The Numbering Game

Even creators are poking fun at this phenomenon

Even creators are poking fun at this phenomenon

First Issues

I hate renumbering.

If you’re a current comic fan, particularly one who reads comics from the Big Two (aka Marvel and DC) you’re likely well aware of renumbering. Marvel is the more egregious offender (see: two #1 issues of Howard the Duck, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and others in the same year), but other publishers are not exactly innocent (see: DC’s relaunched Teen Titans and Deathstroke under the New 52, Valiant’s relaunched Archer & Armstrong though with a slight name change and the upcoming relaunch of Harbinger).

As I’m sure everyone reading this column is aware, comics are numbered to denote story order for both single issues and trade paperbacks/hardcovers. Renumbering refers to the restarting of this numbering back at issue #1 or Volume 1, after the series ends at higher number. For example, Mark Waid’s Daredevil run relaunched at issue #1 (and a higher price point) in 2014 after having previously reached issue #36. While the relaunch did occur simultaneously with Daredevil’s move from the East Coast to the West Coast, it nevertheless seemed unnecessary to a significant segment of comic readers: the creative team on the title did not change, and the core focus of the story remained the same. In fact, one might argue that the renumbering was done in this case to pursue profit.

I would argue that renumbering is done in all cases to pursue profit.

Wholly [not] necessary

Wholly [not] necessary

I’m not naïve enough to fault comic book publishers for trying to increase revenue. Publishers are businesses after all, and if they aren’t in the black they’ll eventually fold. #1 issues almost always sell the best of any issue in a series with few exceptions, such as anniversary issues, but even then a #1 is a reliable avenue to pursue a spike in sales. Most #1 issues are heavily promoted with multiple variant covers, driving sales up even further as collectors buy multiple issues and/or shops increase their ordering volume to gain access to discounts, special variants, or both.

The same phenomenon is seen with the first trade volumes in a particular series. Without fail, Volume 1s sell the best of any iteration in a series, which is to be expected given that people who want to try out a series usually start at the beginning, especially for series that have a defined beginning, middle, and end. Furthermore, publishers are increasingly discounting their first volumes to make the barrier of entry to a new series lower; Image and Valiant immediately come to mind, offering the majority of their Volume 1s at a price point of $9.99.

6 issues and all the single issues backmatter included for 10 bucks? Yes. please.

6 issues and all the single issue backmatter included for 10 bucks? Yes. please.

In the short term, relaunching is a great idea. Fans might be reticent to start a series after its had several issues or volumes, and starting a series over at #1 often brings in new fans as well as existing fans, thus spiking sales further. The aforementioned promotions can also boost sales and, if the series is well-received, will likely translate into greater sales over the life of the series. Greater lifetime sales of course add greater financial returns, but additionally can be the lifeblood of smaller publishers who cannot rely on major merchandising, film, or TV deals to stay afloat if comic sales lag.

But can these boosts be sustained?

Short Term Gains, Long Term Gamble

Without a doubt, renumbering boosts sales in the short term. New issue #1s, almost without exception, boast sales larger than the final issue of the previous series. To use Waid’s Daredevil as an example again, issue #36 of the series sold 31,494 copies (based on sales figures from February 2014 on Comichron.com). The following issue #1, published the next month, received sales of 76,006, more than doubling sales and with a nice price bump of $1/issue further sweetening the deal. Furthermore, Daredevil was the 6th best-selling comicbook that month.

But these sales figures couldn’t last.

Issue #2 of the relaunched series sold 42,811 copies, dropping roughly 44%. However, it’s notable that a sales drop of between 40% to 60% is fairly standard for almost all comicbook series from issue #1 to #2. Then issue #3 sold 39,316 copies, this time dropping only a modest 8%, which is better than most third issue drops for comic series (I haven’t crunched the numbers at any scale, but in general a drop of around 20-30% from issue #2 to #3 seems standard).

However, sales were back to 31,382 copies by issue #11, published in December 2014.

In this issue, Daredevil fights a villain most people don't remember. It's really well done!

In this issue, Daredevil fights a villain most people don’t remember. It’s really well done!

“But wait,” you might say, “the relaunch still boosted sales for almost a full year, and with the higher price point meant greater revenue over that time as well.” And you’d be right. But let’s step back and acknowledge the fact that Mark Waid and Chris Samnee are marquee creators, working on a series that had already won several awards. It’s clear the series garnered loyal fans in its initial run, and probably drafted new ones along the way as word-of-mouth spread about the quality. But that was 2014.

On the other hand, we have series like Howard the Duck and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl which each saw two #1 issues in 2015. “But those are bad examples,” you counter. “Neither is a well-known character, nor is either helmed by well-known creators,” and I’d agree again, though note that Chip Zdarsky has gained a great deal of recent popularity as an artist, if not as a writer, via Sex Criminals.

Let’s instead look at Thor.

Same character, same team, new series name.

Same character, same team, new series name.

Before anyone gets up in arms and races to the comments section, I’ll be talking about the recent Jane Foster Thor. Whether or not you agree with this creative decision, the series has gained widespread recognition and kept its creative team, which includes the acclaimed Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman, when it relaunched from Thor to The Mighty Thor in Fall 2015.

