Comichron Special Report: REBOOTS & RESTARTS: Do They Work?

13 Questions About the DCU Reboot

DC’s announcement that it’s planning to relaunch fifty-plus titles with new continuity and new #1s in September prompts a number of observations on reboots and renumberings from the past. After so many months of talking about prices in the comics industry, it's a nice change of pace to talk about a different number on the cover.

One thing we quickly see when looking at past reboots and renumberings is that they’re different in many ways, enough that generalization becomes difficult. DC’s particular move, for example, is the largest linewide renumbering we’ve ever seen. (Acclaim, which renumbered just about everything from the Valiant line in 1996-97, is dwarfed by this example.) DC’s move is further not just new numbering, but reportedly new continuity — a separate phenomenon that nonetheless usually coincides with new numbering.

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.)

Meanwhile, when Amazing Spider-Man renumbered in the late 1990s, it was simply a numbering restart (plus John Byrne, again).

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, had by #6 returned to the 40,000s where it had been before.

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 see that renumbering can be a double-edged sword.

The first-issue boost is almost always there, and is often substantial, sometimes doubling or tripling the sales of the ongoing title it sprang from. 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 important factor in predicting the performance of a renumbered ongoing series is the extent to which retailers are able to “map” orders from one to the next, and thus place an educate guess at the base readership for the new #1. If a year or two elapses between the last issue of the ongoing series and the first issue of the renumbered series — as happened with Flash, which was off the shelves during 1986 —  the sequel series tends to be treated as brand new, because no existing readers have it in their pull lists. The announced DC situation differs in that one volume is rolling over into the next, so far as retailers are concerned; logistically, the change is small.

What DC has announced is both a change in numbering and continuity, and two prominent cases are "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 do not have the monthly “before” numbers for “Heres Reborn,” because September 1996 was when I began getting reports from Heroes World, Marvel's exclusive distributor; there is no public source for direct market sales for those titles before the reboot. But judging from the Statements of Ownership for those four titles, it appears that the first issues of “Heroes Reborn” jumped dramatically higher, tripling in some cases the previous volume’s sales. Sales fell by nearly half on the second issues of the new series and declined afterward, but it does appear that sales for the entire 13-month experiment remained higher on all titles than what they probably were before, if the Statements from 1996 are correct. Liefeld's titles (Avengers, Cap) declined in sales a little more quickly than Lee's (Fantastic Four, Iron Man), with Liefeld departing both titles by issue #8.

"Heroes Return," meanwhile, picks up a similar big bounce on relaunch, nearly doubling sales of the 13th issues of the previous volume — but those figures fell beneath the 13th issue levels of the "Heroes Reborn" titles by #3 for Iron Man and Fantastic Four, by #4 for Captain America, and by #8 for Avengers. All were still above probable pre-Reborn sales, but that would not be the case for much longer, as the entire market continued declining. See the sales tracks for the “Heroes” titles here:

http://blog.comichron.com/2011/06/heroes-reborn-vs-heroes-return-tale-of.html

“Reborn” and “Return” are interesting cases, but they’re unique in many ways, ways that remind us what we need to look for in studying similar changes.

“Return” was the second relaunch in a year, and started right into the "dead quarter," when sales normally go down. And Marvel spun off Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty just as the “Return” Cap series was getting going, possibly dividing that title's sales. “Return” was also a rejoining to a continuity that was still ongoing — whereas “Reborn” appeared simultaneously alongside ongoing continuity, much as Marvel’s Ultimate line does. And both cases came in the swiftly declining market of the late 1990s, and across time, no single factor has more effect on the number of copies ordered than the number of comics shops.

Back to the matter of numbering, apart from the reboots. Sequential numbering of comics series is a long tradition in American comics publishing, separating it from the annual volume numbering of most magazines, where the cover date is the most important thing. It has in many ways made comics more timeless, and given readers a way to communicate about favorite series over the years. They also make it easier for collectors and dealers to engage in the hobby: repeated renumberings of Punisher have made it pretty hard for buyers on eBay to know what books they're talking about without seeing a cover.

The renumbering wave of the late 1990s — which took in Marvel, Acclaim, and Archie, among others — crested in 2000, when Marvel’s second highest-numbered title, after Uncanny X-Men at #387, was Wolverine, way down at #157 (and soon to be restarted itself). 2000 say only 10 titles in the #200s or higher. But waves go in and out. Marvel worked in the 2000s to re-establish continuous numbering on many of its titles, starting first with "shadow numbers" on some of its titles. While not the official numbering as far as collectors are concerned (that's found in the indicia), the shadow numbers were intended to be  helpful to readers who chose to consider the numbering as consecutive. In the mid-2000s, DC reunified Adventures of Superman with Superman.

The announced move, if it renumbers Action Comics, Detective Comics, and Superman, thus leaves no shortage of high-numbered titles, thanks in part to Marvel’s moves. It would mean the longest-running American series with uninterrupted publication and numbering would become Archie, currently at #620. Amazing Spider-Man, which reached #659, rebooted once and hopped over to Amazing Scarlet Spider for a short time; Incredible Hulk and Thor are higher-numbered but also restarted in the past. (Incredible Hulk #1, interestingly, isn’t even in the same series that’s ongoing now — what we have today is the descendant of Tales to Astonish.) Meanwhile, Archie rebooted everything else in the 1990s, but left Archie’s numbering alone.

There are 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. And it’s difficult for anything to be too far gone, given comics collectors’ talents for trivia. 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.

It'll be interesting to see what the impact is of DC’s move — but whatever's going on in continuity, I suspect we’ll still see an Action Comics #1000 in one way or another, even if it’s a rebranding of an issue of the sequel volume. Just as there are marketing reasons for returning to #1, there are marketing benefits to anniversary issues, too.

See more months of comics sales here: http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales.html

Writer of fiction, comics and books about comics, John Jackson Miller (http://www.farawaypress.com) has tracked comics sales figures for years. He’s developing an online archive for academic researchers at The Comics Chronicles (http://www.comichron.com). Follow research updates on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/comichron

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