The other day, everyone’s good Twitter friend Brian Novicki of EUCantina tweeted the following:
Seems to me nothing is served by a book being issue #745. Just makes new readers stay away, while a #1 shouldn't hurt longtime readers.
— Brian (@brian_nov) June 5, 2015
I tossed off a brief semi-joking response, as is my wont, but the more I thought about it the more serious thoughts I had on the subject. Allow me to back up.
In the spring of 1996, about a year before Star Wars entered my field of vision, I started buying comic books at a shop near my house. My aunt, a voracious collector herself in the eighties and early nineties, had for a time co-owned another shop in town, which I must have thought was the coolest thing in the world, and that led me to start poking around the place despite having very limited spending money. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the miniseries DC vs. Marvel; at this point everything I knew about these characters came from the Batman, Spider-Man, and X-Men animated series, so jumping straight into that big publisher crossover (which would be unthinkable now) was a great way to quickly familiarize myself with the print incarnations of Spidey and company.
Young X-punk Jubilee was one of the featured players of that story (she battled/made out with Robin), and only knowing her from the cartoon, I was surprised to learn that she had her own team in the comics, Generation X. Looking into it, I eventually picked up Generation X #12-15, featuring the return of Emplate, the villain from the beginning of the series. That beginning, of course, was only about a year earlier, but collecting those first eleven issues (plus the series’ four-issue Age of Apocalypse incarnation, Generation Next) proved to be a multi-year odyssey. That summer, the X-books would lead the charge into the Onslaught mega-event, and that was pretty much the end of my “curious” phase—and the beginning of my “regular purchaser” phase which more or less continues to this day.
Anyone who got into comics as a kid pre-internet probably has a similar story. I tried out a lot of Marvel in those days, but Generation X was my one constant (also I may have had a crush on Jubilee—blame Chris Bachalo). When I think back on my efforts to track down the issues I’d missed—plus random stuff like the first mention of Onslaught in Uncanny X-Men #322—I see the earliest glimpses of the tenacious, meticulous man I’ve since become, and I wonder whether collecting comics made me that way or just unleashed my latent mutant powers of anal retention.
What I’m saying is, it was fun. It was my first active experience with story, versus just sitting at home watching TV. I didn’t need those old issues to follow the new issues I was continuing to buy, but I wanted as much context as possible, and the rush of finding something new in a store on the far end of town or while on vacation somewhere else entirely was just as exciting as the stories themselves. Is it any wonder I became an Expanded Universe fan?
Flash forward to 2014. I’ve been reading Captain America since Rick Remender took over a couple years ago, but honestly, I was on the verge of dropping it until they announced that Sam Wilson would be taking over. And obviously, that’s what Marvel wanted to happen—old fans intrigued by the new direction, plus new fans who’d seen a news story about the new black Captain America (who just so happened to have been in a hit film that year), equals sales boost. And of course, that new direction came with a new #1. Technically titled All-New Captain America, the new series was effectively Captain America Volume 8. Ed Brubaker’s instant-classic run (which lent The Winter Soldier both its title and rough plot) was Volume 5, meaning that not only were there four Captain America #1s prior to Brubaker, but there were two more between the end of his first run in 2011 and Sam Wilson’s turn—Remender’s original relaunch in 2013, of course, and a second #1 by Brubaker in 2011 (you know, the last time a Captain America movie came out).
But wait—there’s more. Brubaker’s original Cap series, including the Winter Soldier stuff and lots more that will probably end up in next year’s Civil War film, ran fifty issues, at which point someone realized that if you added all five volumes together, Brubaker’s fifty-first issue would be the 600th issue of Captain America—which is a big deal, so without actually relaunching, Marvel adopted the original numbering and the series continued as numbers 600 through 619, which brings us to the movie and the full relaunch, still written by Brubaker. If you ask them, Marvel will say this strategy is to make things as new-reader-friendly as possible, because nothing is more inviting than “Captain America #1″, and even a big round number like “600” has a certain newbie appeal given that big anniversaries have often been used to shake up a book’s status quo. But when you’re relaunching every year or two, there’s bound to be a lot of story carry-over anyway (unless the previous run was crap, in which case you’ve got bigger problems), so if thirteen-year-old me had picked up issue #4, say, of Captain America Volume 6, he wouldn’t have been content to trace the story back only three issues given that Brubaker had been writing the character for several years, but would he have had the slightest idea where to go from there?
