The Power of Icons
by Frank Esposito
It happened in 1980. Or 1981 if you want to split hairs.
As the Reagan Era dawned in America, Marvel Comics' Big 3 of Spider-Man, the Hulk and Captain America had finally gotten the best of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the opposing Big 3 at rival DC Comics. For the first time, sales of the individual titles of each of Marvel's Big 3 topped those of DC's Big 3. In other words, sales of the worst of Marvel's Big 3 topped those of the best of DC's Big 3.
At that point, Cap's sales of 165,000 per month finally cruised past Supes at 148k. Supes had been in freefall for the entirety of the 1970s - losing about 2/3 of his sales volume - so it shouldn't have been much of a surprise. Spidey and Hulk were well above Cap, at 296k and 201k, respectively. Batman wasn't far off Supes at 129k, while Wonder Woman lagged the pack at 94k.
Some would say this was a trivial milestone, that even by the early 80s, actual comics sales weren't as important for these characters as the licensing and merchandising opportunities they brought in for their owners. Even so, a look at the total sales these six books were bringing in is a bit startling.
I. Triple Deckers Collide
One-on-one comparisons can be made from 1970-85. Marvel started publishing sales data in '70, while DC stopped doing so in '87. DC #s for their Big 3 are out there for '60 and '65. In '60, S/B/WW sent 1.525 million copies of their solo books flying off spinner racks every month. By '65, that number had dropped a hair to 1.485 million. Comics still cost 12 cents and were a fixture in the media lives of most 8-to-15-year-olds across the country. You could find them in drug stores, grocery stores, convenience stores and, of course, at newsstands.
But the worm turned quickly. Numbers for 1970 - for all six books now, not just the DC offerings - were 1.667 million. DC's share of that had dipped to 898k, and Marvel was charging hard at 769k. Clearly, the two firms were fighting for pieces of a much smaller pie.
By '75, Marvel had the lead for good - 649k to 600k - in a Top 6 market that topped out at 1.249 million per month. '80 and '85 were bleaker yet for DC - and for the market as a whole.
1980 : Marvel Big 3 - 662k, DC Big 3 - 371 k. Total Big 6 market - 1.033 million.
1985 : Marvel Big 3 - 668k, DC Big 3 - 225k. Total Big 6 market - 893k.
II. The Myth of Multimedia Marketing
For four of these characters - DC's Big 3 as well as the Hulk - there were major opportunities to add to sales via hit movies and/or TV shows between 1965 and 1985. This is particularly enlightening with the big Spider-Man-led "comic book movie boom" currently under way. Let's see what the 1965-85 track record was.
The biggest of course was Batman, whose camp classic TV show dominated the pop culture scene for a few magical months in 1967, '68 and '69. Sales of Bats' solo title skyrocketed from about 450k in 1965 to almost 900k in 1966 and just over 800k in '67. They stayed around 530k in '68, but by '69 - with the show off the air - the comics-buying public's cold, fickle hand pushed the book down to 355k - a bitter 22 percent lower than it had been the year before the whole technicolor joyride began in the first place!
That's an extreme case, but one that deftly illustrates how fleeting the influence of the pop culture spotlight can be. The Batman TV show made household names out of actors Adam (Batman) West and Burt (Robin) Ward, but did absolutely nothing to help DC sell more copies of the Batman solo comic after the show went off the air. Contrary to what every comics editor has hoped and prayed for since the industry began, first-time readers did pick up the book...but opted not to stick with it once the glare had faded. Marvel might want to keep this in mind as it basks in the warm glow of Spidey's current big-screen success.
Superman also once held Hollywood in the palm of his hand, with hit movies in 1978 and 1980 and two less-successful sequels in '83 and '87. But in '78 - with the first hit film in theaters - solo Supes sales were down 5 percent!
DC sales data is missing for 1979-80 - when the films would have had some impact - but sales in '81 were down another 34 percent from '78. So if there was some big sales spike, a la 66-67 Batman, the dropoff was even more precipitous. Again, no lasting fans made.
Wonder Woman enjoyed a hit TV show from 1976-79. Yet sales of her solo title were essentially flat in '76-'77 and down about 20 percent in '78. They recover to a bit above prior levels in '79, but - with the show in its final season - it's hard to credit that sales bump to TV. By 1984, the book had lost roughly 2/3 of its 1979 readership. Again, the media spotlight doesn't necessarily help sales.
Maybe it's not a surprise that Hulk - with Marvel huckster Stan Lee calling the shots - seemed to be the only title to benefit from the 70s/80s media mainstream. The hit show that ran from 1978-82 did indeed cause a major solo-title sales boost (61%) in 1979, but even with a big drop the next year, Hulk sales remained above 1978 levels until 1985.
III. A Bubble Breaks
Marvel reported sales numbers through the '90s, and the tale they tell for the 90s is a grisly one indeed, one filled with the excesses of the speculation market, where new publishers and hastily-opened comic shops pushed collectibility past the breaking point, leading to a massive sales bubble. That bubble then popped just as the one surrounding Internet stocks has done in the last few years.
