Sunday, August 15, 2004

Who's buying these things?

I'll never be as interested in comics as I was twenty years ago. There was a time I bought everything on the stands (much of which is still in my attic getting brown and brittle: it might be time to sort through it and hit eBay). These days, I'm much more selective.

You have to be. Batman alone, for instance, carries four monthly titles (about to be five, when the tie-in to his new cartoon show begins) and his "extended family" of books account for four more (not counting peripherals like "Birds of Prey" and numerous limited series). For Superman the corresponding count is 3 and 0, having been scaled back since his supporting cast is not currently considered strong enough to carry their own books.

This also doesn't count team books. Teen Titans (currently a three-title franchise, thanks to their cartoon show and "The Outsiders", which features most of the founding Titans under new names) could be considered a Bat-book, since Robin or Nightwing is the central character in all of them. Justice League (also with a second companion monthly based on the cartoon) features both Superman and Batman.

(I won't even talk about Marvel's EIGHTEEN X-men books.)

But DC's big success story, and it's current best seller, is Superman/Batman. For purposes of editorial jurisdiction, it's considered a Superman book, but Batman drives it, both dramatically and in sales. The fact that it's written by the popular Jeph Loeb doesn't hurt. (I'm dating myself when I wistfully wish that they'd called it "World's Finest", but that's a topic for another day.)

So, how well does it sell? Diamond International (comics distributors) doesn't like to say. Their monthly sales numbers aren't raw sales, but an index of how well a book sells compared to Batman (which is deemed for these purposes to be a rock-hard consistent seller, an assumption that raw numbers, when available, don't seem to justify). That is, Batman's index is always 100: Superman: Birthright's index this month is 49, meaning they sold forty-nine copies of Birthright #12 for every hundred copies of Batman #630. Or, put another way, about one copy for every two.

Could this be any more obtuse?

Anyway: Superman/Batman #11's index is 208. (S/B's numbers were always pretty good, but at the moment fan-favorite artist Michael Turner is drawing a six-issue arc featuring the introduction -- re-introduction? return? -- of Kara, the Supergirl from Krypton. I've mentioned it before. It's an eagerly-awaited story, and sales are through the roof.) But how many copies is that, exactly?

Fortunately, you only need hard numbers on one book to throw the whole chart into Excel, crunch the numbers and get sales for the industry. (I shouldn't have to do this. What other industry makes their sales figures so difficult to get?) Equally fortunately, has already done this, and has generated sales and trends for DC for the last year (possibly Marvel, too, but I couldn't find that).

Superman/Batman #10 (the most recent for which this calculation has been done) sold an estimated 178,865 copies in its first month of release. Since DC does subsequent printings (Marvel doesn't: that too is a topic for another day), sales can continue past that point, bringing S/B's total to 192,570.

That's a phenomenal number for comic books these days.

Batman sold 72,020: Birthright sold 34,829. Batman Adventures (the cartoon tie-in) sold 12,042. Batman Adventures is #152 of Diamond's top 300 selling comics for the month. Can you imagine what sales must be like for the other 148?

In light of these sales figures, comic books achieve a disproportionate amount of media awareness. There's not a schoolkid anywhere in the country (and not many grown-ups) who doesn't know who Batman is. You'd think these books would be selling in the millions. They once did.

Elsewhere in the AOL empire, TIME magazine's circulation is about 4 million in the US, 5.5 worldwide.

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