When DC Comics relaunched their line under the banner of “New 52” in 2011, they were able to keep their sales relatively stable through 2012 by cancelling low selling titles and replacing them with new ones, with the caveat that more titles were slipping to the lower rungs of the sales ladder, a trend that was the major theme of 2013. We thought it would be interesting to take a look at how sales have developed over the last year.

To measure the health of DC’s line, all mini-series have been stripped out of the estimates for the Direct Market sales at The Comic Chronicles. As usual, Direct Market estimates are usually 10-15% low, as UK sales are not reported in these numbers. They do not include newsstand, subscription or digital sales, but they do report on the publisher’s performance in the U.S. comic shop market and the majority of monthly comics sold.

In 2012, DC monthly average sales mostly kept between roughly 40K and 38K. It was fairly consistent. In 2013 (not counting “Villains’ Month” in September –see below), the monthly average of DC’s titles ranged from a high of 41,693 in June to a low of 34,049 in April. A much wider range than in 2012 and, at the low end, quite a departure from the New 52 launch numbers. DC’s average month was 36,909 per title, with the median month having a per title average of 36,689. All very consistent if you consider September a special case and statistical outlier.

Since their relaunch, DC likes to make September a month of special promotions. In 2012 it was “Zero Month.” In 2013, they declared September “Villains’ Month” and issued lenticular covers. This was extremely controversial, as DC needed to place the orders for the covers before the Direct Market retailers placed their orders and DC guessed low. This caused some disagreements with retailers and saw the emergence of normal 2D alternate covers for all the month’s issues. Even though the critical reception was decidedly mixed, DC averaged 65,989 copies per book between both covers, a number harkening back to the New 52 launch. The cover promotion will be repeated in September 2014 for an event called “Five Years Later.”

The recovery after April’s low average is a combination of DC cancelling some of the lower selling books and starting to introduce a few titles with more staying power than the earlier waves of replacement titles. It’s no surprise that Superman Unchained by Scott Snyder and Jim Lee was a big seller (although it’s being discontinued rather than replace that creative time), but Batman/Superman and Superman/Wonder Woman have all found some traction with sales well above the average for DC and above the sales of Action Comics and Superman.

Still, the big story of DC’s 2013 sales is that the majority of their titles sell very poorly with the overall sales average getting buoyed by Batman and the Justice League.

If you break DC’s sales (minus the September stunt/event issues and mini-series) into sales bands of ten thousand, it quickly becomes apparent that the most popular sales band is issues that sell from 10K – 19,999 copies. The second most popular sales band is 20K – 29,999 copies. DC also published a significant number of issues that sold under 10K by Direct Market estimates.

The distribution used to be a bit more even, with DC selling more issues between 50K-99K, but those numbers have fallen off as 2013 wore on. Batman is still a rock for DC, the best-selling regular comic which has yet to dip below six figures of sales. Justice League and Superman Unchained both sell either in the 100K or 90Ks range. Past that things start to taper off quickly.

How did DC get this way? A death of a thousand cuts. Most comics do tend to shed a small percentage of readership each month. In some cases this slippage was exacerbated by a change of creative teams. The Green Lantern line is a notable example of this, switching to an all indie-writer lineup after Geoff John ended his long and highly successful run on the character. The audience didn’t stick around very long for the new GL regime and sales dropped quickly. Some of DC’s new title launches were questionable ideas, notably the failed launch of Justice League of America’s Vibe, an attempt to revive one of the least popular and most ridiculed superheroes in DC’s history. Some of the lower selling titles are attempts to diversify genres. All-Star Western, The Movement and Green Team: Teen Trillionaires are all attempts to move past the traditional superhero settings and of the three, only All-Star Western is still standing with below average sales.

Several titles were still being printed with sales below 10K. Previously, while the exact level of cancellation varied from title to title, comics were being replaced as they drifted below 18K in orders. Not so in 2013 and it was easy to get the impression that DC was having trouble coming up with replacement titles as quickly as sales were dropping on bottom third of their line.

This year, DC is addressing this with more cancellations and will be replacing some of those cuts with three weekly comics, to keep their title count at or near the “52” that they identify their superhero universe with. Weekly comics are a two-edged sword—while you would expect a Batman-centric weekly comic to yield 4 solidly selling issues a month, DC will be asking readers to pick up 12 issues/month between these three weeklies. If one of those weeklies hits a sales tailspin, that’s 4 low selling issues a month as a possible counterpoint.

Because DC has a top list with Batman and Justice League selling well, it evens out their sales average a bit and blunts the impact of so many low-selling titles. If Batman were to miss a month, there would be a noticeable effect on the monthly average. The median selling issue for DC would be in the vicinity of 28K. You could call a DC book selling 35K a minor hit and keep a straight face while doing so. The mid-list has shrunk that drastically.

DC started 2014 in the peculiar place of announcing an office move a year ahead of time and then watching Mike Marts, the editor of their centerpiece Bat-titles walk down the block to Marvel. DC’s questions for 2014 are:

*Can the Batman franchise hold on after the departure of Marts?
*Can DC match their speed of introducing new titles with the atrophy at the bottom of the list?
*Will the market support three weekly series?

Next week: a look at Marvel's All New Marvel Now launches in 2013.