Speculation drove sales of Spidey up 60 percent in 1992. A nine percent jump the next year put the title's sales close to 600k. Then the bubble popped, and by 1996 Spidey sales had tumbled 64 percent to 216k - their lowest level since 1982. Hulk soared from 160k in 1989 to 300k in 1992, only to sink to 114k by 1996 - a drop of 62 percent from the 1992 high. Cap - a chronic underachiever whose sales dropped almost from the minute he was given his own book again in 1968 - even benefited from the 90s mania, seeing sales jump 31 percent from 1990-92, only to plummet 63 percent from 1992-95.
IV. War - How Many Sales Is It Good For?
Another weird sales trend affected DC's war books. Unlike Marvel, DC maintained decent sales in the non-superhero genres of war and horror throughout the 1970s. None of their individual titles may have had the sales muscle of Marvel non-superhero hits like Conan or Dracula, but collectively they helped DC sell a good chunk of comics.
As you might expect, sales of both Captain America and three of DC's major war books - Our Army At War, Star-Spangled War Stories and G.I. Combat - slumped badly during the Vietnam War. Cap had been losing ground since Day One - giving a patriotic superhero his own book back in 1968 may have been one of Stan Lee's few missteps. OAAW dropped 34 percent from 1966-72. G.I. Combat was down 38 percent in that same period. SSWS slipped 37 percent in 1966-70.
But here's the weird thing : DC's war books bounced back, while Cap didn't.
OAAW regained 19 percent of its readership from 1972-75. SSWS climbed 7 percent from 1970-75. G.I. Combat jumped six percent from 1972-74. Cap kept dropping.
DC's other major war book - Our Fighting Forces - posted a sales record that defies explanation. The book lost 27 percent of its readers from 1966-67,only to gain eight percent from 1967-72. OFF was apparently the war comic for people who hated the war!
As late as 1975, DC's four war titles were raking in combined sales of almost 620k per month, representing a nice little side business as DC's Big 3 superhero books lost ground to Marvel.
Horror provided another similar lift for DC. In 1975, DC's four main horror books - House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Unexpected and Ghosts - were moving a combined total of almost 600k per month.
V : Team-Up Wasteland
Of course, I had to check out the record of my beloved team-up books. DC's Brave & the Bold featured Batman team-ups from 1967 until it folded in 1982. Riding the peak of Batmania, the book crested at 342k in 1967 before beginning a long slide. It enjoyed a brief uptick in 1973-74 but had dropped to 121k by 1978 and to 91k in its final year.
DC Comics Presents - its Superman team-up book from 1978-86 - also tanked from the get-go. Debuting at 135k in 1979, its first full year, it stayed steady but lost sales every year through 1982. Then the bottom fell out, with sales dipping to 89k by 1986, its last full year.
Sales data is spotty for Marvel Team-Up, Marvel's Spidey team-up vehicle which ran from 1972-85, but it appears to have been outselling both B&B and DCCP fairly well by the early 1980s. We've only got 2 years - 1981 and 1982 - to directly compare the three titles, but here's how they looked :
1981 : MTU 185k, DCCP 127k, B&B 92k.
1982 : MTU 179k, DCCP 126k, B&B 91k.
Put another way, MTU sold twice as much as B&B in those years and 50 percent more than DCCP.
(Marvel's other team-up book - Marvel Two-in-One, with the Thing - had no sales data available. The book ran from 1974-83.)
VI. License To Shill
What might be more important, ultimately, than the sales of these individual titles is the licensing money they can bring in. DC's got a lot of mileage from Batman, with 4 movies and a successful cartoon series since 1988. Right now, Marvel clearly has the upper hand with the blockbuster Spider-Man movie - as well as a Spidey cartoon set to hit MTV soon - and a big-budget Hulk pic set for 2003.
Superman enjoyed a somewhat less successful solo cartoon in recent years, although all of DC's Big 3 are featured in the current Justice League cartoon. Rumors of a big-screen comeback also have circulated around the Man of Steel.
Marketing and licensing could take on even greater importance if Japanese entertainment/electronics giant Sony - which produced the Spider-Man movie - goes through with its rumored purchase of Marvel. With DC long-owned by AOL Time Warner, we could be heading for a real clash of the titans.
(And as a prelude, I just have to toss in this number I just came across. In the 1950s and 1960s, Dell - the comics publisher who controlled the lucrative Disney and Warner Bros. licenses, as well as most movie and TV spinoffs - would consider canceling a book if it dropped under 600k per month. With that in mind, proceed.)
Spidey 98k, Cap 63k, Hulk 51k. Marvel Big 3 total for September 2002 : 212k.
Bats 43k, Supes 37k, WW 24k. DC Big 3 total for September 2002 : 104k.
Lo, how the mighty have fallen.
(Primary sources : Standard Catalog of Comic Books, Krause Publications, 2002; and several issues of Comic Book Artist and Alter Ego magazines, published by TwoMorrows Publications.)
Frank Esposito is a writer, husband, father and longtime comics fan in Cleveland, Ohio
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This piece is © 2002 by Frank Esposito
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