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Comics Sales: An examination


The monthly publication here of Paul and Marc-Oliver’s sales chart comparisons are always occasions for analyses across the comics blogosphere and industry sites. Although as we all know by now the numbers are low by about 10-12%, the trending is still accurate, and the trending right now is that Marvel is beating DC by a wide margin. As the main architect of the current storylines, Dan Didio is being blamed for the downturn, but a few cooler heads are looking at the larger picture, including Marc-Oliver Frisch himself:

Plainly, DC isn’t looking desperately good right now. Industry observers are wondering whether a dismissal of DC Comics executive editor Dan Didio, who seems to be responsible for the current direction of the publisher’s mainstream line of superhero titles, may be imminent. (There have been conflicting rumors, according to Rich Johnston.) But that would be be an overreaction. After all, DC’s performance in the direct market has improved drastically since Didio took over in 2002 – as of May 2007, the average DC Universe title sold almost 50% more than it did four years ago. For a brief while, it even looked as if DC were establishing itself as a permanent threat to Marvel’s status as the direct market’s number one publisher. So, bearing this in mind, a dismissal would be premature; despite its recent string of failures and misfires, DC is still much better off than it was before Didio’s tenure.

A poster at NEWSARAMA says much the same thing, but with CHARTS!:

Sales have declined from May 2006, when they were at an all-time high. This is an alarming trend and a sign that DC failed in some ways to capitalize on the success of Infinite Crisis and OYL. However it is important to note that the natural trend of all series is to decline in sales. And outside of May 2006, sales are historically higher and on an overall upward trend. What this says is that people are trying out DC Comics and while some have moved one, base readership has grown, by about 1 million issues per month. The following numbers are year-over-year sales and further indicate that DC has achieved long-term and sustainable growth, despite the recent decline in sales.

Sales through May:
2007 13,081,074
2006 12,803,607
2005 10,730,174
2004 9,826,701
2003 8,729,160
2002 8,553,269

At least some of this growth has to be attributed to the general upswing in the market due to the increased popularity of Marvel and graphic novels, but it’s worth looking at.

Beside, the greater mystery still remains what happened to all the readers of 1990? Tom Brevoort, whose excellent blog we don’t link to nearly often enough reproduces actual sales numbers from 1990, from the very month that Todd McFarlane’s SPIDER-MAN #1 set sales records (that would later be eclipsed by JIm Lee’s X-MEN.) This book sold two million copes.

I can remember at the time that nobody was surprised that Todd’s SPIDER-MAN was a hit–it was a new ongoing Spidey book produced by the most popular artist to illustrate the web-slinger in a long time. But the actual extent of its success raised the bar and changed the industry. Because, having done this once, the powers-that-be above editorial expected a repeat performance the following year. Hedging his bets, EIC Tom DeFalco working with X-MEN editor Bob Harras decided to launch a new X-MEN #1 and transition NEW MUTANTS into X-FORCE that following year, hoping that between the two titles, they’d be able to deliver the same sales spike as SPIDER-MAN #1. And then, of course, X-FORCE #1 moved 4 million copies, and X-MEN #1 moved 8 million–and suddenly, there was an even bigger hurtle to deal with the year after that.

It’s also interesting to see the range of material Marvel was producing at this point. Far from simply focusing on the super hero titles of the Marvel U, there was an aggressive licensed property program, a line of books aimed at younger kids, the creator-owned Epic line, and a number of other projects that defied easy categorization. Not all of it was wonderful, but there was definitely some diversity going on.

It’s that latter part that provides the real surprise. We’ve still never really recovered those missing readers, although there’s been partial improvement. (You can see all of the sales figures at Tom’s blog.)


  1. Were any of them actually READING what they were buying? I remember 1990. I knew people that bought comics and never bothered to read them. They simply bagged and boarded them and waited for the value to go up. As far as I know, they are still waiting….

  2. Is the speculator market that big anymore? It seems to me that these current numbers are actual audience growth numbers and not inflated numbers where the bubble will burst. One can only hope this leads to a diversity in genres. It’s telling that one of Marvel’s recent successes is a horror/western with Stephen King’s name attached to it.

  3. Bentcorner hit the nail right on the head. The high sales for SPIDER-MAN #1,X-Force #1,and X-MEN #1 were MOSTLY due to speculators.

    Ed Mathews, I can definitely tell you that the speculators are indeed back (CAPTAIN AMERICA #25 is proof of that). The only difference between now and the 90’s is that their as many speculators today as their were back in the 90’s, since their are’nt that many actual readers today. The sad truth of the matter is that MOST of the speculators from the 90’s and MOST of todays speculators were/are loyal readers and comic book dealers who tried to get rich by buying multiple copies of the latest “hot” controversal comic by the lastest popular/celebrity/critically acclaimed creator. In other words, MOST speculators are greedy comic book fans and dealers.

