14 Tried-and-True Ways That Comic Book Makers Celebrate an Anniversary Issue in Style
1. “And now, the big event you’ve all been waiting for!”
Ah, the anniversary issue. Sure, some may see it as just another excuse for comic publishers to wring a few extra nickels from the fists of their fans, but others (read: me) like to see them (at least when properly deployed) as an extra-special way to celebrate the enduring appeal of a comic title or character (or even a comic publisher, on the rare occasion). Besides, we’re all conditioned to see round numbers as significant celebrations, so why should the comic people be any different? There are many ways for anniversary issues to stick out as special (a thicker page count and splashy cover graphics are almost de rigueur for these things), but one of the biggest tried-and-true methods is the “big event” anniversary issue — a book holding a tale so incredible, so monumental, so life-altering that it took a double- or triple-sized issue to contain it. Action Comics #484 (06/78), celebrating 40 years since Superman’s debut, is a good example of this, as it features — finally! — an honest-to-God, no-foolin’ marriage between Superman and Lois Lane. (Confused? The Daily Star building in the bottom right corner is a clue.) Meanwhile, in Uncanny X-Men #200 (12/85), Magneto is finally put on trial for his crimes against humanity, Cyclops and Storm rejoin the team, Prof. Xavier is injured and taken into space, Cyclops’s wife goes into labor, and Magneto (gasp!) joins the X-Men. Just try fitting all that into a standard 22-page issue.
2. “He/she/it’s back… bigger and badder than before!”
Because of the anniversary issue’s perceived importance as a “milestone” issue, writers tend to use their increased size and exposure for their own dramatic ends. Using the expanded page count to create a super-long saga for the ages is one option; another is to use the anniversary issue as an excuse to revamp or re-introduce a major recurring character. Action Comics #544 (056/83), celebrating the 45th anniversary of Action Comics #1 (and yes, in case you were wondering, there are plenty of Superman anniversary issues to choose from), features new looks for arch-foes Lex Luthor and Brainiac (looks, incidentally, that rendered them far more action figure-friendly — hardly a coincidence, given the debut of Kenner’s Super Powers line-up the following year). Less dramatic, but no less readable, was the return of the burglar that ended Uncle Ben’s life in a tale presented in Amazing Spider-Man #200 (01/80) and titled, simply enough, “The Spider and the Burglar.”
3. “This issue: someone DIES! Well, ‘dies’ — it is a comic book, after all.”
A variation of the “big event” anniversary story is the “big death” story, in which a character is given a fitting tribute or final battle royale before shuffling off to the great beyond. Aunt May’s “passing” (and oh, how it pains me to type those quotation marks), was the emotional conclusion to Amazing Spider-Man #400 (04/95), a title commissioned at the height of Marvel’s enhanced cover frenzy with an embossed tombstone image on the front. Despite the gimmicks, J.M. DeMatteis and Mark Bagley turned in a touching tale about an old woman’s final moments in the company of her family, including a nephew who is shocked — shocked, I tells ya! — to learn that his sweet, decrepit aunt was hip to his secret identity shenanigans all these years. How Parker suppressed the urge to hasten the inevitable after that little bombshell — “All those times I busted my ass to keep it a secret, and you knew all along???” — is anyone’s guess.
4. “…and introducing a bunch of swell new characters that you kids are just gonna love!”
The 200th anniversary issue of The Brave and the Bold (07/83) was a bit of a bittersweet affair. An anthology title birthed back in ’55, TB&TB switched to superhero team-ups in the ’60s, then to Batman team-up stories when the Batman TV show was in full swing. Its final issue starred both the modern-day and Golden Age Batman in a story that stretched across the dimensions between Earth-1 and Earth-2, but the real treat (well, “treat”) for comic fans was the second story introducing the Outsiders, a motley crew of old and new superheroes gathered by Batman to go places where the Justice League feared to tread. It makes sense that the team would make its debut in this final issue; after all, TB&TB was retired in order to make room for the soon-to-be-launched Batman and the Outsiders. But given the strength of the stories in the final few TB&TB issues and the relatively tepid yawn that greeted the Outsiders (aren’t most superheroes technically outside the law?), this is one of the more depressing anniversary issues I’ve held on to over the years.
