BlueStreak takes an analytic look at how The New 52 has affected sales in the comic book industry.
There’s a lot of debate concerning the New 52, with fans continuing to debate the necessity of the reboot, how well it was executed and the initiative's general success. It’s one of the more polarizing topics in fandom today, in part because the New 52 added a wrinkle into the well-worn traditional divisions of comic book fans. No longer is the fanbase divided into Marvel vs. DC; now it’s Marvel vs. New DC fans vs. Old DC fans.
A lot of the debate is subjective, especially in terms of how well the New 52 was executed. Some fans believe that any company that hires Rob Liefeld to write three books is a failure, regardless of the quality of the rest of the company’s books. Others choose to focus on continuity faults, claiming that fictional “new readers” are unable to use basic reading comprehension skills to figure out what’s going on in a book.
I’m not here to debate the quality of DC’s line. I think the cancellation of 20% of its books over the first year is an unspoken admittance that the New 52 could have benefitted from a couple extra months of gathering talents and lining their ducks up in a row. However, that’s not to say that the New 52 hasn’t been a groundbreaking success for the company. In fact, the September relaunch has put them into a stronger position than they’ve been that at any point in the last decade.
Looking Back at the Past Five Years
In order to provide a suitable base to see the effect of the New 52, one needs to first look back at industry trends and historical performance. Using John Jackson Miller’s Comichron estimates, I took a look at monthly sales figures for the months of March, June, September and December from June 2007 to the present day.
When examining the sales history, I focused on compiling the following statistics:
Strong Comics (Number of Comics with 30,000+ sales): Generally speaking, any Marvel/DC comic that sells under 30,000 is in danger of cancellation. Any comic that can regularly exceed this number is generally considered a success in the industry.
Strong Ongoings ( Ongoing Series above 30,000): While event comics and miniseries can provide short-term boosts to sales, the foundation of a company’s sales figures is comprised of ongoing titles. These titles provide continuity to the fanbase, and are often vehicles for their highest paid/most critically acclaimed creators. In addition, the number of ongoing titles provides a reasonable level of the relative strength of the industry.
Weak Ongoings (Ongoing Series Less than 30,000): These are comics that are “in danger” of cancellation. With few exceptions (X-Factor being a notable one), titles that fall under this mark are eventually cancelled and replaced with a new series.
I also examined price points and the number of “core” franchise titles (such as Batman, Superman, X-Men and the Avengers) to take into account the popular conceptions that higher priced books are pushing smaller titles out of the market and whether overall sales are boosted by an influx of books featuring popular characters.
What the Market Was Like Pre-New 52
In the four years prior to the new 52, DC had an average of 16 strong ongoing series, the majority being Superman/Batman/Green Lantern series. By comparison, Marvel had an average of 26 strong ongoing series.
Both companies employed similar tactics to boost sales during this time period, namely double-shipping their top selling comics and running periodic events, complete with tie-ins in both ongoing series and separate miniseries. DC also produced four “weekly” comics, all of which were technically strong, but saw diminishing returns each month. On average 36% of strong selling comics were non-ongoing series.
Sales began to rapidly deteriorate in fall 2010. In September of that year, the industry managed to produce only 61 strong selling comics. The average number of strong selling comics prior to that September had been 70 comics. During the next year, sales continued to decline, reaching a low of 54 strong selling comics in March 2011.
By March 2011, strong ongoings had dipped from 51 to 38, and the market was unable/unwilling to support additional event comics to supplement Marvel and DC’s sales like it had done in the past. While Marvel seemed to be hit harder than DC during the last half of 2010/first half of 2011 (bottoming out at 20 strong ongoings in June 2011), DC seemed unable to produce strong ongoings outside of its core fifteen titles.
In addition, there was a general decline in the number of strong ongoing series and a subsequent rise in weak ongoing series during this four year stretch. There was also a significant jump in spring 2009 of the number of comics with a price point above $3.99. Trendlines indicate that the raised price point did cause a slight increase in the number of weak ongoing series, but at best it only helped to slightly accelerate an existing trend.
As a consequence of the aforementioned trends, monthly sales decreased by nearly 15 million copies between 2007 and 2010. Whereas yearly sales were approximately 85 million units in 2007, that figure decreased to 69 million units in 2010 for an 18% decrease in comics sold.
