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More than 192,500 comic book and graphic novel circulation figures online!
Welcome to Comichron, a resource for comic book circulation data and other information gathered by
John Jackson Miller and other pop culture archaeologists interested in comics history.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Gale Storm -- and Charlton's approach to photo covers

In last week's post on celebrity comics appearances — and some of my earlier work to index them — I mentioned that there were a lot more photo-covers throughout comics history than readers of today's comics might imagine. Gale Storm, who passed away at 87 this weekend, is proof of this, appearing in and on the covers of more comics than most TV stars of the last generation.

Started as a summer replacement for I Love Lucy in 1952, Storm's popular My Little Margie series bounced back and forth between CBS and NBC — even airing for a while on CBS' radio network in original episodes made just for audio with the same stars. After the show left the air in 1955, she starred in The Gale Storm Show on CBS and then ABC — making her a prime-time fixture for most of the 1950s. She appeared on the comics racks, too — Charlton's My Little Margie ran 54 issues from 1954 to 1964 — longer than either TV series combined. (Overstreet values the final issue, featuring Margie fawning over The Beatles, over any issue of the series but the first.) Charlton would do at least 70 Margie comics, including issues in two spinoff titles. Dell, meanwhile, had the rights to The Gale Storm Show, where Storm appeared on the cover of Dell Four Color #1105.

Which brings me to a couple of points: First, yes, the photo cover data is included in the new DVD version of The Standard Catalog of Comic Books — though how quickly you can search for individual names depends entirely on your computer, since it's in PDF form. Second, looking at the covers of Storm's comics — may she rest in peace — reminds me of something I noticed doing research for the Catalog: You can see just from the photo covers how widely publishers in the 1950s and 1960s varied when it came to such things as their technical abilities and studio cooperation. Dell's photo covers were usually first rate — promotional stills reproduced fairly sharply in good color, with few artifacts from cropping.

Other publishers fell somewhere down the scale — until you get to Charlton, which, sadly for My Little Margie collectors then and now, shows they were either only getting black-and-white stills, didn't have the ability to strip color separation images together, or both. See for yourself by taking a look at the Grand Comics Database's cover matrix for Margie — the early issues, while the TV show was still running. Stills reused; images worked into art covers in some novel ways; and all in black and white. (One might imagine they simply didn't have the requisite images — that's life for magazine editors then and now. But you'd have to imagine that if anyone at the Hal Roach Studios or the networks were paying attention to the comics, the stick figures of Margie #7 might have been a tip-off!)

I'm an old fan of TV comics — years before my first pro comics writing work, I developed an I Love Lucy series that never appeared, running aground at its publisher on licensing issues. They're a reminder of a different time — and that comic books inspired by stars like Gale Storm once had quite a long run in the world of comics. And while photo covers today are more of a sales tool for variants, they were once standard operating procedure for a lot of publishers. Some procedures were just more sophisticated than others!

[Image kudos to the GCD!]

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael, Farrah, and Ed: Degrees of celebrity comics

A few years back, one of the stranger additions I made between the first and second editions of The Standard Catalog of Comic Books involved celebrity comics. We'd indexed hundreds of covers with photographs of real people — ranging from a very young Elizabeth Taylor (on the covers of Miss America Vol. 4, #3 in 1946 Sweet Sixteen #4 in 1947, among others) to all kinds of appearances of Cassandra Peterson, also known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. So we added a database field for "photo cover subject"; it may still be in the current DVD edition, findable via the link above, though I have not checked.

Part of the fun was actually figuring out which movies the promotional stills were from — it wasn't always noted in the comics, and had to be figured out from a combination of the release date and cross-referencing the filmographies of the actors appearing. And then the database could be used to pull up every appearance — so when we saw Angela Lansbury on the cover of Walt Disney Showcase #6 with the cast of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, we knew we could also find her with Mark Stevens on the cover of Movie Love #16 two decades earlier, promoting Mutiny!

