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First Batman comic book tops three-day old record with $1,075,500 bid

Thursday, February 25, 2010

by John Jackson Miller    Bookmark and Share

It's a strange week when you can say a million dollars being paid for a comic book isn't unexpected, but that's exactly how it's played out this week. When ComicConnect announced its private sale of Action Comics #1 for $1 million earlier this week, one industry observer I spoke with said it was likely timed to get in front of the scheduled close of an auction today by Heritage Comic Auctions for the first appearance of Batman in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) — which the insider said was expected to become the first million-dollar comic book.

The 8.0 (Very Fine) copy of the first appearance of Superman indeed set the record as the first million-dollar comic book, but the copy of Detective #27 in the same condition now holds the record for highest price paid for a comic book. Today's auction closed for $1,075,500, which includes a 19.5% Buyer's Premium.

It's worth noting that these two sales represent appreciation over the initial 10¢ purchase price of 1 billion percent! There aren't many commodities that have appreciated to such a degree.


Which comic book is more rare today? CGC has graded more copies of Detective #27 — 45 copies, less than half unrestored, versus 42 for Action #1 — although since owners can remove books from their holders and resubmit them, those figures may not be representative of what's out there.

We are able to guess which book may have been more plentiful when it came out. Last year we reported on Audit Bureau of Circulation estimates for the Detective Comics Group for January 1939 — and as I noted, the May cover-dated #27 may well have come out in January. The Detective, More Fun, Adventure, and Action Comics issues for the month all added up to sales of 709,379 copies, so we're on our own to figure out which titles sold more than the others.

There are a few dynamics that we can observe from other titles that may advise us. First, in the 1950s, higher-numbered issues were generally more desirable to retailers, since they connoted longevity and an existing audience — but I'm not sure that dynamic was in effect in the late 1930s, when there weren't so many titles fighting for rack and shelf space yet. We see in Famous Funnies some declines as issue numbers increased, but that may also be attributable to the subject matter and the vagaries of that particular publisher's distribution. So it's not clear how the distributor draws — the number of copies distributors took to ship to newsstands — on a lower-numbered Action would compare to a higher-numbered Detective.

Comparing the numbering of the May cover-dated issues, we see which titles were around the longest:

More Fun Comics #43
Adventure Comics #38
Detective Comics #27
Action Comics #12

Adventure had begun as New Comics, becoming New Adventure and finally just Adventure as action comics came more into vogue; More Fun, beginning as the oldest DC comic book, New Fun, had dropped humor covers in early 1938. My sense is that probably the twelfth Superman outsold the first Batman despite Action Comics being a relative newcomer — and that the twenty-seventh Detective might have undersold longer-established More Fun and Adventure, meaning it'd have sold fewer than the 177,345 copies that an even four-way split may suggest. That's certainly not reflected in the number of issues found and graded for those books, of course, but nothing nearly as interesting as the debut of Batman went on in those issues of Adventure and More Fun!

It's all guesswork, to a great degree; the Audit Bureau simply didn't break out the individual titles. But there's not really room in the reported aggregate number for any of them to top a quarter-million copies, and my hunch is that 12 months was enough for even the glacially-responding newsstand market to recognize that Superman was a powerful draw. He'd have his own second title (simply called Superman) in a month or so after Batman's debut. So Action #12 very likely outsold Detective #27 — and my hunch is that Action #1 probably did, too. But today, in the aftermarket competition, Detective #27 has taken the prize — for now!

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Million-dollar Action #1 copy was once one-in-200,000

Monday, February 22, 2010

by John Jackson Miller

I've observed here that the comics industry isn't so much "recession-proof" as it is insulated from external market forces. When things go very right — or very wrong — it's usually been due to internal factors. The reason the "recession-proof" term started to be associated with comics has nothing to do with new comics publishing at all — but, rather, the secondary market for truly scarce comics. And that, as we see with today's announcement of a $1 million private sale for Action Comics #1, seems to be showing its usual vigor in the face of broader economic problems. Where Superman's first appearance is concerned, money remains not much of an object.

The sale, brokered by Stephen Fishler and Vincent Zurzolo's ComicConnect.com (an affiliate of Metropolis Comics), involves a CGC 8.0 (Very Fine) copy of Action #1 that had been in a private collection for 15 years. And while it's probably not, as Zurzolo says, "the single most important event in comic book history”  — the actual creation of Action #1 would be on a list of candidates for that — it's still pretty big news. An Action #1 in 6.0 (Fine) went for $317,200 last year; this is more than three times that. It's been known for some time there was a standing $1 million offer for the best-condition copy — and while this isn't quite the best copy, it's awfully close.

