DC Comics Readies Universal Renumbering: Why Comics Are Obsessed with #1

As you may have read recently in the USA Today’s Life section or saw on CNN, DC Comics is relaunching its entire line of comics with new #1 issues this September. To some, this isn’t even news worthy of a cable news ticker, but to others it represents the complete obliteration of more than 75-years of history. For some comic collectors, it is an act so heinous that they would be willing to turn their back on a life-time of collecting DC comics.

The cover for the new Justice League #1, which will be released by DC Comics in September, when 52 DC titles all get new #1 issues.

At the San Diego Convention Center—where the annual San Diego Comic-con is held—a group of irate DC fans took to the streets, marching in protest of the relaunch. This wasn’t quite a Tahrir Square or Wisconsin State Capitol level of protest, as only about 20 people—dressed as comic characters that have been some of the most redesigned in the coming relaunch—actually showed up and they only marched for about 20 minutes. Forget the poorly attended picket lines and highly mocked Facebook groups, the point is there is a group of fans out there that are damn mad and they’re not going to take it anymore. Perhaps the real question is why the controversy?

Before we move on, some definitions are in order. Since they began, comics publishers have played pretty fast and loose with their numbering system, and for good reason. Historically, #1 issues sell better. For years now, the highest-selling issue of any comic series has been its first issue and for obvious reasons. Number 1 signifies a beginning; a place for readers to jump on board or maybe a new status quo for an old hero. But not all #1 issues are for brand new series. When talking about comics there are generally three different types of first issues.

The first is the #1 that represents the beginning of a new series. This is something that happens every Wednesday—the day new comics hit shelves at comic shops across the planet. On any given Wednesday, it’s not unusual to see anywhere from five-to-10 new series on the “New this Week” shelf. Most of them will be dead by issue six, but that doesn’t stop publishers and creators from throwing new titles at fans weekly.

The second type of #1 is where we get into some real nerdy-definitions. The Relaunch is where an existing character or title has a new story-line coming or perhaps a status-quo-altering event that demands a new #1 issue. Most recently, nerds saw this happen with Captain America and Daredevil at Marvel Comics. Daredevil had been wandering the Southern U.S. after the recent events of his last title left him persona-non-grata in New York City (he led a group of ninjas in sort-of a vigilante takeover of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood; as Sienfeld would say, “it was a whole thing”) and Cap saw someone other than Steve Rogers wielding the shield (his kid partner Bucky, who was seeking retribution after being resurrected and brainwashed by the Soviets and forced into several political assassinations; also a “whole-and even-more-involved-thing”). Cap also just happens to have a summer blockbuster movie in theaters, so Marvel decided it was time for a relaunch.

Under a relaunch, the history of the characters stays but the numbering goes back to #1 and the two heroes have a different status-quo. This time, Daredevil is a dashing, high-flying, superhero again and Steve Rogers is once again America’s No. 1 Captain. This offers a perfect chance for readers new and old to get excited about their heroes and for the publisher to sell a few more issues than they normally would. It should be noted that the relaunch is also common and not nearly as controversial as the third type of #1 issue; the type that DC is about to undertake on a previously unforeseen company wide scale: The Reboot.

The Nuclear Option

Batman won’t see too many changes in the new Batman # 1.

The reboot is usually reserved as a nuclear option for characters that became so bogged down in their own continuity that creators had no choice but to start all over. Reboots weren’t uncommon when old comic publishers tried to relaunch their characters in more modern settings. Dark Horse recently rebooted several of the silver-age Gold Key characters like Doctor Solar and Magnus Robot Fighter, and Arden Publishing is currently rebooting the short-lived 1970’s Atlas characters. A reboot is basically completely starting over, wherein the publisher takes what works about the character and then updates or sometimes radically changes the rest.

Marvel rebooted several of its characters including Spider-Man and Captain America in 2000, but did so in a separate line of comics called the Ultimate Marvel Universe. The move wasn’t without detractors, but Marvel explained the Ultimate U as a way to modernize its characters for a younger generation and kept printing stories from the original Marvel U. Keep in mind, there’s not a lot of risk involved when dealing with lesser-known characters or separate continuities/universes, which is why what DC is about to undertake is being considered sacrilege by some.

Now, it should be said that DC has done everything in its power to dodge the expression “Reboot” because of the negative connotations that come with the term. Just ask any Legion of Superheroes fan who’s tried to follow their four, maybe five different incarnations in the last 10 years. Reboots aren’t universally reviled, but when the term gets kicked around in conversations about the origin of icons like Superman, you can end up in the middle of an old-west-style saloon brawl . . . with comic nerds, rather than cowboys, busting up tables and flying through the windows, of course. DC has been calling their move a “relaunch” since the initial announcement, but when you look at all the previews and information coming from the creators, it sure sounds like a reboot.