That level of detail was probably more fun for us film buffs to figure out than it was useful for collectors of celebrity memorabilia. But it certainly brought home exactly how much of it there was. The sales on the Obama Spider-Man issue may have been phenomenal, but the novelty factor was only in who was depicted. Based on that earlier work, I would venture that at least 1% — and perhaps 2% of all American comic books have depicted a real individual, either photographically on the cover, or in the story itself. The age of comics like Roy Rogers and The Adventures of Bob Hope may have passed, but if you look at all the faces that have appeared in comics over the years, you'll see a fair number of ones familiar from real life.

Anyway, to put that new feature of the database through its paces, we did a feature briefly at Comics Buyer's Guide that drew on the celebrity comics connection — where we'd look to see just what the "comics presence" of various real people was. It was often associated with a memorial angle — and it reminded us of just how many ways there were for a real person's visage to make it into a comic book. Non-fiction biocomics. Authorized appearances of real-life people as characters, as in the Hope and Rogers cases. Unauthorized appearances in fictionalized contexts, as in the Obama case, or in parodies. And while you probably wouldn't, say, consider an issue of Star Trek to be a celebrity appearance because the visuals of Kirk are based on William Shatner — not unless Shatner appeared on a photo cover — a celebrity memorabilia collector might not see a distinction. I've certainly seen actors being handed issues of comic books to sign featuring characters they portrayed.

The passings this week of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson brought to mind some of the different ways that familiar faces made their way into comics. They all appeared in Mad, for example — and variously in Cracked and Crazy. Then you've got a lot of McMahon appearances in regular comics continuity, because The Tonight Show frequently is used as a plot element. The earliest is probably the most famous...

...from 1967's Amazing Spider-Man #50 by Stan Lee and John Romita, the famous "Spider-Man No More!" issue. McMahon thus functions as other public figures do — he's part of the Spider-Man narrative just as Obama is.

Fawcett appears in a lot of comics in the 1970s — but almost exclusively in the ads. Ads for T-shirts and, yes, that poster. There weren't any Charlies Angels comic books in those days, so no photo covers — that would only be able to happen someplace like Marvel's Pizzazz, its version of the 1970s tween mag Dynamite! Outside of the parody magazines in the 1970s, I've only been able to locate a character she portrayed — Holly-13 from Logan's Run #3, drawn here by George Pérez and based on her movie character. (But, hey, it's Pérez Farrah from 1976.)

Jackson appears in biocomics form in Rock & Roll Comics #36 in 1991 — I would be surprised if that's the only one like that. No one ever took a comics license for the Jackson 5 animated cartoon, but Jackson appears frequently in parody — and also as an extra in various places where pop-culture characters came in handy. He's in one of the pin-ups in Superman #400, for example. Eclipse produced Captain EO in 3-D in 1987, based on a Jackson character; part of a production for EPCOT Center, Eo was no Thriller, but Capital City sold nearly 5,000 copies of them.

We also get a sense of his pop culture impact during a particular time through a character he partially inspired: Ace, the mysterious cycle-riding figure introduced in Peter David's 1985 Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #5 — and reappearing again in #6 the following year. I talked to Peter about the character in 1999, and he said the inspiration was part Jackson (his magical music-video elements manifesting as mutant powers here) and part Prince (or at least, "The Kid" character from Purple Rain — I always assumed Ace was more Prince, myself). You can see the times a bit here; music videos were hitting the comics. (We might have normally taken that as a harbinger that the fad aspect of videos was about done, as Dazzler signified for disco...)

There's a lot more to be said about celebrity comics in general, and this is not any kind of exhaustive list here — nor is it intended to be. Just a look at some various ways real-life folk have made it into comics, prompted by the week's sad news.

Thanks to the Grand Comics Database for search help!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Batman at 20 — and how comics movies affect comics sales

Twenty years ago on Tuesday, by my watch, Tim Burton's Batman opened in wide release (the sneak preview was the 22nd) — and opened, by my reckoning, the super-hero era of motion pictures we're still experiencing today.

