Before I get started, I want you all to know that I really do love comics. I love the medium, the way the community is growing and expanding, and I love Marvel Comics. My favorite superhero of all time is Ms. Marvel, in fact. However, there are some things about the industry, and about Marvel in particular, that are completely broken. These are things that maybe the average consumer, and certainly new consumers, may not really know about or realize. They’re things that have been broken for a long time and can be fixed. That’s the important message here. Things are broken in an identifiable way, and therefore they still can be repaired.
Last week, we talked about the event and crossover flooding that Marvel loves. The same day that piece was posted, they promised to stop doing events for at least eighteen months after Secret Empire. (I, for one, do not trust that “event” and “crossover” are the same things, but that’s neither here nor there for now.) In that same vein, we had mentioned a couple of other things. (We called them “this, that, and another thing.” We’ll keep up with that theme for the sake of continuity.) So today, we’re going to touch on “that,” where “that” is the love Marvel has for First Issues. (Don’t worry, we’ll come back to the pricing thing another time.)
Marvel loves First Issues. Really, all comics do, and there are several reasons why. First, there’s the type of reader known as a Collector in the marketplace, the person who thinks that all First Issues are going to be worth hundreds of dollars one day, the way that the first issue of Saga is now, or worth even thousands, like The Walking Dead #1. If it’s a first print, first issue, there are at least a few people who still think of it as a potentially valuable item one day. In some cases, that’s true. The issues I just mentioned really do go for a lot of money. In other cases, that’s not so.
Like most paper products, or mass produced products, or things that are released specifically as collector’s items, comics single issues tend to depreciate in value rather than go up. That’s what happened in the 80’s and 90’s, as well as with the newer Star Wars figures. Everyone bought them up and never played with them or read them. Their value as a collector’s item was destroyed because instances in good condition weren’t rarities. Now that we have the ability and the inclination to make comics that last longer, and to take care of them, and know how to take care of them, there’s not nearly as much value in current comics. What it does, though, is push companies to produce huge numbers of every first issue, because otherwise, these collectors will buy up to four or five copies and people who might want to simply try something new would have to wait for a second print or a trade publication. (Not to mention that they project higher sales.)
For another thing, a first issue implies to a new reader that this is a good “jumping on” point. A First Issue is the first one, it’s a fresh start, and it’s easy to begin. There is an inherent implication in the newness of it that there is a new start. The strategy is an attempt by the company to make things appear more accessible to readers. For the most part, it does get them to buy a lot more. Most readers are much more likely to pick up a new comic with a #1 on the cover.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t actually reliably work. With a universe like Marvel or DC or even Valiant sometimes, there is a ton of inherent history with every character and every relationship. Sometimes, it’s okay. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson or Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta, for example, are series that have reintroduced characters to the current audience fairly recently. These characters have backstory, but the comics aren’t bogged down by it in a way that throws off new readers. On the other hand, jumping into an X-Men or Peter Parker Spider-Man book with little or no prior knowledge is so difficult that you will, invariably, need a wiki page open as a new reader. (Despite controversy, X-Men Gold #1 combated this with an actual map of events and backstory. Good job, Marvel!)
The trouble really comes, though, when you’ve split a series in the middle with no clear and actual split. Marvel restarted numbering systems so many times last year that they actually made a joke about in on a cover.
Working in store, at the ground level, it becomes really apparent that while trying to simplify things, they’ve made them yet more difficult for a new reader. Customers come in and want to try a new series, only to find that while this begins the story arc, they don’t know any of what led to this, and because they split the numbering, but kept the title the same and published the books linearly, it’s not easy to figure out without digging. Compound this with the habit both Marvel and DC have of printing new books with the same title as an old book, and the numbering gets even harder to distinguish in trade publication format. Then there’s the variant covers issued for so many comics, which mean that even if you don’t recognize the cover, it could easily be the same comic on the inside.
These are things that most veteran comics consumers are just used to. We made it through the reboots and the renumberings, we caught on with what they did after Secret Wars, and we even worked out the absolutely baffling DC Rebirth situation, involving one-shot titles coming before the numbered series. New customers, however, don’t feel the need to follow along with these things and may not even know where to start. What’s the purpose of starting something new if it’s going to be this confusing? They seem to have gotten a little more on top of things lately with putting “New Story Arc!” on covers rather than a whole new numbering system, but it’s been a staple of comics for so long that if we don’t keep watching for things, they will go back to the way things were.
The comics industry as a whole suffers a lot from straining how much avid and loyal customers will put up with. They know us, they know we’re going to keep coming back: like the only Starbucks for ten miles with a maze for a drive thru, they know we’ll come back for our fix. One day, though, those avid and loyal customers won’t be reading comics for some reason or another. If the community wants to keep going at all, it has to learn to give. The recent boom in interest from the outside world has left the cracks in the way things are run glaring at us. If we don’t start to make things work, then we will all be left behind.