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

Action Comics #1 cover

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

Justice League #1 cover

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.

Fantastic Four #1 cover

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.)

Dump-de-dump-dump-dump

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…


18 Responses to “What Makes a Good First Issue? Guidelines for Superhero Comic Origins”

  1. Torsten Adair Says:

    The cover is very important.
    Does a first issue become iconic because it’s the first issue, or because it’s well designed?

    Unlike books, comics usually don’t have the elevator pitch on the back, which would convince a reader to pick it up. Instead, publishers have to do all of that hand-selling before the issue hits the stands, so that when a customer sees the actual comic, he/she links it to something seen a few weeks before.

    Can the Levitz ABC Paradigm work, if the A Plot is concluded in the first issue, leaving B and C plots to be developed in future issues? “Who is that shadowy figure?” “How did the villain get his powersuit?” Or the A Plot can be the origin, with a slow reveal over several issues.

    (Of course, there are always the “Mystery” origins, which usually do not get concluded until the end of the series, such as “Y the Last Man”. But those are usually the exceptions. The characters abilities are usually demonstrated in the first issue.)

    Hmmm… that cover of Action Comics #1… Superman’s origin was told in one page.
    (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug02/yeung/actioncomics/page1.html)

  2. Justice League #1 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] issue fails my (possibly admittedly outdated) first issue done-in-one test. It also audaciously flies in the face of DC’s recent announcement that they were backing off the [...]

  3. William George Says:

    Man, this blog has been dropping science like it was KRS-one in 1991. Excellent.

  4. Johanna Says:

    Interesting comparison, Torsten, where a book can use text to sell, while a comic is restricted to the art on the cover, since the business doesn’t use the kind of cover blurbing other magazines do. The Levitz setup was part of its time, I think, because it doesn’t lend itself well to collections.

    William, is that a good thing?

  5. DeBT Says:

    Another lesson to learn is to check out how Mangas start out their long-running titles. The premise of the pilot strip is generally the same – a brief introduction to an indirect threat, a quirky character suddenly appears. The background cast gets annoyed at this guy’s naiveté, while telling him about the legend of some legendary hero/team/organization. Naivé guy mulls around a bit with obscure commentary. Element of earlier mentioned disaster threatens to impact the background cast. Naivé guy stands up to the threat to the surprise of everybody. Naivé guy reveals himself to be legendary hero/ part of team/organization. Dispatches miniscule threat without much effort.

    After that, the story can split off into whatever direction the writer/artist wants if reader interest keeps up.

    There might be some shakeup with the formula, by having a naivé guy be influenced by the presence of a role model who he/she wants to emulate and maybe even surpass. (though that latter part won’t happen until much later with a lot of training and effort)

  6. Westfield Comics Blog » Link Blogging: KC Reviews Justice League #1 Says:

    [...] He also takes a look at what he believes makes for a good first issue. [...]

  7. William George Says:

    KRS-One was a master MC. Of course it’s a good thing.

  8. Johanna Says:

    Well, then, thank you!

  9. Comics A.M. | Kids comic store opens; the ‘I have a girlfriend in Canada’ of sales analysis | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    [...] Comics | KC Carlson discusses the guidelines for first issues, including the need for a good issue #1 to 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.” [Comics Worth Reading] [...]

  10. Nigel Says:

    Your article is so right, KC, that I’m left wondering why YOU aren’t running things at DC. Instead, they’ve given the inmates the keys to the asylum.

    “A first issue that is Part 1 of 6 is, by definition, no longer a first issue.”

    To me, this is common sense. How, by any stretch of the imagination, does DC think they’re going to win over new readers with a bland, unfinished story that only features two of the characters that were on the cover? Leaving that new customer zero satisfaction?

    What were they thinking at DC? ARE they even thinking? The descriptions of some of these nu52 titles make me think there isn’t much thought involved beyond flinging poop at the wall to see what sticks.

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  12. Torsten Adair Says:

    A future column proposal:
    Take first issues of finite series, such as Sandman or Y, and see how well they work as First Issues.

    It could even be a continuing (HAR!) column, as you take random series and see how well each character is introduced.

    As for the Levitz paradigm, it does lend itself well to collections, as the “A” plot is the main plot of the collection. If the books are labeled correctly (something Ultimate Marvel did well, which Marvel 616 does horribly), then a reader can readily follow the plots from one to the next, and get sucked into the epic that is being told. (Superheroes are soap operas from males. WWE and Chris Claremont figured this out decades ago.)

    Ultimate Marvel volumes are the few from Marvel which have remained in print consistently (and Marvel is notorious for letting titles go out of print) because they sell well as trades. If the storytelling is compact (like in LSH), doesn’t cross-over too much with other titles (like in Ultimate Spider-Man), and is well-told, then there’s no reason why a superhero title could sell as well and as long in trade as manga titles do.

