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Comics sales in the 1930s: Famous Funnies

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I am often asked about comics sales in the old days — meaning the really old days of the Golden Age. One of the people who's done a lot of work in this area is Russ Maheras, who provided me his Audit Bureau of Circulation research on Famous Funnies a few years back.

Launched in 1934 as an added way for Eastern Color Printing to keep its presses rolling, Famous Funnies, initially filled with comic strip reprints, is regarded by some as the first traditional comic book for comparison purposes. While there have been unending debates on that distinction that would bore you to tears, the relevant matter to circulation research is that it was a monthly 10¢ four-color magazine similar in size to conventional comic books, and sold via newsstand sales. Whatever came before, Maggie Thompson and I agree that its publishing and distribution model became a standard for the business, thus providing a dividing line for us later folks looking to compare apples to apples whenever possible.

So never mind Buck Rogers in the 25th Century — what was he doing in the 1930s and 1940s? Well, while there are no subscription numbers from back then — postal statements did not require them until 1960 — Famous Funnies does have overall figures from the auditing agency. And it is especially helpful in that its ABC figures are for a single title, and not pooled as many listings are. That's been the bane of much audit agency research in those days — it is not always clear what issues are included in a given month's sales figures. Here, it is exact:

#30 • Jan-37 • 485,136
#31 • Feb-37 • 460,468
#32 • Mar-37 • 380,427
#33 • Apr-37 • 396,371
#34 • May-37 • 351,913
#35 • Jun-37 • 371,202
#36 • Jul-37 • 438,824
#37 • Aug-37 • 485,151
#38 • Sep-37 • 530,824
#39 • Oct-37 • 440,837
#40 • Nov-37 • 429,298
#41 • Dec-37 • 456,050

#42 • Jan-38 • 438,937
#43 • Feb-38 • 420,162
#44 • Mar-38 • 401,002
#45 • Apr-38 • 349,070
#46 • May-38 • 324,698
#47 • Jun-38 • 323,795
#48 • Jul-38 • 378,122
#49 • Aug-38 • 373,295
#50 • Sep-38 • 425,970
#51 • Oct-38 • 343,233
#52 • Nov-38 • 312,589
#53 • Dec-38 • 331,827

#54 • Jan-39 • 357,386
#55 • Feb-39 • 356,893
#56 • Mar-39 • 348,914
#57 • Apr-39 • 334,377
#58 • May-39 • 280,350
#59 • Jun-39 • 328,153
#60 • Jul-39 • 367,736
#61 • Aug-39 • 389,005
#62 • Sep-39 • 408,545
#63 • Oct-39 • 311,541
#64 • Nov-39 • 310,173
#65 • Dec-39 • 327,685

#66 • Jan-40 • 329,629
#67 • Feb-40 • 319,277
#68 • Mar-40 • 266,483
#69 • Apr-40 • 241,918
#70 • May-40 • 218,009
#71 • Jun-40 • 203,608
#72 • Jul-40 • 239,716
#73 • Aug-40 • 249,258
#74 • Sep-40 • 281,761
#75 • Oct-40 • 225,236
#76 • Nov-40 • 198,228
#77 • Dec-40 • 214,825

#78 • Jan-41 • 251,900
#79 • Feb-41 • 224,942
#80 • Mar-41 • 219,904
#81 • Apr-41 • 227,062
#82 • May-41 • 165,922
#83 • Jun-41 • 175,561
#84 • Jul-41 • 193,805
#85 • Aug-41 • 212,435
#86 • Sep-41 • 204,397
#87 • Oct-41 • 191,517
#88 • Nov-41 • 191,406
#89 • Dec-41 • 186,991

#90 • Jan-42 • 183,938
#91 • Feb-42 • 167,988
#92 • Mar-42 • 163,628
#93 • Apr-42 • 201,141
#94 • May-42 • 185,609
#95 • Jun-42 • 208,536

We see sales dropping off in the immediate prewar period; competition was a lot greater, by then. 1942 was likely the first year with more than 1,000 individual comic book issues released. Newsstand comics circulation probably hit its high-water mark in the early 1950s, just as Famous Funnies was winding down; I haven't seen numbers from that end of the run, but would suspect it was probably underselling a lot of the newer competition by then.

The numbers are exact enough, incidentally, for someone to take a stab at matching circulation changes with cover subject. Famous Funnies had rotating cover subjects, most early issues spotlighting humor comics; action covers, like the one above, mostly came along later. I note that #82 there sold more poorly than some of the humor covers in the stretch on either side, but someone would really need to square up the subjects and numbers to see if there was a direct relationship or not. My hunch is that newsstand sales in those very early days were incredibly fluke-y, with newsdealer accounts shifting around and draws changing at random — and print runs bouncing around depending on what else the publisher needed the resources for. But it would be an interesting study for someone, especially if more titles and issues are brought in.

Just a glimpse at some of the older data out there...

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