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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Heroes Reborn vs. Heroes Return: Tale of two restarts

by John Jackson Miller

After doing some research yesterday for my post on restarts inspired by the big news that DC is restarting much of its line at #1, I realized a clarification was necessary to a conversation I had with ComicBookResources' Kiel Phegley before all this news broke: specifically, relating to the differences between the sales tracks for "Heroes Reborn," the 1996 replacement of Marvel's Avengers, Captain America, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man with continuity-rebooting new titles by Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, and "Heroes Return," the 1997 renumbering and restoration of those series to the mainline Marvel universe.

As I noted here yesterday and in Comics Buyer's Guide #1614, it was "Heroes Return" for which we saw orders returning to where they were before the renumbering rather quickly; "Heroes Reborn," in fact, we do not have the "before" numbers for because September 1996 was when I began getting reports from Heroes World, Marvel's exclusive distributor. There is no source for direct market sales for those titles before the reboot. I appeared to conflate the two in the quote on CBR, which I correct here now.

While sales did fall dramatically from the first-issue highs on the "Heroes Reborn" books, I do believe, looking at the Statements of Ownership that are available, that the titles did maintain sales levels substantially higher than the titles they replaced for their whole one-year runs. We are correct in saying that the Volume 3 "Heroes Return" titles soon went back to pre-renumbering sales (when compared to Volume 2), but not so for the Volume 2 "Heroes Reborn" titles (when compared to Volume 1). Here are the known numbers, for all to peruse:

Issue # Avengers Captain America Fantastic Four Iron Man
1995 AVG*
85,165 82,285 103,573 82,469
1996 AVG*
123,581 79,676 105,506 64,717
Sep-96 Vol. 2, #1 276,734 274,070 313,980 277,464
Oct-96 Vol. 2, #2 130,961 131,863 162,475 139,986
Nov-96 Vol. 2, #3 125,234 124,614 154,609 138,675
Dec-96 Vol. 2, #4 118,622 117,733 153,255 133,364
Jan-97 Vol. 2, #5 113,922 112,391 152,651 132,583
Feb-97 Vol. 2, #6 120,151 116,580 155,710 136,794
Mar-97 Vol. 2, #7 118,560 109,134 153,457 133,706
Apr-97 Vol. 2, #8 120,937 114,669 154,912 130,696
May-97 Vol. 2, #9 107,567 107,765 142,321 122,436
Jun-97 Vol. 2, #10 114,896 108,861 143,952 121,622
Jul-97 Vol. 2, #11 110,084 101,897 136,545 113,263
Aug-97 Vol. 2, #12 114,787 109,169 137,192 116,881
Sep-97 Vol. 2, #13 109,464 102,516 130,090 110,453
Oct-97 Heroes Reborn: The Return #1-4 (160,000-143,000)
Nov-97 Vol. 3
(#1) 197,885 (#1) 209,793
Dec-97 Vol. 3 (#1) 194,439 (#2) 142,765 (#2) 157,735 (#1) 186,328
Jan-98 Vol. 3 (#2) 138,884 (#3) 108,292 (#3) 121,664 (#2) 129,906
Feb-98 Vol. 3 (#3) 111,036 (#4) 98,005 (#4) 110,539 (#3) 99,903
Mar-98 Vol. 3 (#4) 112,318 (#5) 95,968 (#5) 106,446 (#4) 96,977
Apr-98 Vol. 3 (#5) 116,641 (#6) 95,929 (#6) 108,066 (#5) 95,685
May-98 Vol. 3 (#6) 112,322 (#7) 91,880 (#7) 102,259 (#6) 89,752
Jun-98 Vol. 3 (#7) 114,806 (#8) 93,528 (#8) 100,666 (#7) 91,438
Jul-98 Vol. 3 (#8) 108,860 (#9) 85,837 (#9) 94,278 (#8) 81,609

The first two figures are the Statements of Ownership for the two years leading right up to the start of "Heroes Reborn"; those figures represent not just direct market sales, but all sales, including newsstand. Everything below is direct market preorders — Heroes World until March 1997, Diamond thereafter.

It's clear that the "Heroes Reborn" titles bounce very high in the beginning, and tail off after that: Liefeld's titles (Avengers, Cap) a little more quickly than Lee's (Fantastic Four, Iron Man). Liefeld is off his titles by issue #8. If the Statements from 1996 are correct, we can say that all four "Heroes Reborn" titles sold better than their precursors for the entire year of the experiment.

"Heroes Return," meanwhile, picks up a similar big bounce on relaunch — but those figures are beneath the 13th issue levels of the "Heroes Reborn" titles by #3 for Iron Man and Fantastic Four, by #4 for Captain America, and by #8 for Avengers. All were still above probable pre-Reborn sales, but that would not be the case for much longer, as the entire market continued declining.