How long has a million-dollar offer been around? At least since the summer of 2001, when Richard Evans, owner of Houston's Bedrock City Comics, mentioned it at a forum on the aftermarket that I organized at Comic Con International: San Diego. "At some point," Evans said, "certain comics are going to reach a price ceiling where it they are going to become museum quality items. If the guy who owned the nicest Action #1 put it on the table, well, there’s already an offer of $1 million. I don’t think it would be any stretch of the imagination to believe that that guy’s offer is low." (The forum in its entirety appeared in Comics Buyer's Guide #1451.) Now, there's no telling whether the ComicConnect buyer is the same potential buyer mentioned back then, or someone else — but it's clearly not the first time Action's been picked as the first book to hit the $1 million mark.

The news release states that "only about 100 copies Action Comics #1 remain in existence, and of those 100, only two [including the one sold] have received a grading of 8.0." The CGC Census lists 42 copies of Action #1, including an unrestored 8.5 (VF+) and three restored copies above 8.0 (one 9.0 and one 8.5) — but restored copies are not generally as commercially desireable, and it's unclear whether the population report includes duplication due to comics being removed from their holders. That said, 100 existent copies overall sounds about right to me — my instinct is that even with this kind of high-profile book, probably as many copies are unslabbed and/or undiscovered as are graded by CGC.

How many copies of Action #1 originally existed? According to Audit Bureau of Circulation data detailed here, in January 1939, several months after Action #1 was released, all the issues on sale from the Detective Comics Group had combined sales of 709,379 copies. That group in that month for the ABC included four titles:
• Detective Comics  • More Fun Comics  • Action Comics  • Adventure Comics

...and any issues that shipped that month would combine for the 709,379. Now, we can't really link up specific issue numbers to these titles, because the cover months and the auditing months might not be the same. But we know that at this time, all four books were monthly. So we're looking at a four-way split, and so by January 1939 — when, even with post-dated covers, Action probably would still have been in high single digit issue numbers, the title wasn't likely selling much more than 250,000 copies. Newsstand draws on the first issue likely would probably have been less, probably landing closer to 200,000.

This isn't to say that that many four-color lottery tickets are still out there — comics were notoriously disposable in those days, and interceding paper drives did away with many of our pop cultural artifacts. If anything, Action #1 is among the most hunted-for-and-found comics, so if the 100 copies figure is accurate, we're looking at a "survival rate" of 0.05% — and that's of copies in any condition. But there are reasons hunting for old comics remains an important part of our comics-collecting pastime — and stories like this are one of them. Comics are about reading, sure enough — but if you're headed to an estate sale, it doesn't hurt to bring along an Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide just in case...


Update 4/5/12: As Mark Seifert notes in the comments, the specific issue of Action #1's sales came up in Detective Comics, Inc. vs. Bruns (Fox) Publications. The whole testimony can be found here, along with some interesting detail about when the issue went on sale and other distribution-related trivia, but the specific reference regarding the sales of Action #1 and #2 can be found here.

So the issue was still one of 200,000 -- 202,000, specifically -- with sales of 130,000, with draws on #2 at 211,000 and sales of 136,000. That suggests that while it was a steeper climb to reach the January 1939 numbers, it was already on its way. Thanks for the tip, Mark!

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January 2010 comics sales steady, market up slightly overall

Sunday, February 21, 2010

by John Jackson Miller and T.M. Haley

Despite having the best-selling direct market comic book of the decade after reprints figured in -- the Obama appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #583 -- last January was a pretty bad month in comparison with January 2008. So this January didn't have a lot to live up to — and, indeed, it held its own against that month when it comes to periodical sales: retailers ordered essentially the same number of Top 300 comics. Marvel's Siege #1 topped the list in this month without a new Blackest Night issue.

And while the Top 300 trade paperbacks were down by nearly $1 million in sales year-over-year, once all comics, trade paperbacks, and magazines are accounted for, the market finished about $700,000 ahead, or up about 2%. View the January 2010 sales estimates here.

The aggregate totals appear below. Obviously, there is no separate “year-to-date” number this time:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
January 2010: 5.62 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: unchanged
Versus 5 years ago this month: +13%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +1%

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
January 2010: $19.36 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +1%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +39%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +36%

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
January 2010: $5.25 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -27%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +6%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +38%

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
January 2010: $24.61 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -3%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: +33%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +36%

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
January 2010: $32.01 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +2%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +37%

The average comic book in Diamond’s Top 300 cost $3.52, well shy of December's $3.59 record. The average Top 300 comic book that retailers ordered from Diamond cost $3.44. The median comic book price in Diamond’s Top 300 was $3.50, and the most common cover price on Diamond’s list remained $2.99.

