Martinex1: Our friend and frequent commenter Dr. Osvaldo Oyola has prepared something very special for BitBA with a great guest post full of posits and inquiries. So we will take an educated stance and get out of the way and let Dr. O lead the discussion today!
Dr. Oyola: In March of this year I wrote a post on my blog The Middle Spaces exploring what I called “The Pleasure of the Serial Comic Book,” through the lens of legendary French literary critic Roland Barthes and his seminal work The Pleasure of the Text. While I leave it to Back in the Bronze Age readers to decide for themselves if they want to read that, there were some questions that arose from my exploration that I thought the regulars and other erstwhile commenters on this blog might help me find some possible answers for:
1) Did your expectations about the length of a series shape your comics reading and buying habits?
2) How did the fact that you were coming into a series that may have started years—if not a decade or more—before you got into comics shape those expectations, if at all?
As most of you probably know, either through direct experience or through the grapevine, comic book series at the Big Two these days don’t tend to last very long. This is especially true at Marvel, where they re-boot and/or re-number a series with little to no reason. The most egregious recent example I can think of was the re-starting of Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones’s Howard the Duck as a result of the latest iteration of Marvel’s Secret Wars, even though Howard’s series didn’t crossover with it, the story was a direct continuation between volumes, the creative team didn’t change, and their initial volume had only reached five issues! Something similar happened to The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl at the same time, and they joked about it on the cover announcing, “Only our second #1 so far this year!”
In what we call the Bronze Age of comics, however, this was never a problem. All series began with the understanding that they would last as long as they sold well, and some of the staple comic book titles could weather poor sales for a while without fear of cancellation. The continuity of numbering and story held fast even when creative teams were changed or the characters were re-imagined, and sometimes even when the title of the comic itself changed. In the post I referenced above, I use the example of Power Man & Iron Fist, which started out as Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, before becoming Luke Cage, Power Man, and then was named for the duo merged by market forces since they weren’t selling enough on their own. It fascinates me that in order to own a full run of this series you’d need to essentially own three different titled comic books. There are other examples of this of course. Journey into Mystery became The Mighty Thor, named for its main character after featuring him for 43 issues starting with #83 (and then in 1996 switched back to the original title with #503 before being cancelled). For 16 issues in the early 70s, Daredevil: Man Without Fear became Daredevil & Black Widow.These days the reading practices and buying patterns of Big Two comics aficionados has been greatly shaped by this change from the ongoing series with indefinite end to the assumption that any new series will not only end, but will likely end before it reaches 24 issues. As I noted in my writing, the same creative team sticking with a book for 17 issues is considered noteworthy. The jury is still out about the range of reasons that Marvel (in particular) is suffering through a sales slump, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that readers, rather than seeing the proliferation of new #1 issues as an ideal place to jump on, see the end of a series they are currently following as a place to drop off. Others, when discovering they have missed an issue of a new series, might decide to wait until the next reboot or for the collected trade, thus giving up on buying individual issues. There is also the possibility of what some sellers call “event fatigue,” wherein the reliance on the “Event” comic series and its countless crossover and tie-in issues leads to a significant drop in sales that cancels out whatever degree these events might draw readers compelled by the series’ premise. I have said it before, and I will say it again, the current marketing approach of the Big Two is a classic example of diminishing returns. You can only go back to the well so many times claiming to be “All- New” and “All- Different” and that a new #1 is a “collector’s item” before it stops working.
While the common wisdom seems to be that contemporary readers feel alienated by high issue numbers, and no one wants to jump on a series ranging beyond the single digits, I remember a time when comics readers had little choice to do otherwise. By the time I had the inclination and possibility of enough money to get Uncanny X-Men on the regular (for example), the series was already in the 160s. I started on Power Man & Iron Fist when it’d reached issues in the 80s range. My first issue of Rom Spaceknight was #21, but I didn’t buy it regularly until 10 issues later. Furthermore, the inability to guarantee that I would be able to find each issue of a series I was following each month also shaped how I read comics then. As much as I would have loved complete runs of comics, I understood gaps in a series to just be par for the course. Part of the experience of reading a superhero comic serial was filling the gaps using my imagination.
Rumor has it that Marvel plans to reintroduce “legacy numbering” to its core titles, like Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man. This is something they have done intermittently in past, as when the total number of issues across volumes hits a milestone (this was done for books like Amazing Spider-Man when it hit #500, Fantastic Four when it #600, and She-Hulk when it hit 100 issues over four different volumes), though whether the legacy numbering stuck seems to have been arbitrary (it did for the former two example titles, but didn’t for She-Hulk). However, this new development seems counter to the thinking that has been in place for the last decade or so, that you can’t attract new readers with high issue numbers, so it seems like another gimmick to temporarily juice sales. Ultimately, however, I think the horses have left the barn, and returning to legacy numbering won’t bring back a significant number of older readers (which is a limited pool to target anyway). Many of us old-timers may not like contemporary cape comics, but to try to shape the books to appeal to us seems like a losing proposition. We are a dwindling population.
All of this is a somewhat over-long contextualizing to the questions I posed above and to elaborate on below. I am hoping the Bronze Age comics readers who cut their teeth on getting monthly (or bi-monthly) books at the newsstand, drugstore or grocery will be willing to think back and share their own experiences with long-term comic book serials.
Given that most of the series of that era we all hold dear had reached high numbers by the time most of us here got around to starting to read them, how did you decide to start a series?
Did the issue number influence your purchase at all? Did the realization that you may never get to read the earlier issues of the series influence your choices?
How did you get your news about upcoming changes to your favorite series? Did you just discover them on the stand? Word of mouth? Bullpen Bulletins? Some other way?
How did you handle missing an issue? Did you stop reading? Simply skip it? Do everything in your power to find the missing issue? Trade with a friend? Borrow it? What if you couldn’t find it?
For my own part, since I knew nothing different, I never considered not starting a series because its numbers were in the high one hundreds or even higher (ASM was past #200 when I started on it). If anything, one aspect of the unified numbering over time regardless of creative team or current imagining of the character, was an easy gauge by which to compare with other readers, in terms of the length of their immersion in the hobby and the depth of their potential comic knowledge. I am not arguing that such “bragging rights” are a reason that legacy numbering is a good thing (if anything, when I was a kid that kind of thing led to bullying and bad feelings), but there is something about being able to count yourself as part of an ongoing and evolving fan tradition, established through a range of numbers defining “your time.”
I never imagined back then that a series would end soon, as I felt completely alienated from the business side of comics and what drove those decisions. If anything, a high issue number seemed like an indication the title would be around for a long time, while a low number newer series seemed less likely to catch on. This seemed the case when I’d find back issues at flea markets and yard sales that were part of series that had been discontinued before my time, like The Champions and The Human Fly. None of these series lasted even 20 issues, and some, like Black Goliath, barely lasted five. I might even hold off on a new series to see if it “got good.”
So, have at it. I’d love to read your answers to any or all of the questions above, and if you could include what were your prime collecting years and example of making those kinds of choices to start an established ongoing series or drop one (or have one cancelled on you) and how it shaped your view on what to buy and how to read, that’d be awesome!
I am hoping we can develop a conversation about this and to ask some follow-up questions in the comments.
Final Note: Even though I opened this post with a description of contemporary comics, I am hoping that this does not become just an excuse to bash Marvel and DC and current books. I included it as a point of comparison, as someone still buying comic books and very much attuned to various attitudes of other current comics buyers, but who, despite being part of the tail end of Bronze Age comics enthusiasts, was not as plugged into the community of other readers back in the day, and am interested in thinking about attitudes and ideas that shaped collecting and reading practices.