  13. James Schee Says:

    Nigel, KC would be running DC except for some odd things that occurred.

    1st there was that call to have that reunion tour with the Sunshine Band.

    Then there was that obsession with bar-bq that led to the Masterpiece sauce.

    Of course then there was that part where Waid used KC’s name for inspiration for Kingdom Come (KC.. get it?)

    Oh and KC’s insane idea that they should rename DC, KC’s Comics. LOL just kidding KC, I do wonder at times who is the longest tendered editor at DC these days? I wonder if they have anyone there who can say “we thought of that, but then we realized that…..” when some of these ideas DC has.

  14. James Moar Says:

    “As for the Levitz paradigm, it does lend itself well to collections, as the “A” plot is the main plot of the collection.”

    I note that manga collections rarely seem to be put together with much interest in the structure of the individual volume (it’s much more of a “put out a book when you have ~180 pages” approach), and a pretty big industry’s been built on that.

  15. Johanna Says:

    Nigel, that’s very sweet of you, thanks. And James, you’re hilarious! Torsten, that’s a neat idea, but I’m not signing KC up for any more continuing projects right now, since the 52 thing will keep him plenty busy.

    The manga comparison is an interesting one, since I’ve heard (purely anecdotally) that the series that became more like periodical installments would cause retailers to cut back on carrying them, because it became too much trouble to keep all the volumes in stock. It would take more knowledge and serious study than I have, though, to find out if more stand-alone volumes are stocked more easily than the heavily serialized manga series.

  16. Steelbolt Says:

    Johanna, this is a truly ingenious series of guidlines here. I’m surprised that no one has ever thought of going to ANY company with this. It’s like a charter that should be followed with great respect and care.

    First issues are part of the only comics I collect from the big 2, and that mainly consists of older stuff, and it includes both successful and not-quite successful series, minis, or one-shots. For example, some of the #1’s I have (going up to 1996):
    From DC,
    Night Force #1 (1982)
    Infinity Inc. #1 (1984)
    Amethyst (vol.2) #1 (1984)
    Hex #1 (1985)
    Secret Origins #1 (1985)
    Captain Atom #1 (1987)
    The New Guardians #1 (1988)
    Manhunter #1 (1988)
    Legion of Super-Heroes (vol. 4) #1 (1989)
    Justice League Quarterly #1 (1990)
    Green Lantern: Mosaic #1 (1992)
    Outsiders (vol. 2) #1, both Alpha and Omega (1993)
    Robin #1 (1993)
    Catwoman #1 (1993)
    Team Titans #1 (1993)
    Anima #1 (1994)
    Damage #1 (1994)
    The Power of Shazam #1 (1995)
    Azrael #1 (1995)
    Sovereign Seven #1 (1995)
    Aztek the Ultimate Man #1 (1996)
    Teen Titans (vol. 2) #1 (1996)

    From Marvel
    Giant-Size Defenders #1 (1974)
    Dazzler #1 (1981)
    The New Mutants #1 (1983)
    Alpha Flight #1 (1983)
    Power Pack #1 (1984)
    Solo Avengers #1 (1987)
    Excalibur #1 (1988)
    The Mutant Misadventures of Cloak and Dagger #1 (1988)
    Nth Man: The Ultimate Ninja #1 (1989)
    Ghost Rider (vol. 3) #1 (1990)
    X-Force #1 (1991)
    X-Men #1 (1991)
    NFL Superpro #1 (1991)
    Cage #1 (1992)
    Nomad (vol. 2) #1 (1992)
    Silver Sable and the Wild Pack #1 (1992)
    All the #1’s for the first 2099 titles
    2099 Unlimited #1 (1993)
    Thunderstrike #1 (1993)
    Cable #1 (1993)
    Night Thrasher #1 (1993)
    The Secret Defenders #1 (1993)
    Spider-Man Unlimited #1 (1993)
    Annex #1 (1994)
    Nightwatch #1 (1994)
    Nova #1 (1994)
    Generation X #1 (1994)
    Clan Destine #1 (1994)
    Avengers Unplugged #1 (1995)
    Green Goblin #1 (1995)
    The Sensational Spider-Man #1 (1996)

    See if you can identify which ones lasted longer and which ones barely made it to 25 issues. That will indicate which ones were more popular.

  17. hardtravelinghero Says:

    I’ve love to see more “What Makes a Good…”

  18. Speed Reading - New 52 Edition « Speed Force Says:

    […] What makes a good first superhero issue? at Comics Worth Reading […]




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