Thursday, July 3, 2014

Graphs of Marvel Comics’ Bizarre Numbering Systems

When I was a kid, two of the first four comics I had were Spider-Man comics. One of them was ‘Amazing Spider-Man’, it was issue number 270, and it was copyright 1985. The other was ‘Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man’, it was issue number 113, and it was copyright 1986. Realising that the second issue must have been released at a later date, and not realising that they were two different Spider-Man series, I postulated that the issue numbers of comics were chosen at random. I knew that series began at issue #1, and I was sure #2 followed, but it seemed to me then that you could choose whatever numbers you wanted after #3 – eg #1, #2, #3, #57, #629, #188, #270, #113 ...

I may have been wrong then, but given Marvel Comics’ numbering systems in recent years, my theory could be argued to be somewhat ahead of its time. Since the mid-1990s Marvel has frequently, often bafflingly, re-numbered its long-running series. Below are attempts to chart those numbering systems for some of their series, graphing number of issues (in sequential order) against issue number.

Start with ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ – it may seem tricky, but compared to other series its numbering system has been generally straightforward. For over 400 issues (starting from point A in the chart below) there was a long steady climb, where its issue number matched its number of issues. The series then underwent a ‘relaunch’ in the mid-1990s (B), a word I heartily detest – I find the concept itself pretty stupid too. Even this though did not shake the seemingly incontrovertible law that issue numbers for comic series ran in sequence.

The trouble kind of started when Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada decided that he disliked the renumbering of all of Marvel’s long-running series. Consequently, these series started to have dual numbers (C) – one signalling where the issue was situated in the current series, and the other signalling what number the issue would be if the series have never been stupidly relaunched. However, the first of these numbers magically disappeared when the count for the second number allowed Marvel to publish an oversized, higher-priced 500th ‘anniversary’ issue.

The numbering then returned to the path that the long steady climb would have taken if it had not been interrupted only marginally thrown off-course by some ‘Point One’ issues – eg #654.1 – barely perceptible on the graph below. This continued until the ‘final’ issue, #700, in which Peter Parker was ‘killed’ and replaced. (Actually there were also issues #700.1-700.5 but never mind that … ) ‘Amazing’ was then replaced by ‘Superior Spider-Man’ but that was then replaced by another stupid relaunch of ‘Amazing’ this year, with Peter Parker returning (D). Therefore, ‘Amazing Spider-Man’, despite running for over 700 issues, is now essentially back at the start again …
Next up: Marvel’s other flagship title ‘Fantastic Four’. This also had an LSC for over 400 issues (A), before it was stupidly relaunched, or ‘reborned’ if you will, as part of Marvel’s first stab at renumbering its popular, long-running series – the ‘Heroes Reborn’ debacle (B). After ‘Reborn’ divebombed, there was another relaunch under the ‘Heroes Return’ banner (C). The series would then later undergo the same dual numbering phenomenon as ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ (D), although in the FF’s case it lasted a little beyond #500, with the wrinkle that the numbers did a switcheroo from #501 onwards so that the higher number came first (E).

The LSC was then resumed as if it never halted, until Jonathan Hickman ‘killed’ off the Human Torch, and the title was relaunched as ‘FF’ rather than FF (F). But then lo and behold, an ‘anniversary’ issue came up, and Marvel wanted to have its cake and eat it too. ‘FF’ #12 was instead ‘Fantastic Four’ #600, with ‘FF’ #1-11 retroactively becoming the missing issues of ‘Fantastic Four’ (G). After that Marvel pulled a Captain Kirk, where ‘Fantastic Four’ (#601- ) and ‘FF’ (#12- ) both existed simultaneously. Both series were then started again as part of the Marvel NOW! Relaunch Hyperoverload (H), catapulting the series into a bold new era that managed to last a whole sixteen issues (I).
Marvel’s ‘Thor’ aka ’The Mighty Thor’ aka ’Thor: God of Thunder’ actually began life as a re-titling of ‘Journey Into Mystery’, so that its first issue was #126 (A). Since then its numbering has been affected by several stupid relaunches, a have-your-cake-and-eat-it, and a double Captain Kirk. The title ‘Thor’ was initially cancelled rather than Reborned in the mid-1990s (it was the lucky one), but the series reverted to its old name of ‘Journey Into Mystery’ and kept the same numbering sequence (B). The relaunch eventually came though (C), followed by a dual numbering (D), and then a cancellation and relaunch again (E).
The 600th issue (F) was Marvel’s chance for a have-your-cake-and-eat-it, even though it was not the 600th issue of Thor at all. It only works if you count the first 125 issues of ‘Journey Into Mystery’, but not the issues after the first Captain Kirk, because well … that would not have added up to 600, would it? This resumption of the LSC did not last long until a second Captain Kirk occurred (G), where ‘Thor’ began again at #1 (H), and ‘Journey Into Mystery’ again took over the old numbering. ‘Thor: God of Thunder’ is the most recent stupid relaunch (I), although it is enough of a clean break from what came before that it can almost be forgiven. 
‘Captain America’ has followed a similar path to ‘Thor’, beginning at #100 as a re-titling of ‘Tales of Suspense’ (A), and then undergoing a LSC up past #450. Like ‘Fantastic Four’ it got ‘Reborned’ (B), and relaunched (C), and then had a dual number for a tick (D), before it got stupidly relaunched (E) and relaunched again (F).
You would think that with so many stupid relaunches it would never regain its former heights on the y-axis. But never underestimate the power of Marvel’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it fetish, which took effect as of issue number, wait for it … the oversized, higher-priced 600 (F). (Though like ‘Thor’ this ignores that the series began at #100.) Captain America then got Captain Kirked not long after, when Captain America got ‘killed’ and was replaced, albeit by the original Captain America Steve Rogers, who himself had been ‘killed’ and replaced. ‘Captain America’ and ‘Captain America and Bucky’, which picked up the old numbering, then ran simultaneously (H and I), with the good Captain getting Marvel NOW!ed accounting for the most recent relaunch (J).
And then there is Iron Man … take a deep breath now ...
Iron Man’ started at #1 (A), and adhered to the law of the long, steady climb for over 300 issues. It was ‘Reborned’ (B), and stupidly relaunched (C), and dual numbered (D) like the other titles we have seen here. And like ‘Captain America’ it was then stupidly relaunched again (E). Alright, this is where it gets hairy …
At the same time as ‘Iron Man’ was running, a new title called ‘Invincible Iron Man’ was launched (F). Eventually ‘Iron Man’ was cancelled, and ‘Invincible Iron Man’ became the Iron Man title (G). Which would have been relatively straightforward as far as these things go until the ‘have-your-cake-and-eat-it’ phenomenon struck, and ‘Invincible Iron Man’ was renumbered, with #34 becoming #500 (H). Essays could have been written about how the hell the various Iron Man issues added up to #500; however the website Comic Book Numbering worked out the magic algebra that made it work (hint: three issues of ‘Iron Man’ were apparently not ‘Iron Man’ issues at all).
‘Iron Man’ has been stupidly relaunched one more time since then (I), but there is one more hump in the graph. Old Iron Man creators David Micheline and Bob Layton decided 25 years later to write over issue #258, releasing their own version of that issue, #258.1-258.4 last year (J).

Well, I hope all of those charts explained things. Now you can sit back and wait for Marvel’s new films Avengers 7, Captain America XL, and Guardians of the Galaxy 462.3, coming soon to a multiplex near you.

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