Forget titles like the Red Hood and the Outsiders or even the new Aquaman comic coming down the pipe. DC is relaunching/rebooting and starting with new #1 issues for the two most iconic superheroes in the world: Superman and Batman. Action Comics #1 was printed in 1938. It was the first appearance of Superman and is considered the birth of the superhero. Now, for the first time since 1938, Action Comics is getting a new #1. The same goes for Detective Comics, which featured the first appearance of Batman in issue #27, printed in 1939.

The DC Universe, as we’ve come to know it for the last 73 years, is about to get a lot younger, and so is Superman. This September, DC is rebooting its entire line of superhero comics and making its universe essentially 5-years-old. It all starts with Justice League #1 by writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee.

Johns has been credited with writing some of the most important and critically acclaimed DC stories in the history of the company, most notably his Green Lantern stories like the Hal Jordan Rebirth and the recent Blackest Night series. Jim Lee was the artist who changed the X-Men as we knew them in the early 1990s and sold more single issues than any comic in history with X-Men #1. Now, the pair are charged with restarting a universe. Still, their job might not be as scary as writer Grant Morrison’s. Morrison is a British comic writer who has worked on just about every DC character you can think of since the late 1980s. Most recently, he’s reinvigorated the Batman titles with his Silver Age-inspired psychedelic story lines that resulted in Batman’s death and rebirth after being killed by a god (or possibly just displaced in time; again, it was a whole thing). Now Morrison is tasked with reinventing the Man of Steel.

Younger, Brasher Superman?

Superman in the new Action Comics #1 will be a younger, brasher Superman.

In Action Comics, which he’s writing, readers will see a younger, brasher Superman who tends to fight for the common man more like the character created by Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster in 1938. Morrison’s Action Comics takes place 5-years before Superman joined the Justice League, which takes place in the rebooted DCU present and reportedly will flesh out Superman’s back-story.

Here’s where things get weird and where the relaunch/reboot debate comes in. Because titles like Green Lantern and Batman were selling well, they aren’t going to change much. However, the things that fans liked about those titles and characters will have happened in the last five years. So, instead of a complete reboot, they’ll have a “qualified” reboot with a timeline, possibly a new kind of “reboot” with a new name to be thought up by someone more clever than I. Dan Didio, DC Comics’ co-publisher and de facto ringmaster, spent the entirety of the recent San Diego Comic-Con explaining to fans what stayed and what was written out of continuity in the upcoming reboot/relaunch. For the sake of this article, we’ll stick to Superman, otherwise this could easily become a book.

In the case of Superman, we know that the events of the Doomsday storyline happened (the death of Superman in the mid-1990s, which was really the last huge-selling Supes event). However, Supes is no longer married to Lois Lane. In fact, Lane is dating a different guy altogether and in charge of the Daily Planet’s media division. The Daily Planet itself is now owned by a media conglomerate rather than plucky Editor-in-Chief Perry White. Krypton still exploded, leaving Supes the last Kryptonian, (until we learn more about Supergirl’s origin anyway) and his adoptive parents, Ma and Pa Kent of Smallville, Kansas, are dead. Characters like Superboy and Supergirl are still present but completely different. Oh, and young Superman in the pages of the new Action Comics is wearing cowboy boots, a black T-shirt emblazoned with an “S” symbol and has the red blanket he was wrapped in as a baby is stuffed into the back of his shirt. Also, the young Man of Steel can’t fly. He can run faster than a locomotive and leap tall buildings in a single bound, but no flying. Well, not for five years anyway. I admit, I’m among the skeptics here, but if anyone can win me over, it’s Grant Morrison.

Going Digital

The cover of the new Wonder Woman #1.

DC’s reasons for the move all sound great. It wants to reinvigorate the DCU with younger characters and new ideas while cleaning up continuity, etc. I get it. Comic sales are down and dropping further every year and this is DC’s Hail Mary pass to save, and hopefully increase, its market share. DC also plans on selling digital editions of all its monthly comics the same day the print editions hit the new shelves. You guessed it, more controversy. Retailers are worried digital sales could kill the market, even though the digital pricing will be the same as the print edition . . . for the first month, anyway. After that, digital edition prices drop to $1.99. I admit, it’s not a bad idea if it gets new readers buying comics they otherwise would’ve passed on. That said, collectors like myself will still continue to buy print copies until they stop publishing them. But when the highest-selling comics have print-runs of less than 150,000, how far off is that reality? What if the comic publishers could cut out their biggest cost: production and shipping? There would certainly be a whole lot more money to go around. The first comic to be downloaded more than 150,000 times might be the first major nail in print comics’ coffin.