It’s hard for me to imagine how my childhood would’ve been different with today’s internet at my disposal, but it’s very easy to see how much more complicated catching up would’ve been this way compared to the book having kept the same numbering all along—in which case Captain America Volume 6 #4 becomes Captain America #623. That doesn’t say “inaccessible” to me; instead it says two things: one, that I will probably never read every Captain America story and it’s silly to worry about that, and two, that I can choose exactly how far back I want to go without having to compare copyright pages to figure out which volume goes where, or feeling like I need to complete any volume (or two, or three) in particular. I fully recognize that mine is a subjective experience, but I see a number like “623” and I don’t see an unscalable wall, I see a proud tradition that I’m excited to be a part of.
Now, all this is exhausting just to write about, and I’m sure a few of you Star Wars fans are struggling to give a shit, but if you read a lot of Marvel this kind of thing is basically standard practice now for any long-running character or group—books like Fantastic Four, X-Factor, and even the perennially-hip Ultimate Spider-Man have all been through the relaunch/original numbering/new relaunch cycle in recent years; it’s just something Marvel does. So while their Star Wars line is only just getting started and there’s no real evidence whatsoever that this will happen anytime soon, it’s clearly a strategy Marvel believes in, and with a new Star Wars movie coming out every year or so for the foreseeable future, I think it’s at least worth some consideration.
In addition to numerous other distinct titles, there have now been four ongoing comic series called Star Wars—the original Marvel run (which lasted 107 issues because that’s how they did it back then), Dark Horse Comics’ prequel series (better known by its later title Republic) the latter-day A New Hope-era series by Brian Wood, and now, Marvel’s Star Wars Volume 2. In the event that readers tire of the ongoing Darth Vader or Kanan series, the Star Wars setting is deep enough that I think it’s safe to imagine they’ll move on to other characters rather than relaunch. But as the flagship series, with the weight of hundreds of comics behind it, Star Wars is a different animal. The question for me is what might they be tempted to do first: a new #1, or a return to the original numbering?
The next big anniversary Marvel could theoretically capitalize on is issue #150. By the strictest definition, that would mean they can’t make a move until they’ve put out 42 issues of this volume (plus the original 107), which would put them roughly into the area of Episode IX. That said, they’ve played fast and loose with their definition of an “issue” before, so they could theoretically count the three annuals and the four issues of their standalone Return of the Jedi adaptation as well, bringing the current total (including Jason Aaron) to 120. Either way, 150 is a long way off—but when you figure that that would mean only 35 issues of the current numbering, it doesn’t seem like much of a run.
On the other hand, what could well happen in the next few years is a time jump—to Empire, The Force Awakens, or literally anywhere in between. Could that involve a new #1? Very possibly; and to do so wouldn’t even stop them from eventually jumping to 150 anyway.
But I hope not. Don’t let my word count fool you; this isn’t that big of a deal at the end of the day, and if the talent stays at the level Marvel has brought to bear thus far I could care less how they number things. But I think the common wisdom that new fans are afraid of numbers over fifty is unconvincing at best, and at worst, damaging to the brand. However we all feel about Marvel getting the comics license back from DHC, they did have it first, and contrary to the old stuff’s reputation, they did a lot of cool things with it. That legacy is perhaps Marvel’s biggest selling point—and judging by all the “coming home” language that’s been used since the big announcement, they know it. I hope that they’ll lean into that history in the coming years, rather than endlessly chase a feeling of immediacy that they’ll never quite catch.