There had been comic-book movies before, of course, going back to the serials — and the the Richard Donner Superman movies introduced comics characters to the blockbuster age of filmmaking. But the bandwagon really doesn't begin moving until June 1989, with Batman's record opening — a time in which the comics shop market is in full flourish, and when Hollywood technology is beginning to open doors thought shut. There are certainly slow periods for comics films after 1989 — but as digital imagery progresses and Marvel untangles its complicated film rights, comics movies become the staple we know today.

I personally saw the film a dozen times theatrically — those are the stubs at right, and for the curious, here are my reminiscences about that strange exploit, including some thoughts what Batman did for to the comics psyche beyond its value as a film. You can also read Comics Buyer's Guide's contemporaneous reporting of how fans beforehand were indeed very skeptical — and consider the film's box-office success and impact on pop culture in that context.

Relating to the material here on The Comics Chronicles, the film also comes up in one of the most frequent questions I receive here on the site: whether movies based on comic books help sell comic books. My personal theory on this first appeared in Comics Buyer’s Guide #1598 (Nov 2004); you can see some of the responses and alternate theories it generated here. I also posted what follows last summer, before the blog archives crash — so this is a good time to restore it:

The simplest way to put it is that movies have historically helped comics sales in comics shops — except when they didn’t. A frustrating answer, but it fits the facts. Digging deeper, we can refine that answer a bit to explain why some movies help and others don’t. In my observations, cinematic cross-over sales into comics shops are a function of:

how well the movie does;

how recognizable the character is as a comics character;

how widely available the related merchandise is when the movie comes out; and

how much cash comics retailers have on hand.

A few cases:

Case #1: Batman (1989). Many people, including most comics fans, were skeptical of this movie before it came out; Beetlejuice didn’t say “Bruce Wayne” to most people. To a degree, Madison Avenue had withheld judgment, too — the result being fewer licensed products on sale in advance of the film in mainstream stores.

There were some, to be sure, but for a brief, shining week or so, you could walk by Spencer’s Gifts without seeing Bat-everything — and past there to the comics shop, which had loads of Batman goodies from over the years. Comics shops had the most Batman-related product available to meet the interest in that second half of June — and sales reflected that.

A recovery was already underway that summer, following the previous black-and-white collapse — and leading up to the giant bubble market of the early 1990s. But the added attention surely helped the Batman comics franchise, which reeled off a series of hits in the second half of the year.

By contrast, when Case #2: Batman Returns (1992) came out, all the mainstream outlets had already been hip-deep in Bat-memorabilia since the month after the first film came out. Warner had a first-tier fast-food licensee this time around in McDonald’s; with the first film, it had been Taco Bell.

The result of this saturation was that comics retailers said it didn’t contribute much to their already stellar years, despite its decent box-office. Retailers’ share of its success was smaller. (By this time, too, the comics market boom was at an intensity where any contribution from outside would have been harder to notice.)

Case #3: Men in Black (1997), demonstrated that when the mainstream audience doesn’t know characters are from comics, there’s no bounce whatsoever for the hobby. Many hardly remembered Men in Black was from comics — and Marvel itself barely put out a couple of comic books to capitalize on it. In the declining market of that year, any blip would have been noticeable: none was.

Case #4: X-Men (2000), might have involved a little of this effect, since the fact that Uncanny X-Men had been the top-selling comic book for nearly two decades was news to the general public. But the bigger problem was that comics shops were at the end of a seven-year recession and had no money to advertise their presence as a place to “read more about it.” The comics recession was worse than the one Batman had opened to, and there were likely fewer shops, to boot. The handout comics at the theater touted Toys ‘R’ Us, not comics shops.

Things were so tight that three consecutive stores I visited had ordered no extra shelf copies of X-Men at all the week the movie hit theaters.

That’s why Case #5: Spider-Man (2002), comes closer to the mark of a “comics movie that helped the comics.” Most retailers had experienced five consecutive growth quarters by the film’s release, and we, as a community, had the resources to tell the world we existed with Free Comic Book Day, and finance the “last mile” to bring new customers to the shop.

