Deconstructing Comics: A Unit Share Analysis of Marvel's Events

thumbnail (1)Travis Beaven writes,

There's a disconnect that you come across within the comic industry, particularly if you read sites like this one. The opinions of the readers often appear at odds with the sales figures, leaving people to wonder if we have a good grasp on our understanding the industry, or if the "silent majority" is simply misunderstood and underestimated. There are plenty of "tribal knowledge" facts that we discuss every day, but increasingly those are divorced from the reality of sales… leaving us wondering why on earth the publishers are making the decisions they are.

While it's fun to imagine that the heads of Marvel and DC are incompetent lunatics, high on paint fumes and using a combination of dart board and blood rituals to make their decisions, you have to assume there is at least some method behind the seeming madness. Their decisions spring from somewhere, and given large corporations built and designed to be profitable… those reasons are typically financial. This doesn't mean those decisions are always good ones, but they are rooted in some basic thought process that isn't always clear to the rest of us.

So, over the next several weeks I'm going to make an attempt to deconstruct the data on hand to better frame up what is happening in the comic book industry. As much as possible, I'm going to attempt to avoid commentary but instead present the data as cleanly as possible. I'll present conclusions, but always with the caveats necessary when presenting a full and accurate picture of what is happening. This means it's up to you to draw the conclusions you want… but at least you're working from some facts and figures you might not have had before.

Finally, a bit about the information used; I'm taking data from Comichron.com, which is an excellent and easy to parse source of data around comic orders and sales. However, it's also limited to North America and Diamond Comic Distributors. This means it's a cut of all the available data and it will give neither the global perspective or the digital sales figures, both of which are far less easy to obtain. So on one hand you should take all of this analysis for what it's worth… which is to say it's a North American viewpoint of the stats. However, it's also fair to say that purchasing trends and overall figures are reasonably universal, and some of the conclusions we can draw around the NA market are at least interesting litmus tests for the industry as a whole.

Ok, enough. Let's talk Event Comics today; specifically, Marvel's.

On one hand you have a very vocal group of people complaining about event fatigue, how they have "quit" the big publishers because of it, and predict the imminent collapse of the comic industry as a result of going to the event well so frequently. On the other hand, despite many of the owners and employees of LCBS sharing a negative opinion of events in general… there is no denying that they pay the bills.

The common narrative we hear is that Marvel's Event Comics have been losing steam steadily over the years. But the real picture paints a very different, and more complex, story.

Since 2005 Marvel has published 14 events. I should say at this point that one could argue the real number is 12, but for this analysis we are using the events that Marvel engaged their PR machine on and cite as "event comics" in their listings. This means "Death of Wolverine (2014)" is counted as an event while "Chaos War (2010)" is not. I'm not going to pretend to understand the distinction, but for consistency we will go with the definition Marvel uses.

So over the last decade, here are the events in question, and how they rank up.

#1: Civil War (2006), average sales of 267,931 per issue

#2: Secret Wars (2015), average sales of 230,004 per issue

#3: Secret Invasion (2008), average sales of 177,628 per issue

#4: AvX (2012), average sales of 177,492 per issue

#5: Death of Wolverine (2014), average sales of 174,781 per issue

#6: World War Hulk (2007), average sales of 158,410 per issue

#7: House of M (2005), average sales of 156,196 per issue

#8: Siege (2010), average sales of 110,935 per issue

#9: Age of Ultron (2013), average sales of 107,902 per issue

#10: Fear Itself (2011), average sales of 99,073 per issue

#11: Original Sin (2014), average sales of 98,008 per issue

#12: Ultimatum (2008), average sales of 90,649 per issue

#13: Axis (2014), average sales of 83,180 per issue

#14: War of Kings (2009) average sales of 46,266 per issue

To create this basic picture I'm using Unit Sales, not Dollar Share. This matters because the first two events came in at $2.99 on average, while the others all went higher at $3.99 (or more). Thus, even though Civil War was stronger that Secret Wars, the later made more money for Marvel by a pretty decent margin.

