One of the most common types of anthologies are titles where different characters get whole spotlight issues dedicated to them while the next issue features a completely different character. If the character proves to be popular, it may come back for additional showings, or even get it's own title (as it happened to a certain character called Spider-Man in the anthology title Amazing Fantasy, maybe you've heard of him?). The other type of anthology is made up of several short stories that may or may not continue in the next issue, or a combination thereof. For example in the first issue of Anthology Comics, character A, B, and C get a short story, in the second issue of Anthology Comics, the story of character B and C continues, but character A has been replace by character D.
I don't know if you noticed, but the examples I listed above are all pretty old, at least 20 or more years old. Back in the yesteryear of comic book publishing companies, there was only a limited amount of books they could publish, usually for economic reasons. Even at their height before the comic boom of the 90's) Marvel and DC only published a dozen or so ongoing titles, while smaller companies were lucky to have one or two titles (often, the flagship title would be an anthology title, as it was the case with Dark Horse). Instead of creating new titles for new or smaller characters, they would be showcased in anthologies.
The same basic principle holds for creators new to the world of comics. No publishing company was going to give an untested creator an ongoing series without seeing how he or she would work first. Giving them short stories in anthologies titles was the perfect way to let them spread their wings for the first time. Once they had learned to fly, they could move on to bigger and better things. It is interesting to note that despite the fall in popularity of anthologies (I'm getting there, don't worry), they are still used in the same way they were years ago.
This worked for fans too, who wanted to see the characters get the spotlight or witness the birth of new talent right under their eyes. And so, ever since the early days of comics, anthologies thrived for many years.
There's several reasons why anthologies are not as popular as they once were, especially among the big two publishing companies.
First of all, there is the growth of the publishing companies in general. Marvel and DC, as businesses, have grown by leaps and bounds. That means they can run small but risky ventures without suffering a big loss if it doesn't turn out as expected. When they want to test the waters for a new character, instead of publishing an ongoing anthology tale, which requires multiple writers, artists, and editors, they can just release a one-shot or mini-series instead. Additionally, in the collector bubble of the late 80's and early 90's, and still to this very day, a brand new #1 issue sold infinitely more than any anthology issue.
This also keeps fans content, because the smaller characters are still being published, and the companies get to shelve the character after the mini or one-shot is over without fear of it getting stale or launching a doomed ongoing series. It goes along with the direct-market system that we are all accustomed to as well. Instead of trying to cater an anthology to a wider audience (which can lead to mixed results), companies can instead just publish something that will surely be bought by a smaller base of fans.
Secondly, the rise of the Internet means that today's comic book fans have a more in-depth knowledge of just about everything. You can learn all there is to know about a character with a quick click of your mouse, read reviews of issues days before it hits the shops, and see all of a creator's previous work in a matter of seconds. That last item is going to become increasingly more important, as more and more creators upload their material online and develop an established fan base before any of their work is published in a physical format.
In other words, creators now often make a name for themselves before they are hired by companies such as Marvel and DC, and so it is not as big of a deal to showcase them to readers through anthologies because the companies already know that this particular creator already has a built-in fanbase. The rise of webcomics also lets creators develop their skills before they stand in front of a larger audience.
What does that mean? It means that companies no longer need anthologies to showcase their talent, and minor characters no longer appear in anthologies because they get their own limited series or one-shot. All this brings us to the final nail in anthologies' coffin...
The stories within anthologies don't matter to the collector and event driven mentalities. It's a harsh truth, but as long as we are talking about Marvel and DC (and I'll get to the rest in a second), we need to face it. Nothing important is going to happen in an anthology, especially when and if the character has their own ongoing title, because, if it is an important story, it will happen in the ongoing.
I know what you are thinking, "But, Matt, good stories are good stories regardless of where they are published!", and you are absolutely right. Sadly, fans (and I am including myself in this one, because I do it too) want stories that matter, stories that have repercussions and importance, and they are least likely to buy anything they believe will be forgotten and ignored by other people. I'm not even talking about the pitfalls of line-wide continuity here, but more along the lines of whether or not the character that I am interested in will be affected by the story I am reading or if it will be reflected 'in-continuity'. If a story is good, but forgettable, fans will be hesitant to purchase it, because it will not matter in the grand scheme of things.
