I’m back in my own column this week, so for those of you who enjoyed Greg’s take on it last time, well, I’m very sorry to disappoint you. But it’s like I never said, just because you fit in another man’s trousers, doesn’t mean you should get comfortable in ’em.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, it was a Marvel comic that first got me hooked on comics at late age of 14, specifically The Avengers, and shortly thereafter, Uncanny X-Men. And anyone who got into comics as a kid remembers the agonizing wait between issues of our favorite comic, and the massive disappoint of venturing to the newsstand expecting that new issue only to turn away empty handed.
I remember as I would fruitlessly search the spinner rack, there would be no new Avengers or X-Men issues to be had, but there would always seem to be a Superman, or Batman, or Spider-Man. I quickly realized that this was because these characters had multiple titles, and when I figured this out, I felt this momentary pang of jealousy, thinking about how fans of those characters didn’t have to wait a whole month for another issue. Eventually, I fixed that by becoming fans of those characters, as well, but in the early days, it always seemed like a four-color drought. And Uncanny X-Men was still bi-monthly at the time, shudder.
Flash forward to today. For Avengers fans, there are The Avengers, New Avengers, Secret Avengers, Avengers Academy, and Avengers: Children’s Crusade. That’s five ongoing titles. For X-Men fans, choose any or all of the following: Uncanny X-Men, X-Men Legacy, X-Men, New Mutants, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Force, and X-Men Forever. That’s seven. And not to forget DC, let’s look at how many comics titled with Batman can be found on the rack this month: you have Batman, Detective Comics, Batman and Robin, Batman: Streets of Gotham, Batman: Confidential, Batman: The Dark Knight, and Batman Incorporated. Incorporated, indeed; that’s seven core Batman titles.
Had I the power of foresight as a kid, I would also have been jealous of my future self, knowing that I could walk up to a comics rack on any given week and find one of my favorite team’s titles. If you discount publishers’ periodic tendencies to ship several related titles in one week and then skip others entirely, that is.
Somewhere along the line, publishers felt it necessary to grow these properties from mom-and-pop operations into full-blown franchises, even as readership declined. Batman and Superman had dual titles almost from their inception, and have always remained popular enough to support this number of titles at minimum. But most other successful properties seemed to fill demand with one title, so there many of them stayed.
Until the early 80s, at least, when publishers started explore the sales opportunities that could be found in the direct market. Marvel launched New Mutants in 1982, a semi-response to DC’s own junior team, Teen Titans, from a couple of years before. But it was just as much an expansion of the X-Men franchise, which was at its peak popularity, and an ambitious one, conceived as an ongoing, companion series just as publishers were started to dabble with limited series. The following year, DC expanded the Batman franchise with Batman and the Outsiders. The year after that, Marvel had success with the West Coast Avengers limited series to the point where it debuted as a second ongoing Avengers title in 1985.
The growth of the direct market is what also supported the growth of these franchises. Batman continued to expand mostly in the form of mini-series like Dark Knight Returns and The Cult. The number of ongoing Spider-Man titles remained at three when Web of Spider-Man launched in the wake of Marvel Team Up’s cancellation, and years later was followed by a fourth, Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man. The X-Men saw the addition of X-Force that year and a second core title, X-Men, the year after.
The way the industry defined success changed at that point. How so? I will tell you. From that point on, it seemed as though that a property’s success was defined not by how many issues it could sell, but by how many titles it could support. While monster properties like Batman and X-Men were getting all the attention, others limping along on one title like Wonder Woman (under George Pérez and others), The Incredible Hulk (Peter David, McFarlane), and Fantastic Four (Walt Simonson) sold very well and got acclaim but didn’t get near the attention that the larger, speculator-driven properties did.
Anyone currently reading Batman Incorporated might find it ironic, then, that the storyline deals with Bruce Wayne secretly expanding the Batman franchise worldwide, training new candidates to assume the role in cities around the world. Even the Dark Knight is going global. Art imitates life, I guess.
And nothing’s wrong with that; as long as there’s the talent to support it, as I said a few weeks ago. But I worry too, I suppose, that if an excellent title like Fantastic Four (or, FF now) really catches on, that the corporate urge to expand will dilute a good product, not enhance it.
If we’re talking about a future foundation, after all, perhaps a good one would be to establish that foundation as one good enough to support a franchise, before plunging in and launching one.