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It’s Time to Quit Overvaluing Comic Issue Numbers

It’s a day ending in “y,” so of course, Marvel Comics has once again resurrected the debate over comic book numbering.  This round, they’re back at it with renumbered issues, flipping from “new series” to “classic numbering.” (This is not the first time they’ve done this.) They’ve accomplished this, in many cases, through some very sketchy math. Every time Marvel—and sometimes, DC—does this, they reignite the debate about how the hell long-running comic books are supposed to be numbered.

The various arguments go something like this:

Classic comic book numbering is great because they make you feel like you’re reading a series that’s been around forever.

  • Rebooting titles at a new #1 is important because it’s a jumping-on point for new readers.
  • Constant rebooting is frustrating because it messes with my filing system.
  • How does Marvel come up with its math? Why does the entirety of Tales to Astonish count towards Incredible Hulk’s numbering but the original six issues of Incredible Hulk don’t?
  • Hey, shouldn’t all the stupid numbers like #0 and #-1 and #0.1 count?
  • This is all a cheap publicity stunt. They’ll just renumber again when they feel like it.

All of these arguments have merit. And at the end of the day, they’re also all meritless, because there’s an incredible, ridiculous subjectivity to them. Issue numbering has become the equivalent of a barroom debate, where two or more people can passionately go back-and-forth on the subject and never reach a resolution, because there isn’t one and it doesn’t matter anyway. They only think it does.

Comic book numbering is, outside of a few rare titles, essentially a dead matter. It really has become a publicity stunt, and that’s it. There’s two reasons for this.

First, because comic book issue numbering has been getting messier and messier for decades now. Let’s take The Incredible Hulk as an example. The original comic from 1962 lasted exactly six issues and was then cancelled, and the Hulk went on to have a number of guest appearances in various books. Meanwhile, Marvel was publishing a monster anthology title, Tales to Astonish which had been running since 1958. By the mid-1960s, Marvel turned it into a superhero title mostly starring Ant-Man. At issue #59, the Hulk guest-starred, and at #60, the book became split between Ant-Man and the Hulk (with the Sub-Mariner eventually replacing Ant-Man). By the time the series hit #102, the Hulk had become the predominant character in the book, so the title of the series appropriately changed to The Incredible Hulk.

So, got that? Tales to Astonish was renamed The Incredible Hulk and the original six issues of The Incredible Hulk were a different series. Oh, and both of these were considered “volume 1” because the second series was tacked on to Tales to Astonish’s original numbering.

The Incredible Hulk happily continued until issue #474.  Oh, and close to the end of its run, it also had a #-1 issue during Marvel’s “Flashback” event and a #1/2 published as a Wizard promotion. By 1998, it was cancelled and hit by the first major Marvel reboot in the late 1990s. That was the first major period where Marvel discovered that it could strategically cancel and restart series to bring in new readers. All the major books started doing this, so Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four and a bunch of other books all restarted, and at one point, Wolverine was probably Marvel’s longest-running consecutively numbered book still in print.

Incredible Hulk was replaced by just “Hulk” which…went to issue #11, and then was renamed Incredible Hulk at #12, raising the question of why the hell they bothered with renumbering. That book continued until either #111 or #112 depending on who you ask, and then things get really messy.

At issue #112, Marvel slapped an “Incredible Hercules” on the cover and made the title about the Greek wonder, with #113 really marking the first issue where the book was, in its indicia, labeled as Incredible Hercules. Marvel also started a new Hulk series with yet another #1, which effectively became a split co-star title shared between the Green and Red Hulks.

Here’s where it gets weirder: after Hulk #12, Marvel released an Incredible Hulk #600, because all the previous Hulk comics—including the Tales to Astonish series, but not including the original Incredible Hulk, added up to 600 if you included the #-1 issue. And then the book split again, with Hulk continuing with #13 onward (eventually becoming Red Hulk at #25 and Red She-Hulk at #58, finally dying a very confused death at #67). Incredible Hulk continued at #601, turned into Incredible Hulks at #612, and continuing to #635. So, yeah, whatever Hulk title was running in the late 2000s eventually split into three books, all laying claim to the same numbering.

Incredible Hulks was eventually replaced by Jason Aaron’s Incredible Hulk which ran 15 issues (with a #7.1, which wasn’t counted towards the new numbering), Mark Waid’s Indestructible Hulk which went for 20, and Mark Waid’s Hulk which went four issues (plus issues #3.1-3.4 for the Original Sin event, which also weren’t counted), turned back into Incredible Hulk under Gerry Duggan up to issue #16, and was then followed by Totally Awesome Hulk under Greg Pak. And I’m sure that during that entire time, there were any number of specials, one-shots, crossover issues, and other weirdly-numbered issues that were important at one point or another.

What the hell is the proper numbering for Incredible Hulk? Nobody knows. Marvel’s made their picks for what they consider the “official” numbering of the series. You as a reader may have your own. You may be absolutely baffled on how to file these. That guy who sells you old back issues at the local comic-con probably is. We should be clear, though: almost every major comic series published by the big two has this problem of arbitrary numbering and renumbering, and it’ll happen again until another anniversary means a classic renumbering is due. This probably can’t be fixed.

But here’s the second reason why numbering doesn’t matter: the back issue market is dying a slow death. Yeah, it’s still there, but it’s becoming less common to see stores selling decades’ worth of back issues. The dramatic expansion of the collected edition has changed that. Digital comics have changed that. It’s a lot less necessary to go digging through musty, bagged copies of old comics to have a complete collection when a reader can readily get a much cheaper and more pristine copy of the same story. Collectors are still there, but the comics industry is not what it was 20 years ago.

On a related point: comics from the big two are no longer a long continuum of story. It’s much more common these days to read a limited arc by a specific creative team. In the case of the Hulk, for example, a reader can very easily read Jason Aaron’s fifteen Incredible Hulk issues in isolation and without a lot of reference to stories before and after. The current Totally Awesome Hulk probably has nothing to do with that. There’s been very little reference to Bruce Jones’ four-year Incredible Hulk run from the early 2000s, and indeed, that series seems to have been cut from continuity. Point is: readers now have a lot more freedom to read specific eras and runs of comic books rather than having to believe that all 700 issues of a book are wedded together with every issue being critical to the whole.

Totally Awesome Hulk is getting renamed and renumbered to Incredible Hulk #709 as part of the “Legacy” event. In a year, you and most other readers won’t care. By then, that arc of the series will likely be collected as “Return to Planet Hulk Vol. 1” and readers who want to get caught up won’t care that it collects issues #709-714 inside. The story will be what matters, not the numbers. (Marvel and DC have a separate problem with how their collected editions are numbered, but that’s a problem for a different day.) Unless you’re the rare reader who’s that obsessed with your longbox numbering, the numbers no longer have a practical purpose once a collection is released.

The next time a great renumbering happens, my advice is this: don’t worry about it for very long. Worry about the content on the inside of the comic, whether it’s any good, and whether you’d want to pass it on to someone else. Comics keep going because people are interested in reading them, not because there’s a specific number on the front.



About Adam Frey (372 Articles)
Adam Frey is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. In the meantime, he's an attorney and moonlights as an Emergency Medical Technician in Maryland. A comic reader for over 30 years, he's gradually introducing his daughter to the hobby, much to the chagrin of his wife and their bank account.
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