5. “If you’re just joining us, here’s a fun-filled history lesson!”
Hard as it may be to believe in this Web-drenched age, there was a time when it was a little bit harder for comic fans to get the facts about their favorite creators and characters. Anniversary issues, at least in the old days, were a convenient way to give newer fans a quick history lesson, usually by having an industry veteran contribute an article about how they came up with the title characters, or how they feel about seeing their creations still chugging along after all these years. Example: Fantastic Four #236 (11/81), a triple-sized issue celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Fab Four’s debut. Along with the main feature, readers were treated to a text article by FF co-creator Stan Lee, who offered some insights about the story that first introduced Doom to the world. Meanwhile, over in Captain America #350 (02/89), we find back-up features containing bios of Cap’s past partners and lady loves, as well as details about the six men to claim the Captain America title and how the Red Skull came to be (hint: it involves Nazis).
6. “Out with the old, in with the new!”
So you’re a hotshot writer working on a well-established title and you’re looking to jazz things up a bit, maybe shake up the team’s roster or chart a new direction for the title’s protagonist. Anniversaries tend to be points in time when people like to look forward to the future, so what better way to mark the occasion than with a first look at what’s in store? Green Lantern (vol. 1) #200 (05/86) saw the benevolent (if a tad paternalistic) Guardians say “hasta la vista” to this plane of reality, granting the many members of the Green Lantern Corps the power to choose their own destinies. In response, a number of them follow Hal Jordan back to Earth, and and issue #201 is retitled The Green Lantern Corps to reflect the new, multi-species cast. It’s a clever idea that never really took off, and just as well — part of the appeal of the Green Lantern books was seeing what clever aliens the writers and artists came up with. Astonishingly, it turned out fans weren’t begging to see the same cartoon chipmunk GL show up issue after issue.
7. “If you haven’t read them, they’re new to you!”
This tactic was a little more common back in the days when an average comic fan couldn’t just mosey down to a comic shop and pick up a massive collection of classic comic stories — your Showcase Presents, Marvel Masterworks and what have you — but it’s still a time-honored way to fill out an anniversary issue. (Plus, for an editor on a budget, there’s no cheaper way to bulk out an issue than with pages already bought and paid for.) Superman #207 (06/68), celebrating 30 years of Superman stories, promises “classic tales featuring Superman’s friends and foes” right on the cover and it delivers with such timeless tales as “The Super-Family of Steel!”, “Captive of the Amazons!”, “The Trio of Steel!”, “The Superman from Outer Space!” and “Superman’s New Uniform!” Wait –“Superman’s New Uniform”…? Seriously, they wrote a story about him getting a new set of threads? All right, then.
8. “Featuring a cast of thousands!”
You throw a party, people show up. That’s just how it works. And so when a comic title celebrates a few hundred issues of hanging in there, it’s only natural for the title’s stars to invite a few friends to join in the festivities. When World’s Finest Comics hit the 300-issue mark (02/84), co-stars Superman and Batman were joined by teammates from the Outsiders, the New Teen Titans and the Justice League of America to make an appearance in the issue. Similarly, Batman #400 (10/86) was a 68-page epic guest-starring, geez, just about every colorful villain Batman has ever faced over the course of his crime-fighting career, with Joker and Catwoman sharing the limelight with lesser luminaries like Crazy-Quilt and the Cavalier.
9. “Featuring a crew of thousands!”
Speaking of Batman #400. Aside from the fact the issue was jam-packed with dozens of Bat-villains and Bat-supporting players (and also came along during one of the best years ever for comic fans), the really nice thing about it was the sheer number of artists who lent their talents to the project. Doug Moench wrote a story that was divided into 11 chapters (not including prologue and epilogue), with each chapter drawn by one of that decade’s high-profile artists. And that’s on top of the contributed pin-ups and striking cover, which was painted by über-80s comic artist Bill Sienkiewicz. It’s a win-win for artists and fans alike — fans get to see what their favorite characters would look like if they were drawn by artists not known for working on that character, while artists get to be part of a project that’s a little more prestigious than the average gig.