For example, in the past couple of years Marvel has released two anthology titles that have failed to become commercially successful and were canceled within a year: Marvel Comic Presents (v2) and Astonishing Tales (v2). Both titles had some stories about heavy hitter characters, such as Wolverine, Deadpool, Punisher, Captain America and others, but very few people bought the series. Why? I believe it is for the reasons I have outlined above.
I don't think this is a new development, but just one that became more apparent as the internet and companies grew in popularity. For example, many people know of the Barry Windsor-Smith "Weapon X" storyline that ran through Marvel Comics Presents in the early 90's, which reinvigorated and further explained Wolverine's origin. It is a fondly remembered story by many, but what is often left out the annals of history is what the other stories in the title were. I dug out one of my copies, Marvel Comics Presents #76 to be precise, just to see what else there was in the comic. The other three stories were about Shanna The She-Devil, Death's Head, and Woodgod. All completely forgettable tales, with the Wolverine one being the exception to the rule.
But I think anthologies CAN and DID work, just not for the big two.
This model is not exclusive to the European market, as Japan uses similar formats for manga offerings, but I am most familiar with the European method and the magazine format still thrives here today and was and is quite successful.
The big two have tried to publish magazine style anthologies in the past, which would usually feature a mixture of new and reprint material, as well as prose sections. These magazine titles, which thrived in the 70's and 80's, were normally marketed to an older audience and sometimes aimed at the international market. The Marvel UK imprint was one such example, which produced magazines that featured reprints of older and hard to find Marvel Comics, as well as new material by up-and-coming British authors (such as a young Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, among many others).
To this day, there are plenty of European titles that are anthologies, with a revolving door of creators and characters, and they fare much better than the American anthologies. The most well-known example to the American public for this is probably the British weekly title 2000 AD (home of Judge Dredd), which started in 1977 and is still going strong with around 1600's under its belt (take that, Action Comics!). Other popular magazine comics in the UK are The Beano, which has been out (mostly) weekly since 1938 and The Dandy, since 1937, both with more than 3500 issues, although they are aimed at younger readers.
Other countries have different anthology titles with definite staying power, such as El Jueves in Spain (since 1977, more than 1500 weekly issues), and L'Écho des Savanes in France (since 1972, more than 260 monthly issues) among many others. And that is without mentioning older anthology titles such as Le Petit Vingtième, the Belgian comic that gave birth to the popular character, Tintin, or Pilote, the original home of Asterix. The closest thing that the United States has is MAD magazine, but, nowadays, they concentrate more on satire and parodies of pop culture tropes, with very few original comics and even less in terms of ongoing story lines.
Why do anthologies work better in Europe than they do in the United States? Aside from the cultural difference between European and American readers (that's a whole other post to itself) the characters in the anthologies appear ONLY there, giving the titles more resonance and importance. Popular stories and characters usually get their own collection of their formerly serialized tales, much like the trade paperbacks that populate the market.
Of course, this is not the only model used in Europe, and, like I mentioned above, it is also used in the United States, as seen with Dark Horse Presents, which originally had Sin City and Hellboy stories in it before they moved to their own titles. I should also note that in the last couple of years, these comic magazines (just like newspapers) have been struggling to maintain an audience in these harsh economic times,as more readers move towards reading content online (which is usually free).
Do anthologies still have a place in the future of comics? It's hard to say, to be honest. The rise of digital comics and webcomics means that companies (even the smaller ones) can cheaply and effectively showcase both their talent and their characters to a far wider audience than an anthology comic ever would. The popularity and relatively low price of trade collections sees plenty of people sticking to that format instead, meaning that companies can have the strip online and publish a collection once there is enough quantity to warrant it.
If we are to believe the recent sales in anthologies titles from the big two, less and less people buy them every day (even Wednesday Comics, with all it's star power and publicity push, did not sell as many units as people expected). From smaller companies, it's even harder to gauge because there is not that many of them that make it into the Diamond sales chart (since it only includes the top 300 titles), and I have yet to see the numbers that European anthology titles move. As I mentioned above, I don't think either Marvel or DC need to publish anthologies anymore, outside of vanity or experimental projects like Wednesday Comics or the latest volume of Strange Tales. In fact, Marvel and DC typically only roll out anthologies in order to gauge interest in older characters or to refresh copyrights/trademarks on older titles, which usually corresponds with these relaunches of older anthologies.
What do you think? Are anthologies an important tradition that should be upheld, or is it time to put them to rest? Do you buy anthology books? What was your favourite anthology? Do characters or creators attract you to an anthology title? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.