Panel Beating : Relaunch Issues
Welcome to the first edition of the new, relaunched Panel Beating. I’ve dusted off the name of my old comics review column for a new series of monthly articles touching on whatever aspects of comicdom take my fancy - and which aren’t covered by the daily reviews or industry news commentary on Comics Daily. So expect one of these on whichever Saturday falls closest to the turn of each month. And since this first edition is itself a relaunch issue (I even toyed with calling it “Panel Beating #13” in deference to the previous columns - but have instead decided to leave off numbering altogether), that’s what I’ve decided to spend it talking about.
Collecting - or, at least, organising - comics can be a tricky business at the best of times. Do you sort your books purely alphabetically, or split them by publisher? Would sorting them by creator make it easier to go on a Grant Morrison fest every once in a while? Even though Action Comics and Superman are at opposite ends of the longbox, should you group together the issues that alternate with each other to make up one story for handy re-reading? And would it be helpful to do the same with big crossover events? And so on. One thing that makes even the pure titles-sorted-alphabetically-then-chronologically system even trickier, though, is the propensity of publishers to relaunch their books. A new volume, a new numbering system, a new title - all tricks destined to have the dedicated back-issue-hoarder tearing their hair out.
Up until the 1980s, relaunching was a relatively rare practice. Of course, you’d get different iterations of a series, if one version had been cancelled earlier down the line – this was particularly evident when new Silver Age versions of the likes of Green Lantern started to show up - but it wasn’t really until DC undertook an exercise in company-wide history scrubbing that the focus shifted away from being proud of high issue numbers (by the mid 80s, Superman had celebrated its 400th issue with no small fanfare, putting out a classic anthology issue that included pinups from the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Will Eisner) and towards attracting new readers with low ones.
Not that you couldn’t see the reasoning behind it, in Superman’s case. Having undergone a drastic, page one relaunch at the hands of John Byrne, the natural step was to give his main title a new #1, not least because Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? had played out as if it really were the last ever issues of Superman and Action. But it felt like DC wanted to have their cake and eat it - the old numbering was kept by renaming the original title as Adventures of Superman, while Action - longer-serving than its spinoff title anyway - continued if nothing had happened. Would it not have made more sense simply to give Byrne a new series with a new name - or cancel the old series altogether - rather than this halfway house? The decision was thrown into sharper focus a couple of decades later when Adventures was cancelled and Superman took back the numbering (or, depending on which way you want to look at it, Superman volume 2 was cancelled, while volume 1 got its old name back).
This basically means that there are 423 issues of Superman, followed by 228 issues (starting at #424) of Adventures, before Superman starts again at #650 in 2006. Meanwhile, there are a further 226 issues of an entirely different Superman series (albeit one which, for most of its run, was telling either the same stories, or ones parallel with, Adventures). So if you’re filing ‘em, where do you put them? Do you count the entirety of the (at last count) 679 “volume one” issues together, with the 226 “volume two” issues immediately behind? Or do you put Adventures in its own place in the alphabetical scheme? You can scoff all you like at how anal this is sounding, but these are important questions to some people – and furthermore, it’s entirely baffling to a new reader to be presented with these various titles with differing number systems.
That said, at least Superman had a genuine, in-continuity reason to relaunch – the character who featured in the new volume two wasn’t even supposed to be the same character who’d appeared in the previous however-many issues of Action and volume one. Come the ‘90s, though, it became de rigeur in an industry obsessed with speculator tactics and vastly inflated sales figures for a series to relaunch with a new #1 at the drop of a hat. Nobody cared any more about a venerable old series that had clocked up a few hundred issues – no, what the speculators wanted were low issue numbers. A #1 – or, even better, a #0! – meant big business.
The biggest business of them all came with 1991’s X-Men #1, the biggest-selling comic of all time (largely due to the speculator boom, its status as a #1, and the FIVE variant covers). Admittedly, this was a genuine #1 - the first issue of a new X-Men title that was supporting, rather than replacing, the existing Uncanny X-Men (which had started life as simply The X-Men in the sixties, before undergoing a drastic overhaul with the launch of the new team - and the one-off Giant Size X-Men #1 - in the ’70s, and which has recently reached the fabled issue #500). But as the new kid on the block, this particular title has found itself undergoing a number of cosmetic relaunches over the past decade, albeit while retaining the same numbering. It started with Grant Morrison’s run, which - to symbolise the fresh approach being taken by the writer - saw the title renamed New X-Men. After his departure, it went back to simply being X-Men (or, as many referred to it, “Adjectiveless X-Men”, to distinguish it from Uncanny and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing) for a while, while a new title - featuring a team of up-and-coming mutants in training - was launched under the New X-Men name. Finally, it’s recently been retitled again, this time as X-Men: Legacy. Again, this presents a problem if you’re trying to file the damn things - do you just run all the issues consecutively as “X-Men”, or does Morrison’s run get plonked under “N”, instead?
