Spider-Man’s tangled publication-history web
I am not a Spider-Man superfan. I read a lot of Spider-Man books in the 1990s, and still have oh, maybe, 150ish Spider-Man comics. I’m a big fan of information design, though. Early last year, I combined the two interests, and I’ve recently revisited the resulting project to bring it up to date:
This project was so much fun. It began when I read the final issue of some Spider-Man series or other, and thought “what an odd thing it must be to ‘cancel’ Spider-Man.” Because, after all, Spider-Man isn’t really ending; since 1963 there has always been another (usually more than one) Spider-Man comic lined up for next month. So all of the cancellations aren’t really departures so much as, say, redeployments.
And that got me thinking about all of those comings and goings and, being a designer, I naturally started considering the idea visually. And kept considering it visually. And then did a bunch of research (once I published the first draft, I received some valuable suggestions and corrections from the Spider-Man Message Board also, and I want to thank everyone who helped), organized it, and then started making a timeline.
Being organized is important in information design, certainly in multidimensional (in terms of the content) projects like this one. Organizing the information helps define the challenges of expressing it visually. Then, for me, the really fun part is working out solutions to those challenges.
For example, most of the churn among Spider-Man titles has been in the past two decades. So I compressed the 1960s and 70s, gradually expanding each decade through the 80s and early 90s. How could I make a bit more sense of all the different titles? Break them up into categories and color-code them. The importance of the “core” titles is emphasized by making them yellow, which contrasts the most with the blue background.
What to do with series where Spider-Man was the lead character, month-in and month-out, for a large part of the run but not all? Dotted lines, plus a gradient of color because these transitions were not completely hard-edged.
I loved working on this, and I also love looking at it. Not because I’m vain (though I probably am) but because the great thing about a complex information graphic is that it will reveal new information, beyond what you put into it. Suddenly you can see patterns at a glance. You can see how Marvel slowly added more and more Spidey series through the late 1990s, then trimmed back… after which the process began again. A cycle which appears to be repeating right now.
Compare how long some series lasted. In the olden days, a new Spider-Man series ran and ran. Up until the mid-90s, the younger-readers “Spidey Super Stories” was the shortest-lived Spider-Man series ever, and it still got 57 issues. Since then, Marvel kind of adds series and pulls them, often immediately replacing them with something else, without hesitation. (Presumably the magic of a new “first issue” was discovered in the 1990s and has never entirely worn off.)
And there’s the remarkable growth in non-canonical Spider-Man series. Aside from “Spidey Super Stories,” every Spider-Man series was intended to fit into a single ongoing continuity until the mid-1990s (a lot of things changed around that time, it seems). Since when, alternative Spider-Man continuities have sprouted like weeds; the past several years have often seen four non-canon series (or even five, if one counts hybrid titles) at once, each chronicling a different version of old web-head.
No single design can be everything, of course, and there are various simplifications in this one. By compressing the early decades, for example, the lengths of “Spidey Super Stories” and “Marvel Team-Up (volume I)” are deceptively short. There’s nothing to indicate frequency of publication: “Amazing Spider-Man” has been published twice per month on multiple occasions and currently has new issues three times per month, but its bar is the same width as a quarterly title such as “Spider-Man Unlimited.” The overlapping of the titles beyond the bars for very short-lived series is kind of an awkward kludge. But, as I say, some compromises are unavoidable; you pays your money and you takes your choice.
I’ve also thought about adding some sort of illustration or decorative element to this timeline, and maybe some day I will; for now though I really feel like the data (both “raw” and “emergent”) is of quite enough visual interest on its own. Meanwhile, this new version brings everything up to date through the end of 2010. And already, I have more updates sitting to the right of the document on my “pasteboard” in InDesign; Marvel has announced that will renumber “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” (as they are often wont to do) at the end of the year.
I can get some easy blog posts keeping up with all of this, at least. And that’s nice.