Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Modest Proposal--Damn The Numbers, Full Speed Ahead!

Last week at the Fan Expo '11, members of a Marvel panel were questioned repeatedly about non-ending stream of re-numberings and re-launches. Among other speakers, Matt Fraction replied:

If someone saw the Iron Man movie, and looked at the comics and saw Iron Man #489, that will intimidate them.

So that's the world Matt Fraction lives in: a consumer is motivated enough to go into a store looking for an issue of Iron Man, but they're NOT motivated enough to overcome their fear of large numbers. "AIIEEEEEE, it's #489, run, save yourselves!!!"

It should also be noted that this is coming from a writer whose Iron Man leaped from #33 to #500 to #500.1 withing a two-month period, so it sure seems as if Matt is slamming his own company. And of course, Marvel has arbitrarily jumped up hundreds of issue numbers in recent years on Incredible Hulk and Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and Captain America and Thor in the past few years, so Mr. Fraction is obviously in deep disagreement with Marvel's own marketing department.

What do I think of the theory? Let me put it this way: virtually every single person working in the comic industry today started reading comics with big issue numbers (including Matt Fraction). Virtually every single person buying comic books today started by reading and buying high issue numbers. Somehow, all of us became creators and fans, and weren't intimidated. Either every potential reader today is a dumber, more fearful creature than we were back in the day, or the theory is a load of fetid dingo kidneys.

Meanwhile, constant re-launches and new #1's surely are no less intimidating for a fan. Picture Fraction's hypothetical potential fan who walks into a store, and fearing high numbers, asks for Iron Man #1. Now picture that fan's reaction when the clerks asks if he means 1968, or 1996, or 1998, or 2005, or 2008, or...Yes, that's much less intimidating.

And don't get me started on zero issues or 1,000,000 issues or -1 issues or 1/2 issues or...

No, it seems to me that if you truly believe that high numbers are deterrents to new readers, re-numbering or re-launching just makes things worse. The real question is--why use issue numbers at all?

If you go to a newsstand, look at the magazine section. How many monthly or weekly periodicals display issue numbers on their covers? Damn few (but congratulations to Rolling Stone on making it to issue #1138!!). Some will list it on the table of contests of indicia (People Magazine is on Volume 79, no. 6?? Hurray!!).

But we all know that nobody, and I mean nobody, refers to any of these periodicals by by an issue number. When cited in the press or research, no one says "Time Magazine, Volume CLXII no. 23." They say the "August 26, 2011 issue of Time." No one reminisces about issue #763 of Playboy; they remember the centerfold from the June 1998 issue. And even those magazines that do put issues numbers on the cover are never referred to by those numbers. No one knows what Maxim #492 was; they will know if you ask about the September 2011 issue, though.

I'm sure there's some reason, some historical accident that caused comic books, and comic books almost alone amongst periodicals, to emblazon their covers with huge issue numbers, and to be identified in discussions primarily by those issue numbers. I'll leave that research paper to someone else.

But it clearly didn't have to be that way. Take, for example, Justice League Of America #1 (1960):

Look closely there, kiddies--you won't find an issue number anywhere on that cover. DC believed at the time that new titles would scare away readers (and more importantly, newsstand vendors), so they left the #1 off the cover. Hell, it was a common practice for DC to leave of the "#1" on their early Silver Age debuts:

Yes, I know, that seems like Bizarro World-marketing in 2011...

And yet the world continued to spin on its axis. The issue sold, the series sold, and the lack of a prominent issue number did nothing to hurt the books collectability.

So if--IF--you believe that high issue numbers, or issue numbers in general , are a barrier to new readers (and I don't believe that for a minute)...if the Big Two seriously believe that, than why not dispense with issue numbers all together? I don't see that referring to Fantastic Four #170 as the May 1970 issue of FF would be of any detriment to anybody. For weekly or semi-monthly comics? Put the full date. A July 17, 2009 issue of Trinity would smell just as sweet as Trinity #36.

Wouldn't that solve the "intimidation" problem, DC and Marvel? No more scary numbers, just dates.

So, the ball's in your court, comic companies. You can continue to talk smack about your own product (and then act surprised when new customers don't come storming in); you can continue to jerk current readers around while erecting more barriers to new readers with constant re-numbering/re-launches; or you can do something to actually fix the "problem," and just drop the issue numbers altogether.

I call your bluff. Your move.


Siskoid said...

Great idea, but you know me. I seek the death of the numbered monthly anyway. I'd do away with numbers with full-on titles right there on the graphic novel/collection/trade.

DC had the perfect opportunity to change the way we "number" comics, but alas, more #1s. Your modest proposal (sadly lacking in the eating of Irish babies) will fall on absent ears.

snell said...

Hmm, I had thought the eating of Irish babies was clearly implied. Too subtle, I guess...

Jon Hendry said...

The only problem is when slacker creators can't manage to poop out issues in a timely manner. If an issue ships with today's cover date, and the next issue finally comes out three years later, at some point it won't be common knowledge that there aren't three years' worth of issues in between.

notintheface said...

Fraction also believes that a guy who's talked trash to and singlehandedly thrown down with Michael Korvac, Infinity-Gauntlet-powered Thanos, and Beyonder-powered Dr. Doom would just up and give up. So take his opinion with several grains of salt.