Monday, May 13, 2013

Is everything just a mini-series now?

In the last couple of years, practically every series in +DC Comics and +Marvel Entertainment has been rebooted.

In September of 2011, +DC Comics closed down every one of their ongoing series, and restarted them all on number one.  Fifty-two series in all were begun that month on "issue 1," prompting the company to name its line "the New 52." Since this "relaunch," 16 out of the 52 titles have been canceled -- six after just eight months, six earlier this spring, and four more have been announced for termination as of August.  That's 16 series, or 30% of the line, that lasted less than 24 total issues, and many less than 10. Because DC insists on publishing 52 concurrent titles, this means 16 new series replacing the old, or a total of 68 new series started in two years.

Meanwhile, Marvel has created its own version of a relaunch, with the Marvel NOW! line, which will consist of more than 30 titles by year's end, all starting over on "issue 1" (with the older series generally being canceled).  Although this is certainly not the entire Marvel line, as it was with DC, we can say that a huge chunk of the Marvel titles have been re-started as new series.

This is something of a new pattern for comic books.  Although reboots are nothing new for the industry, having entire company-wide relaunches on number 1, and cancellations of old, often standby series like Action Comics or Captain America -- reboots done for no other purpose than a re-number -- is definitely virgin soil for DC and Marvel.  In prior decades, companies prided themselves on having the longest-running series.  A series in the 100s or 200s or higher was a sign of success and good editorial management -- high numbers were evidence that the series had sold enough copies, consistently, for many years.  I remember the fanfare with which Action Comics hit #600, and Thor hit #400, and Captain America hit #300.  These comics had been around for decades, and had sold so well and consistently that they had never needed to be halted.

Thus, a series was something that, once begun, was intended to be published indefinitely, and companies did whatever they could to maintain their series line.  When a series started to falter, companies pulled out all the stops to try and keep it alive, because the fact that a title was being published at all meant that the publisher was committed to it.  To save a flagging title, new creative teams would be brought in. Old arch-enemies would be called upon to grace the pages. Former love-interests would make reappearances.

Sure, these gimmicks often failed, and the series was, perhaps, canceled anyway.  Many series made it no further than the New 52 titles have (like the New 52 Legion of Super-Heroes, set to be canceled this August, 1982-4s Daring New Adventures of Supergirl was canceled after 23 issues).  But, back in those days, you had the sense that the companies meant the series they started publishing to run indefinitely, just like Action Comics (which eventually reached past issue 900) was (at least until 2011, when it was canceled for the New 52 reboot).

But today, it seems like comic companies do not begin publishing a series with the intention of it lasting indefinitely.  Today, even high sales and high issue number counts, seem incapable of shielding a comic from cancellation.  Because "number 1" issues sell so well, every series is potentially on the chopping block every single month.  And most series have been canceled and rebooted so many times that they have many different volumes. A few examples:

  • The New 52 Supergirl is technically volume 6, if you count the 4-issue mini-series in 1993.
  • The New 52 LSH about to be canceled is volume 7, unless you count The Legion (which was about the LSH but under a slightly different title) in which case it's volume 8.  This troubled series has seen four separate issue 1 relaunches in 13 years, and the individual "volumes" have averaged 28 issues per series.
  • The new Marvel NOW! Captain America is volume 7, with each of volumes 2-6 averaging 28 issues running length (after volume 1 lasted 354 issues by itself).
  • After volume 1 lasted 127 issues from 1999 through 2009, Birds of Prey has been renumbered twice in the last four years, with volume 2 lasting just 15 issues, and volume 3 currently on issue 20.

The story is repeated for a host of titles.  Indeed, most comics, if they have retained their old titles are on at least volume 3 or 4 at this point, and many would be much higher than that if the companies did not (like Justice League) keep slightly changing the title name and calling it a "new" series.

When looking over all the different "volumes" of each series, and all the issue 1 relaunches, followed by cancellations, followed by re-relaunches, combined with the fact that hardly any series left in DC or Marvel's line will be higher than 30 by year's end, it seems to me like the concept of the series that is planned to be published indefinitely has gone the way of the dinosaur. The fans of a particular character need to prepare ourselves for a succession of short-lived series, rather than one long one.

Years ago, when a comic-book title was published with the intention of lasting a short while and then ending, they used to call it a "mini-series" (in DC) or a "limited series" (in Marvel). Mini-series stood as differentiated from regular series by this very fact -- that they were short-lived.  These days, with the rapid fire launch/cancel/relaunch sequence we've been witnessing, it seems like every series is expected to be short-lived.  Thus, every series on the market today can be viewed as a long mini-series, rather than a true, "permanent" series.  The only real difference is that we aren't told ahead of time that the series is of finite length, whereas with a limited series, they used to broadcast it ("issue 1 of 5").

What does this mean for the comic-book industry?  To be honest, I'm not really sure. I suspect it's not a good sign.  I'm sure the companies don't go into it with the plan to cancel these series right away. But I've got the definite sense that they lack commitment to these series, and that as soon as sales flag, they just quickly pull the plug.  It also feels a little like both companies are almost in what one could call panic mode -- that they are pulling any crazy idea for a title out of the hat, using any character they can think of, even ones who never had a series before, and trying to see if the book will sell.  If it does, fine, if not (like Threshold or Sword of Sorcery), pull the plug ASAP.

Whatever the long-term effects of this "musical series" pattern coming out of the comic companies, I'm sure of one thing as a reader and collector: we need to start viewing all series as mini-series. Even mainstays are not immune.  The days of the triple-digit issue number seem to be over.

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