In the modern comic book industry, what does it mean for a series to be considered “ongoing?”
For much of the industry’s history, defining what made a series an ongoing wasn’t that difficult. At launch, the publisher intended for the book to last as long as fans wanted to read it. That might be 700 issues or maybe only five. Many oddball concepts didn’t last very long. Meanwhile, the blue chip characters of the big companies headlined series that lasted for decades. Every so often, writers and artists would change or the book would go in a new direction. But it was the same series and continued with long-term numbering.
By the early ’80s, the industry embraced the limited series. By design, these books would last for a set number of issues. They would tell a complete story, likely from one creative team. Once the final issue arrived, the series was over. That didn’t mean a sequel or “graduation” to an ongoing series wasn’t possible. Indeed, for the most successful limited series that was likely.
Flashforward to the modern day and those definitions seem rather muddled. Marvel and DC, especially, launch books that they declare to be ongoing series and yet cancel fairly quickly. Especially with some more challenging concepts, one can’t help but wonder why the publishers wouldn’t have tried them out as limited series first. Especially in an era where trade collections and digital discovery of older titles are crucial profit centers, why not give an outlier concept a chance to build some interest before putting the burden of sustaining itself long term on its shoulders?
A more confusing factor when considering what it means for a series to be “ongoing” is the frequent re-launching of titles. Marvel has been re-launch happy for a good decade at this point. Sales figures tend to back up the fact that #1 issues typically sell higher than subsequent installments. So a company might figure the best way to goose softening sales numbers is to re-launch with a new #1.
Marvel and DC have both embraced the idea of re-launching a series when a new creative team comes aboard or when a new story direction debuts. At Marvel, some of its top franchises have had upwards of a dozen new #1 issues in the past decade or so. High numbers are considered offputting to new readers. Re-launches provide a “jumping on” point.
When a company re-launches titles every year, are they still ongoing titles? Years ago, many smaller publishers embraced the concept of a series of limited series. Characters would appear pretty much every year for an adventure that would wrap after a few issues. The character would get a break and be back with a new limited series a few months later.
More recently, the industry has seen breaks built into creator-owned ongoing series. So after an arc, the book goes on hiatus for a period (sometimes as long as several months) before returning with a new arc, but keeping the same numbering.
Dark Horse has embraced the concept of “Seasons” for its Buffy the Vampire Slayer titles. That approach was inspired by the comic books serving as a direct continuation of the prior television series. Each Season lasts between 25 to 30 issues. There’s usually an overarching plot that runs through each Season, with one-off stories mixed in. After a brief hiatus, a new Season commences, with many of the same creators involved. The plot setting might shift for a Season, but flows logically from what went before.
The industry may be at the point where it needs to reconsider the use of the term “ongoing.” Frequent re-launches, built-in hiatuses and speedy terminations have eroded the meaning of the term. In an environment where many publishers are floating lines that have bloated to an alarming rate, perhaps we’re past the point where it’s a meaningful differentiator.
If companies are going to re-launch titles anyway, why not follow the Buffy model and plan it out better? Define each run as a “season.” Determine the number of issues each season will run and launch series sensibly. Don’t roll out new books right before a big event means you’ll have to re-launch with a new #1 only a few months later for no real reason. If you’re going to have a line-wide event that shakes everything up, plan your current season so that all the books have both a logical run and a sensible conclusion that syncs with the event.
Publishers would be better served by treating this issue with some honesty and rationality. Fans can live without series having the traditional ongoing status. But the current confusing approach to the concept feels more alienating than is necessary.