Recently, a friend asked me to explain the significance of the ongoing reboot trend in comics — the trend where companies set their whole line, or a significant portion of it, back to issue #1. She asked me why I believed these companies seemed to love regularly executing line-wide relaunches, and whether it helps or hurts them in the long run. There is a moderately simple answer to the first half of that question, with the latter being where we get into some debate on the topic.
To quickly answer the first question: they want to gain new readers. Many first-time comic consumers can be intimidated by high issue numbers. If you’re walking into a comic store to give Batman a try first time ever, you might be put off by the fact that the newest issue is Batman #707 instead of a lower, more entry-level number. Over the past seven or eight years, this type of consumer has become a larger and larger fan base for both Marvel and DC, thanks in no small part to massive successes in their film divisions, such as The Dark Knight and The Avengers. These reboots and relaunches back to #1’s for their biggest titles exist as a way to make these potential new readers feel secure and less intimidated when trying to get into the hobby. That’s sound logic that is honestly hard to debate. Many long-time comic fans take issue with this constant renumbering, saying that it’s unnecessary and a cash-grab. “You’re not actually hooking any new readers beyond an initial issue or two.” But when the industry is up 37% vs. the same month ten years prior (and that’s without us knowing the digital sales numbers – this is just hard copies), it’s hard to take that argument seriously. Mind you, there are factors that will sway that statistic month-to-month (Star Wars comics at Marvel, event series), but if you take the industry as a whole, it’s much healthier now than it was ten, or even just five, years ago.
I should pause here and note that I have several friends that, with the help of myself and others, got into comic books without needing a safe space such as a relaunch or reboot. If you know someone who loves comics, talk to them, and they’ll hook you up with the right starting point for a character you want to get familiar with. While I don’t see an inherent problem with relaunches, I do believe that it is a crutch to say it’s the ONLY way you can find an in to the comics community. That’s simply not the case. There are dozens and dozens of trade paperback collections out there that you can treat as “necessary reading” on certain characters, and totally get to know them through those alone. There is a massive misconception that you have to read 700 or some number of issues to understand Spider-Man. It’s simply not true. Talk to someone who knows, and we’ll get you set up.
Now that the PSA is over, what the debate should really come down to is the execution of the relaunch/reboot itself. I’d say that the two most recent and notable examples of this would be DC’s The New 52 line-wide reboot in September 2011, and Marvel’s ongoing series of Marvel NOW! relaunches that they’ve rolled out since 2012. For some context, The New 52 was a line-wide reboot in the sense that DC reset everything. In September 2011, 52 new #1 issues came out, with the previous continuity wiped away (questionably, we’ll touch upon that in a moment). It was meant to be the perfect jumping on for readers that had always wanted to read the monthly adventures of Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, or any other DC hero, but had felt like they were being kept at bay by decades of continuity. Unfortunately, while there were some diamonds in the rough, many people realized rather quickly that DC had made quite a mess of things in their reboot process.
DC left many aspects of the reboot very unclear, which led to confusion in not only new readers, but old readers as well. They seemed unwilling to do the “total reboot” that they had been claiming they were doing, and as a result, several things seemed to simultaneously have still happened while having nowhere to actually fit into the new continuity. Note that I take no issue with things being continuity-free. Some of the best comic book stories of all-time are not rooted in any tight or singular continuity. It isn’t necessary. However, if you’re basing your entire line around “look how friendly and accessible we are to new readers,” but then insinuate that some very important things still happened, while not giving the obligatory recap of them so that everyone feels in the loop, you’re failing at step one.
I’m not some dork that needs to know when exactly Bane broke Batman’s back in the New 52 continuity, but when you’re saying he’s been Batman for five years and has run through a gamet of four Robins, there’s an issue. As I said, had they committed to the full reboot, something like this would not have been an issue. But because of runs like Geoff Johns on Green Lantern and Grant Morrison on Batman needing to be completed, those characters felt like they had only been half-rebooted, and it caused a significant amount of confusion in the comic community, in both new and old readers alike. It added to the stigmata that already existed at DC – too many reboots and crises had caused their continuity to be a hilarious mess. It turned off many readers, even ones experienced with comics, and the New 52 should have been the point to fix all of that. Too bad.
I also wanted to briefly touch upon the tone set up across the line during the early days of the New 52. Much of the criticism surrounding the New 52 was that, within six months, many of the books felt identical to one another, and not in a good way. They had created a very sterile, flat, and “dark” tone that permeated 80-90% of their line, and caused most books to feel emotionless and paint-by-numbers. Besides a few stand-outs and the books that always sell such as Batman, the whole line started to stagnate sales-wise, and it felt like DC was cancelling books at a rapid pace (usually five to six titles at a time). Each time, this was followed by the launching of more titles at the wall, with them simply hoping one would stick this time. They finally got a lot of titles right with a launch of twenty new titles in mid-2015. A majority of these are continuity-light, fun adventure stories (particular recommendations go to Midnighter and Starfire). Unfortunately, it seems it might be too little, too late. They’re officially being crushed in the sales – both single units and dollar share – by Marvel as of late 2015.
Marvel’s relaunch method is going to be much simpler to cover. All they do is launch their books back to #1, without any continuity erasing or tampering. Everything that has happened over the past sixty years still happened. However, a new reader is generally not required to have anything beyond a base understanding of the character (and even that is unnecessary in many titles) in order to enjoy the book. Elements from the history of the character may come up during the run, but they will almost always be introduced in a fluid manner, explaining their relevance and history with the titular character and his or her supporting cast. Many people, including higher-ups in Marvel itself, have begun to refer to this as “season format.” It doesn’t mean there is a yearly relaunch of the line, but merely that runs on the titles will focus more on the creative team and less on the arbitrary numbering of the character. When we refer to “Brian Michael Bendis’s run on Iron Man” now, we are talking about a series that began with issue #1, and ended whenever he ended it. The new writer will likely pick up with another new #1. There are exceptions to this, such as Jason Aaron’s run on Thor, which is now in its third volume (with its second only being a mere eight issues before relaunching). While this is not the most ideal, it comes with the desire to attract those new readers. Aaron’s Thor is getting critical acclaim, and this may drive some potential readers to pick it up in trade paperback form. Then, they see a brand new #1 on the shelf for a volume that they can begin buying monthly.
It all makes sense from a business standpoint, and at the end of the day, Marvel/Disney are in the business of making money. You can bitch and complain all you want about how it’s ruining the integrity of the comics industry…but is it really? The industry is consistently healthier than it has been in a long-time, and it seems that momentum will continue for the foreseeable future. If the comics are good, who cares? Relaunching to #1 does not affect the quality of the story whatsoever. As I said, in most of these instances it is because a new creative team is taking over in the first place, and when that occurs the tone and story are prone to change considerably anyways. All Marvel is doing is capitalizing on this to bring in new readers. There’s nothing wrong with getting another Iron Man #1 instead of Iron Man #571. The season format simply makes sense in this day and age. Arbitrary things change, but at the end of the day, the quality of the story is what matters.
Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with the idea of a relaunch, and to an extent a reboot. But if you’re doing the latter, you need to make damn sure you’re prepared to commit to it one hundred and ten percent. When done well, it can welcome new readers and won’t do anything to alienate old and faithful readers. The Marvel season method seems to be the best way to pull off the relaunch, and I think it’s plausible we see DC try something similar soon if their sales don’t swing back up.