A Column about the History of the Comics Industry
by Mark Carlson
A Quick Business History of Comic Books Part Two: 1960-2005
In the last issue of Nostalgia Zine Funny Business Part One, I summarized the early history of comic books from a business point of view. It is clear how much of a sensation comic books really were in their early years. The sales of top title such as Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel Adventures rival the most popular conventional magazines of the forties. Even greater successes follow.
In 1953, Walt Disney's Comics and Stories reaches sales of nearly three million copies a month. Nearly a dozen Dell funny animal series sell over a million copies per issue. Compare that to EC's horror titles, which sell around 400,000 per issue and you realize that humor is what really drove the industry in the fifties.
But the real sleeper is Mad Magazine, which -by 1960- is just surpassing the million mark. With its unconventional black and white, magazine sized format, Mad prompts Warren to try a new horror comic magazine, Creepy, in 1964.
But as Mad Magazine's popularity soars, more old-fashioned comic standbys suffer sharp declines in sales. Disney books are fading. And in 1962, the partnership between Dell and Western, the producers of their comic book line, is about to end to the detriment of them both.
Meanwhile, the Batman television show proves to be a real sales bonanza for DC, who feature the caped crusader prominently wherever feasible. Batman, the comic book, tops out in popularity in 1966, with a circulation of 898,470 per issue. This is nearly double the title's usual sales, but it is still far less than the character's devoted following throughout the 1940s.
Mad Magazine 1,831,648
Amazing Spider-Man 373,303
Dennis the Menace (1967) 308,736
Donald Duck 262,249
In 1968, Archie reaches his sales peak for the decade (and for the rest of the feature's life, in all likelihood). Credit the redhead's renewed popularity to the convergence of a television cartoon series and a group of musicians called the Archies, who actually produce a pop music hit in "Sugar, Sugar."
While Marvel is decidedly more hip than either Archie or DC in the sixties, it is only in the seventies that Spider-Man and the Hulk begin to regularly outsell icons like Superman, Batman and the freckled teen.
In the meantime, Mad Magazine reaches the pinnacle of its popularity in 1974. Despite being written and drawn by an increasingly graying crew, Mad's satirical stance still appeals to adolescents.
It manages to successfully tap into the cynicism widely felt towards the establishment. Older readers graduate to underground comix. While relatively few in number, the most popular undergrounds like Zap underwent multiple reprintings, a practice unheard of outside the rarefied realm of Classics Illustrated.
Mad Magazine 2,132,655
Amazing Spider-Man 288,232
Incredible Hulk 202,592
House of Mystery 174,504
Archie Digest Magazine 137,857
With the open materialism of the eighties in the offing, and its own satiric bite getting rather long in the tooth, Mad Magazine starts a long downward descent in sales. Sales for the Incredible Hulk crest in 1979, at 276,000, in concert with the popular television series. But the Hulk hardly proves to be a sensation like Batman proved to be in the sixties.
Mad Magazine 1,342,640
Amazing Spider-Man 296,712
Incredible Hulk 201,000
Archie Digest Magazine (1981) 141,739
Archie circa 100,000
By the 1980s, most fans are buying their super-hero comic books from comic book specialty shops. In 1983, Frank Miller's Daredevil sends the book's circulation to 259,000, suggesting that excellence can translate into increased sales in a specialized market. Byrne and Clairmont's X-Men will soar even higher. But there are limits.
The weakness of only targeting comic book shops as a strategy is demonstrated by the fact that the entirely reprint Archie Digest Magazine, sold primarily in grocery stores and magazine racks, outsells the all-original, regular format Archie, not to mention Batman! For the first time ever, sales on Superman and Batman both slip below 100,000 per issue.
Mad Magazine 740,442
Uncanny X-Men 417,000
Amazing Spider-Man 276,064
Incredible Hulk 196,933
Archie Digest Magazine 178,150
Archie Comics 67,059
Comic books look doomed to become a small niche market. That is, until an action-oriented art-style boosts sales for Marvel. Almost to the level of sales enjoyed in the sixties, the new numbers provoke some publishers into marketing ploys such as multiple covers for the same issue in the hopes that one collector will buy them all.
Solid-storytelling is often sacrificed, but part of a new generation of boys finds comic books cool again. By 1992, the most popular young Marvel artists stake out their own publishing territory, forming Image. The name is apt.
The victory of style over substance is nowhere better illustrated than with the increasingly rushed art of a nonetheless popular Rob Liefeld. The comic book artists of Image (and a few lucky others) are treated by their fans with a devotion approaching that of rock stars. DC stops publishing paid circulation figures in its comic books, perhaps in shame.
Uncanny X-Men 731,425
Amazing Spider-Man 592,442
Mad Magazine 503,576
Wolverine (1993) 396,958
Ghost Rider 357,200
Incredible Hulk 299,755
Archie Digest Magazine 177,569
Action-packed, hyperbolic story-telling rules the worlds of Marvel and Image in the early nineties. Spawn hits its comic shop sales peak of 234,000 in 1993. Any Marvel title that needs a boost in sales guest stars Wolverine, the Ghost Rider or Spider-Man. And every possible variation on the mutant theme is utilized in a wide variety of Marvel comic books for easy profit.
DC, having to really stretch to come up with anything comparable, "kills" Superman in 1993. Direct sales to comic shops soar to nearly ten times their usual number (281,400), as a canny publicity campaign interests consumers outside the usual market.
