Where Did Comics Numbering Come From?
A look at why comic books are numbered unlike most American magazines
by John Jackson Miller
Numbering has been around since the dawn of publishing, of course, so it’s no surprise that we have it. It isn’t a postal requirement; U.S. Section 3685, Title 39 currently governs the mailing of magazines, and there’s not a word in there about it. Publishers can number (or not number) their titles any way they want. But the numbering of comics looks far less like the numbering of magazines, and far more like the numbering of the dime novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Comics are anomalous in American magazine publishing because most comics don’t use volume numbers and issue numbers that roll over ever year; rather, the numbers keep on going. In that, our numbering is much like that used for the cheap, disposable fiction of the earlier days — check out Stanford's library of Dime Novels, which show us a lot of high-numbered titles. (Secret Service #600, seen here, is the July 22, 1910 issue.)
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?
I'm not an expert by any means on pulps or dime novels, but for one possible reason, let’s remember what purpose volume numbers served on magazines: as a bibliographic reference, for when the magazines were eventually bound for libraries — or, sometimes, by consumers. 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.
Now, some comics did follow that volume-and-issue-number pattern. Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, which now has a whole numbering in the 700s (and will be the 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.
But most other comics publishers did whole numbering from the start, following in the steps of the dime novels, some of which were targeted for younger readers. Years before DC had Brave and Bold, Street & Smith had its own weekly by that name from 1903 to 1907, with sequential numbering. Again, this is coming from a dime-novel novice, but I would suspect the reason was that there was at least some expectation of the reader collecting several of them — and that there was less of an expectation that they would be bound for bibliographic reference. You might see the stories collected elsewhere one day, but the magazines themselves weren't regarded as a high-class form. (That's just my own guess. But it would be interesting to learn why so much of their numbering was open-ended-sequential when most other magazine numbering wasn't.) Britain's weekly comics magazines were serially numbered as well — the U.S. dime novel tradition present there as "penny dreadfuls."
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.
In any event, eventually, comics publishers found newsdealers preferred comics with higher issue numbers, as they indicated an established brand. That may or may not have been part of the appeal to dime novel resellers — the distribution systems were dramatically different. But while it was present in comics, the importance of it has been overstated in the past, I think; Paul Levitz once suggested to me that one reason so many titles simply changed names rather than started anew at #1 was logistical. It was easier for a publisher to change the title on a series than get a new one set up in its printer’s and its distributors’ systems.
So we got craziness like Charlton changing Lawbreakers into Lawbreakers Suspense Stories into Strange Suspense Stories into This Is Suspense and then back into Strange Suspense Stories before finally turning into 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, such as 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.
—Updated Feb. 8, 2017