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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.

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