The film’s effect on the aftermarket was clearly visible, as well — the outside attention combining with the then-relatively new Comic Guaranty Corp.’s grading services to result in an explosion in Silver Age Spider-Man prices on eBay and elsewhere.

Those are some example cases — and there are certainly cases that don’t fit neatly into the formula. It’s not always possible to know whether the movie is really helping, or whether it’s something else. But the lessons from the past seem to be that shops that had related merchandise already in stock and the finances necessary to advertise that fact did best when focusing on films that were recognizable as comics properties in the general culture — yet not so ubiquitous that licensed goods were everywhere.

This was only ever a first-cut analysis — and it is, obviously, centered on the direct market. Sales of trade paperbacks in mainstream outlets are certainly another story — and far more likely to be driven by cinematic attention, since they’re already out where the new buyer is. There are also later cases I haven't considered. I am aware that some have done some extensive research into specific box-office performances relative to comics sales, but I haven't seen any of that published. I'll link as they're brought to my attention.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Three Januaries and a September

Not an unseen Sandman tale, but four new (old) months added to the site: September 1996, January 2000, January 2001, and January 2002.

September is interesting as it's got the oldest year-to-year comparatives available on the site; they're off quite a lot, as we're comparing the end of "Heroes Reborn" with its beginning. The Januaries really are the story of coming back from the brink of despair — exceptionally dead "dead-quarter" numbers transforming, by January 2002, into something much better, with Wolverine: The Origin and The Dark Knight Strikes Again leading the market.

We're past the two-thirds mark on posting Diamond-era figures now; the bulk remaining are months from 2000-2002. One of the reasons these months were last to be posted, incidentally, can be seen in January 2002: The market leader on Diamond's chart was actually Batman: The 10-Cent Adventure, with its 700,000 copies for (as you'd expect) a dime apiece. The issue was a big part of a wave of low-cost promotional comics in that era — and at the time, Diamond was still ranking them with everything else. That spring's first Free Comic Book Day found the free comics ordered in the Diamond tables!

Mathematically, free comics, nine-cent Fantastic Fours and the like had the effect of distorting the top-sellers list, the market shares drawn from them, and overall aggregate sales figures. So The Comics Chronicles is revising earlier tables with these comics as they're posted, segregating (but still recording) unit sales of promotional comics when Diamond reported them. The unit sales are not counted toward the parent publishers' Top 300 market shares, but the dollar sales are: in the case of that Batman, we're looking at $70,000, which would put it in the Top 300 dollar items for sure. This will also mean some revisions to comparatives in later years (when we can get to them) and another look at the average cover price calculations for these months.

Later on, Diamond also segregated the freebies and promo comics below a certain price from the lists; usually nothing below 99 cents appeared. These days, there are bundles of promotional comics with net pricing on the lists now and again — but the bundles make it less likely that the individual copies will distort the unit count.

Monday, June 15, 2009

May 2009 comics orders plunge on weak toplist performance

Wall Street reports often speak of "market leadership" in tracking intraday rallies and slides; what's happening with the big issues often drives the market. On the new comics racks, market leadership counts for even more — instead of thousands of stocks, we're looking at a few hundred new issues each month. And as we've seen, fewer than 60 new releases each month account for half of all the comics retailers order in Diamond's Top 300.

The top of the list explains a great deal about what happened in the month of May in the comics industry, as seen in the estimates here. When retailers order just as many comic books in the month of May as they did in January and in February, that’s usually not something you want to see — but that’s exactly what happened in Diamond’s Top 300 for May. May's Top 300 Unit Sales to retailers were the lowest for any May since 2002: unit sales were off 20% versus last May, with dollar sales were off 19%. Trade paperbacks were off, as well — and while the overall figure shows only a drop of 3%, I view that figure with caution, as I did last month: that much action in the backlist suggests more effects from discount promotions. It wouldn’t take a whole lot to make a large difference.

The top of the chart, again, was the main factor. Diamond’s Top 50 were off 28%, or 1 million copies, from last May, and that’s the lion’s share of the shortfall. Last May had Secret Invasion #2, Final Crisis #1, and three other #1s in the Top 6. Meanwhile, the highest ranking premiere this May was in 20th place, New Mutants #1. This month’s top-seller at Diamond, New Avengers #53, only sold around half the issues of last year’s top-seller.

