There's a proud tradition in comics known as the annual issue. A magical gift from the industry to its fans, in which publishers will release a bonus, extra-big issue of a comic to their fans. I mean, ok, it's not a gift, because you still have to pay for it, but it's pretty darn cool all the same. This is in addition to the regular installment of the monthly comic, not replacing it. Annuals have been around for a long time, and they often contain some pretty famous, well-loved stories, such as Superman/Batman Annual #1: "Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before", a hilarious retelling of Superman and Batman's first meeting, reimagined from way back in Superman #76. It's a great story, modernizing a bit of Golden Age fun, and throwing in Deathstroke, evil alternate-dimension duplicates, and even taking a shot at Deadpool.
Fun fact: Deadpool originally started as a carbon copy of Deathstroke the Terminator, until Joe Kelly made him into the merc with a mouth people love today.
In May 2012, DC released its first three annuals in the New 52: Batman Annual #1, Animal Man Annual #1, and Teen Titans Annual #1. Batman Annual claimed to be a Night of the Owls tie-in, but aside from a brief mention of the Court of Owls, was really all about Mr. Freeze. Animal Man gave some backstory of the first time Animal Man and Swamp Thing teamed up, to tie in to the Rot story going on in both of those characters' books. Teen Titans started "The Culling", a crossover between Teen Titans, Superboy, and Legion Lost. However, all of it started an upsetting trend.
The thing about Annuals is that while, yes, they are a cash grab, they're also a celebration of sorts. Annuals give us extra adventures we wouldn't normally get. Telling a double-length story gives us the chance to enjoy a whole plot without having to wait another month or two for a resolution. While, say, "Death of the Family" is an event that lasts several months and keeps readers guessing and waiting for the next issue, an annual is just a fun bonus story. No forced drama to get readers to buy more comics to see how the story pans out, no cliffhangers or crossovers, no "THIS IS THE ISSUE THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING FOR CAPTAIN BUTT!" An Annual's just a good ol' romp with the characters you love. Maybe something from their past, maybe something from their future. A speculative look at an alternate version, or just a fun idea the author had. This is the charm of Annuals. And this is what DC hasn't been doing lately.
Batman had a forced, one-line tie-in to "Night of the Owls", so DC could slap the event's logo on it to trick people into buying it, in case Mr. Freeze wasn't enough of a draw already (which I acknowledge may only be the case for me because he's my favorite villain). Animal Man's Annual was all about the current plot. Teen Titans started a crossover event. This trend continued in the months that followed. The Flash Annual #1 ended the Rogues storyline and started the "Gorilla Warfare" storyline. Batgirl Annual #1 was a follow-up to "Night of the Owls", introducing Stryx, a former Talon who is now joining the Birds of Prey. Justice League Dark Annual #1 was the end to the "Books of Magic" storyline. Justice League International ended with its Annual, which served as the end to its storyline and final issue.
There are a few Annuals which keep with tradition. Superman, Detective Comics, and Batman and Robin have all kept with the spirit of the Annual, telling their own one-shot stories. But it's concerning that more and more, DC seems to be using its Annuals to sell story lines. Or rather, they're tying them into their currently existing story lines, maybe in the fear that they won't sell otherwise, and they'll have printed these extra-large books for nothing. Here's a list of the Annuals so far, categorized by their goal.
Annuals that tell their own story:
-Action Comics #1: Admittedly, I haven't read this, but the advertising seems to imply that it's a one-shot. It introduces a new villain, K-Man, and shows Superman's first interaction with Kryptonite.
-Batman Annual #1: Ignore the branding. The book's contents stand solo. It's the return of Mr. Freeze to the New 52.
-Batman and Robin Annual #1: A fun, heartwarming tale, and probably my favorite single-issue of any comic in the reboot.
-Detective Comics Annual #1: The return of Black Mask to the New 52. It should be noted, however, that it is a follow-up to the earlier Night of the Owls tie-in issue.
-Superman Annual #1: Superman gets kidnapped by aliens.
Annuals that end a previously-running story:
-The Flash Annual #1: End of The Rogues' reintroduction, as well as the start of Gorilla Grodd's reintroduction.
-Green Lantern Annual #1: End of Hal and Sinestro's journey, and prologue to "Rise of the Third Army".
-Green Lantern Corps Annual #1: End of Rise of the Third Army, and start of "Wrath of the First Lantern".
-Justice League Dark Annual #1: End of the "Books of Magic story" arc.
-Justice League International Annual #1: End of the whole damn comic.
Annuals that tie-in to an already running story:
-Animal Man Annual #1: Gives a bit of history of the Rot.
-Superboy Annual #1: "H'El on Earth" tie-in.
-Swamp Thing Annual #1: The backstory of Abigail Arcane, a major supporting character. Actually takes place in the middle of an issue that had yet to come out at the time of release.
Annuals that are a start for something else:
-Batgirl Annual #1: Introduces a new Bird of Prey.
-Green Lantern: New Guardians Annual #1: Prologue to DC's new book, Threshold.
-Teen Titans Annual #1: Start of "The Culling", a crossover event with two other books.