As noted yesterday, every relaunch is different, with creator teams making a big difference. Kurt Busiek, who took over the Reborn-era Iron Man and Avengers, fared better in holding onto (and improving, for a while) sales on Avengers than on Iron Man, which had been a Wildstorm-produced title with Lee art in several issues. External factors were also at work. The "Return" relaunch started right into the "Dead Quarter," when sales normally go down. And Marvel spun off Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty just as the Return series was getting going, possibly dividing that title's sales.

The takeaway (besides the fact that Heroes Reborn and Heroes Return are still easy names to confuse after all these years) is that while we can get some lessons from past relaunches, there's enough different in all of them that it's important to drill down. Execution matters, creative teams matter, who's distributing and selling the comics matter. And the relaunch of an entire line, as in DC's case, is almost certainly going to show different results from something like Marvel did in 1996 and 1997, which focused attention on four specific titles. Issue numbers may repeat themselves, but history tends toward variety!

UPDATE: Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, in a conversation with me on Twitter, both said they were told direct market sales of the "Heroes Reborn" titles were at 30,000 copies before their run began. While the Statements of Ownership show average issue sales twice as high or higher for 1995 and 1996 (which would not have included but maybe one issue September-shipping Heroes Reborn books), we can see from the drilldown of the Statements for Iron Man that newsstand sales were still very substantial, with 58,000 copies being returned every month in 1995. That would leave room for more than half the title's sales to be newsstand; throw in subscription sales, and 30,000 for the Direct Market squares up.
While thirty thousand in the Direct Market may sound low for these marquee titles in the mid-1990s, it's important to remember that, as big as they seem now, the "Reborn" books were not always on top of the charts, as they tend to be today; back then, X-titles and Spider-titles were always on top. The particular attention to the four titles did, in large measure, change that situation thereafter.
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Anonymous said...

I don't see any significants to the reboot holding higher numbers for a mere year after such a huge boost. It was obviously hemorraging numbers faster than post reborn and had it had any real success marvel would have stuck with it. I hope you are taking the market into account. Heroes reborn was around the time more people were buying comics as an investment and reborn was about the time the bubble burst.

John Jackson Miller said...

Actually, the bubble you're talking about peaked in 1993. 1994 saw the closing of 1,000 comics shops just in January -- and by the time "Reborn" happened, all the distributors except for Diamond and Marvel's own were gone. The market was already in a general freefall by 1996-97.

There's no doubt there's a speculator effect on the early issues, but even at the rate of decline seen here, the figures would have remained above pre-reboot numbers for some time.

For the actual reasons involved behind the ending of "Reborn," you'll have to refer to articles from the time. I do recall it being more complicated than just a numbers issue.

Anonymous said...

Not according to world collectors net which says "after an initial sales bump sales decled to levels lower than expected".

Your own research shows that numbers for reborn declined at rates faster than or equal to returns. Yeah, sales were higher for a mere year but that's not a surprise given that it had a much bigger bump.

It just seems to to be like every other reboot or deviation from the classics...a short lived spike that is ultimately useless to the longevity of comics.

John Jackson Miller said...

It was more complicated than just a numbers issue -- I was editor of the industry's trade magazine at the time, and there were a lot of threads to report on. One result was that Liefeld was off the titles before the end of the experiment; he went on to do his own FIGHTING AMERICAN series, which became another point of contention, as I recall.

In any event, there's a difference between "lower than expected," and lower than they were before the relaunch, which is specifally what I was looking at. Using the Liefeld/Lee figures of direct-market sales in the 30,000s for the canceled first volumes, the Reborn titles did remain well above those levels for the entire run. It's the Return titles that sank below their pre-renumbering figures -- #4s of some of the titles selling fewer copies than the #13s of the previous runs had (thus, losing the first-issue bounce). It's an interesting question whether the decline would have been slowed had the Return launch issues been #14 of Volume 2: they wouldn't have had the #1 bump, but the sales slope wouldn't have been as steep coming off a #13.

Returns are a separate matter, having to do with newwsstand sales; since newsstand draws are a much more inefficient way of tracking demand than direct-market preorders, the order figures adjust much more slowly to changes in demand. Comics shops pare orders much more quickly as they find the real demand level; newsstand outlets tend to take a while, hence increasing (and sometimes greatly increasing) numbers of returned copies in stretches.

The interesting question to me is where the figures would have wound up had Lee's first FF been #417, just as his Batman run did not renumber. I suspect that the first-issue sales would have been lost, but that the numbers on the issues following would have proceeded along a slope that was less steep, and maybe netting out gains by the time you get to the #430s. But we'll never know.

John Jackson Miller said...

(Gains, I mean, versus what Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 issues actually sold. The theory is that the numbers in the #430s would be higher than the numbers from the high-single-digit Vol. 3 issues, because there wouldn't be two first-issue falloffs in the track.)

Anonymous said...

But is a years worth of data enough to make a conclusion? If thr decline continued it would have eventually been back to original nimbers. I am not sure that liefeld would be enough affect the experiment as you call it

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