The Number Is The Beast

Issue numbers are a simple necessity.  All published periodicals: newspapers, magazines, comics, even this website use them to organize the schedule and to let the reader know what edition they’re reading.  However, no one notices that the 1136th issue of Rolling Stone just hit the stands; it’s just the latest Rolling Stone.  Superman Number 714? Suddenly, that’s a different story.

Individual issues of Rolling Stone, like other periodicals, are separate entities.  The reader need not know what happens in the previous issue.  Not so in comics.  Comics are often long stories broken up over multiple issues.  Even so a certain buzzword keeps cropping up over and over.  In comics, it’s all about “accessibility”.

Keith Dallas, creator of Omega Chase, says, “Readers of the 21st century want accessibility.  An issue number that high just confused readers on what stories are in (or not) of continuity.”

Artist Jamal Igle agrees, “I can see where it would be a bit daunting to someone who was coming into the medium fresh, without prior knowledge.”  He adds, “I always approached drawing comics in a manner that was visually accessible for new readers but comics are a language.  If you don’t understand the language it becomes confusing.”

Artist Phil Jimenez compares a long running comic to a long running television series.  “I find that I’m less likely to begin watching a serialized television program if it’s in, say, season four or five; it feels like I’ve just missed too much to comfortably hop aboard and dive right in the action. The same might be said of comic books and potential readers.  Although I think that has as much to do with age and time investment as it does with the number of issues of any given book.”

The concept of accessibility runs counterpoint to continuity.

“Continuity is a fanboy preoccupation,” Dallas claims.  “Fanboys want to put events in a nice sequential order; everyone else just wants to be entertained.  When Frank Miller wrote Dark Knight Returns, no one in his right mind worried about where it would ultimately fit within continuity.  It was a great Batman story, period.”

Dallas also says that continuity shouldn’t be an impediment to story telling, “WHY should we worry about trying to connect them all into a neat sequence of events?”

Jimenez disagrees to a point, “I embrace the [continuity] baggage; use the parts of it that help the character/story, and shelve the parts that don’t (without necessarily discarding it).”  However he understands and cautions, “[continuity] also requires understanding that these [characters] are corporate brands and managing them means managing their backstories in acceptable and accessible ways.”

“However, I’m not a fan of throwing out the baby with the bath water; I think jettisoning huge chunks of a character’s back story does just as much damage as being too devoted to it,” he adds.

As exciting as first issues are, it’s the second issue of the story that can mean more.

Igle says, “We are creatures of habit, and like the idea of a long running uninterrupted narrative. We see the same thing with novels or soap operas. The idea of continuity appeals to people in general whether they realize it or not.  At the same time, We are losing numbers because in general, people don’t read. print sales are down across the board. So in this instance, if you want to try and bring in an audience who didn’t read the books before it gives them the chance to start from the beginning of a story rather than the middle.”

Thus, publishers use new volumes with new first issues to rebrand and reboot their characters.

“First issues can be excellent jumping on points, or they can simply be quick money grabs which do little or nothing to add value to the character brand,” Jimenez explains.  “It’s a matter of creator, vision and execution.  I find first issues incredibly difficult because of the ‘rules’ required of their construction: characters and conflicts being introduced within a certain timeframe, at a certain pace, with certain ‘notes,’ etc.”

Another technique publishers use to draw attention to a property is special commemorative renumbering.  Recently, DC renumbered Wonder Woman and Adventure Comics, and Marvel released Captain America #600.  Dallas dismissively calls the process self-gratifying, Igle says that the numbering has limited appeal, while Jimenez acknowledges the nostalgia for long-term collectors.

However in September, DC Comics will release new volumes and new first issues across the line.  But as exciting as first issues are, it’s the second issue of the story that can mean more.  “I’m always more interested in the second issue/episode of any episodic narrative,” Jimenez says.  “Once the ‘establishing’ has happened, the real story telling can begin.”


Bob Francis

The Number Is The Beast