Ask Chris #291: Triangle Numbers
Q: What in God's name were Triangle Numbers? -- @RavenWorks
A: Oh, well this one'e easy. They were numbers inside little triangles. Hence the name.
Okay, so maybe there's a little bit more to it than that, but not much. From 1991 to 2002, the Superman books had two separate numbers on the cover: The issue number, which would tell you which monthly issue of Superman or Action Comics you were reading, and the Triangle Number, which would tell you which part of the ongoing saga that was running through all the Superman titles for a given year. And believe it or not, putting two completely different numbers on the cover of your comic book --- three, if you count the date - was actually meant to make things less complicated.
For most of the existence of superhero comics --- a solid 50 years or so --- each individual comic book was meant to be a single unit of storytelling. With each issue, you'd get at least one complete adventure, and even after long-running, soap-operatic plots started to emerge in the '60s, you still saw each individual comic treated as a distinct episode.
Because of that, it was very easy for readers to come and go as they pleased --- or rather, as their local newsstand pleased. See, the thing about those distinct, single-issue adventures was that they weren't just a function of storytelling, they were a function of distribution. As much as publishers might've wanted readers to faithfully follow their characters in every single issue --- and as much as there were people who were dedicated enough to do it --- actually pulling it off was a pretty tricky task. You were at the mercy of your local newsstand, and the distributors that chose the comics to send, not to mention everyone else who was also trying to follow a complete story who might've gotten there before you.
It's actually one of the reasons that comics fandom and the back issue market developed the way that it did. There's a desire that comics readers tend to have of wanting to see the complete story, to read everything, and while that's is inherent in the very idea of sequential literature, it's also something that the community embraced on a level that I don't think anything else has ever managed to match. You had networks and communities that were built around helping people complete runs, trading back issues.
And since the kind of comprehensive reprints that we have today, where I can open up my computer at 3 AM and buy a collection of Golden Age Batman stories whenever the heck I want to, that, in turn, bred the idea of key issues and rarity and secondary-market value and "reading copies," and ended up making online auction mogul John Bennington eBay an awful lot of money.
Eventually, though, superhero storytelling evolved to the point where more complicated, long-form stories were being told over the course of multiple issues. There had always been a sequential element to them, of course --- that continuity is, after all, the hook that kept a lot of readers coming back to see how all of those incremental changes to the status quo played out --- but while most characters only had to deal with that in the context of a single series, there were others that had a little more to work with. Characters like Superman and Batman were popular enough to have multiple series all the way back in 1940, and by the early '90s, they --- along with Spider-Man over at Marvel --- had managed to expand into these little empires that were selling enough comics to warrant a brand new issue on the stands every single week.
It's worth noting that this has a lot to do with the rise of the Direct Market, too. In the '90s, when comics distribution began to shift almost entirely to comic book stores that were built around a dedicated weekly release schedule --- as opposed to the notoriously unreliable magazine rack down at the Piggly Wiggly --- readers were finally able to closely follow their favorite characters every single week.
This, for the record, was not exactly a new idea, especially if you're looking at the international comics scene, where titles like 2000 AD and Shonen Jump have been trucking along just fine as weekly installments. In American superhero comics, monthly issues had been the standard since there was a standard, with only a couple of notable exceptions.
So here's what we have: A comics industry that's built around the model of monthly magazines distributed on a weekly schedule, and characters that are popular enough that readers and retailers want new stories as often as they can get them. The question becomes how to properly take advantage of that, and in the case of Superman, it was pretty simple: Just make four comics a month and put one out every Wednesday.
But while the Batman titles, for example, still maintained pretty distinct storylines from their creative teams --- although they certainly had their share of big events that would run through everything from Detective Comics to Catwoman to Showcase '93 --- the Superman titles ended up being tied together much more closely. If I had to guess --- and I do, it's my actual job here --- I'd say this has a lot to do with the way the line was rebooted in 1987, with John Byrne taking over as the primary architect for the character and writing two of the three ongoing titles, and ending his run a couple years later with a three-part story that went back and forth between Superman and Action Comics. With that, Superman was established from the (new) beginning as a character whose stories would flow between the various ongoing series.
Which brings us, 900 words later, back to Triangle Numbers.
By 1991, the stories had been continuing between the three monthly titles --- Superman, Action Comics, and The Adventures of Superman, soon to be joined by Superman: The Man of Steel --- for a few years. While that's perfectly acceptable to the people going into the comic shop to get that week's installment of the ongoing saga, it's also ridiculously counterintuitive to everyone else. Seriously, if you're trying to get into these things --- and comics are always trying to get into things --- then the fact that you could buy Superman #35 and come back the next month for Superman #36 and find out that you'd somehow missed half of the story might just be the thing that's going to turn you off on the whole enterprise.
They'd done their best to lead readers to the next issues, of course --- the letter columns always had those "IN TWO WEEKS: Superman bowls a perfect game in ACTION COMICS #659!" boxes, for instance. They even tried to tease the next part right there on the front covers:
But there are a couple of problems with that. For one thing, it's a pretty inelegant solution --- I haven't even bought this comic yet and you're telling me on the cover that I should buy something else next week? And second, the only reason they have that blank white box to work with is that --- for whatever reason --- they didn't put the UPC codes on the books that went to comic book stores. For the comics that went to the grocery stores, where more casual readers (or kids who had to plead with mom for a drive to the comic book store but were pretty much guaranteed a weekly trip to the cereal aisle) were likely to see it and be curious, the teaser was omitted in favor of something that could be scanned at the register.
If they were going to do it right, they'd have to add something else to the cover, something permanent that would be integrated into the masthead along with everything else.
Thus: Triangle Numbers.
Interestingly enough, the letters page where they announce the change refers to them as "pentagons," but I went back and counted twice, and those are definitely triangles. Eventually, in 2000, they actually would replace them with pentagons by turning them to small Superman shields, but by that time, everyone was used to calling them "triangle numbers."
Besides, they'd be gone within a couple of years anyway, making their final appearance on Action Comics #785, AKA Superman 2002 #4.
Well. Final regular appearance, I mean. As several readers have pointed out, they returned briefly for the "New Krypton" story in 2008, and then again last month when they made a shocking return to tie together all the issues of the "Final Days of Superman" storyline. And I'm not going to lie, as someone with a huge amount of nostalgia for the period where those weird little secondary numbers were part and parcel of reading comics, I was pretty excited to see them. Even then, though, they weren't a regular part of the cover design.
In the end, though, it's probably for the best that they're gone. On an aesthetic level, I think it's a little more fun and interesting when each of a character's titles emphasizes a different aspect of their character --- the old "Detective is the mystery comic and Batman is the superhero book" idea. More than that, though, having two separate numbers on a cover (on a permanent basis) is just asking for a headache. I mean, really, if you're going to be telling the same story anyway, wouldn't it have been just as easy to have a weekly comic called Superman that only needed one number?