With The Avengers movie releasing, this seems like a good time to post the near-complete year-by-year record of Avengers sales, according to statements Marvel filed with the U.S. Postal Service. The first postal statement appeared in 1966; I have all of them since then with the exception of 1975, 1988, 2005, and 2010 when Marvel did not publish figures at all — the latter two being the first years from New Avengers and then the re-re-re-rebooted Avengers series. (Yes, New Avengers is considered part of the same "series," at least as far as postal subscriptions go. So even with the name change, it's been one title since 1963.) Click to see the entire table of Avengers sales over the years.
Avengers brought together several heroes from other titles under the roof of Avengers Mansion: Iron Man (and later Captain America) from Tales of Suspense; Thor from Journey Into Mystery; and Hulk, Wasp, and Ant-Man from Tales to Astonish. The formula succeeded, providing Marvel with a new team title and a subgroup of heroes within its own universe. When Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor each got their own titles, the books were colloquially known as "the Avengers titles," even though all the characters had started elsewhere before the Avengers existed.
The sales story of The Avengers is an adventure all on its own, with several heroic recoveries. From a 1967 plateau of nearly 277,000 copies, Avengers sales declined along with most other titles in the 1960s, but held relatively steady through much of the 1970s. Sales improved dramatically in 1979, with modest growth during Jim Shooter's return tenure on the title and continuing on through to 1984.
But sales began to slip in the late 1980s, with sales now split between the main title and West Coast Avengers and, later, Solo Avengers. (Those titles will have their own entries here eventually.) When the rest of the industry was exploding in sales in the early 1990s, Avengers saw only modest sustained increases. The title had dwindled to five-figures in the mid-1990s when Marvel brought Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld on board to relaunch part of he Marvel line as part of "Heroes Reborn." Liefeld's brief stint on Avengers dramatically increased sales on the title, and after he left, Avengers had better luck holding onto its gains after "Heroes Return" began than other titles in the experiment had.
By 2003, sales had again approached pre-Reborn levels, and Marvel rebooted the series as New Avengers under Brian Michael Bendis. Sales soared again, and the title benefited from its central role in the Civil War storyline in the mid-2000s. Sales slipped during the recession later in the decade, and Marvel rebooted the series a fourth time (this time as Avengers again) in 2010, in advance of the 2012 Avengers feature film.
What's the best-selling issue of the main Avengers title? The peak seller in the 1980s, according to archival records, was November 1985's #261, a Secret Wars II crossover, with sales of 277,400 copies — including 151,900 copies in the Direct Market. As 277,000 was the average in 1967, one of the issues that year — or from an earlier year — likely trumps it. Bendis's New Avengers #1 had Direct Market final orders of at least 241,500 copies in late 2004 and early 2005, and newsstand, subscription sales, and later reorders would likely have boosted it still higher, so it's a contender.
But the relaunched Avengers Vol. 2 #1 — the first "Heroes Reborn" issue — had preorders through Heroes World Distribution of 276,734 copies — and that does not include newsstand or subscription sales, which would have taken it into the 300,000s. So barring some much higher issue from 1963-65, that rebooted issue is a good candidate for the top-seller. [The closest modern-era rivals would come from 1993, the biggest year of the boom era; Avengers dropped no less than four foil or otherwise enhanced covers on the market in that publishing year. There are several near the peak that could have made it into the 300,000s, but the data is incomplete, and the average for the year was nonetheless under 200,000. The 300k-plus club for Avengers is likely very small, in any event.]
All told, the nearly 600 monthly issues of the main Avengers title likely sold between 125 and 135 million copies. Not bad for a book about to hit 50!
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My thanks to Eric S., Brent Frankenhoff, Mike Howell, and others who helped locate Statements.
[Update 5/2/12: And the aforementioned Frankenhoff has definitively found there were no Statements for 2005 and 2010, so the numbers are basically complete.
I have also looked further into the sales from 1993: At least at Capital City Distribution, the top-selling issue that year wasn't one of the foil issues, but rather #368, the first "Blood Ties" issue, which at 103,900 copies had orders nearly four times what #367 — and most of the other non-enhanced issues of the year had. That would seem to predict an overall sale of at least 300,000 copies and possibly much higher, since newsstand draws would be more likely to track upward in concert with Direct Market orders on an un-enhanced issue. Coming at the end of the year, #368's sales would have been reflected in the 1994 Statement, which found average sales, newsstand included of 165,408. Since the Statement for 1995 saw sales falling by more than 50%, I believe that #368 probably is responsible for 1994's total being as high as it was, and that the real average could be as much as 25,000 copies less.
It's all extrapolation, however — while there are archival sources with complete information for individual issues for some years, 1993 sits in one of the gaps between them.]