Someone might be quick to point out that I'm using numbers from the distributor, as opposed to what is actually sold in the comic shop. This has at times led to the argument that none of these numbers are relevant because comic shops may be left with piles and piles of unsold comics in their stores. While true, (these numbers are coming from the distributor and not the end store) if thousands of comics were going unsold you would see retailers adjusting their orders over time. Even with incentives pushing the sales higher, comic book stores don't run on such an inflated margin that they can afford to have piles of inventory rotting for a variant cover or two. Thus, the overall figures hold up as a general litmus test for how well events are performing.

So, all that said a couple of items immediately jump out:

* Right from the start, you can see that there is no trend that suggests that readers are getting tired of, or more excited by, events. The popularity and sales are evenly mixed across the decade, and it feels a lot more tied to the quality of story and writer than exhaustion from the readers. It's also true that there are more events than there were… 6 of them in the last 4 years.

* 2014 was an aggressive year at Marvel for events. If you felt like you had event fatigue you were right… three events in one year with an absolute feeling of diminishing returns, particularly if you gauge Axis against AvX. However, you can also make the case that Marvel made crazy money that year… with those three events selling more than Secret Wars when combined (2,231,802 for 2014's three series, versus 2,070,036 for 2015's Secret Wars).

* There is no evidence to suggest that Marvel should space out events more. To the contrary, financially they would be better of living in perpetual events… assuming of course that in doing so it wouldn't completely crater the industry. This presents an interesting problem… if you're Marvel you want to find the balance between maximizing event attention and not burning out the readership. Which, if I'm speculating, is exactly what they are trying to accomplish with the endless "Marvel Now", "All New Marvel", "All Different Marvel" and "All New and All Different Marvel Now" initiatives.

* Not to be too pedantic about it, but all those people who post about how they are "done" with events and Marvel has taken the last of their money? The simple facts are that these people are still buying the event comics, or Marvel is somehow magically getting as many readers as they are losing… but the smart money is on a lot of bluster and the same spending habits as always.

One key factor the high level numbers don't show though is how well the events held their sales. Meaning, from first issue to second issue how well did the events hold their readers? In most cases there is a very predictable and constantly repeating curve… but the exceptions to the rule are fascinating.

To level set us, we're going back to 2005 and House of M, largely seen as the event that kicked off Marvel's more aggressive marketing and publishing approach to events:

House of M (2005)

8 Issue Event Series

Average Cost: $2.99

#1 (first issue): 233,721 copies sold

#8 (final issue): 135,460 copies sold

Bendis spun out storylines from Avengers/New Avengers and (sorta) Astonishing X-Men for House of M, which in a very strange way closely resembles the most common path events have taken over the last decade by both major publishers. It started out with a very strong first issue in terms of sales, but suffered a 28% drop in sales with the second issue, and a 42% drop in sales by the time it wrapped. It moved a very large 1,249,564 in total issues, but averaged out at around 156,196 units an issue. Nothing to sneeze at, particularly in today's market. Of the 14 events Marvel has done in the last 11 years, House of M sits squarely in the middle at #7.

But a year later, Marvel struck gold in Civil War.

Civil War (2006)

7 Issue Event Series

Average Cost: $2.99

#1 (first issue): 260,706 copies sold

#7 (final issue): 265,886 copies sold

Over the last decade only one other event did what Civil War pulled off… it not only held its popularity throughout, but actually grew its sales (slightly) over the course of the series. The series never dropped more than 10,000 units from where it started, and grew 30,000 units for the third issue. Civil War was an impressive accomplishment for Marvel, and it makes all the sense in the world for them to want to relive that glory. The only other series that compared was Siege, which never wavered by more than 5,000 issues during its run and ended stronger than it began. Of course, Siege started much lower with an average issue run of 110,935 copies sold.