Does that mean the collectible market will die along with the new comic market? No. Gold-, Silver- and Bronze-Age comics will continue to set records as their prices rise, while the death of the new comic market could see prices on comics from the last 10 years with very low print-runs also rising. But this is all speculation and a bit off topic. Back to the relaunch, reboot, whatever.

Fans and creators alike are wrestling with the idea. Recently, Todd McFarlane, aritst and creator of Spawn and co-founder of Image Comics, had quite a bit to say about the DC reboot in an interview with Comic Book Resource:

“I’ll bet against it [the reboot]. And here’s why: I think it’s a fool’s game. I’m not on board. . . . They’ve got 52 titles that they’re launching #1. I’m down with that idea, right? I get it, right. To do it all in one month . . . as a businessman, one of the things I try to do before I get headstrong on something is to look at historical data that will basically back up my position. I’m trying to figure out what record company, what car company, what TV show, what theater, what ice cream parlor, put out 52 new products in the same month and expected the consumer to upgrade all 52 of them. If the answer is—and I’d be curious to talk to DC—if they said, ‘No, no, no, we don’t expect all of them to necessarily bump up,” then it seems like a missed opportunity. So, I understand the Top 8, 9, 10 book—Greg Capullo, who did ‘Spawn’” is doing ‘Batman’—one of the more anticipated ones. But if I’m somebody who is writing, pencilling, inking the 47th book? My question would be, ‘how are you getting the word out that my book is also gonna be a #1?’ How are you promoting the 47th one? It doesn’t seem like there’s room to get it there. And then the problem is, if you don’t get a spike in the sales, it seems like a missed opportunity.”

He has a point, one that I missed while being so concerned about how my favorite DC heroes would or would not change. McFarlane isn’t the only comic professional to criticize the move. Brian Michael Bendis, writer of Marvel’s Avengers and New Avengers, traded jabs with DC editorial on Twitter shortly after the announcement of the reboot, saying it was essentially screwing fans and creators of the old DC stories. Only he didn’t use the word “screwing.” Several other creators joined in the chorus and, of course, those who were invited to take part in the rebooted DCU had nothing but excitement and joy regarding the move. Fans seem to be split down the middle.

I spent a few hours in my local comic shop this past Wednesday and asked some comic shoppers what they thought:

“I think it’s a terrible Idea. Truthfully, I haven’t been in love with my DC titles for a while now, outside of Green Lantern. This might be the perfect time for me to stop buying DC comics altogether.”

— Joel B

“I guess it’s exciting, but I’m a little more worried than excited. I guess we’re talking about it [the DC reboot], so it’s kind of already working”

— Christine L

“I like the idea. I recently decided I wanted to start reading comics again and wanted to read Batman, but when I asked people where I should start, I got, like, 15 different answers. There’s just too much back story and no one can sort it all out. At least now we can say, start with issue #1”

— Dan G

Most of the responses I got fell into one of these categories. The reboot has been a huge topic on the Podcast that I host, where initially, my co-host Joe and I found ourselves terrified. Now, with more information and previews of the titles that are coming, we’re both starting to feel better. Maybe it’s because our next year of shows will have no lack of discussion, but we both have come to agree that if the stories are good, we’re in. If the characters are treated with respect and the final product draws in new readership while respecting the established fans, then there is no way to call this a bad move. Is it risky? Sure. Could the reboot cause a mass wave of speculation that pushes prices of the print issues out of the average collector’s hands and into a digital format, thereby killing the print market and in turn the death of the comic shop as we know it? Maybe, but doubtful.

As with all relaunches, reboots or whatever you’d like to call them, this is an attempt by DC to sell more comics at a time when comics are not selling well. Whether you call this a relaunch, reboot or just a fresh start. you have admit that DC has people talking about its comics again. Not just nerds, either. My mother called me not long ago after reading about the DC news in the paper to see if I was “alright.”

For now, I remain cautiously optimistic. Will this move by DC save comics? Probably not, but I applaud its gumption. At the end of the day, comic nerds can agree on one thing: regardless of what universe, continuity or even issue-number the stories take place, we just want to read good comics.


Matt Baum is WorthPoint’s comic book Worthologist. If you have any questions about these books or anything else in the comic book world feel free to contact Matt or post your question below in the comments section below. If you need more comic-nerd in your life, you can follow Matt on Twitter, where he’s always screaming about something nerd-related. Thanks to all Matt’s new followers and keep the comments coming!

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