TL; DR Summary
1) Prior to The New 52, DC on average sold 16 “strong” ongoing series with sales more than 30,000.
2) Prior to The New 52, the comic market in general was shrinking, or at least shifting away from mainstream comics. Monthly sales decreased by 18% over a three year period, and the amount of well-selling ongoing series published by DC/Marvel were going down. A weakening economy and a rise in price points probably both contributed to this decrease.
What the New 52 Did
The New 52 created an infusion of ongoing comics into the comic market, and were then placed on a (relatively) equal footing for consumers to sample and buy. Whereas both Marvel and DC had previously marketed several “core” titles and focused the overall narrative in those books, DC compartmentalized its series, allowing most of them to stand on its own.
Nearly a year after the New 52 began, its effect on sales remains noticeable. DC currently has 30 titles with sales in excess of 30,000 units, nearly double its pre-relaunch figures. Those 30 strong ongoings is a higher figure than at any point during the company’s last fifteen years in operation, dating back to 1997.
In addition, it’s all but eliminated its staple of event/mini-series comics, choosing to keep stories contained to various ongoing series and crossing over events with other series instead of spinning them off into separate comics. While DC hasn’t entirely eliminated its non-ongoing comics (Before Watchmen being an example), it certainly has laid back in its publication. DC also eliminated its practice of double-shipping comics, which has helped to diversify its line.
This is a key difference between DC’s attitude prior to the New 52 and its current way of doing business. Focusing on a foundation of strong ongoing series instead of pushing short-term events and miniseries is making the company stronger than ever before. While I question many of the creative choices made in the New 52, it cannot be denied that the company’s "prolonged" success ( even a year long increase is unprecedented in recent sales figures), has been due in part to the company’s focus on ongoing titles.
The New 52 also seems to have expanded the comic market, bringing in “new” sales instead of competing with existing books. While Marvel has frequently fallen into a second position to DC, its sales has not suffered. During the New 52 era, Marvel has on average 25 strong ongoings, a drop of only one title from the same period last year. Personally, I think this is in part due to its decision to tie-in existing titles to its recent Avengers vs. X-Men event, which prevents readers from leaving "secondary" titles to keep up on the latest major event. In total, the amount of strong ongoing comics published by Marvel and DC has increased to 56, higher than any point in the last ten years of comic book sales.
The number of strong-selling comics seems to have stabilized at 75, a figure last seen in 2007. Also, yearly sales are on pace for approximately 80 million units, nearly eliminating the losses seen in the last three years. While Marvel's strong ongoing sales are down slightly, they plan on mimicking DC and running a modified relaunch campaign, which we'll look at in more detail next month.
There’s no question that hype and marketing played a role in this boost in sales. DC pushed the books on a variety of different media and has continued to play on this hype over the last twelve months. However, DC has been able to at least keep up the hype levels while tinkering with its line and eliminating those series which can't sustain sales in the long term. While some atrophy is expected, most of the company's comics have stabilized somewhat.
It should be noted that DC’s concentration of “core character” comics, namely those focusing on Batman/Superman/Green Lantern has not increased. While books focusing on the “families” of those three characters equaled to 15 of its 30 series, it’s still a significant drop from the 75%-80% concentration prior to the reboot.
While hype surrounding the New 52 will eventually fade, it appears that DC should be able to at least match Marvel’s number of strong ongoing titles. I believe that in order for DC to continue its past year of success, it will need to continue to strengthen its core line of ongoings while finding a careful balance of event comics and miniseries to supplement sales.
1) The New 52 caused DC to produce significantly more strong ongoings. On average, the company has 30 strong ongoings currently, nearly double its output prior to the reboot. In addition, it’s selling more strong ongoing titles now than it did at any point in time during the last fifteen years in operation.
2) The New 52 has helped expand the market and has not significantly cannibalized sales of other companies. The market is currently on pace to sell 80 million units this year, the highest figure since sales began to dip in 2008.
I think I’ve bored people enough this month with blathering about statistics. Next month, I’ll examine how Marvel’s relaunch attempt differs from DC’s and what people should be looking for to see if it can match The New 52’s success.