Where did the direct market make up the ground it lost in the Top 300 trade paperbacks? There are a few possibilities. Last January’s report found that the Watchmen-powered frontlist was strong, but that the backlist was disproportionately weak; this year, the frontlist was relatively weaker and the backlist relatively stronger. There was also some greater degree of deep-discounting on trades and hardcovers by publishers to retailers this January, which would tend to boost the overall retail dollar total — although there was not nearly as much of this as in some months of 2009.

Another contributor was likely sales of comic books below the 300th place mark. That’s not generally a major factor, but with more prolific mid-sized publishers now in the mix, the titles ranking low on the list are selling more copies. The 300th place title in January 2010 had orders of 2,357 copies; a year earlier, that figure was only 1,612 copies.

The parity in Top 300 comic book unit sales would seem to suggest that the number of comic book accounts did not change significantly at the end of the year, traditionally the time when closures tend to be more likely.

Here's a look back at what was going on in previous years...
January 2009's top seller was Marvel's Amazing Spider-Man #583. While it turned out to be the top seller for the decade with estimated Diamond final orders of 530,500 copies, first-month orders were just above 352,000 copies. The issue, timed for Inauguration Day, resulted in four reprintings, each with their own distinctive variant covers — which contributed to the issue retaining the #1 spot in February.

Check out the detailed analysis of the month's sales here — and sales chart here.

January 2005's top-seller was Marvel's New Avengers #2 with Diamond final orders of more than 153,400 copies. This was the second consecutive month that New Avengers topped the rankings. Check out the sales chart here.

January 2000's top-seller was Uncanny X-Men #378, the first part of the "Ages of Apocalypse" storyline, with estimated Diamond orders of over 113,700 copies. Publishers slimmed down their slates of titles in the month, resulting in poor sales for the first month of the new decade. Preorder units and dollars for the top 300 comics were both down 9% from the year before, with preorders of 5.58 million copies and $14.28 million respectively.

Check out the January 2000 sales chart here.

January 1995 had a consensus top-seller at Diamond and at Capital City Distribution: Marvel's Amazing X-Men #1. Part of the original "Age of Apocalypse" storyline, Amazing X-Men was the title that replaced X-Men Vol. 2 for the four-month event. After the disastrous January of 1994 when 1,000 stores closed, the positioning of a major event for the "dead quarter" was a welcome change. (It would be repeated the following year, with "Marvel Versus DC."

At Capital City, Amazing X-Men had preorders of 92,650 copies, but advance reorders appear to have talen it to 127,600 copies, well over what the regular X-Men title had been averaging. Click to see the Capital City sales estimates for January 1995, which fuse known orders from Capital with the distributor's Top 600 list for the month. Capital's Top 600 comics preorders for the month amounted to 5.28 million copies worth $11.67 million. While that unit count is not far off what it is today, note that Capital alone reported having 3,500 accounts in that month — more than the entire direct market has currently. (Some of those 3,500 accounts may not necessarily have been full-line accounts — and it's unclear how old that reference was when it was printed.)

Diamond's sales for Amazing X-Men were likely closer to 170,000 copies, although only the Order Index numbers for Diamond are known. Check out the Diamond rankings for January 1995. All told, Amazing's sales were probably in the 400-500,000-copy range.

Comparisons between the distributors are difficult to make — while Capital and Diamond both published their rankings at the same time each month, one chart may have been prepared earlier in the month than the other. But we can see some interesting things. The average Top 300 comic book at Diamond cost $2.26; the average comic ordered from Diamond cost $2.20. When the next 300 items are added at Capital, the average comic book offered leaps up to $2.47 — independent titles were simply more expensive. But the average comic ordered from Capital wasn't much more expensive, only $2.21.

January 1990's top seller was Legends of the Dark Knight #5, concluding the "Shaman" storyline with orders of 126,200 copies at Capital City. Following the release of the Batman film in June 1989, Batman was on a roll; Batman was only ousted from the #1 spot in June. Other distributors and the newsstand likely brought Legends #5's sales closer to half a million copies.

January 1985 had Marvel's Uncanny X-Men #193, the 100th issue since the "new" X-Men reboot, as its likely top seller. This was the first non-Secret Wars month, and while Crisis on Infinite Earths had just started in the month before, the 12-issue maxi-series was still gaining steam. Amazing Heroes, the then-biweekly Fantagraphics magazine was running its own Top 100 list in this period; the January charts found X-Men #193 in first, followed by Fantastic Four #278 and then Crisis #2. Dave Olbrich, the editor during that time, told The Comics Chronicles the Amazing Heroes charts were based on unit sales a pool of retailers the magazine surveyed. The AH charts for December had Crisis #1 in fourth, behind Secret Wars #12, Web of Spider-Man #1, and the previous month's Uncanny X-Men issue.

