and the likelihood of being bombarded with “men are pigs and women have it so bad” arguments if I ventured outside of the Sales Charts section. I’ll probably check in to see how the new person handles the charts, but my interest was much more in Paul’s amusing thoughts than on the actual sales numbers.

  7. Brendan says:

    All New Marvel Now is meant to go over the heads of those already happily reading their favorites, as not much will change. The number 1′s are meant to attract new readers to the titles. What hinges here is how satisfied the jump-oners will be when they open the #1 and go ‘huh?’

  8. Mika says:

    While I had an ‘aw’ reaction when I read that last sales column note, to be honest I’m more disappointed with the characterization of The Beat here in the comments than anything else. Personally, I think Heidi and the team produce one of the best commentaries on comics out there, and it’s certainly the only one that resonates with me (outside of House to Astonish, natch).

    I say this for reasons of balance, rather than because I particularly want to argue with anyone else’s opinion, really.

  9. justin says:

    Yeah, I agree. I like the Beat a lot, and would never have started following it w/o Paul’s column moving there. You guys (Paul & Al) also turned me on to Awesomed By Comics, War Rocket Ajax & ComicsAlliance. I don’t see where the Beat hate is coming from, its a really great site.

  10. Joe S. Walker says:

    Marc-Oliver Frisch is letting go of the DC sales column, too – though that didn’t come as a surprise, since it had seemed for some time to be taking a toll on his mental health. Basically DC and Marvel sales are like an endless game of spinning plates. DC keep their biggest plates going, while a continual crash and tinkle of smaller crockery echoes in the background; Marvel seem to be trying to give each of theirs another little whirl before it slows down too much.

    I was reading the old Article 10 columns last week. Whatever became of the computer art programme that enabled Chuck Austen to draw 10 pages of US War Machine per day? OK nobody wanted that many Chuck Austen comics, but you’d think the technology would have come on in a decade-plus.

  11. AndyD says:

    The re-numbering game has become silly. I wanted to sample a Captain America for old times sake these days. There were now 7 volumes to choose, and if you don´t want to spend an hour online to do your reasearch as a customer you are pretty lost. So I didn´t order anything. X-Men is even worse with the constant re-numbering and re-naming.

    I too always read the sales column at the Beat, both by Paul and MOF, and especially the comments for MOF were often amusing. But count me in on those who click the Beat less and less in the last time. I can understand their gender-agenda, but it has become mostly ridiculous and deeply tiresome.

  12. errant razor says:

    I don’t hate the Beat. Not the content any way. I’m totoally indifferent toward that because I don’t read it.

    It’s the irregular posting of the sales columns, the horrendous site layout (especially for the sales columns, and especially on a phone), and the fact that it’s nearly impossible to find all or just Paul’s column gathered into one place when I do decide to sit down and catch up once a year.

  13. wwk5d says:

    “The re-numbering game has become silly. I wanted to sample a Captain America for old times sake these days. There were now 7 volumes to choose, and if you don´t want to spend an hour online to do your research as a customer you are pretty lost.”

    This applies to many series, not just Captain America or the X-titles. Avengers now has multiple titles with multiple volumes…ouch.

    They should just have each and every issue be #1. Each month, nothing but issue #1 on release.

    It’s like the deck chairs being rearranged on the Titanic…

  14. odessasteps says:

    I welcome Paul to the Beat Alumni Club. :)

  15. Billy says:

    It wasn’t the gender agenda for me, either. The Beat’s other offerings just were never interesting to me. At best, I was only ever indifferent to the site’s existence.

    That Heidi decided so often to delay posting the sales columns made it downright frustrating.

  16. Richardwrl says:

    Good article Paul and one that nicely points to an issue many of us are having – the sheer difficulty of following the monthly comic schedules if you don’t devote huge amounts of time to research and go into your store/online with a notebook filled with pointers.

    I’ve stopped recently and now only buy trades and GNs. I’ll see how that goes but it certainly feels like Marvel (and DC too) are groping towards a future that isn’t dominated by the ongoing format.

  17. Nu-D says:

    It seems to me that it’s time to do away with “continuity” per se, and just ask writers to pitch consecutive, self-contained limited series. Each could build off the prior LS, but only have to be loosely connected.

  18. Kreniigh says:

    Oh, yeah, the sales charts… “What’s the name of the word for the precise moment when you realize that you’ve actually forgotten how it felt to read Usenet every day?”

