What Makes a Good First Issue? Guidelines for Superhero Comic Origins
Commentary by KC Carlson
All through our lives, we hear one particular metaphor over and over — You only have one chance to make a good first impression. Most of the time we hear it in relation to job hunting and interviews, but I think it’s a pretty good rule of thumb for practically anything.
Especially the first issues of comic books.
First Issues, Pilots, and Proposals
There’s always been a special fascination with first issues in the world of comics. It’s obviously a big component of the collector’s market. The first issue of anything (books, magazines, stamps, etc.) is almost always perceived as not only the most important, but also the most valuable, in a collectible sense, of anything that develops into a series or periodical. In television, the “first issue” of a new TV series is called a pilot, which is the closest media relative to the first issue of a comic book.
While any new TV project is being developed, its creator(s) will develop a set of guidelines and rules for how the series works, describing the premise, setting the tone of the series, and identifying and defining the main characters and potentially hundreds of other things. All of this information is generally contained in a document that is known as the project’s “bible” — an incredibly descriptive term implying that the document is not only the project’s first work, but also the source that explains everything there is to know about the project.
In comics, there isn’t always a separate bible, but those elements are usually part of the document that gets a comic book off the ground in the first place, the proposal. Usually intended to be private documents, copies of both bibles and proposals have in the past been passed around informally as a way for creators to not only share their work with their peers for comments/suggestions, but also to get their ideas “out there” — eventually landing in the hands of money people (publishers, editors) willing to buy their ideas.
They are also incredibly valuable as teaching tools for writers. That’s why more and more of them have become public (or semi-public) over the years. Most fans love them for containing details that didn’t make it to the finished project, but for the rest of us, they are amazing documents about “process” and “how things work” (or how they don’t work, in the case of failed projects). As with a TV show pilot, which is often the first aired episode of the series, the proposal usually becomes the basis of the first few comic issues. If you’re putting together a new comic proposal, you should be thinking about what will start your series off well.
For comic books, there aren’t a firm set of guidelines on what makes a great first issue. But anyone who’s ever edited comics for a living was probably taught many of the following “guidelines” — or developed their own similar list — after seeing what worked (or more likely what didn’t) over the years.
It should also be noted that first issues in comics have changed a lot over the years. Golden Age first issues have a rhythm all their own — which was to be expected, since the medium was being created before the readers’ eyes. Silver Age first issues pretty much tell the origin up front, which was the status quo for a long time, until creators started to experiment with form and format in the 80s. Nowadays, pretty much anything goes for how you want to approach a first issue — but some methods are more successful than others.
Feel free to chime in with more suggestions of things that you think work best — or perhaps don’t work at all. It’s not an exact science, and what I’m outlining here is generally what I like to see in a first issue. That’s why they’re called guidelines…
Guidelines for First Issues
Must provide a starting point for future stories. Set the stage and introduce the setting(s). Define the characters and their relationships to each other. Give them somewhere to go and something to do.
Create a specific atmosphere for future stories to come. Example: Justice League #1 (1987) by Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire is radically different from both JLA #1 (1997) by Morrison, Porter, and Dell and Justice League of America (2006) by Meltzer, Benes, and Hope. Each set a tone for the series that followed, and even though they had the same basic setup — a team of world-famous superheroes — the results were radically different.
Define a purpose for existing — as well as a uniqueness. Why is this comic different than all the others?
Ask and answer questions. Q: Why does this character have a cape? A: It’s actually a weapon. Q: Why is your character hanging out in a cave? A: It’s his secret base of operations. Alternately A: It’s the location where he got the powers he’s learning how to cope with.
All great first issues should be self-contained. A first issue that is Part 1 of 6 is, by definition, no longer a first issue. It’s a first chapter of a potentially great collection/graphic novel. Your first issue should be both widely accessible and a satisfactory read. A complete story is the best way of achieving that. Here are some more reasons why it should be a done-in-one story.
1. It’s much more valuable for marketing purposes. Think about how many times classic first issues/origin stories are reprinted or collected. They frequently become the most-reprinted story of that series over a number of years, repurposed as giveaways, inserts in toys & action figures, and newspaper inserts. Often they become the most recognized story of that character or series, or the iconic story.
