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Gaiman, guest author issues gave Spawn a boost in 1993

Saturday, July 31, 2010

by John Jackson Miller    Bookmark and Share

On July 29, a Senior U.S. District Judge for the 7th Circuit Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that writer Neil Gaiman had the right to a share of the profits from comics and merchandise related to three characters from Todd McFarlane's Spawn franchise. Maggie Thompson reports the ruling here, as part of her exhaustive, in-depth coverage of the case; you can read from the first chapter here.


It's the second case spawned (no pun intended) by a comic book that was actually part of a publicity stunt from the first year of McFarlane's title. Back in 1992, McFarlane, who had made a splash both writing and drawing the "adjectiveless" Spider-Man series, which launched 20 years ago last month, took on criticisms of his writing style by hiring four big-name writers to produce issues of Spawn, with terms favorable to them; Alan Moore, Gaiman, Dave Sim, and Frank Miller wrote issues #8-11 respectively. Gaiman later sued for, and in 2002, won a share of the rights to the characters of Count Cogliostro, Medieval Spawn, and warrior angel Angela, from Spawn #9. The judgment was upheld on appeal in 2004.

The current suit involved the ownership of characters that had appeared later over the years in McFarlane's titles, specifically Dark Ages Spawn and warrior angels Tiffany and Domina. During the months of June and July, Gaiman, McFarlane, and Spawn: The Dark Ages writer Brian Holguin appeared before Judge Barbara Crabb to determine whether those later characters were derivative of Gaiman's work; the judge ruled Thursday that they were.

The ruling, which invokes a previous case involving former Beatle George Harrison and the song "He's So Fine," may be the only occasion in which a judge has ever discussed voluptuous warrior angels wearing "ill-fitting armor bras." The whole court record, taken from the beginning, makes for fascinating reading about comics production behind-the-scenes.

The connection with Spawn #9 also provides a connection to the days of blockbuster sales; several times in the past, including during the current case, I have been contacted for historical background and such sales figures as are in my archives. My records are only partial, but I can share a few things here:

In 1992 and 1993, Capital City Distribution, headquartered in Madison, Wis., the same site as the court case, was the second largest distributor of comics to the comics-shop market. For a publisher like Image, whose newsstand distribution was just beginning, Capital would have provided a larger share than usual of overall sales. Capital's first-month preorders on Spawn issues then — including, for comparison, the issues before and after the "guest author" issues, are as follows:

#7 (McFarlane-written): 143,225 copies at Capital; overall sales, likely 500,000+
• Rank: #8 at Capital, #9 at Diamond

#8 (Moore): 225,675 copies at Capital; overall sales, likely 800,000
• Rank: #2 at Capital, #2 at Diamond

#9 (Gaiman): 204,600 copies at Capital; overall sales, likely 700,000+
• Rank: #3 at Capital, #3 at Diamond

#10 (Sim): 210,500 copies at Capital; overall sales, likely 700,000+
• Rank: #2 at Capital,

#11 (Miller): 234,150 copies at Capital; overall sales, likely 800,000+
• Rank: #3 at Capital, #2 at Diamond

#12 (McFarlane): 225,150 copies at Capital; overall sales, likely 800,000
• Rank: #9 at Capital, #8 at Diamond

Capital's initial orders of Spawn #1, in 1992, had been 204,760, a figure Gaiman's issue nearly matched and which all the other titles beat; since Spawn #1, no issue had broken 200,000 at Capital — until Moore's issue. (Note that since Capital's reports were preorders, reorders would have made the total figures higher than those recorded here. Spawn #1 is widely believed to have broken the million-copy mark, overall.)

Interestingly, Gaiman's issue is the lowest-seller of the guest-author series at Capital; Dave Sim's issue had higher orders in a time in which Sandman was outselling Cerebus seven-to-one. A likely contributor was the fact that Gaiman's issue shipped in January, typically a very weak month for comics orders relative to other months.

The actual figures would, of course, have been made available to the parties involved in the 2002 court case. But we can see that just within the run of the Spawn title at the time, the issues the guest authors were on did sell better than those before. Sales continued to be well above earlier levels even after the "guest author" program: orders at Capital would remain above where they were before the program for most of the rest of 1993, until issue #17. (Don't be misled by the drop in rank for #12: that was April 1993, when Superman returned from the dead and Valiant's Turok launched. Sales in the direct market were never higher before or after that month. )

Sales on many titles were buoyed by the peaking market in this period, but the boost Spawn got starting with #8 was larger than the average increase by far. While the litigants have obviously had their own reasons to look back on this time, from the standpoint of circulation history what we see is a picture of a very successful editorial promotion.

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June 2010 Flashbacks: McFarlane Spider-Man #1 at 20

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

 by John Jackson Miller    Bookmark and Share

Following the report on comics orders for June 2010, here's a look back at what was going on in previous years...
June 2009's top seller was DC's Batman and Robin #1, with estimated first-month Diamond orders of 168,500 copies. It would ultimately be the fourth best-selling comic book of 2009, with reorders bringing it to 190,300 copies. June 2009 was notable for increasing prices, which set new records in the month with the average comic book offered in Diamond's top-sellers list selling for $3.50. Check out the detailed analysis of the month's sales here — and sales chart here.

