Much like their marquee character Wolverine, Marvel Comics is the best there is at what they do and what they do is launch #1 issues with variant covers, event mini-series and assorted publishing stunts. Strip away those launches and events and you find a very different sales narrative where the mid-list has disappeared and sales numbers on normal comics are hard to come by, according to the 2013 sales estimates.

The real health of a comics publisher should be based on how well it can sell its normal titles, not how well the event mini-series do, so all mini-series have been scrubbed from Marvel’s sales estimates at The Comics Chronicles. These estimates are generally considered 10-15% low, as they do not take sales to the UK into account, nor do they account for digital sales which are thought to be 20-25% of the market and sell in similar proportion to the Direct Market. However, these remaining numbers are considered a good judge of a comic’s performance in the Direct Market world of comics specialty stores and a safe comparison of performance over time.

In 2013, Marvel’s average monthly sales ranged from a high of 47,840 in January (during its Marvel Now relaunch event) to a low of 36,803 in August with the median monthly sales average at 39,837.

Those numbers may not be representative of Marvel’s true performance, in terms of monthly books. Marvel is an expert at getting retailers to buy large quantities of #1 issues. To be sure, a #1 issue will have much higher sales than a #2 issue, but Marvel ups the stakes by offering special variant covers and extra discounts for stores ordering big. As a result, many of those copies will have been ordered to secure those special covers and will end up sitting in the back of the shop gathering dust, not in the hands of a reader. Likewise it isn’t clear how the financials of extra discounts and shorter print runs for the variant editions plays into the ledger book on Marvel’s side.

If you take away the #1 issues and their inflated totals, the average monthly sales drop from a high of 41,400 in February to a low of 35,842 in July with a median monthly sales average of 39,505. While the high sales of #1 shift the top of Marvel’s sales dramatically, they only move the media by 332 copies/month. Still, these are not incredibly high averages.

Another way to gauge the health of a line is to look at where the titles fall inside of sales bands. In the past, it’s generally thought that a publisher was healthy when they had a least one title selling over 100K and a gentle cascade of titles scattered along the 10K sales bands below that. (90Ks, 80Ks, 70ks, etc.)

This is where Marvel starts running into a very serious and visible problem, as shown in the chart distributing Marvel’s annual sales into the bands.

Sales Bands

With #1's

Without #1's































Well over half of Marvel’s sales are in the range of 20K-39K and they are hard pressed to break the 100K barrier without some kind of stunt or first issue. Of the 4 “regular” issues that broke the 100K barrier for Marvel, 2 were early issues of their best performing title, Superior Spider-Man; one was the Guardians of the Galaxy reintroducing Neil Gaiman’s Angela character to comics and marketing around Gaiman’s involvement; and finally, an issue of Avengers with a big “#1” on the cover (theoretically to emphasize the start of a new story arc) that was really #24.

What happened to Marvel’s midlist? The median selling issue for 2013 would be in the vicinity of 35K. Sales of 60K and above are a little hard to come by and are mostly the province of Superior Spider-Man and the Avengers and X-Men franchises.

Marvel absolutely can sell issues in the 90Ks and 100Ks ranges when doing events and #1 issues, but the results start dropping off quickly after the glitter and confetti of stunts strops falling. To this point, Marvel’s two best-selling “regular” titles were Superior Spider-Man and All-New X-Men. Superior Spider-Man, which just reached the end of its run, was about Doc Ock supposedly killing Peter Parker and putting his brain in Spider-Man’s body. All-New X-Men opened with a long, still unresolved, arc about the original version of the X-Men travelling forward in time and being horrified by their future. Both titles could easily be considered long term (if well-received) stunt programming.

Marvel’s best numbers of 2013 were in Janaury as the Marvel Now launch was still underway. After all, comic titles tend to start big and have their sales trail off. In January, Marvel started another wave of launching new series and then relaunching old series like Fantastic Four with new #1s in an attempt to gain some sales traction.

The net effect of this is not unlike where DC comics was at the end of 2012 – they were able to hold their averages fairly steady by cancelling and launching new series, but they were starting to have trouble launching new titles quickly enough to maintain sales.

Marvel is fairly consistent about cancelling titles when they drop below roughly 18K in the Direct Market estimates, so they don’t get quite the same drag from very low selling books that DC does. On the other hand, Marvel doesn’t have a sales powerhouse like DC’s Batman and is finding itself in what seems like an endless cycle of relaunching titles like Hulk and Wolverine with new #1s, praying that something will stick.

Is Marvel’s new business model about event books for sales spikes and the bulk of the line selling below 40K per issue? That seems to be the question for 2014.