Once a nearly universal practice in mainstream comic books, annuals -- yearly, typically extra-sized, one-shot issues meant to supplement an ongoing series -- have diminished in both frequency and importance in the past decade. That's not necessarily surprising, given that annual publications are a product of the days when comic books were primarily sold on newsstands, rather than the direct market and digital sales of today.
Yet, since DC's New 52 era kicked off in fall 2011, annuals have been making something of a comeback. Counting the six released last week, DC has produced 19 annuals so far this year, with one more, "Injustice: Gods Among Us Annual" #1, solicited for November. That's up from the 12 released last year, and three in 2011.
"It is something that is very important to us," DC Comics editor-in-chief Bob Harras told CBR in February. "An annual is a special issue; it's something that should be big in every sense of the word, and I think that's something we're trying to work very closely with our talent."
Marvel Comics has been steady, if a bit more conservative, with their output in the format, with a total of eight annuals scheduled for 2013 -- consistent with the past couple of years, but twice as many as they released in 2010.
It's not just the Big Two, either -- 2013 has seen both "Star Trek" and "My Little Pony" annuals from IDW Publishing, an "Adventure Time" annual from BOOM! Studios and "The Shadow" and "The Spider" annuals from Dynamite Entertainment.
This renewed focus on annuals, at least on Marvel's end, is something that "just kind of happened," according to the company's senior vice president of publishing, Tom Brevoort.
"The annuals really are a relic of a bygone era," Brevoort told CBR News. "The annual really was about, when it was first founded, getting an extra issue out and onto the stands during the period of maximum buy or sell through."
Of course, comic book companies -- and especially Marvel -- now don't need an excuse to do 13 (or 14 or 15 or 16) issues of a comic book series out in a year, as readers of rapidly shipping titles like "All-New X-Men" and "Avengers" can attest. And an annual, even in its heyday, typically didn't sell as well as a regular issue of a series -- around 60 to 80 percent, Brevoort estimated -- making the motivation to continue the practice likely less financial and more emotional.
"What the annual comes down to right now more than anything, is nostalgia," Brevoort said. "Everybody remembers the classic, quintessential annuals, even though most of them came out maybe before a lot of our readers were even born. People remember, 'Reed and Sue got married in an annual!' and, 'We learned the truth about Spider-Man's parents in an annual!' All these big, crucial annuals that happened, and people go, 'Why can't we have stuff like that again?'"
In their earliest form, annuals were commonly reprints, eventually evolving into, typically, a longer, standalone story than found in an average single issue of a series, possibly including a shorter back-up or two and maybe some art pages. Along with the comics Brevoort mentioned, ther's a veritable hit list of major events whch occurred in annuals: 1965's "Fantastic Four Annual" #3 and 1968's "Amazing Spider-Man Annual" #5 -- are the since-disavowed wedding of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson in 1987's "Amazing Spider-Man" #21, the first appearance of Rogue in 1981's "Avengers Annual" #10 and 1985's "Superman Annual" #11, the classic "For the Man Who Has Everything" story by the "Watchmen" team of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. In more recent years, now-superstar writer Matt Fraction helped build his reputation early in his Marvel career with 2007's "Sensational Spider-Man Annual" #1. Hhe received similar acclaim writing in the format three years later with the Mandarin-centric "Invincible Iron Man Annual" #1.
Crossover events played out across annuals at multiple points in the late '80s and early '90s, including Marvel's "Atlantis Attacks" and "Evolutionary War," and DC's "Armageddon 2001" and "Eclipso: The Darkness Within." Marvel has employed similar tactics on a more limited basis recently, including a three-part crossover written by John Layman intersecting in the "Amazing Spider-Man," "Deadpool" and "Incredible Hulks" 2011 annuals, and another one a year later written and illustrated by Alan Davis and featuring his "ClanDestine" characters.
Eventually, such occurrences became much less common, and annuals subsequently developed a reputation among comic book readers as skippable, since they weren't necessarily integral to other ongoing stories, and frequently weren't by the same creative team.
"It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to a certain degree," Brevoort said. "The annuals perform the way they perform, and because they perform the way they perform, you don't always give them the resources they need to perform better, because you can get a better result by putting those resources elsewhere."
Marvel poked fun of this perception in the solicitation for November's "Superior Spider-Man Annual" #1, which read, "This ain't no regular Annual, buck-o! This one counts!"
"I wanted it to be a part of the larger 'Superior Spider-Man' saga, and fortunately, the fact that I am co-writing several issues of the main book with Dan Slott made that possible, as I knew where the characters would be and where they were going, and Dan was open to the tie-in," Christos Gage, writer of the "Superior Spider-Man Annual," told CBR. "As we have said many times, this story definitely 'counts' in the larger 'Superior Spider-Man' tapestry."
Gage himself is a fan of the format, using some of his favorite past annuals as inspiration for the soon-to-be-released issue.
"I liked ones that had big, momentous stories -- like the first 'Fantastic Four Annual,' where Atlantis invaded the surface world, or 'The Incredible Hulk Annual' #5, where he fought a slew of Marvel Monsters," Gage said. "But I also really enjoyed stories that may have been smaller in scope but felt important for the characters, like the Spider-Man/Punisher story in 'Amazing Spider-Man Annual' #15. ['Superior Spider-Man Annual' #1] is closer to the latter."
Charles Soule, the writer of both the regular "Swamp Thing" series and its freshly released annual, relished the storytelling opportunity provided by the issue's increased page count.
"Our average issue is 20 pages these days, while an annual has 38," he told CBR. "In a normal issue, things like splashes and double-page spreads have to be used somewhat sparingly, because you can eat up your storytelling real estate very quickly with the big pages/panels.
"I decided that this would be a chance to really let the art team shine as far as the environments -- 'Swamp Thing' is typically set in really expansive, outdoor settings, and we were able to take a huge, widescreen approach to the locations."
While some fans bemoan the fact that annuals are often not by the same creative team as its accompanying ongoing series, it's also another argument for the continued existence of the format. Writers and artists have frequently gotten early breaks on annuals -- rising DC stars James Tynion IV and Marguerite Bennett are two of the most recent examples, collaborating with Scott Snyder on "Batman" annuals before moving on to higher-profile writing gigs at the publisher.
Additionally, annuals can be used as a showcase for talent who wouldn't necessarily be able to commit to more regular comic book gigs -- the writing duo of Ben Acker and Ben Blacker, known for their work on The CW's "Supernatural" and podcast/live show "The Thrilling Adventure Hour" wrote this year's "Deadpool Annual," out in November, and the "Thunderbolts Annual," scheduled for December.
"There are creators who have a hard time producing a full-length story on a normal schedule who you can give an annual to and give them a much longer lead time, and maybe get a book out of them that's a little more special that you wouldn't have ordinarily," Brevoort said.
Annuals might not be around forever, but they don't appear to be going away anytime soon. The central appeal of a longer read telling a complete story still seems to have some luster, with both readers and creators.
"As a creative endeavor, I think they're completely valid, especially when they can be slightly more experimental or different in feel from the regular series issues," Soule said. "As far as viability on the shelf, that's for retailers and publishers to figure out. All I can say is that I love the one annual I've had a chance to do, and I tried to wring every ounce of storytelling I could from the format."