Sales quickly subside, but at more than twice the usual number. Similarly, DC promotes a storyline that leads to the villainous Bane breaking Bruce Wayne's back. The injury requires a new, nastier Batman to take Wayne's place.
Sales triple from what they were a year before. Sadly, numbers drop with Wayne's return. The problem with DC's event-driven circulation boosters is that most of these new readers only stay until the storyline is resolved and then slip away again.
Marvel enjoys far better brand loyalty. As for Mad Magazine, its continuing decline finally topples its thirty-year hold on the top sales spot.
But what goes boom, must go bust. Just as with Batman's fall from grace in the late sixties, the Marvel bust sends the industry into dangerously low sales territory. Image manages to prosper for a few more years before it too gets caught in the undertow.
Collector interest in gimmicks like multiple covers and the characters associated with them begin to fade. The new generation's interest in comic books turns out to be fad-like in nature. And when the fad ends, it happens so quickly that the industry almost ends with it.
Uncanny X-Men 207,000
Archie Digest Magazine 120,543
Amazing Spider-Man 119,547
Incredible Hulk 94,405
Gen 13 51,000*
Ghost Rider 32,566
(* average comic shop sales per issue, derived from monthly Diamond distribution figures listed in Krause's Standard Catalog of Comic Books.)
Only 20 to 30 percent of comic book sales now occur outside comic book shops. Titles like Witchblade and the Darkness now outperform characters like Batman and Superman in those stores. In a mere six years, X-Men sales have dropped to only a quarter of what they once had been.
Ghost Rider's fall from grace is even more dramatic, its circulation crashing to a mere tenth of what it was in 1992. Cancellation soon follows, along with a raft of other titles. By any measure, it has to be a bad sign when a reprint version of Archie Digest beats out Spider-Man.
Uncanny X-Men (101,000*) 162,995
Ultimate Spider-Man (91,000*) 128,224
Amazing Spider-Man (99,000*) 122,592
Daredevil (53,000*) 78,750
Avengers (61,000*) 77,960
The Authority (in 2001) 42,000*
(* first six month average comic shop sales derived from figures available at www.icv2.com)
In 2002, Daredevil is perhaps the only iconic character at either DC or Marvel to show a significant increase in popularity. The reboot of the title, as executed by movie auteur Kevin Smith, is even better served by follow-up writer Brian Michael Bendis.
Bendis is also a key figure in Marvel's risky Ultimate Spider-Man, which launches a new version of the character even while the old version is still around.
It should have led to mass confusion, but Bendis' ear for down-to-earth, character driven dialogue helps make the new title a success. As for Batman, the character holds his own with a canny mix of good stories and art. His new lead writer, Greg Rucka, has a similarly strong sense for character conflict.
Over the next few years, Marvel repackages most of its iconic heroes for an entire Ultimate imprint that proves inviting to new readers. Consistently good sales across the line show the strength of the new strategy.
Growth is more tentative at DC, but it seems more solidly grounded than during the early nineties boom. DC finally seems to master the big event, with limited series like Identity Crisis. But the big story is the emergence of Japanese comic imports, especially Shonen Jump, with its highly kid friendly features, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragon Ball Z.
Shonen Jump 177,000
The New Avengers 154,000*
Astonishing X-Men 134,000*
Ultimate X-Men 87,000*
Ultimate Spider-Man 86,000*
Amazing Spider-Man 81,000*
Teen Titans 65,000*
(* first six month average comic shop sales derived from figures available at www.icv2.com)
The rapidly growing Shonen Jump takes over the top sales spot in 2005. Interestingly, sales for Shonen Jump are generated almost entirely from non-specialty shops. While Shonen Jump outsells all the super-hero titles, it is like Mad Magazine in that there are no other monthly manga that sell comparably.
But manga trade paperback series like Fruits Basket and Gravitation, at ten dollars a shot for 180 pages plus of story, are competitive with super-hero graphic novels. A whole new market that includes a large percentage of female readers is being tapped. It remains to be seen whether conventional publishers can take advantage of it.
Superman's relatively higher sales reflect the Jim Lee storyline. Both Batman and Superman sold more than twice as much as usual during Jim Lee's run on the titles. Regularly published titles no longer have the same brand loyalty as readers jump on or off board depending on the particular artistic line-up or story.
This may be one disadvantage of self-contained storylines that run in predictable, graphic novel friendly six- issue arcs. It's much easier to find a spot to quit buying a title.
When you consider that the population of the United States in 1940 (roughly 130 million people) was only half of what our population is now, the million-plus sales of so many comic books in the forties and fifties are even more remarkable. Comic books were truly a mainstream medium then. No longer.
Comic books are now a niche market, providing inspiration and material for big budget movies, savvy television animation and computer games. All three of these visually dynamic mediums seem to better fuel the imaginations of mainstream youth than the visually static --if only by comparison-- comic book medium.
Comic books used to be able to do what even movies couldn't, credibly portray fantastic, larger than life characters and events. Special effects and computer generated imagery have significantly cut into what was once comic books' greatest strength.
Ironically, writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Greg Rucka have made interesting dialogue and character development a prerequisite for best-selling comic books these days.
It's probably a good thing, since fantasy fulfillment alone will no longer be enough to sustain even a niche market. Will the comic book survive? Things look more promising today than they did, say, in 1998.
A few segments of the market are even growing, manga in particular. Don't give up on comics just yet.