As any medium evolves, elements that once were common inevitably fall by the wayside. That’s certainly the case for comic books, which have changed considerably over the decades. Below are just a few things once common in comics that readers no longer see.
In the present day, publishers are more likely to delay release of a book that’s behind schedule than to do anything else. With the focus on collectors’ market, release delays can enhance the collectability of a single issue or bolster the appeal of a story as part of a collected edition. But well into the 1990s, when comic books still had significant traditional “newsstand” distribution, getting out something on an established release date was more important than what was released. While editors had many tools to meet their schedule obligations, a common solution was the inventory story.
The concept was that an editor would solicit creators to produce a story featuring a book’s regular characters that could be deployed on short notice to plug a scheduling hole. In the earlier days of the medium, where most series featured self-contained one-and-done stories light on continuity, fans barely noticed the insertion of inventory stories. The art of the inventory story became more nuanced by the ’60s, as more and more series adopted serialized storytelling. Inventory stories had to balance a need to include familiar cast members and settings with a mandate to not do anything to muck up a book’s ongoing plots. Sometimes a couple lines of dialogue in an inventory piece might be tweaked before publication to tie it into the ongoing saga in some way. Often an editor would just slap a note on the splash page and cop to the substitution. Quality varied, with some being unexpectedly enjoyable while others couldn’t escape the obvious aroma of schedule spackle. And depending on the book, the shelf life of inventory stories could vary, especially for team series with changing casts. It wasn’t unusual for unused inventory to wind up in anthologies many years later, their shelf life long since expired.
While inventory stories rarely were well-loved, they were a useful tool to keep publication schedules on track. And occasionally managed to be far better than their natures would have suggested.