The more things change, the more things stay the same. That may as well be the unspoken motto of the comic book industry. The thoroughly-American art form reinvents itself every few years. But, looking back, we see that things don’t change all that much. And for some, that’s quite a comfort.
One of the best resources for comic book sales data is Jackson Miller’s Comichron. Simply put, it’s a website devoted to nerdy stats for a nerdy hobby written by nerdy people for nerdy people. Stats fans will love the detailed, rigorous devotion to to sales data in the comic industry. And comic fans will love yet another website devoted to their pastime. In this article, I will use it to take our trip down memory lane.
In April of 1997, 9 out of 10 of the top comics sold were from Marvel and DC comics. In April 2017, 9 out of 10 of the top comics sold were from Marvel an DC comics. In both instances the “third-party candidate” was Image Comics. In ’97, Image’s top-selling book was Spawn #61 and in ’17 it was The Walking Dead #166. Adding up all units sold, in 1997 the top ten accounted for 1,197,784 copies; while in 2017 they were 1,017,196 units. That’s a loss of over 180,500 units. Now for some math (stats-averse people should look away). If the average cost of a comic was $1.95 in 1997, the top 10 comics made $2,335,678.80. In 2017 the average cost of a comic in the top 10 was $3.99, which means they made $4,058,612.04 in total. So that drop in 180 thousand units didn’t mean a loss in profit. (If any brave souls would like to take inflation and other such factor into account, please leave a comment below. And show your work!)
Conversely, at the end of the list, the 299th-best selling comic of ’97 was Archie Comic’s Archie’s Pal Jughead Comics #94 (which sold 3,563 copies at $1.50). In ’17 that honor fell to IDW’s Micronauts #11 (which sold 4,304 copies at $3.99 each). Publishers that occupied the end of the list most often in 1997 included Archie, Sirius, and Dark Horse. In 2017 they were IDW, Image, and Titan. The bottom twenty sold 73,577 comic books in 1997 compared to 89,228 issues in 2017. An increase of 15,651 comics sold for the “bottom of the barrel” is quite impressive!
We see a pattern of the Big Two taking the lion’s share of the comic book industry pie.
What was different in the top ten, if anything, you may ask? Interestingly, in 1996, DC Comics and Marvel Comics had a genius-level idea: “Let us join forces and have our most famous characters fight each other, then we’ll publish a few mashup books. We’ll be rich!” And it worked: The second wave of Amalgam Comics followed in 1997 with titles in the top ten such as Iron Lantern (a mashup of Iron Man and Green Lantern, of course), JLX Unleashed (combining the X-Men and the Justice League), and Challengers of the Fantastic (Challengers of the Unknown + Fantastic Four). As a matter of fact, in April 1997, 5 of the 10 top comics sold were from Amalgam Comics. While there have been some recent cross-property encounters (Green Lantern meets Space Ghost and Spider-Man meets Red Sonja), I, for one, would like to see another mashup series from The Big Two. Twenty years is a long enough wait.
So what do we get out of looking to the past? We get a sense that the comic book industry is cyclical; that there is nothing new under the sun; that fans want something new, but they’re happy with something old. There’s a comfort in knowing that the latest universe-shattering event will right itself (eventually). On the other hand, it’s nice to see that there are always alternatives in the periphery, and that there’s a comic book for everyone.
See you in 2037.