    On a topic only slightly related, I have this question that I’m not sure who/where to ask, but since at least one person who maybe could answer it can sometimes be found here…

    Is it better for a creator if I buy their digital comics on Comixology or direct from Image? Now that I have a choice, I’d prefer to go the route that supports the writers and artists the most.

    I suppose that might be too delicate a question for a public forum, though…

  19. Brian says:

    Paul, even if the new addition makes a regular full sales chart too much of a workload, would it be possible to include some limited number-crunching here at HtA? It looks like lots of us enjoyed reading your work over at The Beat the same as we enjoyed reading your X-Axis reviews. Since you brought your reviews here in a smaller form when time disallowed you from doing the old-style full version elsewhere, any chance of doing the same with the occasional look at how books are faring in the marketplace?

  20. Suzene says:

    @Kreniigh:

    I think a couple of creators have answered this on Tumblr, but I can’t find the links so take this with a grain of salt. IIRC, the creators get slightly more if customers buy via the Image digital shop over Comixology or Apple, but the best way to support them via single issues is still the comic shop pre-order.

  21. The original Matt says:

    Damn re numbering stunts. I can handle it when it’s a change in creative or whatever. But I recently bought Cap by brubaker vol 1 trade. It was the first trade in the renumber. Not the first trade by brubaker. Pissed me off.

  22. halapeno says:

    Ouch. Yeah, that’s something that should be looked at. Collected editions and how these bizarre renumberings are going to translate to the TPB format. I’d be pissed too.

  23. Neil Kapit says:

    Depends if you consider Wolverine packing heat enough of a hook…

  24. Dave says:

    “just ask writers to pitch consecutive, self-contained limited series.”

    That’s where we are already, to quite an extent. Aaron’s Hulk: 16(?) issues and done; Rucka’s Punisher; Fraction on FF (and Mighty Thor; Gillen’s Young Avengers…

    Sadly, this means things like subplots of future shadowing are all but dead.
    I’ve been saying for the last few years that the ongoing title has been pretty much consigned to history.

  25. halapeno says:

    “Each could build off the prior LS”

    How? Lead time needs to be taken into consideration. Unless these LS were all being done by the same writer, what you’re suggesting wouldn’t even be possible unless there were gaps of several months between each LS. Or unless all the writers lived in one big dormitory, I suppose.

  26. Thom H. says:

    “Sadly, this means things like subplots of future shadowing are all but dead. I’ve been saying for the last few years that the ongoing title has been pretty much consigned to history.”

    Sadly, this is the truth for Big 2 superhero comics. I think that’s why I’ve been finding so many of the new titles at Image so fascinating. Not only are the writing and art good (in books like Saga, Pretty Deadly, Nowhere Men, Sex Criminals, etc.), but those books promise long-form continuous stories uninterrupted by crossovers or editorial interference. Much more like the Big 2 superhero comics I read when I was a kid.

  27. The original Matt says:

    I agree with this statement. I’d love to see another Claremont style run on a book. I think that’s why I love morrison’s x-run so much. He foreshadowed stuff. The best thing about comics is re-reading a run and seeing all the seeds being planted that you didn’t notice the first time.

  28. The original Matt says:

    Forgot to add… Bendis tried with his near 10 year run on avengers, but Bendis just didn’t write a compelling team book. Anyone else think he’d benefit from a co-plotter?

  29. Roswulf says:

    What about The Brain Trust/Slott run on Spider-Man as a structural analogue for Claremont’s X-Men? Heavy on foreshadowing, and through the magic of shipping on an accelerated schedule, not that far off from Claremont’s X-Men in terms of length. Superior Spider-Man is the Australia era analogue I suppose.

  30. halapeno says:

    It might, but it would probably involve having to gently suggest to Bendis that he’d benefit from a co-plotter. I don’t know the guy, but for some reason, I don’t see that going over very well.

    Team books seem to be the sort of thing a writer “gets” or they don’t. Things like juggling cast members evenly, understanding group dynamics, the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts, etc. Claremont gets it (he has his shortcomings but he clearly knows how to write a team book). Marv Wolfman gets it. Morrison, and so forth. Bendis is just lost in this department. He has his indisputable strengths, and he’s almost unrivaled when it comes to dialogue, but he’s hopelessly miscast on team books.

    Wolfman, by his own admission, held onto Titans for too long, and throughout a lengthy writer’s block. He ended up in a horrible situation where he was transcribing plots for editor Pat Garrahy, who also dictated which characters were to be used. So Kyle Rayner, Impulse, Damage, Supergirl/Matrix, and others were thrown together despite not having any sensible reason to be together. A case of the editor having no idea how to produce a team book and simply selecting characters on the basis of popularity and/or personal like. Zero consideration given to how these characters might mesh. You can’t just throw any characters together and expect it to work.

