Comic Book Numbering: What’s The Big Deal?

Comics fans care about comic book numbering. Whether that’s a long running series with hundreds of issues, or another first issue, one thing that remains constant is that comic book fans are passionate about the number that’s printed on the front cover of their favourite series. But what happens when a comic’s numbering can actively confuse a person enough to cause them to avoid the comic all together?

Case in point, Action Lab‘s Actionverse miniseries.

When the publisher announced that they would be kicking off a shared universe, there was some buzz around the Graphic Policy staff as the early information started to emerge about the Actionverse  story line. It’s not often you have a chance to get in on the ground floor of a shared universe, so to speak, and the weekly six issue mini series had some genuine interest. And then, each issue of the six issue mini series featured a new #1 issue.

Sound confusing? Well, why not take a look at the numbering for the cover of the issue released May 11th, below, and see if you can figure out where this issue falls in the six issue series.

actionverse confusion 1

Not exactly as intuitive as you’d expect, is it?

It was that confusion, coupled with the weekly release schedule, that’s turned me off from reading the Actionverse story line, as I ask questions such as Didn’t I already read this comic? Is this a variant cover, or the next chapter? Should I just grab a Valiant comic instead?

The first issue’s appeal

Before we start pointing a finger too much, it was always Action Lab‘s intent to feature a #1 with each issue in the miniseries, with the issues connecting into a single story line.

It’s  understandable, really, given the general consensus (whether it’s true or not in the long run) that a series’ first issue is usually it’s highest selling one, that Action Lab would want to take advantage of such a trend but by having each chapter in the six issue miniseries feature a #1 prominently on the cover. Although by doing that there’s a risk that those who jump into the series late under the impression that they have the first issue will be a little confused..

While the numbering for the Actionverse miniseries isn’t exactly intuitive, it got me thinking about just how much stock we as fans put into the numbering of individual issues. In the past five years or so, publishers have renumbered numerous series for various reasons ranging from and DC‘s New 52 reboot, to Marvel‘s  All-New All Different re-launch which gave us a new set of first issues across both publisher’s lines. Although DC did renumber their entire line in 2011, the numbering on their comics have – for the most part – remained consistent since; one glaring exception isBatman: Odyssey which went from a 13 issue series to being renumbered mid way through. So while the first several issues are labeled #1 of 13! and so on, the final issues are #1 of 7! which given the already zany story within it’s pages actually fits Odyssey remarkably well.

Howard the Ducks 1

Alternate covers, or different comics?

In the last couple of years it seems that Marvel have renumbered their series seemingly on a whim, but then given how much a first issue sells in comparison to the generally more realistic (and consistent) sales levels three or four issues later, one can hardly blame them if their goal is to make a quick buck off each issue. Though how profitable this will prove to be in the long run is anybody’s guess. Whether it is the second first issue of a character’s series in the same year (yes, it happened, 2015 saw two Howard the Duck #1‘s – and #2‘s), or a renumbering with the change of a creative team or a character’s power set (Wolverine went from #13 to #1 from one month to another as he lost his powers and changed creative team), these seemingly arbitrary renumbering’s can attract new readers, but it can just as easily provide a  dropping off point for existing readers.

Why? Because once a series is renumbered, collectors often feel that the story is over in that volume, they don’t need to carry on if they don’t want too. 

To renumber, or not to renumber?

Comic book numbering, or renumbering, is a unique beast as far as sequential publications wolverine 98 cover.jpggo. A lot can be made out of a first issue, or the anniversary issues (the ones that his every twenty five issues), especially in the current comics climate where series are canceled or renumbered more often than the have been before.

But there was a time before the number on the front cover mattered.

To the right you’ll find a scan of an issue of Wolverine from more than twenty years ago. Can you see the issue number anywhere on the cover? Take a long look, because it is there (if a little hard to see), at the very bottom of the page where the barcode is.  Wolverine #98 was cover dated February of 1996, but it’s not the only issue of Wolverine I own that doesn’t have an obvious number on the front of it. There was a time, for Wolverine comics at least when the numbering on the cover wasn’t as important as the title, artwork or cover date. Back then comics sold on the strength of the stories and art work within them (as well as the speculation they they’d be worth millions in the future, which is another subject entirely), rather than the number on the front cover.

I came across an article recently (which you can find here) in which author of the piece, John Jackson Miller, postulates the method of numbering comic books borrows heavily from the old dime- and pulp-novels from the late 19th and early 20th centuries of sequential numbering, rather than following the traditional magazine method of numbering in volumes and issues (i.e. vol. 7 issue 4) ostensibly to make library or consumer binding more convenient, increasing there was enough material for a full volume.  That comics have sequential numbering is a happy accident that has made collecting and hunting them relatively easy over the past 75 plus years.

 Numbering has been around since the dawn of publishing, of course, so it’s no surprise that we have it. It isn’t a postal requirement; U.S. Section 3685, Title 39 currently governs the mailing of magazines, and there’s not a word in there about it. Publishers can number (or not number) their titles any way they want. But the numbering of comics looks far less like the numbering of magazines, and far more like the numbering of the dime novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Comics are anomalous in American magazine publishing because most comics don’t use volume numbers and issue numbers that roll over ever year; rather, the numbers keep on going. In that, our numbering is  much like that used for the cheap, disposable fiction of the earlier days — check out Stanford’s library of Dime Novels, which show us a lot of high-numbered titles.

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of comic book numbering, then I highly recommend you check that article out, as it contains some pretty fascinating insights into what is essentially an un-thought of aspect of our hobby.

Does the numbering on a comic matter?

In many ways it really doesn’t as long as the consumer is able to easily identify the sequence in which they should be reading a series. Whether you’re reading the first issue of Punisher from 1995 or 1998, as long as you can tell which issue you should be reading next. Do some find it irritating when a book’s numbering is reverted back to a first issue, or sprung forward to the original numbering from issue #27 to #300, absolutely they do. In almost every case it’s a move to capitalize on the numbering of a comic to sell issues, which doesn’t bother me as much as perhaps it should. 

If utilizing the issue number of a comic helps to bring in new readers, that’s all well and good, but in order for the new reader to stick around the stories need to be accessible, not necessarily dumbed down, and the also need to be good.

Keeping the new readers. FAITH_001_VARIANT-CGC_HENRY1-600x923

New readers to any comic may be attracted by a shiny #1 on the cover, but it’s the quality of the 22+ pages of story behind the front cover that will determine whether or not readers will clamour for more of the comic as the issue numbers grow. Valiant‘s Faith is an excellent example of this; originally slated as a four issue miniseries, the commercial and critical success of that series encouraged the publisher to launch a new ongoing series this year. First issues may bring new readers in the very short term, but quality comic book storytelling will keep them hooked.

And at the end of the day, if we’re getting quality comics who gives two shits what the issue number is, as long as we know what order to read them in?


One comment

  • Never one of my habbits, never will be. I think this is pretty much a very special feature of superhero comic books and that is going to get lost with generational changes.