But the tide carries everyone — as seen in the accompanying graphic, order counts at all 300 places on the Top 300 chart were lower than those from May 2008. (That doesn’t refer to orders within individual titles, just that the 50th place item last year outsold this year’s 50th place item, etc.) Summing up the various groupings, here's how the unit sales contribution of each sector of the chart changed this May:

Top 25: -29%
Ranks #1-50: -28%
Ranks #51-100: -16%
Ranks #101-150: -10%
Ranks #151-200: -6%
Ranks #201-250: -8%
Ranks #251-300: -14%

The lower parts of the list are doing relatively better this than those higher up — but that’s partially because an item on the lower part of the list is relatively more likely to be from one of the larger publishers this year due to line expansions.

What does it all mean? Chartwide drops suggest wider factors such as the recession or a change in the size or make-up of the retail ordering population. It’s possible, given the disparate hit to the top of the charts, that we might have something going on where the suburban, more mainstream-driven stores are more impacted by the recession, and ordering more lightly on the event titles. The problem is, we don't have a lot of historical evidence showing how general economic conditions impact different kinds of comics differently. In a couple of recent recessions, events within the industry had more to do with market performance — but those recessions were smaller in scale.

The figures:

May 2009: 5.63 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: - 20%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -10%
Versus 10 years ago this month: -14%
YEAR TO DATE: 28.93 million copies, -12% vs. 2008

May 2009: $18.68 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -19%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +5%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +10%
YEAR TO DATE: $97.57 million, -7% vs. 2008

May 2009: $6.88 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -13%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +33%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +111%
YEAR TO DATE: $33.05 million; down 2% when just comparing just the Top 100

May 2009: $25.56 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -18%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: +9%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +16%
YEAR TO DATE: $130.59 million; down 6% when just comparing just the Top 100 each month

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
May 2009: $35.81 million ($39.51 million with UK)
Versus 1 year ago this month: -3%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +49%
YEAR TO DATE: $168.88 million, -2% vs. 2008, +35% vs. 2004

The average comic offered in the Top 300 cost $3.42; the average comic ordered cost $3.32.

As noted before, Diamond included in its initial wave of data information on several small publisher titles, allowing this month's table to include 15 items not in the Top 300. They appear on the table but are not included in the aggregate Top 300 figures we use for comparison purposes.

Some of the annual comparisons show some light — most of the five-year dollar category comparisons remain up, some by more than the rate of inflation. The $7.95 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen release topping the TPB table sold so many units it'd be in 41st place were it classified as a comic book. And June gives us a month with weaker comparatives — and we’ll see what Captain America #600 adds to the mix. 2009 has shown itself to be a volatile year, from month to month; the ups and downs are likely to continue.

Looking back at earlier times:

May 2008's top seller was, again, Secret Invasion #2, with 182,390 copies sold to the direct market in its first month. It was Diamond's second-best selling issue of the year — and the month also included Final Crisis #1, Diamond's ninth-best seller of the year. See what we were up against this month for yourself, here.

May 2004's top-seller was another high-profile spring launch, Astonishing X-Men #1, with first-month orders of 209,300 copies in the direct market. Check out the sales chart here.

May 1999's top-seller was Uncanny X-Men #370, with preorders of approximately 127,400 copies in the direct market. 1999 was a year almost completely without the kind of chart-shaking events we saw in other years; Uncanny was the top book 10 months in a row. Check out the sales chart here.

May 1994's top seller at both Diamond and Capital City Distribution was Spawn #22. Capital alone sold 111,550 copies of the issue, suggesting the overall sales in the 400-500k range.

May 1989's top seller at Capital City was Batman #435, continuing John Byrne's "Many Deaths of Batman." Capital alone had orders of 82,000 copies for the issue, suggesting overall orders in the 400-500k range.