10. “You’ll never guess who we snagged for a contributor to this book… oh, right, we put his name on the cover.”
Back once more to Batman #400. In addition to the all-star line-up of artistic talent that graced the issue, horror novelist Stephen King was invited to submit a two-page essay titled “Why I Chose Batman.” Inviting someone from outside the comic business to contribute their talents is an obvious ploy to invite non-fans into the tent (see also: any Star Trek comic guest-written by a former Star Trek actor), but it’s a ploy that works.
11. “It’s the guest star you NEVER thought you’d see!”
Detective Comics #572 (03/87) appeared exactly 50 years after the first issue of Detective Comics hit newsstands. What’s noteworthy about ‘Tec (aside from the fact it’s the title that lent its name to DC Comics) is that it’s generally considered the first comic book to focus on a particular theme (as opposed to earlier comic titles, which were a mishmash of action, humor, suspense, Westerns, etc.). No surprise, then, that detectives were the stars of early ‘Tec issues before a certain Caped Crusader appeared on the scene (though there’s certainly an argument to be made that he’s just as much a detective as he is a superhero). In this anniversary issue, a number of detective characters from the past are brought together to deal with a mystery, including one fellow who could be rightly called the greatest detective of all time. No, not Batman! Sheesh. You know, literature did exist before these guys in tights came along…
12. “Remember when we did that thing that one time back then? Good times, man.”
Heck, who doesn’t take time during an anniversary to talk about the good old days? In Wonder Woman #200 (03/2004), readers got a triple-sized issue featuring stories presented as they might have appeared in the past. That is, they’re all stories written and drawn by modern-day artists, but they were written and drawn in the styles commonly used to depict the Golden Age and Silver Age versions of the Amazon princess. “The Exile of Wonder Woman,” for instance, was drawn by Rick Burchett in a style purposely reminiscent of H.G. Peters, the first artist to depict Wonder Woman’s adventures, and the story’s cast features the cadre of college students known as the Holliday Girls (they were used as comedy relief in early Wonder Woman stories, just as other superheroes had clumsy sidekicks to generate laughs in between the fight scenes). Another variation on this theme occurs in Detective Comics #627, which celebrated 600 issues since Batman’s first appearance with multiple retellings of Batman’s first case, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” It’s histor-riffic!
13. Pin-ups! Pin-ups! Pin-ups!
Who doesn’t love a good pin-up? People who think it’s insane to cut up a perfectly good comic book, that’s who! Even so, there’s nothing wrong with an anniversary issue using a few full-page works of art to pad out enhance an issue’s page count, especially if the art work in question is stuff you ain’t likely to see anywhere else. Lots of anniversary issues feature a couple of pin-ups at the back of the book or among the feature articles; to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the appearance of the original Star Trek show, for example, DC’s Star Trek #24 (10/91) featured several essays by noted Trek novelists as well as numerous pin-ups by the likes of Walt Simonson, Kevin Maguire and Brent Anderson.
14. “Look, we know this story is so outrageous and preposterous that the only way you’re going to read it is if we stick it in a special ‘anniversary’ issue, so… here.”
“Okay, see, this Ms. Marvel, she’s a member of the Avengers, and she gets pregnant but she freaks out because there is no way she could have gotten pregnant… at least, not in the old-fashioned way, if you know what I mean. So no one knows what’s happening or who the father is, and then she gives birth to a kid named Marcus, who at first seems like a child who grows up really, really fast, but is in fact an extra-dimensional being who, ah, appropriated Ms. Marvel’s reproductive organs to free himself from whatever limbo dimension he came from. And when he reaches adulthood way faster than usual, he mind-controls Ms. Marvel into becoming his lover and takes her away to his limbo-land, with the other Avengers feeling all warm and fuzzy over the romance of it all.” This actually got printed, people. In 1980. Many, many years after, one assumes, the legal definitions of RAPE and INCEST were already clearly understood by the populace at large. But hey, if they stuck a big “200” on the front, then it must be a Very Special Episode, right?