2. They are frequently cited as the Best Story of the series (even if they are not), because in fan minds they are often the first (and best) story that they remember about that character.
3. Many times all that people remember of a story is the ending. If your story has no ending, no one may remember it.
4. In today’s digital market, your first issue can be provided for free — as a loss-leader taste to drive subsequent issue downloads. A complete story is a more satisfying “gift”.
5. Psychologically, readers secretly hate being sucked into a cliffhanger (because it “makes” them “have” to come back). It’s better to tantalize your new reader with reasons they want to come back (such as fascinating personalities, tantalizing mysteries, and supporting characters they can relate to). Closure in your first issue means that you’re giving them the power (desire) to come back for more, rather than “forcing” them into it. The never-ending story of cliffhanger after cliffhanger is a cheap pop that works for a while, but eventually readers will tire of — and resent — it. Eventually, everybody figures out that that they’re going to jump out of the car before it goes sailing off the cliff. (They just — oops! — forgot to show that part last time.)
It’s difficult to meet all these characteristics in a first issue, because the temptation is there to provide as much information as you can about the cast and their world. If you fall prey to that impulse, what you have is the info dump. (It used to be called “exposition”, until the hipsters got hold of it.) Which is trying to get all the pertinent information about your character (at least what you want to reveal) out in the open. If you’re good, you’re able to do this without making it sound like a resume or a really pathetic attempt at speed dating, since real getting-to-know-you stuff is generally mundane, happening in restaurants or bars (or bed) over a long period of time. In comics, you don’t get that luxury. You have to wait for later issues to really dig into some meaty character trauma or another extended riff based on the build-up of previous issues.
In most instances, first issues have to be a template for everything there is to know about a new character — hopefully to sustain the series for many issues. There’s a certain “art “ to writing first issues. It’s a kinda twisted sort of art — like Chinese Boxes — in that you have to get an incredible amount of story in an incredibly tiny amount of space. Back in the day, Roy Thomas was a master at it. Look at how many first issues Roy wrote for Marvel (Ghost Rider and Iron Fist, to name just two) before passing the torch to others who used Roy’s concepts for dozens of subsequent issues. Mark Waid is another great first issue writer (see the recent Daredevil #1), as well as a particularly unique talent — he occasionally writes first issues with completely despicable, evil characters (Empire, Irredeemable) that still make you want to come back for more.
Now? — Or Never!
Nowadays, not all first issues are origin stories, and that’s a good thing, to provide variety. You can get away with not revealing your origin story right off the bat, as long as you have enough captivating elements to propel your first issue. But don’t wait too long. Early in my career, one of the young DC editors was telling me about his excitement in developing his first new-from-scratch superhero series. It was a fairly long presentation, and I admit that my mind was kind of drifting away here and there. Eventually, what shocked me back to reality was when I heard the words “and finally in issue #27, we’ll tell his origin story”. My reaction was horrible — I laughed in his face. I quickly apologized and recovered, asking “Are you sure that’s wise?”
He looked puzzled. “Why not?” he asked.
“Um, well, what’s your guarantee that you won’t be cancelled by issue #6?” I asked him, citing the then-current run of most new superhero books at the time. Amazingly, it never occurred to him that his book wouldn’t run for years.
I tell this tale in a cautionary way. I think it’s very cool to have a well-defined direction at the start, including lengthy, intricately plotted sequences — but you have to realize that your key information must be in the early issues — or you may never get to tell your story at all! As it was, the series in question turned out to be a mild success, running twenty issues before cancellation. Luckily, the creative team thought about what I said and moved their origin revelations into an earlier issue, so their story got told after all.
Revealing your origin details should always be done as clearly, briefly, and to-the-point as possible. Remember, every great origin can (and has) been boiled down to either a 50-words-or-less blurb on Page One, or super-condensed into a two-page origin story (a la those wonderful stories created for the original 52 series — another brilliant Mark Waid project, with a ton of incredible artists).
Besides, when your perfectly crafted first issue develops into a monster hit in its first year — then you can go back and do your REAL ORIGIN REVEALED 4-6-issue miniseries (with 14 covers), which will be a best seller also.
Such is comics.
You only get one chance to make a good impression. Until they want a bigger impression…