Friday, June 1, 2007

Pump Up the Volume

By Chris Buchner

When seasoned comics readers discuss comics, there are two ways they usually identify an issue besides the obvious number: by an event, or a volume number.

So, what’s up with that?

A volume is essentially a break in any series that results in a new set of similar numbers. That means of any given title, two completely different sets exist from issue number 1 to infinity. It’s the same character, it’s the same book, it’s even most likely the same company, but it’s a completely different volume.

Volumes come about for a variety of reasons. Whenever the decision comes down to cancel a series, and then later on to bring it back based on either a great story pitch or because a recent event created new interest in a character (the current example being Marvel’s Nova whose 4th volume had just begun after his appearance in the popular Annihilation event), most often they’ll start the new series back at number one to symbolize the new beginning of the book. In recent years, the additional reasoning has been added that high numbers intimidate new readers, so starting back at 1 will attract them more than if a series resumed at, say, 243 where it left off. It symbolizes less continuity needed to be followed and less backissue needed to be purchased to do it, even though most often that really isn’t the case as the story continues from that particular point in the character’s life.

This also implies to reinvigorating a character mid-run. Sometimes a current volume will be ended at a point only to return next month with a new numbering and the character(s) completely retooled or moved over to an imprint line. Such is the case with the Punisher comics by Marvel. Upon returning Frank back to basics after a brief stint with angel powers, Punisher ran for a 12 issue mini-series before running over 30 issues under Marvel’s now defunct Marvel Knights banner. The series ended only to immediately begin under the MAX imprint which allowed for more adult content and graphic violence, a move which has proven popular with fans. Spider-Man titles also attempted this when they retooled the line down to two titles and restarted them at #1, but the biggest change in those books was the canonization of John Byrne’s Chapter One tweaks to his origin (which due to severe unpopularity was reversed back to the original). Gen13 from DC’s Wildstorm imprint was also recently re-launched with a brand new series (volume 4) which, despite similarities, is in a brand new continuity all it’s own with no ties to the previous incarnations of the series.

Mini-series also jack up the volume count for a given series. Sometimes, a company will release a mini-series under the same name as an ongoing. To keep it straight in catalogues, these minis are assigned a volume and there you have it. There have also been instances when to increase the number of spin-offs for a character, a company will rename a current series and kick off a new series under the old name. An example of this was the Superman comic from DC, renamed Adventures of Superman in the 400s and a new Superman was started soon after. Marvel had a unique variation of this situation when they decided to end their Marvel Knights banner, either simply removing the banner from a book, canceling titles that sported it, or in the case of Marvel Knights Spider-Man, renaming it. They chose to call it The Sensational Spider-Man with #23. Almost a decade prior a book ran for 35 issues under the same title, creating a mid-run volume 2.

A new trend has started to develop within the industries regarding volumes. The plan to attract new readers having, for the most part, failed and continuity growing heavy once again in the re-started books, Marvel had decided at first to do dual numbers on all their rebooted series: one was the current number within the volume, the other what the series WOULD have been up to had it not restarted for the sake of collectors within their collections. Ultimately, the original numbering was restored (in the case of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four around their 500th issue anniversary) and the volume number removed from the copyright, or indicia, of the book. DC made a similar move by restoring the original Superman title by removing Adventures from it and canceling the new book that came as a result. They, too, have also removed the volume indicators from their copyrights.

It should also be noted that during the Golden Age of comics, sometimes a series would run for a year and then begin the next year with a whole new numbering and volume; much like a pulp or novel series. The Shadow Comics is a prime example of this trend, having 9 volumes between 1940 and 1949, each one 12 issues long. It should also be noted that because of the word “comics” in the title, when DC began to publish the book in the 70s the omission of that word made it a whole new series, and thus a brand new volume 1. That’s why Captain America and other revived Golden Age properties were able to start off at volume 1 even though it would be decades after their very first issues.

Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? How can you possibly tell one volume from the other? Well, the easiest ways are to either open up a book and check out the copyright (as every pre-2005 book was published with a volume number after the issue number) or do some research. Most price guides will list the volumes of a book as well as the years in which they were published. But the best way is to always be familiar with the material. Pick up a title and just read it. There’s no great mystery to how come comic fans can name stories off the top of their heads right down to the issue and volume number, it’s not because they’re uber geeks with nothing better to do than memorize stats; it’s because those stories stood out so much for them that it’s forever imbedded within their memory.

Now you know the deal about volumes. Read and discuss comics with confidence, and don’t be so intimidated by such fancy terminology. The world of comics is very easy to navigate once you get started. And, if you ever get lost, there’s always a fan nearby ready to help you find what you need.

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