The Unreadable Thor

You may recall that several thousand years ago humans invented the concept of sequential numbering. It’s a truly useful concept, especially when you’re organizing, say, issues of a periodical. Here’s how it works: you start with issue one. Then, when you finish issue one, you read issue two. And so on.

I’ve been rereading Jason Aaron’s run of Thor comic books recently. Aaron started on Thor in ’12. Marvel recently announced, as part of its ill-defined “Legacy” promotion, that Thor’s comic would be reverting to its original numbering this fall with issue 700. This is good, if it sticks. (Update, in narrator’s voice: it didn’t. Marvel announced in February ’18 that that Thor will be rebooted in June.) Allow me to run down what you have to read if you want to take in Jason Aaron’s five-year work on Thor (updated Feb ’18):

  1. Aaron started on Thor: God of Thunder, which ran for 25 issues.
  2. After issue 24, the series took a break for a five-issue mini-series, co-written by Aaron, called “Thor and Loki: The Tenth Realm.” Confusingly, this wasn’t a stand-alone miniseries; it spun out of Original Sin, so it’s numbered as Original Sin 5.1-5.5.
  3. A major plot point happens in Original Sin 7. Thor, absent from the events of the entire book, shows up for one fight against Nick Fury, who whispers something to Thor (exactly what is left as a mystery for a while) that causes Thor to feel himself unworthy of his power and his hammer drops to the ground. Again, Thor has no role in Original Sin except to show up for two pages and lose his hammer. This scene is not adequately repeated or explained in his own book.
  4. Thor vol. 4, 1-8 plus an annual that goes after issue 5. With Thor now unworthy, a new character picks up his hammer and becomes the new Thor. Her identity is kept a mystery for eight issues.
  5. Thors 1-4, a Secret Wars tie-in that takes place on an alternate world where multiple versions of Thor act as police. It’s a cool murder mystery.
  6. The Mighty Thor vol. 2 continues the story of the new, female Thor and occasionally checks in on the old one.
  7. The Unworthy Thor 1-5 follows Thor Odinson and takes place more or less after issue 12 of TMT.
  8. After TMT 22, a one-shot called “Generations: The Unworthy Thor and the Mighty Thor” and parts of “Marvel Legacy”
  9. And, starting after TMT v2 23, Thor 700-704.
  10. A one-shot called “Mighty Thor at the Gates of Valhalla”
  11. A new Thor vol. 5, number 1 and on.

That’ll be 80 issues once volume five starts (not counting Original Sin, which isn’t part of the series despite featuring its most important plot twist. Arg.) across five discrete periodical volumes and three miniseries. I’ll give a pass to “The Tenth Realm” and Thors since the first is a proper Thor-Loki side story and the other is an alternate worlds yarn, though both feature threads that connect to the main plot. Unworthy Thor probably should have been woven into the main book as a subplot, but it’s, I guess, fine for it to be a mini-series.

Here’s Marvel’s graphic showing how all the various volumes of Thor comics add up to 700:

I type this all out to try to express how frustrating it all is. I like this series. I want to read it and reread it, and it’s just like physically difficult to do so. (And forget about doing it digitally. At least with single comics you can make a pile.) Does Thor come before or after The Mighty Thor? There’s literally no way to know without opening the comic and inferring from the plot or trying to find the tiny publication date in the indicia.

So here (again, because I’m sure I’ve ranted about this before) is my take on The Way Comics Should Be Numbered.

There are two options:

One Long Volume

Just order the series in a sequence and never reboot it. This has tremendous ease of use. If you want to point someone to an issue, you just tell them to go get issue 504 and everyone understands what that is.

The downside is that publishers claim new readers find it intimidating to jump into issue 700 of a comic, assuming they won’t understand what’s going in if they haven’t read the previous 699 installments. I think this is solvable by one, writing a story that’s easy to follow and two, applying some trade dress to the cover that advertises this is part of a new story. You can keep the proper issue number on the cover while giving it a storyline label (“The Accursed, Part Three” or whatever). Having a consistent cover artist helps.

New Volumes With New Creative Teams

I am totally okay with a book being relaunched as a new volume at appropriate times, but never in the middle of a creative team’s run, like how it’s been done with Thor. Mark Waid took over Daredevil in ’11 and sent the book on a new direction. That was a fine time to start a new volume. But then 36 issues in Marvel restarted the book, with Mark Waid and Chris Samnee still on it, just because Matt Murdock moved. The book was still very clearly the same run, featured the same creative team, the same characters, and continued telling the same story it had been. No reason to renumber it. Spider-Gwen started in ’15, got five issues, and then was restarted as Spider-Gwen vol. 2 also in ’15!

With this approach, it’s important for the publisher to not be afraid to show the volume number on the cover, and on the spines of the trade paperbacks. A reader looking on a shelf or through boxes of back issues for a particular volume needs to be able to find and differentiate Punisher vol. 8 no. 7 from Punisher vol. 9. no. 7. (Store clerks would love this, too.) The volume number doesn’t need to be giant but it should be there.

This approach falls down a little when you have a writer and artist come on for only a few issues. You might not want to start a new volume for a four-issue run, but it’s fine to just tack those onto the end of the current volume and hold the new number for a genuinely new direction.

My key point here is: this stuff isn’t that hard. Just publish the next issue with the next number. This constant rebooting sucks, everyone agrees that it does, and whatever short-term sales bumps you get just aren’t worth it.

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