Comics numbering, variants, and the relative security of the sky

I’ve been busy most of the last few months writing my upcoming Star Trek novel trilogy for Pocket Books, so I haven’t been able to do more than the monthly wrap-ups here. Following a fascinating look at variant covers from David Harper at SKTCHD and a fun blog post from Russ Dobler using Comichron to debunk sky-is-falling internet comments, however, I made a number of tweets about the business that it might do well to repeat here.

First, as I said in response to Dobler’s column, through hard experience we know very well what a failing comics industry looks like. The late 1950s, when publishers were rushing for the exits. The 1970s, when the newsstand distribution system was in a tailspin. The mid-1990s, after the retail-store bubble burst, downing all but one comic-shop distributor. We know what those looked like — and nothing we’ve seen this century has looked at all like that. Even the Great Recession, which really only hit the comics business in 2009-2011, appears to have been more of a slowdown than an actual collapse.

One part of the explanation for it is the same reason I’m less concerned about the focus on #1 issues and on variants: comic book periodicals are a relatively smaller piece of the overall picture than they were, and so a problem with them is less likely to lead to catastrophe. I further would observe that the fixes for a business that relies too much on #1 issues or variant covers, if those turn out to be problems, are relatively easier to make. It isn’t a 1970s situation, where an entire new distribution system was required — or the 1990s, when a secondary revenue stream through trade paperbacks had to be aggressively ramped up.

To the specific concerns: I’ve tended to be less concerned about variants — especially now that I’m no longer running price guides where I have to index the things! — in part because I see that kind of customization as a consequence of technological advances in printing. It is simply easier to do split runs on covers than it once was; it thus becomes a bonus that isn’t that hard to offer. By the same token, it becomes somewhat easier to stop offering them. If a publisher sees that a specific model of variant-cover offerings isn’t working, that’s something that can be tweaked on a month-to-month basis.

I’ve been more of a critic of renumbering, writing about it here in my piece on the genesis of comics numbering and previously in my Comics Buyer’s Guide column (which I hope to reprint here someday). Long-running series are more than a tie to our industry’s past — they tie into a pull-and-hold ordering system in stores that rewards the same title appearing in the catalog month after month. While there is no doubt that relaunching with a new #1 can produce a huge bump, there’s evidence that sales tail off after that faster than they would have if, say, the big editorial event had been placed amid the ongoing series. In that case, a title that already had existing subscribers picks up a lot more all of a sudden — making the later dropoff seem not so steep.

A couple of good examples of this can be found in the core Batman title. The best-selling Batman issue of this century isn’t the first issue of the 2011 reboot, but rather Batman #619, the final issue of Jim Lee‘s 2013 “Hush” storyline. Would the issues of that arc have sold better, net, had they started with Batman: Hush #1 as opposed to Batman #608? Perhaps, but the subscriber additions from Lee’s run continued to assist the series after his storyline was over. I’m of the opinion that had Marvel launched “Heroes Reborn” — and then, later, “Heroes Return” — all as part of the original series numbering in 1996-97, more of the sales gains from Lee’s and Rob Liefeld’s issues would have been preserved. Instead, sales after the second relaunch in two years faded fairly quickly.

So I suspect long ongoing series suffer less attrition, net, than short ones — and that the net benefit of dropping, say, “Batman: Year One” into the regular Batman series, as happened in the late 1980s, probably helped the core title more than if the series had stood alone. There’s certainly room enough for both approaches, given the size of publishers’ lines these days.

With all that said, yes, the business’s performance so far this decade has been heartening, including in 2015, where I’ve heard that the mass-market bookstore picture is going to come in with some very surprising results. There are definitely clouds, some darker than others, that a number of retailers have pointed to — but the sky does, in general, seem to be staying safely overhead.

[Addendum: And just after this post, DC announced it was returning both Action Comics and Detective Comics to their original legacy numbering, resuming with #957 and #934 respectively in June. Both titles will be biweekly.]

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