  31. errant razor says:

    Just a co-plotter? He could use a co-scripter too.

  32. Nu-D says:

    @halapeno — “How? Lead time needs to be taken into consideration.”

    If the writer pitches a complete story, and it then takes 12 months to publish that story, isn’t that enough lead time for the next writer to have his pitch ready to go?

  33. halapeno says:

    @Nu-D – So, you’re assuming then that the next writer has forehand knowledge of a story that hasn’t even seen print yet.

    In which case, what you’re proposing is some sort of round-robin, writing by committee arrangement where you’re listening to someone else’s pitch and then pitching based on that someone else’s pitch and the guy after you is pitching based on your pitch, and this is how we build on what comes before.

    I don’t see that working.

  34. errant razor says:

    Isn’t that exactly how those writer/editor retreats work right now?

  35. halapeno says:

    @errant – That’s line/franchise-wide planning and coordinating between multiple creative teams working on separate but related ongoing titles.

    What Nu-D appears to be suggesting is replacing the ongoing with self-contained successive LS produced by different creative teams. Doable if they’re truly self-contained but if your LS is required to acknowledge developments in the previous LS in any way shape or form, this requires forehand knowledge of the the previous LS plot before it sees print (assuming you want these LS to roll out without gaps of several months in between them).

    And if you want that sort of connectivity, then you’re neither producing “self-contained” LS nor are you “letting go” of continuity. What you’re actually doing is producing an ongoing series that’s being handed off to a new writer every four to six issues who is having to plot at least partly based on a story (the preceding story) that’s still in production.

    This doesn’t seem to be an efficient way of doing things. Better to have one writer on an ongoing and keep that writer around for as ling as that writer is doing a decent job and wants to stick around. If you’re determined to do the successive LS approach (and to be fair, some properties seem to be better suited to that approach. The Punisher leaps to mind. Nobody reads the Punisher looking for character development), then commit to “self-contained” and just ask writers to pitch good stories that don’t contradict anything but also aren’t required to acknowledge any story in particular.

  36. Travis M. says:

    The editor would know, though. And suggest modifications to the next pitch based on that. Same thing as when a writer takes over an ongoing run.

  37. halapeno says:

    So, hire a writer for ongoing run then. Ask yourself what is the point of having multiple writers delivering stories in succession rather than just sticking with one?

    Isn’t the point to see what each writer could do given six issues of (insert series)? So why would you want to hamstring them by forcing them to pick up on something the guy before them just did? That’s not giving a writer a self-contained LS where their own voice, style and ideas are coming through. That’s a fill-in assignment. You may as well just stick with one writer if you’re insistent on having connective tissue running between stories.

  38. The original Matt says:

    Revolving LS would work like movies. The first creative team writes the first “movie”, while the next creative team is writing the “sequel”. As long as there is one person at the helm, steering the ship (like, a good editor) then there is no reason it couldn’t work.

    You can watch and enjoy Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, Iron man 3 etc without having seen any prior installments.

  39. errant razor says:

    A good editor is key. It wouldn’t work without one. But it isn’t working without one now, so no difference.

  40. halapeno says:

    Matt, I’m talking about successive self-contained comic book LS produced by different creators and you point to The Empire Strikes Back- a film in a series of films that were all written by the same guy! You also seem to be confusing “accessible” with “self-contained.” However accessible and easy to follow The Empire Strikes Back might be, it most certainly is not a self-contained story.

    I’ll ask again, if as an editor you want the connectivity of an ongoing series then why on earth would you hire a new creative team for each storyline? Where’s the sense in that?

  41. AJT says:

    I’m always amused when people say we can do away with continuity now (or similar) – that’s essentially removing one of the key (if not the main) attractions of mainstream comics fiction.

  42. Billy says:

    @halapeno
    Bendis is almost unrivaled when it comes to dialogue?

    Bendis has a major shortcoming when it comes to dialogue, an issue that itself a major strike again his writing of team books. Bendis pretty much has only one “voice,” and it is a distinct voice. When he is writing his own character and writing a solo book, it isn’t that big a drawback. But when he is writing a team book, he is likely writing an ensemble group of pre-established characters, all speaking pretty much interchangeable dialogue, dialogue which often enough doesn’t fit their character.

    It’s like watching a movie where everyone speaks in the same way, the same vocal tics, education level, and the like.

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