Thor #8 received sales of 86,222 copies in May 2015, and was the 16th highest selling title for that month. For reference, Thor #1 sold 150,862 copies, meaning over the course of the series sales dropped about 50%, which is actually better than average.

The Mighty Thor #1, launched in November 2015, sold 112,053 which, while below the sales of Thor #1 is still a jump of about 30% from where the previous series ended (and issue #1 was a larger sized issue with a cover price of $4.99, again netting almost as much revenue as Thor #1). Though the series changed title, it retained its creative team as I mentioned before. Furthermore, despite the gap caused by Secret Wars during Summer 2015 sales still increased for The Mighty Thor over the ending of Thor.

But this trend couldn’t continue.

As expected, sales cratered from The Mighty Thor #1, dropping to 70,331 copies with issue #2, making the second issue of the new series end up below where the previous series ended.

And here is where the problem begins.

With few exceptions, single issue sales drop each month. This fact is unsurprising, since fans generally come into a series from the beginning and rarely begin buying singles mid-series; this speaks to another problem, which I’ll address below.

The long-term problem, however, is that sales on relaunched series are plummeting. A new #1 will almost always end up much higher than where the previous series ended, but as time goes on there are diminishing returns. As early as issue #2 of a great number of relaunched series total sales of each issue dip below where the previous series ended. Publishers are essentially killing the goose to get a few golden eggs: sure, a new #1 will grab high sales, but if sales crater below the previous series within one or two issues, any gain is offset, particularly as the new series will require some amount of additional promotion.

With 26 variant covers, the first relaunch after 74 years, and a critically acclaimed creative team taking over the title, I doubt an issue of Archie will ever sell this well again.

With 26 variant covers, the first relaunch after 74 years, heavy media promotion, and a critically acclaimed creative team taking over the title, I doubt an issue of Archie will ever sell this well again.

Furthermore, fans may get confused, not understanding why a series ends only to restart again; in fact, it’s possible that fans may avoid the new series, as those not as well-versed in comic sales cycles may simply assume the new #1 is a comic they’ve already bought in the past, just with a variant cover.

The problem gets even worse when considering trades. Most trade paperbacks collect between 4 and 7 issues of a series, and offer an opportunity to buy multiple issues in a (usually) cheaper package than single issues. Any time a new series begins, trades are often renumbered as well to Volume 1, with a few exceptions. Again, we run into the problem of fans perhaps assuming they’ve already bought the volume 1 or, worse, causing confusion. Oh, you’d like to start reading that great Punisher series you heard about? Was it Punisher Volume 1 from 2012 or Punisher Volume 1 from 2016?

An Imperfect Solution

Publishers are already attempting to address these issues in a few ways. One example is minor series renaming, as seen with Thor versus The Mighty Thor. Sure, the new series stars the same character and has the same creative team, but the name change sets it apart and perhaps cuts down on confusion.

On the trade side, we’ve seen a few different strategies. On the one hand, even if the series relaunches to #1 companies can simply continue numbering the volumes with the next number, in hopes that fans will continue buying the next numbered volume (as seen with Jeff Lemire and Ramon Perez’s All-New Hawkeye continuing trade numbering from the acclaimed Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Annie Wu series).

An example of new titling strategy that's being explored.

An example of a new titling strategy that’s being explored.

A newer strategy for trades has so far only been employed by Marvel. Given the high number of relaunches and the renumbering that comes with it in recent years, Marvel’s latest set of trades now have subtitles to denote that the comic is tackling a different story arc than previous Volume 1s (see: Daredevil: Back in Black Volume 1: Chinatown as an example). This strategy helps reduce fan confusion, but does lead to clunkier naming. However, I think this is arguably the best strategy both from a business perspective and for keeping title runs separate while still helping fans navigate the plethora of Volume 1s. Using the creative team’s names is a similar tactic, such as Daredevil by Mark Waid Volume 1 versus Daredevil by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson Volume 1, and likely works about as well.

I don't know about you, but generally I don't start a series from the second part.

A strategy on which I’m not keen

The worst strategy of all in my opinion is “season” numbering. While still rare, it’s becoming increasingly popular for publishers to relaunch a series at #1 with the same series title save for a “Season Two” or “Year Two” tacked on (seen with Uncanny Season Two from Dynamite, Injustice Year Two/Three/Four/Five from DC, and The Black Hood Season Two from Dark Circle/Archie). In my opinion, this method only increases the barrier for entry. Great, you’ve got a new #1 on the shelf, but the words “Season Two” do as much, if not more, to turn a fan away than a number on the cover of a comic greater than 1.

A Deeper Problem?

Back in the old days (by which I mean: through the late 1990s/early 2000s) comics boasted 3-digit numbers on their covers most cases for series published by Marvel and DC, aside from a few relaunches that occurred in the 90s which often petered out and resumed their original numbering before long. When I first read comics in my youth, often I’d have no choice but to buy whatever comic was on the shelf and figure things out as I went. I rarely, if ever, held onto confusion after a few issues, generally understanding key story points. Sure, there were always characters I hadn’t heard of or plot points referenced I didn’t know about, but for the most part I was able to follow along.