June 2005's top-seller was Marvel's House of M #1, with Diamond first-month orders of over 233,700 copies. Final orders including reorders brought the summer event issue to 248,200 copies, making it the 14th best-selling comic book of the 2000s. (See the whole list here.) Check out the sales chart for June 2005 here.

June 2000's top-seller was Marvel's Uncanny X-Men #383, with Diamond preorders of 120,600 copies, barely making the Top 300 list for the decade; such were the low volumes in 2000 compared to later in the decade. June was X-Men month, with the first movie prompting the release of several prequel issues at Marvel; yet retailer orders remained light following many down years in the direct market. (The coincidence of a popular movie with poor cash flow at retail is one of the case studies examined in this piece relating comics and movie sales.)

Still, overall figures were up, a step in the right direction. Check out the sales chart here.

June 1995's top seller at Diamond was Spawn: Blood Feud #1; at Capital City Distribution, the top-seller was Marvel's X-Men #43. With newsstand and subscription sales, the X-Men issue almost certainly was the better seller overall; Capital's orders were 90,800 copies, with average annual sales for the title that year at nearly 333,000 copies.

It was the last month in the year all distributors would have Marvel and DC comics: on March 3, 1995, the publisher announced it would shift all Marvel's products to its recently purchased Heroes World Distribution company as of July-shipping products. (A not-insignificant detail in all this: Heroes World stopped selling other publishers' products at the same time, cutting out sales from what was then the third-largest distributor.) On April 28, DC announced it was going with Diamond exclusively with its July-shipping products. Dark Horse did the same for November items, and Image for December items. Capital City did get two additional months of DC products by filing a lawsuit against DC and Diamond, but for practical purposes, June 1995 was the end of the multi-distributor direct market the industry had known for more than a decade.

The average price of comics in Diamond's Top 300 was $2.48, and the average comic book ordered within Diamond's Top 300 cost $2.43. The most common cost of comics was $2.50.

June 1990's top seller at Diamond and Capital City was a blockbuster: Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man #1. The issue went on sale in comics shops June 21, 1990: 1.2 million copies of a silver-ink cover edition and 125,000 copies of a "bagged" silver-ink version. (In theory, removing the bag meant the book was no longer "mint.") There followed 800,000 green unbagged and 125,000 bagged newsstand editions — and several reprints. Golden Apple Comics in California staged a "Midnight Madness" sale for the release, complete with searchlights and radio news crews; hundreds of people showed up, and the chain sold out of its initial shipment of 3,000 copies withing 36 hours, with sales restricted to one per customer after the first day. (I bought my own copy in a comics shop set up in, all places, a doctor's office complex — a sign of how easily shops were opening in the multi-distributor world.)

Reported same-day prices on the bagged silver editions ranged from $15 to $30 in many places, and hit $80 in at least one. It was a watershed moment in the commoditization of new comics, decried by many at the time; Moondog's owner Gary Colabuono, declaring that the bagged editions were "the dumbest thing to come along in some time," announced his stores would no longer carry them. "It serves no purpose but to stimulate greed and speculation."

Indeed, even the former Marvel executive who came up with the idea of the limited-edition Platinum Spider-Man #1 reprint wrote of his second thoughts in Comics Retailer magazine, years later: "I was taking advantage of the desires of the market and fueling speculator greed."

While Spider-Man #1 was not the best-selling comic book of the wave — that would be the following year's adjectiveless X-Men #1, with its five covers — it did have a long-lasting effect in solidifying McFarlane as the most popular creator working in comics. McFarlane would parlay that popularity into the launch of Image Comics. (Readers interested in the inner workings of the publisher should check out Maggie Thompson's in-depth coverage of the 2010 hearings in the McFarlane/Neil Gaiman laswuit.)

June 1985's top seller at Capital City was Marvel's Secret Wars II #4. Capital's orders were approximately 63,200 copies, suggesting overall sales in the 300,000-to-400,000-copy range. A Barry Windsor-Smith issue of Uncanny X-Men, #198, came in second.

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Comics sales little changed overall in first half of 2010

by John Jackson Miller    Bookmark and Share

Comics shop orders were essentially unchanged overall in June versus the same month last year, producing a similar result for the first half of 2010, according to analysis by The Comics Chronicles of data released by Diamond Comic Distributors. Marvel's New Avengers relaunch led the market, just as the "adjectiveless" Avengers reboot did in May. Click to see the estimates of June 2010 comics orders.

Retailers ordered slightly fewer dollars worth of comic books and substantially more dollars worth of trade paperbacks this June versus last June, reversing a trend seen most of this year. The trade paperback list likewise saw heavier volumes distributed further down the chart, with the 100th place trade paperback selling more than 1,250 copies versus 1,000 copies last June, a month that had one less shipping week.