  4. I love that chart. Almost to the day, there is a huge drop in sales and units when DiDio joins DC.

    But to give him credit where credit is due, there is an immediate upswing. And arguably even more increase when he takes over as VP. I guess the real question isn’t “Why isn’t DC doing better?” but “Why do Marvel’s mistakes seem to only do better?” Marvel seems to have just as much continuity porn, just as many high profile delays – if not more – and yet they not only stay ahead of DC, they continue to get better.

    And you can’t tell me it’s all the genius of Joey Q. Really.

  5. I think it’s important to remember that these numbers being thrown around have never actually reflected how many books are being purchased and read by consumers. They have always only reflected what comic book shops were ordering each and every month.

    I have a feeling there were a lot more comic book shops in the early 90’s then there are now. I know of shops that were in business then and today no longer exist. Its one thing to learn that in 1990, WOLVERINE #28 sold 189,200 copies. You don’t get the full picture when you don’t know how many comic book shops contributed to the total number of WOLVERINE comics sold. If there are fewer comic book shops today then there were in 1990, you would assume that total comic book sales would drop.

    Fewer comic book shops means fewer comics being sold.

  6. Can we find a canary which historically doesn’t have any, or few, variant or gimick covers, withstands the slump of creators coming and going? I know that Uncanny X-Men was used to index sales in the past. Using the canary title, how has circulation (not readership) changed from the newsstand 70s to the hybrid 80s to the speculator 90s through today?
    And it’s interesting that right before Spider-Man #1, or was it X-Force?, that John Byrne’s Next Men shipped a record 400,000 copies.

  7. Hey, how did I get quoted here? :-) Man this is the second place that I found what I wrote-up being qouted, I never expected that.

    An interesting question is raised but is it valid? I mean the market of today is quite different from the market of 1990.

    David Oaks: “I love that chart. Almost to the day, there is a huge drop in sales and units when DiDio joins DC.”

    I’m assuming that David is joking, becuse we all know that comics are planned at least a few months in advance and DiDio couldn’t have possibly had an effect on anything DC was doing so early in his tenure. But it is a funny coincident. I think everything else David says is spot on.

  8. I’m no expert on these charts or comics speculation or anything else having to do with money, but how can anyone really believe in the idea of comics speculation anymore? It seemed iffy as a concept to me back in the ’90s . . . the reason Action Comics #1 is worth so much is not only that it’s the first appearance of Superman, but that there are only 12 (I believe) copies IN EXISTENCE. Surely, it wouldn’t be worth as much if there was 100, or 1000, or an entire print run. Whereas, there will never be a dearth of supply of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1.

    Add to this that in the early 90s, we rarely saw individual comics going back to press, and definately not being collected into collections. I remember seeing that collected edition of Dark Knight and thinking, “How about that!” If you missed an issue of your favorite comic, the only option to read it was the back issue market (or, maaaaybe a reprint in some form some years down the line, a la “Classic X-Men”). So there was that. But I think most readers today just want to read the story, and don’t care if it’s an original first printing, a tpb (many PREFER this option), or an illegal download. So, if speculation was a mug’s game before, it’s 100 times more so today. IMO.

  9. I think that the reason why DC continues to trail Marvel in terms of sales is because they continue to aim MOST (if not ALL) of their DCU superhero titles at two groups of people. The first group is the existing and shrinking older teen and adult readers, who have been reading comics since they were kids. The second group is the mythicle new older teen and adult non-comic book readers, who has never read a comic book (much less a superhero comic) in their entire life. This has been DC’s MO for the past 20+ years. This practice has gotten even worse since Didlo took over the DCU superhero line. Let’s be honest, MOST (if not ALL) of the DCU superhero titles are NOT suitable for kids. Anyone who says otherwise, is either lying or in denial.

    And for the record, Marvel under Quesada is’nt much better then DC. Since Quesada became EIC, Marvel hss been trying to emulate DC and make their main MU superhero line more “mature” in order to appeal to the SAME two groups of people as DC.

  10. There were a estimated/reported 10,000 shops selling comics in the 1990’s. There are now estimated to be about 3,000.

    10,000 shops ordering 20 copies is 200,000 copies.
    3,000 shops ordering 20 copies is 60,000 copies.

    Approximately the change in sales of comics from then to now.

  11. Barnum’s Law proves itself every day on eBay: there are a lot of fools, with a lot of money to part with. Part of the equation is that people will say a premium he they think the extra cost is worth it. This is why people wait in line for a $600 cell phone. Or who pay $250 for Absolute Planetary which originally cost $75.
    I doubt that there are many multiple copies being purchased by collectors, asidefrom the variant covers for completists. and fans.
    Those multiple copies might be sold to eBay dealers, but that’s a different breed of cat. And some stores might be ordering multiples, too, to flip the rare issues quickly for a profit.

  12. I don’t think you can chalk it all up to speculators trying to make an extra buck or two. Some of it maybe. But there are far better ways to earn a dime. Comics are chosen as investments by people that love comics. After all, speculators could just as easily picked stamps, coins, or whatever.

    People who invest in comics, like them, generally speaking.

    My 2 cents as to the missing readers is really simple. Comics have all taken the same sort of trend– that being to humanize the heroes. What execs and writers don’t seem to realize is that this is a superhero genre, meaning, the primary characters are expected to behave in heroic manners.

