There was an article in the NY Times that focused on a comment made by an executive at Marvel Comics and used that as the tagline for slumping sales at Marvel, which laid the blame to slumping sales to the increase diversity of comic book characters. It was implied that the change in establish characters, such as the black Spiderman, the female Thor, the black female Iron Man and the Asian Hulk (NOTE: I didn’t know there was an Asian Hulk) was turning off customers and was a contributor to low sales of the books.
The statement and the article caused all sorts of debate with comic book fans.
Brian Hibbs of the Comix Experience stores in San Francisco explained in a paragraph or two the real reason for the slump, and it wasn’t due to comic book fans showing prejudice. The reason for the slump, Hibbs explained can be found in “the frequent restarting of series with new No. 1 issues; fan fatigue over storylines that promise changes but fail to deliver; and the introduction of a deluge of new series. There is also the expense of comic collecting.”
There was something else he stated that got me thinking about sales of comics in general. Hibbs said that he didn’t believe Marvel had more than one or two comics selling over 60000 to 70000 copies. It was shocking to me to hear those numbers because with graphic novels and especially media awareness of TV shows and movies I thought sales would be bigger on comics books.
In the mid-80s, when I did some part time work for a local comic book shop, I got looked on studying the order numbers the shop would have for comics. When the internet grew, those figures were available on line. A site called Comichron probably has the best estimated figures the public can have for sales on comics.
I decided to take a look at some quick sales information. Looking at December 2016, there were 26 comic book titles selling that had over 60000 orders. To be clear, these are orders; not returns or sales but orders that retailer placed for titles. There were 13 DC titles, 12 Marvel titles and 1 title from Image Comics, which was The Walking Dead. Justice League Suicide Squad from DC Comics had the most orders with 179643. In second with 167703 was the Marvel title IVX (Inhumans vs X-Men). I would not that the DC boon was listed at $3.99 and the Marvel book is listed at $5.99 so while DC got more units ordered Marvel, with the extra $2 per book, potentially made more money on their highest order for the month.
With Walking Dead coming in at 11 on the chart, I decided to use that as a benchmark for comparison. Walking Dead first appeared as a comic in October of 2003. I wanted to see what the numbers were for titles coming out in October of 2003 and for October 2013, which was the tenth anniversary for Walking Dead and when the publisher re-released the first issue in color.
In October of 2013, there were 23 titles with over 60000 in orders with Walking Dead 115 at the top of the heap with an impressive 310584, more than double that the leading DC and Marvel title respectively. Batman was number two at 124652 and Infinity from Marvel came in at number three with 113003. In this instance, it was DC that had the more expensive top title with a $6.99 cover price and Marvel was a $3.99 cover. DC had 8 titles with orders over 60000 while DC had 8. The Walking Dead anniversary edition came in number 50 on the chart with 39780 in orders. The Batman issue was a double sized issue and was part four of the Zero Hour storyline. What was interesting to me looking at the figures was Marvel was dominant on the charts, but I saw a number of DC books were in a slump due to their own revamping of the brand at the time. Two years earlier DC Comics began their New 52 project, which did some reimagining of characters, which was met with mixed reviews and slow sales. The core titles of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman strong to OK in sales, but books like Earth-2 and Mister Terrific stumbles or were canceled before the first year ended.
For October 2003, there were 25 comics that sold over 60000 and Marvel dominated the competition. A company called Dreamwave, publisher of Transformer comics at the time, had 2 titles of the 25, DC Comics had five titles with the Avengers/JLA the top orders with 167309. Marvel had 18 titles of the 25 with Amazing Spider-Man 500 coming in second with 148939. Take a notice that Amazing Spider-Man was on issue 500! Batman was in the top ten or orders at issue 640 at a little over 108000 in sales. Uncanny X-Men was at 13 unit at issue number 432. There were a lot of long running issues on the chart like Detective Comics 787 with 37881 in orders listed at 57, Fantastic Four 505 with 52854 at 36 and Action Comics 808 with 30981 at 75. The long run comics were doing decent sales at that time.
When I checked, the units ordered for October 2003, October 2013 and December 2016 things got odd to me. The sales are relatively the same for those time periods with October 2003 having 7.4 million orders, October 2013 with 7.7 million and December 2016 with 7.3 million for all comics ordered. What all comic companies are dealing with is the number of people buying comics hasn’t expanded. That hurts the entire industry when new buyers aren’t in the market.
All comic companies are trying to bring new readers into the market, but the efforts haven’t worked. There is a greater awareness of comic book characters because of mass media, yet that doesn’t translate to the shops consistently. A blub with Obama on the cover or a female Thor will get you talk about one day on The View (owned by parent company ABC) but a one note blurb isn’t going to sustain you, especially if the same comic shop people will ultimately be the ones who will give repeat business.