With those two exceptions Marvel ran a pretty typical 30% to 40% drop from first issue to last, and given most of these events were 6-8 issues it aligns completely with what we see in the comic market for regular titles. If you look at any of the recent Marvel relaunches in the last five years you come to a very predictable drop in units over a span of six issues. It also doesn't really matter much if it's a big title or a small one… the sales curve looks almost identical.

Which makes the clear case that while readers complain about event fatigue, they read and consume event titles in the same way they read nearly every other title Marvel produces.

It's worth finishing on the most recent series Marvel produced… which from a pure dollar perspective was Marvel's most successful endeavor to date.

Secret Wars (2015)

9 Issue Event Series

Average Cost: $3.99 (with a $4.99 first and last issue)

#1 (first issue): 527,678 copies sold

#9 (final issue): 149,028 copies sold

Secret Wars was a curious series to map. It stands apart from all of the other events in a couple of unique ways. First, the #1 sales were completely off the charts by a factor of 2. Much of this is owed to bundled offers like Loot Crate, but the second issue held a very solid 210,807 copies sold… in the grand scheme of events only Civil War topped it. For a few issues Secret Wars seemed like it was going to follow the Civil War and Siege trend… until #7, when it suddenly began hemorrhaging sales. The ending of Civil War came in 68% lower than where it began, but even discounting the abnormally high orders for the first issue, it still took a strange turn over the course of the series. It's tough to draw clear conclusions from what happened here… perhaps the sheer volume of tie-ins took their toll, perhaps the critical failures of Convergence and DC You impacted Marvel negatively, or perhaps there's another, more worrisome factor at play for Marvel.

In the time period between #6 and #7, (and it's worth noting that the storyline itself had significantly slowed down and significant delays were hitting the series) Marvel introduced the Marvel Now lineup coming out of Secret Wars. The sales figures for many of the new titles post Secret Wars showed the same relative strengths and weaknesses Marvel has been seeing for years… mostly. Factoring out the Star Wars titles you do start to see a slight negative overall impact from previous marketing launches, like the one that came out of AvX. Most of the Marvel #1 issues topped the 100,000 unit sale mark, and then declined with the typical 30%-40% rate. But coming out of Secret Wars we can see a greater number topping out around the 90,000 unit mark… and disguised a bit by a meltdown from DC and the overall strength of Star Wars titles. Is this a factor? The raw numbers would suggest that something is going on here, and it's a reasonable conclusion to draw. If you take the long view, this may signal some trouble for Marvel as change tends to happen slowly… and the numbers for Civil War 2 (and Marvel's forthcoming new marketing push) will be extremely interesting to look at.

I'll caution again that like all statistics it's dangerous to draw too many conclusions in the short term and without the benefit of a bigger picture.

It's worth diving further into this though, because the initial numbers can be misleading. For the next go around I'll dig into DC's events and the similarities and differences to Marvel, then start to dig into the numbers seen for relaunches and reboots. Other commentary and overall conclusions? Knock yourselves out.

Final addition: In the writing of this article the numbers for June of 2016 came out, but the exact figures are still in process of being sorted. What the initial look tells us though follows everything you've read above, including the potential danger signs for Marvel. In the Top 10 comics, Civil War 2 #1 ($5.99) took the top spot, while Civil War #2 ($4.99) took the #5 spot. The only other Marvel title in the top ten was Han Solo at #4. We can draw two quick conclusions… first that Civil War 2 isn't the bomb some on the internet have claimed it is, and that the falloff from the first to the second issue isn't terribly steep. If I'm guessing I believe we will see a 15% to 20% drop, unless there was some kind of crazy Loot Crate style promotion I wasn't aware of. If there was, it would mean that Civil War 2 #1 will have very high numbers and at $5.99 an issue that's good news for Marvel. The bad news is that if it wasn't an event comic or Star Wars it didn't hit the top ten. It will be interesting to track what all this means over the summer.

About Rich Johnston

Head writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world. Living in London, father of two. Political cartoonist.

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