At least 3-digit numbering has returned for Detective Comics and Action Comics.

At least 3-digit numbering has returned for Detective Comics and Action Comics.

One theory, which I’d need to investigate further, is that fans themselves require lower numbering in order to reduce barriers for entry. While on one level I understand that individuals may be intimidated by high numbers, I nevertheless think that constant renumbering does more to confuse fans and reduce sales long-term for both single issues and trades. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman: we never enter life at the beginning of the story; things happened before us and things will happen after us, and we’ll never know everything. That’s a fact of life.

The same is true for fictional stories. Even the renumbered titles often reference previous series which could also be a deterrent for fans continuing to pick up a series once they’ve read the first issue, assuming it’s indeed true that fans will avoid a series if they don’t understand everything. This could be a greater problem of our culture, in that binge-watching/reading/etc. has opened the opportunity to experience stories in their entirety, but that argument feels weak to me. I think, given the chance, fans will pick up mainstream comicbooks and read them from any point, figuring out the story as they go and enjoying it simultaneously; note I used the qualifier “mainstream” as quite a few creator-owned series have a defined beginning, middle, and end and so lend themselves to reading the story in its entirety, but on the flip side these series rarely, if ever, renumber.

I don’t think there’s a simple solution for increasing comicbook readership. If there were, publishers would’ve found it by now and we’d see much higher sales figures. When you step back, it’s interesting to note that comicbooks once sold millions of copies per issue, and today a mainstream series is considered “successful” if it breaks sales of 40,000 copies/issue (again, sales figures needn’t be as high for creator-owned series to see success, but that’s a discussion for another time). Yes, I acknowledge that comicbooks used to cost much less (less than a dollar in the 30s through early 80s per issue versus $3-$6 we see today), but nevertheless comic readership is still fairly small and the hobby remains niche.

I feel like I'm picking on Marvel a lot. I really like them as a publisher. But for goodness sake did they need to make the first issue of their newest crossover $5.99?

I feel like I’m picking on Marvel a lot. I really like them as a publisher. But for goodness sake did they need to make the first issue of their newest crossover $5.99?

I wish I could suggest a better alternative, but it seems as long as sales spike enough, renumbering will continue. However, I don’t think this strategy can continue indefinitely, and in the long run will push away more fans than are brought in. Again, it’s difficult to fault publishers, as they do aim to profit and, at least for the moment, the relaunching strategy has yielded success.

It will be interesting to see what happens for the sales figures for DC’s Rebirth over the next few months, which constitutes a relaunch for that publisher as well. However, I’d like to note that both Action Comics and Detective Comics returned to their original 3-digit numbering…and at least preliminary anecdotal evidence suggests they’re doing quite well.

I’ll be watching closely to see whether or not renumbering will save or smash the industry. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read Detective Comics #934.

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Silverwolf

Moar Powah's very own Clark Kent.

2 Comments:

  1. I’m totally with you on this. “Diminishing Returns” is the perfect term for the near-constant re-numbering. As you point out, the numbering often doesn’t even mean anything in terms of the narrative (i.e. claims to be an “entry point” for new readers are a sham when there is no attempt to make the narrative a fresh start or even give a decent recap of previous events ). Say what you will about the Jim Shooter era of comics, but his claim that “Every comics can be someone’s first” was right on- even if the trajectory of the industry has made this less true b/c of the way they’ve manipulated consumer expectation.

    I also hate multi-title crossovers (i.e. stories that make you buy another title to get the full thing). I just skip them, and I wonder how many other people do and if it leads to a flattening in sales after the initial spike in the long-run. While I understand the business practice (or its aim), the stories almost always suffer from editorial mandate and different creative teams handling different parts of the story. It just leads to confusion and less than best work.

    I have written (both on my blog and in my scholarly work) on term I call “macro-closure” – the idea that comics readers had to (similar to what you described above) figure out how to make a story/character cohere when they jumped into series with issue 144 or whatever (and when before the direct market you were not always guaranteed to get every issue in a run), making use of whatever fragments were available to make it make sense in our minds and have a perspective of the character’s identity and history. This was aided by the fact that back in the day arc lengths were shorter and more staggered. So you’d have a two-issue story, then a one-off, then another 2 or 3-issue story, then a one-off, and so on – giving readers a chance to catch on, esp. since those one-offs were usually breathing room for some characterization and fun (like all those lawn baseball games or danger room scenarios the X-Men used to have when it was good). But nowadays arcs are much longer 3, 4 or 5 (even 6) issues long or longer! Which I think lends to the idea that a reader must begin at #1 or be lost.

    Check out two places where I write about collecting and “macro-closure” if you have the inclination:

    No-Prize Is Its Own Prize” and “On Collecting Comics & Critical Nostalgia

    Anyway, sorry for the long-ass comment, but your topic is one I think about a lot. Thanks for clearly exploring it and putting sales figures to work to do so.

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