Higher volumes in the midlist and lower-list titles are also noticeable in the comics list. The volume of the 300th place title was the second-highest it's been in a decade, at 4,528 copies. Only December 2008 saw higher sales at the bottom of the list; the full record of 300th-place comics sales can be seen here.

And one of the main reasons is another first: Only 15 publishers had titles in the Top 300, the lowest number in the Diamond Exclusive Era. Add up the Top Seven publishers with the most comics in the Top 300 — Marvel, DC, IDW, Image, Dynamite, Dark Horse, and Boom, in that order — and you've got 277 spots on the list. (The top 10 publishers took 291!)

The result is that many familiar publisher names wound up peaking below 300th place — and Diamond again reported sales for a number of these publishers in a supplementary report: 40 titles, ranging all the way down to 460th place. These can be found at the bottom of the Comichron listing, (although, as usual, our Top 300 market shares take in only the Top 300).

These addditional titles added almost exactly 100,000 copies to the Top 300 comics, bringing total unit sales close to 6.22 million copies. As that 460th place title, the "nude" edition of Cavewoman Prehistoric Pinups #7, had orders of 926 copies — so totaling all the comics Diamond sold at least 1,000 copies of  probably yields somewhere around 6.5 million copies. The "next 150" after the Top 300 is thus maybe 5% to 6% of the new-issue market by units.


The aggregate figures:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
June 2010: 6.11 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: -7%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -14%
Versus 10 years ago this month: -1%
Second quarter 2010: 17.84 million copies, -6% vs. 2009
YEAR TO DATE: 35.49 million copies, -2% vs. 2009, -5% vs. 2005, unchanged vs. 2000

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
June 2010: $21.8 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -4%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +5%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +23%
Second quarter 2010: $62.67 million, -2% vs. 2009

YEAR TO DATE: $122.02 million, +1% vs. 2009, +16% vs. 2005, +30% vs. 2000

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
June 2010: $7.32 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +21%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +21%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +25%
Second quarter 2010: $18.86 million, -9% vs. 2009

YEAR TO DATE: $35.57 million, -9% vs. 2009

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 100 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
June 2010: $29.11 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +1%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: +7%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +23%
Second quarter 2010: $81.45 million, -4% vs. 2009

YEAR TO DATE: $157.52 million, -1% vs. 2009

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
June 2010: $37.96 million (figure revised)
Versus 1 year ago this month: +3%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +16%
Second quarter 2010: $104.98 million, -9%

YEAR TO DATE: $202.25 million, -2% vs. 2009, +20% vs. 2005

The average comic book in Diamond’s Top 300 cost $3.47 The average Top 300 comic book that retailers ordered from Diamond cost $3.56. The median comic book price in Diamond’s Top 300 was $3.50, and the most common cover price on Diamond’s list dropped back to $2.99 after three months at $3.99.

The overall figures for June are subject to change as supplementary data comes in, but the upshot for the first half of 2010 is that comics unit sales are still keeping right around the same 35-40 million copy range they've been in for much of the last 10 years. Unit sales for the first six months are, in fact, identical to those in 2000 — a positive result when one considers that most of the trade paperback business we have now didn't exist then. (The market did grow: it just grew a new sector.) Trade paperbacks, meanwhile, are still struggling versus 2009, although, again, June turned back in the right direction.

It continues to be the expectation of this observer that trade paperbacks are more sensitive to external financial conditions than periodicals, where comics shops are concerned. Ordering non-returnably, comics shops are in a different position from other bookstores; as general economic conditions improve, we would expect to see comics retailers replenishing their graphic novel inventories.

Stay tuned for the June Flashbacks report, appearing here soon.

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June 2010: Avengers leads again, Big Two domination in Top 100

Friday, July 9, 2010

by John Jackson Miller    Bookmark and Share

A month after a new Avengers title led the charts, a new New Avengers title led the charts in June, according to reports released today by Diamond Comic Distributors. The Top 100 comics and trade paperbacks ordered by comics shops, as well as market shares, can be found here.

Marvel and DC combined to take the top 49 slots on the comics sales chart, and 96 out of the Top 100. It is the deepest into the chart the Big Two publishers have extended their reach since October 2008, when they took the top 64 slots. What happened? No Buffy the Vampire Slayer issue this month. Marvel and DC's domination of the top of the list is usually broken up by the Dark Horse title, and the months where their reach has gone far into the charts are the rare ones in which the Dark Horse title was not released. In one such month, August 2007, Marvel and DC took the top 84 slots and 98 out of the Top 100 titles. 

However, these unbroken chains of entries are generally not meaningful, as we see from the market shares, which were not largely different this month than usual. Much of the other publishers' dollar volume comes from trade paperbacks — a much more integrated list, near the top — and also from relatively larger numbers of titles offered below 100th place. The Batman: Arkham Asylum Madness hardcover was the best-selling trade this month, but the next three titles are from other publishers.


The average cost of the Top 100 comics was $3.57, with the most common price $2.99 and the median price $3.99.

Diamond's full top 300 lists along with estimates should appear next week.

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