    Many people don’t want to read about Green Arrow abandoning his child and cheating on his lover. Readers get enough of “the real world” in the real world. Most people could care less about a hero’s sex life, his or her one-nighters, or their orientation. That’s not why people read comics.

    This was no where more evident than in the movie “Superman Returns.” Warner Brothers and Singer humanized the Man of Steel. A large segment of fans hated it.

    No one is expecting heroes to be perfect, or to win every battle. But personally, I think fans are reacting to the deconstruction of the entire genre. One that now loves its villians more than its heroes, and considers taking lives in comics more sales worthy than saving lives.

  13. Socratic Bass, I agree with everything you said. MOST people do not want to read about deconstructed,”realistic”,and EXTREMELY humanized superheroes.

  14. The statement that DC is doing better, growing in readership by showing these numbers is an illusion.

    In 2005 DC began Infinite Crisis and for all intents and purposes, readers jumped on the bandwaggon, both new and old alike. The numbers in the charts during 2005 and after are accounting not only for Infinite Crisis but also 52 since these numbers are cumulative.

    52 was a weekly comic shipping no less than 92,000 copies weekly — and that is going by their lowest fig. Multiply that times 4 you get 368,000 extra DC comics sold for the month.

    Now, take into account the lack of follow up from One Year Later, a huge chunk of DC’s main titles did not ship on time and you get a huge chunk of lost revenue. Had all of DC’s titles shipped timely and proper, DC would have hit WAY over those numbers due to the extra bump of 52 weekly.

    Instead, what happened was 52 canabalized the rest of their line. So, when Wonder Woman, Batman, Action and others didn’t ship during their supposed weeks, DC had 52 shipping to replace revenue from their missing books. And in many cases, the circ of 52 was greater than any that of the missing regular books (unless their signed creators delivered, which many times, they did not).

    But it should go noted that DC can print the worst garbage imaginable, which is what many believe DC is doing and still come out smelling like a rose. Here’s how:

    The truth behind the illusion:

    Readers can jump off the DC bandwaggon by the thousands and it still will look as if they are doing great, despite their staggering loss.

    Because if DC gets all their monthlies shipping on time, even with LOW circ figures, they will still be ahead of the game due to Countdown, that weekly comic that adds xxx numbers weekly to their bottom line.

    So, Countdown can sell 50% less than 52 and DC still looks good if you’re looking at year end numbers because with their monthlies now shipping, which were missing from figures last year –they’re still shipping 78,000 more comics each week from Countdown and that number goes by the last figure I saw for one of the issues.

    Add that to the circs of their missing monthlies which were absent from the numbers last year then obviously yes, their numbers will be higher than the prior year because in the prior year, those missing figures weren’t there most of the time.

    So the bottom line may be what they’re looking at but that doesn’t necessarly mean more people are buying their books. They’re bait and switching comics and readers. Essentially saying, ok, you don’t buy Aquaman, Blue Beetle, our new Firestorm, whatnot? We’ll ship 52 instead and you’ll buy that, which all of you did. Oh, Superman and Batman didn’t ship much of the year? We’ll throw out some specials to replace the missing circ figures, tie that in to 52 and call it WW3.

    Now this year… So, you don’t like Countdown as much as 52? Ok, we’ll start up the monthly engine again and where CountDown isn’t printing as much as 52, we now have the monthly machine going and with those figures absent last year, now appearing this year, well, we’re doing great, hence those great big smiley Dan Didio pictures at the back of each DC Comic ’cause its a DC Nation…

    And so the story goes…

  15. It should also go noted about the numbers mentioned by the blog citing McFarlane’s Spiderman, X-Force #1 and X-Men #1 — also, presenting an illusion of increased readership greater than it was. Sure all 3 sold brilliantly — brilliant enough that Spiderman #1 was packaged in a regular edition, a polybagged edition. People bought 2 copies, one to read and one to keep in the bag. For X-Force, they had the different trading cards polybagged so you had people buying 4-5 copies to get all the cards. For X-Men and their multiples, they had 5 different covers + the one with the whole cover — that’s mainly one person buying 6 copies of the same comic. So those numbers don’t actually represent new readers, though many were new, most bought multiple copies by the boatload.

    Where did all those new readers go? Well, they were speculators and probably would have stayed around had many comics of that time actually shipped new issues on a regular basis. But the people who produced those 3 megahits moved to Image, made their money and began shipping comics whenever they wanted, sometimes, only once or twice a year. Without new issues to buy, the speculators and many readers, went away.

    And the illusion of the numbers game continues…

  16. “If there were not speculators today, there would not be all these variant covers and what not ever week. ”

    This is a funny comment from someone calling themselves Charles Foster Kane. The majority of today’s variant cover market is NOT speculators but rather collectors and people who just plain like having ALL of the covers or a particular cover.

  17. Ian, SOMETIMES that is the case, MOST of the time that is NOT the case. Regardless, the Big 2 are still trying to milk the existing and shrinking comicbook readership for every damn penny.

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