Finally, May 1984's top comic book, both at Capital and likely everywhere else, was Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars #5, continuing the year-long mega-cross-over.

Again, Secret Wars was the #1 book at Capital every month in 1984, a record matched later only by Todd McFarlane's "adjectiveless" Spider-Man #1-12 in 1990-91.

Friday, June 12, 2009

May 2009 Diamond comics sales charts online

Diamond Comic Distributors has released its comics sales charts for May 2009, and while the actual estimates with copy counts will follow here shortly, you can see from the link that there's an interesting change to the chart.

Within the chart itself, Marvel's New Avengers #53 led the list; there isn't a new #1 until way down in 20th place, which would seem to suggest that this is one of those months without a lot of heavy hitters, but we'll see from the eventual estimates. There's no Detective Comics this month — last month's leader; I honestly can't remember if that's a first, but I'll have to look it up. (Update: No, it isn't — Detective was bimonthly in 1979-80 and had different frequencies several times in the 1970s. There may not be a skipped cover-month in this case, in any event.) Marvel's unit and dollar shares were both nearly half again what DC's were — 45.17% to 30.34% in units, 39.05% to 26.18% in dollars.

The new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen topped the trades list at $7.95 with four times the unit sales of anything else on the list. This happens on the list from time to time, where items at widely varying price points all appear in one place. However, League was so popular it was the top trade paperback table in dollar terms, too!

The new element this time out is that Diamond, which began releasing a Top 50 Independents list at the end of last year, added a Top 50 Small Publishers list this time out. (Or "Small Press" — I'm not sure what they're calling it.) The Top 50 Indies list, in practice, just wound up reiterating items in the existing Top 300, since once you remove Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse, you almost always still have 50 books left. Only one time did the 301st place item materialize in the Top 50 Indies list.

The Top 50 Small Publishers list has a few of the same items on that Top 50 Indies list — Mouse Guard from Archaia, Sonic from Archie — but it extends downward to capture 15 more items not in the Top 300 list, finishing with Castle Waiting Vol. 2, #15 from Fantagraphics at 334th place. It's not clear what qualifies a publisher for the Small Publishers list (especially as some also make the Indies list); my guess is that they're all publishers with dollar market shares below 1%, or something similar. I have a query in with the distributor.

We'll know what the estimates are, soon, but we can tell right away from the Order Index numbers that that 334th place item sold 63.4% of the volume of the 300th place item. So the drop-off would appear to be fairly steep getting into the 300s, informing the earlier discussion here about how much of new comics sales the Top 300 represents.

Estimates coming soon. In the meantime, you can see where everything is — and you can use the links on the chart page to check for Amazon rankings for TPB titles, where such pages exist in their system.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The last months of the two-distributor era

When Marvel took its direct market comics distribution to its own distributor, Heroes World, in 1995, it was no longer possible to look at a single distributor's rankings to see a real top-seller list. From then until August 1996, the only public sales charts that reconciled all publishers' titles were based on retailer reports, such as those that appeared in the "Market Beat" section of Comics Retailer magazine, as well as in Wizard. These surveys were self-selecting, of course — and while retailers eventually reported unit sales in the Comics Retailer survey, it wasn't really measuring the same thing.

In September 1996, with the market down to two distributors following Diamond Comic Distributors' July acquisition of Capital City Distribution, I began a monthly tracking merging data from Heroes World with Diamond's reported figures. The figures, partially posted here before the site crash last summer, are now online here in full, beginning with September 1996 and running to March 1997, when the Heroes World experiment ended.

It was the tail-end of the most tumultuous period in the history of the direct market. That summer, Capital had folded, unable to compete without its largest comics suppliers. Heroes World, a regional distributor not long before, continued to struggle to handle distributing to the entire nation of retailers — and wound up on the receiving end of an epidemic of customer service complaints.