So what's the problem? So what if they decide to make these extra-large books important to understand something else? What's the big problem if they try to use them to sell more books? Comics aren't exactly a thriving industry. Well, here's the problem:
Let's imagine that it's May 2012. And imagine that you have financial concerns. And that you refuse to pirate comics. Now, a new comic book generally costs about three dollars. And you've only got ten dollars a month to spend on comics. So that's about three books, and then maybe one oldie from the bargain bin. Now let's say you read Batman, Justice League Dark, and Action Comics. That uses up the ten dollars right there (new issues of Batman have 10-page backup stories, and as such are an extra dollar more). But now say DC's slapped that Night of the Owls logo on Batman Annual #1. Well, you're reading Batman, so you're already immersed in Night of the Owls. And as this Night of the Owls is part of the main Batman book, and not one of the spinoffs starring one of Batman's sidekicks, that must mean that it's important. So what do you do? You can't skip it. But money's tight. And that Annual is five bucks, meaning if you buy it and Batman #9, you'll only be reading Batman that month. You've got to make a choice. Do you put off reading about Super-Obama, and abort reading the new arc of Justice League Dark with the new writer? Or do you resign yourself to having to skip the next chapter of Night of the Owls, after you've been following this one storyline for nearly a year? A year's a lot of time. You can't give up on it now. So you buy Batman Annual #1 for five dollars, and Batman #9 for four dollars, and you've blown your whole month's budget on Batman. And now you discover that you didn't actually need to read Batman Annual #1, and that you've missed out on your other two comics for no reason. Sure, it's a good story, but wouldn't you still feel cheated?
It's not a feature if it's THE ENTIRE FOCUS OF THE BOOK, guys!
I know, it seems silly. At the end of the day, it's a few dollars. But it's an extra five bucks that the reader shouldn't have to be forced to spend on top of what they already pay for comics, and in a lot of these cases, they'll need to if they want to understand the current ongoing story. The Batman example I gave is an instance of false advertising, but what happens when it isn't? If you read both Superboy and Green Lantern Corps, you're going to have to pay an extra ten dollars in the month of January 2013 to follow along with their ongoing stories. And both of those are ongoing stories ("H'el on Earth" and "Rise of the Third Army") that crossover with multiple books already.
I get that comics are entertainment. They're a privilege, not a right. But an Annual should be like getting desert at a restaurant: You should be able to grab it if you want to, and be able to enjoy something more, but it shouldn't be forced upon you if you're not up for it. I think the readers should be able to decide whether or not they need an extra five dollars of Superboy, especially if, say, they don't read it regularly, and only usually read Superman, but are picking it up along with every other current issue of Superboy and Supergirl because they want to read the full H'el on Earth crossover, which is running them a higher comics bill than they're used to already.
You'll notice that Superboy Annual #1 isn't even listed in this advertisement, but its own promotional material suggests otherwise. This occured with Green Lantern Corps Annual and Rise of the Third Army too, so I'm guessing it just has something to do with how Annuals are announced.
One of the last major annuals before DC rebooted their continuity was Superman/Batman Annual #5, part of the "Reign of Doomsday" crossover running through this book, Action Comics, and JLA, among others. It actually had sales numbers 19.57% higher than that month's regular installment of the series, Superman/Batman #83. This is not typical of annuals, but makes sense, as it was part of a crossover between several of DC's largest series. Interestingly, this annual was the only issue of the series to have tie-ins to "Reign of Doomsday", which did not run in the regular issues of the book. Still, compare that to the previous year's Superman/Batman Annual #4, which actually sold 87.09% less than that month's regular installment of the series, Superman/Batman #74, and it says something about sales. Something DC's clearly taken note of.
These two examples are obviously extremes, as I've been unable to find any other instances with sales discrepancies that dramatic. But here's something to consider. January 2013's Green Lantern Corps Annual #1 wrapped up "Rise of the Third Army", the current ongoing story in all four books in DC's Green Lantern line (Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern: New Guardians, and Red Lanterns). It also serves as the start of the next crossover storyline, "Wrath of the First Lantern". It sold 7.82% fewer issues than the regular installment, Green Lantern Corps #16. Now when you consider that all the people who bought GL Corps Annual #1 probably don't all read Green Lantern Corps regularly and were brought in because of the other books in the crossover, that leaves about 8% of regular GL Corps readers (but probably more) that will pick up February 2013's Green Lantern Corps #17 and wondering what the hell they missed. In fact, if you read any of the four Green Lantern Group books and didn't pick up Green Lantern Corps Annual #1, you're going to have missed an essential chapter of that book's ongoing story when you pick up issue #17 of whichever series you're currently reading. Compare this to January's Green Lantern: New Guardians Annual #1, which sold 16.21% fewer issues than that month's Green Lantern: New Guardians #16. The Annual served as a prologue to DC's new sci-fi book, Threshold. This book was not part of the "Rise of the Third Army" storyline, and was not advertised as such. If you skipped this book, you will not have missed anything in the New Guardians storyline.
That's how an annual should work. Now obviously, I'm not some kind of business expert. I'm a fan. But I don't think it's fair to hold essential parts of an ongoing storyline hostage in an extra installment of a comic which costs more money than the regular issues, especially if it's part of an event that is already happening in other books. An annual should be optional. At the very least, if it's going to tie in to an ongoing storyline, it should stay exclusive to its own book. I don't think that's an unreasonable demand, do you?