Marvel’s other flagship title, Amazing Spider-Man, has had a pretty consistent, consecutive run of issues since 1963. But it too has suffered from a controversial renumbering scheme. In 1999, Marvel went back and tweaked Spidey’s origin with the poorly-received “Chapter One” event, written by Howard Mackie and drawn by - that man again - John Byrne. This led to a brand new issue #1, launching volume two of Amazing. Many readers continued to refer to the series as one consistent run, however, even using the old numbering - and Marvel bowed to this with the beginning of J. Michael Straczynski’s run in 2001. Issue #30, the first of Straczynski’s run, also featured the number #471 on its cover - referring to what the number of the issue would have been if the relaunch had never happened. In other words, less than three years after resetting the numbering, Marvel had realised that in fact it gave the series more weight to call back on its long history. This strange “dual numbering” system - which was also used in a similar fashion on Fantastic Four, following that series’ Heroes Reborn-inspired reboot in 1996 - continued until 2003, when issue #500 came along - at which point Marvel thought it prudent to drop the “volume two” numbers and simply pretend the whole thing had never happened. So in other words, they enjoyed the sales spikes of both an issue #1, and an issue #500, in less than five years. Convenient, eh?
One of the more bizarre, bafflingly unnecessary and downright confusing relaunches came in the early ’80s, on the back of the success of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s superb New Teen Titans series. DC had taken the decision in 1984 to trial a strange new scheme on a handful of books - where a new, more expensive series (better paper, better cover stock, better printing, better better) would be distributed to comic shops via the direct market, before reprinting the same stories in cheaper, newsstand editions a year later - and Teen Titans was one of the books (the others being Batman and the Outsiders and Legion of Super-Heroes) chosen. This meant that following issue #41 of The New Teen Titans, a second volume of the series was launched, with a new #1, in the new format. Meanwhile, the original numbering was carried over to a new book (the “old format” one) titled Tales of the Teen Titans - which, even more confusingly, told new stories concurrently with its sister title for the first year, before then switching to reprints. The whole idea was eventually abandoned, and Tales of the Teen Titans was cancelled in 1988 with issue #91.
Another of DC’s team books - its highest-profile, in fact - has seen a number of title changes (and, consequently, relaunches) over the years. Justice League of America originally had a pretty long and uninterrupted run, spanning some 261 issues from 1960 to 1986. In those days, even an entirely new lineup wasn’t a cue for a new issue #1 or a new title, since the book had never actually been cancelled at any point. But after the disastrous “Detroit” run of the mid-80s, the book was finally cancelled in the lead-up to a crossover called Legends, with a new book launching in 1987. The new Justice League, as it was initially called, was one of DC’s biggest successes of the latter part of the decade, and remains to this day one of their finest ever creations. Keith Giffen and J.M. deMatteis (the former plotting, the latter scripting) brought a new level of character-based humour to superhero comics, without ever descending into cheap parody. But over the course of its (relatively short) life, the series never seemed to settle on a consistent title. Starting out simply as Justice League, the more global focus implied by dropping “America” was given more prominence when it became Justice League International with issue #7. Though it held this title for less than two years, “JLI” has become the name by which the entire Giffen/deMatteis is known - although in fact, following the launch of spinoff title Justice League Europe, the book was renamed to Justice League America (note the lack of an “of”) and held this title for more of its life than any other (meanwhile, just to confuse things further, JLE was eventually retitled as volume two of Justice League International. Yeah.).
By the mid-90s, however, the series was a shadow of its former self, having turned back in the absence of its original writers to a more straightforward superhero title - albeit one with barely any “A-list” characters featured. Cancelled in 1996, it was replaced by a new series simply titled JLA, initially written by Grant Morrison and later by Mark Waid. This was a massively successful run, bringing DC’s foremost heroes back to the team, and establishing Morrison’s flair for deconstructive, experimental superhero stories. Rattling through various writers in the early 2000s, it was eventually cancelled in 2004 as part of the Infinite Crisis-inspired DC Universe revamp. The new Justice League currently live in a brand new, volume 2 Justice League of America series - which was initially rumoured to be picking up the numbering from the original series’ 1986 cancellation, but instead started with issue #0 in 2006.
Still, it’s good to know that there’s some consistency out there. Batman, for example, has largely managed to avoid any kind of renumbering fiasco - both Detective Comics (the longest-running comic in the US) and Batman have retained a continuous, uninterrupted numbering schedule since their introductions in 1939 and 1940 respectively. As mentioned above, so have Action and Uncanny (despite the latter’s title change, and indeed its reliance on reprints for some years beforehand). But it really is a shame that other long-running titles such as The Incredible Hulk or Captain America have felt the need to keep resetting - the latter spent much of the late ’90s and early 2000s relaunching like there was no tomorrow, and for no immediately apparent good reason is currently on the thirtysomething-issue of its fifth volume - when they have almost consistently featured the same character (as opposed to relaunched DC titles such as Blue Beetle, Green Lantern or The Flash) and never suffered a cancellation break.
Given that the renumbering strategies for Superman, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man were all reset once their publishers realised the cachet of having such high issue numbers to fall back on, it’s a surprise that publishers continue to do it. Captain America would actually have managed to pass 500 issues back in the ’90s had the numbers never restarted (given that, when it was brought back by Marvel, they had the foresight to continue the numbering of the original 1940s Timely Comics series), and The Incredible Hulk would also be getting close now, even if you discount the 102 issues it spent under the original title Tales to Astonish. Action and Detective, meanwhile, show the real value of consistency when you consider there’s only about a decade to wait before both titles reach the quite staggering 1,000 issue landmark. And yet, for as long as there’s a quick buck to be had by virtue of an Exciting! All-New! Relaunch! Issue!, then the publishers will keep on doing it. And our filing systems will continue to be a mess.
Seb Patrick, along with cohorts James Hunt and Julian Hazeldine, reviews a new comic every weekday on Comics Daily. In the last month or so he’s also written articles about Superman and the Joker for Den of Geek. More of this sort of thing in a month’s time.