Once upon a time, almost all American comic books were periodical publications, and as such followed the general rules of such publications, with each issue being identifiable by volume, issue, and date. There was one significant difference, however — whereas most non-comics periodicals, your Time and Life and so forth, started a brand new volume each year, with the issue numbering reverting back to #1 in January or thereabouts, comic books generally held on to “Volume 1” for essentially forever, with the issue numbers proceeding on into infinity, or cancellation, whichever came first.
The reasons for comics’ divergence from the periodicals-numbering norm aren’t entirely clear. The comics writer and researcher John Jackson Miller makes a good case for the influence of dime novels, and a preference among newsdealers for stocking well-established, already-proven-popular titles (as would be indicated by a high issue number) also seems to have been a factor. For whatever reason, as long as a particular title was selling, comics publishers would keep the numbering going. (And even if a title got cancelled, if it was ever revived, its original numbering might be resumed — which is why the February-March, 1959 issue of The Flash was numbered 105 instead of 1.)
This state of affairs remained pretty stable until the mid-1980s. By this time, the comics collectors’ market had grown to the point where its preferences, rather than those of the traditional newsstand, drove publishers’ decisions. In that collectors’ market, with all other factors being equal, a #1 issue was virtually guaranteed to sell a lot better than a #501. And so, when DC Comics performed major overhauls of several of its best-known characters in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, it made sense to them to reset the numbering of some of its longest-running titles.
Ever since that time, comic book numbering has been something of a free-for-all. Not only have the two major publishers relaunched titles multiple times with new numbering, but they’ve invented “special” numbers out of the ordinary sequence, including 0, -1, and 1,000,000. And Marvel Comics has also tried to have it both ways, resetting series back to #1 for the supposed sales boost without completely surrendering the old numbering. This has allowed the publisher to revive a long-running title’s original numbering whenever a major milestone comes up, so that while the original run of Fantastic Four appeared to end in 1996 with issue #416, several relaunches later Marvel could (and did) release the January, 2012 issue of the book as #600. In the fall of 2017 they went even further, implementing what amounted to a line-wide return to original numbering as part of their “Marvel Legacy” initiative. By that time, DC had also joined the party, with the restoration of Action and Detective to their original numbering in the summer of 2016.
All of this creates obvious challenges for the precise identification of comic books by collectors, bibliographers, and researchers. If I was trying to create a comic book reference site like the Grand Comics Database, I would probably feel obliged to provide more detailed volume/series/issue labeling for the first comic book I ever bought, such as “Superman (Vol. 1) #180″, or “Superman (1939 series) #180″ — but since I’m just doing a personal blog about comics I bought and read fifty years ago, I figure I can get by with title, issue number, and cover date. If I’m still doing this blog in thirty-six years, then maybe I’ll need to worry about someone confusing “my” Superman #180 with the second one. But, since I’ll be 99 years old by then, I’ll probably have more pressing matters to worry about. 🙂