Newsarama posted a column this week speculating on whether DC might go to seasonal numbering of issues, rebooting the numbers every year — which reminded me that Nrama had asked me a few weeks back for some thoughts on comics numbering and where it came from in the first place. I don't know if that ever appeared in an article, but I had been intending to post those thoughts here, as well, as a launching point for more discussion: Where did comics numbering come from?
|From the Stanford collection|
Comics fit into the dime-novel and, later, pulp mode, easily enough — but it's interesting to wonder why these titles went with sequential numbering in the first place. Some dime novels and pulps were numbered as other magazines were; but a dime novel was more likely than a mainstream magazine to have open-ended sequential numbering that never restarted. Why?
National Geographic, to use a familiar title, advanced its volume number every time it had enough pages to fill up a single bound edition. In the early days, a volume would be 12 monthly issues, but by the 1950s, there was a new volume number every six months, with numbering starting again. And just to underline the extent to which they expected to be used as a reference book, the page numbers of the magazines for many years were the page numbers of the eventual bound edition: it was common to get a National Geographic issue that started on page 736! (The sample cover shows the 700th issue, actually Vol. 150, #6. The whole numbering appears to have be an added system by the CoverBrowser folks — there are no whole numbers inside any of the copies I've examined, but to be fair, there are a bunch of them!)
Whether they were bound for binding or not, other children's magazines, like The American Boy and the newsletter Weekly Reader, appear to have followed the same practice, with volumes and issue numbers, rather than whole numbers. When Curtis Publishing Company launched the children's magazine Jack and Jill near the dawn of traditional comic books in 1938, its covers only included the cover month and no number.
highest-numbered U.S. title in a post-DC-reboot age), wasn’t always numbered that way. WDC&S #58 from Dell was actually Vol. 5, #10 on the outside and on the indicia; the whole number could often be found on the title page in the corner of one of the panels, but not always (#58 doesn’t have it). The anniversary WDC&S #100 was nothing of the sort — an anonymous Vol. 9, #4, seen here. The title didn’t start whole numbers on the cover until #124, way up in January 1951. Ace (publisher of Super-Mystery) and Street & Smith (publisher of Super Magician and Supersnipe) in the 1940s also used volume numbers, with issue numbers that rolled over.
|From the Stanford collection|
Some American comics had just a volume number inside that changed annually, but a whole number on the cover that kept advancing; there are precursors to that in fiction magazines, like Britain’s higher-class Strand Magazine in the 1890s, which had volume numbers for the sake of binders, but an issue number that kept climbing and didn’t reboot. But many American comics never bothered with changing the volume number in the indicia, if they ever had them. Again, maybe it’s because no one ever expected those comics to be bound for libraries (and isn’t that ironic, now).
So I think the cultural and historic dime novel connection is the main reason for the open-ended sequential numbering, but there could also be some influence from comics' connection with newspapering. Famous Funnies, which started in 1934 and used whole numbers from the start, was launched by Eastern Color Press in New York as a way to keep the presses running on the weekend by reprinting comics strips in magazine form. Newspapers in both the United States and the United Kingdom already had a long tradition of using whole numbers for themselves, even if they also used volume numbers. The New York Times published Vol. I, #1 on Sep. 15, 1851; while they did count volume numbers as the years advanced, they continued with sequential numbering. The issue on Sept. 11, 2001 was Vol. CL (150), #51,873. Numbering has never been part of either the sales package of newspapers or how readers keep track of them, so I suspect any connection is weak. But one could imagine the external numbering of a comic book relating to the internal needs of its publisher just to keep straight what edition they're working on.
Captain Atom, in #78!
Those dynamics had all changed by the direct market days. When we did see volume numbers and issue numbers that rolled over, it was usually related to manga; Viz did volume-and-issue numbers all the time, for example, and still does so on Shonen Jump, when last I saw a copy.
The sequential numbering of comics has worked out to be a happy accident for the field, facilitating serial collecting by making the vast majority of comic books easily distinguishable by title and issue number. Even in cases where they aren't, fans figure things out: I think the Walt Disney's Comics & Stories experience shows that comics fans will do their best to knit together some kind of common numbering, so we can all know what issue we’re talking about. Whatever changes any publisher makes now or in the future, we would expect collectors to figure things out.
That said, yes, it is a help to the aftermarket, and also to discussion, when publishers themselves find some way of uniquely identifying issues. The online and convention trade in copies of Punisher, for example, is made more challenging for collectors by the difficulty in distinguishing between series. When developing the Standard Catalog of Comic Books with ComicBase, we strove for a system where any book could be identified by title and issue number, building side elements like publisher name into the title if and only if there were no way of distinguishing, such as Tarzan (Dell) #1 and Tarzan (Marvel) #1. While you can accommodate other distinguishing characteristics by bringing in a year — Punisher (1995) versus Punisher (1998) versus Punisher (2000) — that forces opening the comic book, which may not be possible in an online setting, and doesn't resolve Blade, which had two #1s in 1998! The fallback in those cases is looking at the cover, which may not be conclusive in a convention setting unless you've got a photo guide in hand or on a digital device.
While no one suggests that convenience for collectors is or should be a primary concern in publishing, cover numbering is one of those many little factors that, at least up until now, has played a role in making collecting comics easier than collecting, say, issues of Life, where checklists must be based on cover date. I've recently dabbled in TV Guide collecting — and while there have always been whole numbers inside that magazine, it's such a pain to find them that they might as well not exist! (But again, that's another thing to look at with regard for rationales for magazine numbering. The most important consideration for purchasers of those magazines at the time was the cover date. For comics and fiction magazines, the most important consideration was whether the reader had that issue, and, with many comics, where it fit into the serial.)
It's a fun and fascinating question, and it ties the history of comics up with the history of publishing in general. This was just a quick stab at the question, but I encourage readers to look into it more — and particularly, to check out Stanford's great dime novel research site.