When was Crisis #1 actually released? According to Comics Buyer's Guide #578 (the Dec. 14, 1984 issue), the issue shipped from printers on Dec. 11 and had a newsstand on-sale date of January 3, 1985. However, direct-market retailers usually received comics one to three weeks before the newsstand. Our own purchase records from comics shops in 1984 show DC comics available late in the week after the ship-from-printer date, so it's likely comics shops had Crisis #1 on the shelves by Dec. 20, for the holidays. Anyone remember?

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Comichron passes the billion-copy mark: All Diamond exclusive-era months now online

Thursday, February 18, 2010

by John Jackson Miller

When I launched The Comics Chronicles nearly three years ago, one of the major missions was to get all my earlier research into Diamond's monthly comics sales online. Now, with the assistance of T.M. Haley, that mission is finally complete. Estimates from every month, from September 1996 forward, are now online. That's 160 months of sales charts for comic books and trade paperbacks — and it brings the number of sales figures reported on the site well over 60,000.

Put another way, the Comichron charts now detail the sales of more than 1 billion comic-book copies, representing more than $3 billion in business to the industry. With the added information from Diamond's first-month sales of more than 12,000 trade paperbacks and what we know of Overall sales from 2003 to present, we have the detailed disposition of an additional billion dollars at full retail.

While some of those 60,000 items are reported more than once, they're reporting different sales. Blackest Night #1 makes the list in its initial month and in some reorder months, for example, but those are all sales of different copies.

The final batches of numbers added in our last update were from 2002, 2001, and 1998 — that last year in the news today with the announcement that Jim Lee and Dan DiDio had been named co-publishers at DC Comics. The biggest industry story of 1998, many recall, was Lee's departure from Image to join DC with his Wildstorm studio. It was an important move in DC's market-share race with Marvel — and it perhaps had a greater immediate effect on the standing of Image, which had previously posted dollar shares in the double digits on a regular basis. The publisher would later invite more creators with outside projects to join under the Image umbrella.

January 2010 estimates coming soon. Sorry for the delay, but we wanted to get the larger project done with...

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Hibbs presents 2009 Bookscan analysis

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Things are beyond busy here at The Comichron datafarm — but it's worth noting that Brian Hibbs has produced his annual analysis of graphic novel sales in the mass market according to Bookscan. It'll take some time for us here to digest the data and take a look at it beside the direct market, but in the meantime, it is interesting reading as always.

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Winter strikes Diamond home offices

Monday, February 8, 2010

by John Jackson Miller

The first Monday of the month is normally when the Top 300 lists are released — but against the great snowstorm, not even comics sales charts can stand. Power is out at the Diamond home offices in Timonium, Md., this morning, affecting all websites (including the Comics Shop Locator service), e-mail, and phone traffic, according to Cheryl Sleboda, Diamond's customer service manager for technical support. Sleboda writes on the Comic Book Industry Alliance forum that crews are working on the problem, and that Diamond hopes to reopen this afternoon.

The Memphis area, which has Diamond's huge Olive Branch, Miss., warehouse, has also seen several inches of snow this weekend, though no shipping problems have been reported. Winter 2010 has spared few corners of the comics universe!

Update: Dan Manser, Diamond's director of marketing, says Diamond's home office will not reopen today but will try again tomorrow (Tuesday the 9th). He also notes to the CBIA that the snow in Olive Branch may affect re-ships, some drop points, and customers serviced out of that location. The snow has not affected the drop points in Baltimore, although he notes that more is predicted.

Update #2: Manser reports that Diamond's website operations are back to normal. But the real-life challenges of shipping thousands of books across the continent every week were brought home by the news that the severe weather contributed to an accident involving a truck carrying comics to the Plattsburgh Distribution Center. "Unfortunately, this was major accident with two drivers hospitalized with serious injuries, and our thoughts and prayers are with each of them," Manser said on the CBIA forum.

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Siege leads off January 2010 top sellers list

Thursday, February 4, 2010

by John Jackson Miller

As a new decade dawned for comics shops, Marvel's Siege #1 was first off the UPS truck — and first in the preliminary rankings released by Diamond Comic Distributors for January orders.

Comics shops ordered more copies of the new Marvel event title in a month that did not see a new Blackest Night issue, breaking DC's string of months topping the list. Check out the complete top-sellers chart; this is, again, Diamond's preliminary release, so more will be coming later.

Marvel led the market shares, with DC in second and Dark Horse in third for both unit and dollar sales.

The Walking Dead Volume 11: Fear The HuntersWalking Dead Vol. 11 topped the trade paperback and graphic novel list.

A final note: we've restored a research forum of sorts to the site. The earliest iteration of the site had a forum where readers could ask questions and post information they'd discovered; that vanished in the database crash of 2008, but we were able to rescue some of the more interesting posts and restore them to the new forum. It's a very no-frills message board — no memberships required — but hopefully it will allow readers to ask and answer on topic we don't get to in our blog.

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