Restarts and reboots: DC’s plan and some historic precursors

I’ve been asked about DC’s announcement that it was planning to relaunch 52 titles with new continuity and new #1s — and while my time is short today, I can make a few observations about the historical record. After so many months of talking about prices, it’s a change of pace to talk about a different number on the cover.

First there are differing experiences when it comes to new numbering, and new continuity. Sometimes we have them both at once; sometimes, we only have one or the other. John Byrne‘s Superman: The Man of Steel in 1986 represented a continuity reboot, under a new title; the new continuity was eventually reflected in the other Superman titles which were not renumbered. (The existing Superman title was later renamed Adventures of Superman to permit a new Byrne Superman series — but the original series continued its numbering, and in fact, changed back to Superman with #650.) When Amazing Spider-Man renumbered in the late 1990s, it was began as a partial continuity reboot, drawing elements from Byrne’s Spider-Man: Chapter One; the continuity changes later were eliminated, and but the new numbering continued for several years. There are many examples of simple series renumberings, without continuity restarts; most every publisher has done them, including Archie. (Note: The previous passage has been amended to reflect the undone-continuity that did appear in ASM Vol. 2; thanks to Mike Partyka for reminding me of it.)

The numbers historically tend to suggest that renumbering alone, for its own sake, doesn’t do an awful lot beyond the first-issue effect sales boost unless associated with other elements, such as new creative teams, a new over-arching storyline, or other enhancements that impact a series across time. Kevin Smith‘s Daredevil received a new #1 in 1998 and had major sales benefits that stuck for years; others tailed off more quickly. Amazing Spider-Man had preorders in the 60,000s up until its cancellation and replacement with Vol. 2, #1 in late 1998; sales indeed spiked, but even with Byrne, were back to the 60,000s within a year. The 1999 Incredible Hulk numbering restart, again with Byrne added, returned to the 40,000s where it had been by #6.

No change in the titling and numbering of a series can be evaluated without regard to creator and story factors — and as we’ve seen, every case is different. In general, however, we do know that renumbering can be a double-edged sword. The first-issue boost is almost always there, and is often substantial. But we also know that higher numbering on a comics title tends to be associated, on average, with slower issue-by-issue deterioration in sales. Retailers ordering in advance cut orders from #1 to #2 far more deeply than they would from a #101 to a #102, where they have established readerships. Now, in the case of a renumbering of an existing series, the new series retains most of the longevity benefits of its connection with the precursor title — but not all, as some long-time collectors decide to call it a complete set and stop buying. So you’re looking for a really big boost from the new #1 — substantial enough so that you’re not right back where you were in a few months.

One big renumbering and new continuity test case we have is “Heroes Reborn” from September 1996 and “Heroes Return,” from November 1997, when The Avengers, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America both rebooted continuity and started with new #1s. We don’t have numbers as to how  “Heroes Reborn” changed Marvel’s sales, because of the Heroes World pause in sales reports — but they did move the needle substantially. But with “Heroes Return,” when Marvel renumbered the books a second time a year later, the effects of new #1s vanished from the preorder numbers on several of the titles inside three months. Perhaps it was because it was the second restart in a year, perhaps it was what was going on in the books; again, all restarts are not created equal. The restarts also came in a declining market, and across time, no single factor has more effect on the number of copies ordered than the number of comics shops. (Update: See all the figures for Heroes Reborn and Heroes Return.)

I wrote much more about this topic in “The Incredible Shrinking Legacy,” my column in Comics Buyer’s Guide #1614, March 2006 — in which I advocated long-running titles with continuous numbering to be a good thing, connecting readers with the hobby’s past. They also make it easier for collectors to engage in the hobby: repeated renumberings of Punisher have made it pretty hard for collectors to know what books they’re talking about. That said, while I saw the renumbering wave of the late 1990s as mostly a marketing move, I also felt that these things came in waves; Marvel worked in the 2000s to re-establish continuous numbering on many of its titles, and DC reunified Adventures of Superman with Superman.

I tend to feel this way today, and, having observed some more publishing efforts, am somewhat less concerned by the number on the cover. There are some good reasons to renumber: surely, there are few better ways to psychologically signal a break from the past. The Silver Age Green Lantern didn’t pick up the Golden Age series’ numbering, which it very easily could have. The successful changes stick; if they don’t, numbering can be restored unless it’s too far gone. Captain America was very hard to knit back together numerically — it’s like half-a-dozen series plus Tales of Suspense — but it was accomplished.

I also think that there are cases where avoiding a #1 has led to a net benefit. Frank Miller and Jim Lee on Batman provide good examples. “Year One” and “Hush” could easily have been their own miniseries, with their own #1s — but by placing those stories in the ongoing runs of the regular series, DC boosted sales on the title long after they were done. Again, established series generally see smaller issue-to-issue drops. Would sales have been better on the imaginary Batman: Hush #1 than they were on the Batman #608 that actually came out? Probably — #608 was under-ordered relative to later issues in the storyline when readers knew where to look for it. I, myself, accidentally ordered Detective rather than Batman in late 1986, mistakenly thinking that’s where “Year One” was. But orders of the post-Miller and post-Lee issues of Batman were better for their having been part of the series, and perhaps that’s more valuable long-term.

DC’s move is the largest renumbering we’ve seen — Valiant/Acclaim did it in the mid-1990s, which I think is the previous record-holder. It’ll be interesting to see what the impact is. And whatever’s going on in continuity, if, at some point, an Action Comics #1000 looks more worth having than an Action Comics Vol. 2 #98 (or whatever it’d be), I suspect we’ll see it.

“Shadow numbering”
(Click to enlarge)

Addendum: Prior to restoring the original numbering to its long-running titles, Marvel instituted “shadow numbers” on some of its titles, which, while not the official numbering as far as collectors are concerned (that’s found in the indicia), were intended to be  helpful to readers who chose to consider the numbering as consecutive. (An example appears on the issue at right: The official number is at left, with the whole “shadow number” at right. Click to enlarge.)

That numbering paved the way for the eventual return to the original numbering — which coincided, not surprisingly, with anniversary issues such as Fantastic Four #500. No word if DC plans this. Such a move might convey the message that the new numbering was never intended to be permanent, which probably isn’t the message of choice.

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