Editorially, Marvel had handed four of its main titles — Avengers, Captain America, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man — to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, who had earlier left for Image. All four "Heroes Reborn" series were relaunched with new #1s, generating an immediate sales gain that soon dissipated. (Marvel would eventually seek to restore the numbering on several of these "legacy titles.") DC married off Clark Kent to Lois Lane in an editorial event coinciding with a plotline on TV's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In March, DC gave Superman an electric makeover. Top Cow, which briefly left Image, returned to the fold in January 1997.

With the "Heroes Reborn" and wedding events, the end of 1996 didn't look too bad — although we didn't have much to compare it to from earlier in the year or the year before. But the comics recession was still in full swing. Unit sales between Diamond's and Heroes World's lists dropped a whopping 30% from November to February. Marvel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on December 27, seeking to restructure hundreds of millions of dollars in debt — and while much of that had nothing to do with comics, Carl Icahn's filing in January on behalf of bondholders launched an ownership struggle that would drag on for nearly two years. Finally, on February 7, 1997, Marvel finally announced it was pulling the plug on Heroes World and returning to the only major distributor left standing — Diamond.

I reported on the change at the time, and edited retailer comments about it all. Some evinced relief: "I'm glad to see Marvel back with Diamond," one Canadian retailer wrote. "Our weekly shipping charges dropped 50% in the first week." There was also concern about the one-distributor future, mixed with anger about what had come before. Some retailers, who had stopped carrying Marvel titles altogether, said they would begin again — although sales levels continued to trend lower throughout 1997, so you wonder how many copies those people represented.

The common theme to response at all levels appeared to be exhaustion — after so much uncertainty, many in the market desperately hoped for a period of stability. But while three years of change had ended, the trajectory remained. The bottom was still three more years away.

This is distributor data from before 2003, which means that it is all preorder data. As such, it means there are many comics in the listings that did not come out in the months listed. Some had their orders cancelled, so the totals overstate sales by that amount. Meanwhile, the listings also do not include reorders in this era, which means sales are underestimated by a degree.

Neither Heroes World nor Diamond reported indexed trade paperback sales, although Diamond did provide ratios for its various product areas, from which I've been able to figure minimum values for trade sales in 1996. Regard those calculations with a larger grain of salt than the later ones — but they're what we have. Diamond's Top 10 trades are listed at the bottom of each comics sales chart; they're ranked by dollar value and not units, unlike the later tables.

This makes 97 months of figures on the site; only 55 months of figures in the Diamond age (mostly from 1999-2002) remain. Slowly but surely...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Detective Comics sales in the 1930s and 1940s

A query on the Comics Buyer's Guide boards about the historic nature of April's first-place ranking for Detective Comics leads me to post a few additional details from the past, including information obtained by Russ Maheras from the only real source of data for the 1930s and 1940s, the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

Marc Newman of asked whether Detective might not have been the top seller prior to the launch of Action Comics. The challenge here is that in those days, National Periodical Publications (the precursor to DC) sold ads in the "Detective Comics Group," not in individual titles — and so individual title sales are not known.

However, we can see from Maheras' ABC research that in January 1939, 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...

• 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.

Now compare that with Famous Funnies, which alone reported 357,386 copies sold in January of 1939 (and close to it in the months on either side). That, and some of what we see in some other books suggests that the kids' titles and longer-established strip reprint books were more heavily circulated than the adventure titles before 1938. So my suspicion is that Detective probably still wasn't #1 in that stage. Adventure comics do come more into vogue in this period — More Fun's last humor cover was in early 1938 — but thereafter I would venture that the combination of Action and Superman likely preclude chart leadership by Detective (or, for that matter, Batman, until the 1960s). That's not even getting into the Dell Disney books, which entered 1960 in the top slot.

We're in a realm there where there are some key books where figures will never be known even from the Audit Bureau, but I think this is a decent guess.

Incidentally, you may ask, what issue of Detective Comics came out in January 1939, for which the numbers above report? The January 1939 cover-dated issue was Detective #23, but with cover post-dating going on, I suspect it well could have been Detective #27 (above), featuring the first appearance of Batman. (I imagine that's why Maheras picked that month to research!) So from this, we get a fair idea of the starting population of that issue: likely lower than the starting populations of most key Silver Age titles....
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