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Top comics of the year -- for 1992, 1993, and 1994!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

by John Jackson Miller

It's the week for end-of-year lists — but as Diamond Comics Distributors won't release its December sales figures until later next week, the comics year isn't over. (It's probable that Avengers #1 will be the top seller for the year, but we'll see.) So instead I present not one, but three end-of-year lists — from 1992, 1993, and 1994, representing the peak of the speculator market and beginning of the crash.

Earlier this year, The Comics Chronicles added individual months from 1995, getting us past the period when Marvel's titles were not available from other distributors and, thus, not included in sales charts. (Read more about that "lost year.") That allows us to move back into the boom times of the early 1990s; 1993 saw the highest dollar sales (and, I believe, quite possibly the highest unit sales) in the history of the American comic book industry. It also shows, at a glance, one of the reasons that Marvel bought its own distribution company.

1992 was the first year that I can find in which Diamond published end-of-year rankings. The Top 300, as well as the Top 50 Trade Paperbacks (many of which are actually just pricier comics) can be seen here. Not surprisingly, Superman #75 was the top seller for the year both at Diamond and at Capital; the "Death of Superman" issue released in November 1992, leading to the single-highest dollar volume day in comics sales history. The year also saw the founding of Image and the release of Spawn #1, although in market shares, Image was still being counted as part of Malibu. Only Capital published dollar shares that year:

Marvel • 45.76%
DC • 20.91%
Malibu (including Image) • 8.55%
Dark Horse • 5.55%
Valiant • 4.11%

Now, by 1993, as the market moved upward to its "Return of Superman" peak in April (when a monumental 48 million comic books shipped), the dollar shares at Capital had completely changed:


Marvel • 33.43%
DC • 19.00%
Image • 14.79%
Valiant • 9.35%
Malibu •  3.52%
Dark Horse • 3.36%

Suddenly, we had the "Big Six" — and whereas in 1992, the Malibu/Image/Valiant/Dark Horse grouping accounted for 18% of dollar sales, in just a year it was up to 31%, most of it coming out of Marvel's hide. In Diamond's year-end rankings for 1993, the top Marvel book came in 14th place!

Again, the market peaked in 1993, so by 1994 —which started off horribly, with a thousand of the approximately 11,000 stores shuttering in January alone — the pie began to seriously shrink. Marvel's dollar share continued to shrink, as well. So while Marvel's purchase of Heroes World later in the year to distribute its own was certainly a shock to the system, some of the motives are apparent. Marvel had contributed to the creation of a market with historically low barriers to entry — most anyone who wanted to publish a comic book could do so (and was doing so, with as many as 600 titles a month coming out in this period). By running its own distributor, it wouldn't be subsidizing potential rivals. It could well be argued that the low barriers to entry helped all publishers, Marvel included — but looking at the scale of the market share loss above, we do get a sense of the circumstances that were surrounding the decision. (Marvel also bought Malibu in 1994, so the Big Six became the Big Five at that point.)

While Capital and Diamond each published end-of-year Top Sellers lists, I've only published Diamond's so far — although in all three cases, the distributors disagree on the top title for the year. Capital actually ranked Superman #75 in fourth for 1992, putting Spider-Man #26 in the top slot; but I'm guessing overall, Diamond's probably got the right top seller. Diamond ranks more copies sold of the cheaper Return-of-Superman book Action #687 by the end of 1993, but with the variants, I'd guess that Capital's top title, Adventures of Superman #500, is the better bet for top seller of the year. And in 1994, Diamond's report doesn't make much sense, placing Violator #1 as the top title — a book that didn't make the top 20 for the year at Capital. (Diamond also listed Codename: Stryke Force #1 at #3, which failed to make Capital's top 200 for the year.) Capital listed Generation X #1 as its top issue; my bet would be that the true top issue marketwide was more likely Spawn/Batman, the #2 book at both distributors.

The new pages for 1992-94 also include the covers for the #1 title each month from Diamond and Capital; the actual ranking pages for those months will appear here later. We do see some disagreement here again from time to time between the Diamond and Capital charts, mainly over Spawn, which appears to have done slightly better at Diamond.

Also, a graphic navigation grid has been added to the Yearly Comics Sales page, giving access to all of the annual pages. The end-of-year Diamond lists from later years are waiting to be uploaded, but I wanted to get these early years up first. My thanks to T.M. Haley for help entering the data!


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