In October 2012, Marvel unveiled “Marvel NOW,” an initiative relaunching many of their titles with new #1 issues, as well as adding a few new titles. While Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, was quick to tell everyone that Marvel NOW was not a reboot, Marvel NOW was clearly a response to DC’s “New 52” program where DC relaunched their entire line with new #1 issues, as well as rebooting their superhero universe. Looking at a year of DC sales, the numbers stayed stable before beginning a recent decline. Marvel NOW launched big, with sales estimates on flagship title Uncanny Avengers estimated at almost 304K copies. But the size of that launch may be deceptive, as it appears Marvel NOW is having trouble retaining sales after the first issues have shipped. In the case of Uncanny Avengers, estimated at 84K copies of March’s issue #5, sales have dropped 72%.

Whereas DC’s New 52 released 52 titles in the space of a month, Marvel NOW has been a scrolling event. A handful of new titles are released each month for five months of #1 issues. These first issues arrive with multiple variant covers, each variant having a different minimum sales formula to unlock them. These first issues would also frequently come with incentive discounts for higher orders. The variants and incentiveshave proved to be a powerful sales tool, with each month yielding multiple #1s selling over 100K copies. But then the big drop occurs.

The average #1 issue of Marvel NOW has sold 119K copies. The average #2 issue has sold 64K copies. That’s a 46% drop from issue #1 to issue #2. For the 16 titles that have shipped at least 5 issues, only two (Superior Spider-Man and Avengers Arena) retained over 50% of their first issue sales. By total sales, the combined 16 titles were down 58% from the first issues.

For the New 52, Direct Market orders only dropped an estimated 6.3% for the second issues and a cumulative 37% by the fifth issues. That’s less than the drop from issue #1 to issue #2 for Marvel NOW. However, DC notably made the first six issues of each title returnable, a promotion which definitely helped keep early issue orders high.

There’s no doubt Marvel is better at selling first issues than DC (119K average vs. 65.7K), but why have the sales dropped off so quickly? There are no Bookscan numbers for the Direct Market and it’s entirely possible that there are a lot of unsold copies of first issues lying around, ordered strictly to qualify for variant covers and extra discounts. If a retailer can sell the variant cover of a $3.99 comic for $20+—and many can—the economics seem to work out for everyone. While the average sales dip starts easing with the third issues, the cumulative effect raises some questions about how long term a sales fix Marvel NOW is.

Looking at the sales bands for the March sales estimates (for the last issue released in March in case of multiple issues per title), we see two #1 issues over 100K, then a few titles in the 80K range with clusters developing around the 50Ks and 40Ks. While Marvel NOW has yet to cancel any titles, there are already two titles that have slipped into the 20K range and may soon test Marvel’s patience.

The beauty of Marvel Now is that is absolutely has sold a large number of first issues and by spacing those first issues across several months, it creates a sense of Marvel enjoying a large audience each month. Those sales numbers are short lived though. With the New 52, DC has periodically cancelled titles and added new ones in waves. Marvel has announced a new wave of Marvel NOW #1s to start in July. DC found they had trouble launching new titles out of the subsequent waves, having used up most of their marque characters in the initial launch. It remains to be seen how Marvel will navigate that issue.

As it stands after the March sales estimates, sales levels on the relaunched titles have been reset to roughly the 2010 levels as Marvel’s sales erosion began, though it remains to be seen how much of floor has been found. Fantastic Four and X-Men Legacy are already below their pre-Marvel NOW sales levels, though X-Men Legacy is a very different title now.