The State of Superhero Event Comics

War of the Realms Event Sales - Cover
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Whether you love them, hate them, or have begun to experience a creeping sense of ennui about them, superhero events are a staple of the direct market. Each year Marvel Comics and DC Comics, the “Big Two” which compose approximately 70% of the entire market when combined, release multiple new events every year. The regularity of the current cycle began in the mid-00s with the release of “Avengers Disassembled” and subsequently massive sales success of Civil War. Since this period, the number of events (and their associated titles) have risen in some strange sort of arms race. Understanding the concept of the event comic is critical to understanding the economics of the direct market today.

Before we delve into analysis of event comics though, it’s worth defining exactly what is meant when we use that term. In this case the criteria include a limited number of issues, a large market presence (both on behalf of the publisher and sales of the chosen title), impact on the publishing line (i.e. affecting a shared narrative, other pre-existing publications, or both), and a large marketing presence that celebrates the event series as something outside the ordinary. This makes it clear that even a series with limited crossovers, like Doomsday Clock, is still defined as an event, while the upcoming “City of Bane” story in Batman would not be.

So let’s consider recent events, specifically War of the Realms and Heroes in Crisis to see what is really happening with this omnipresent feature of the direct market.

Examining Events

Events, by their very nature, don’t allow for longterm analysis or comparisons to many other titles within the same year. They are designed to be outliers with massive sales spread over 12 months of less (precluding any delays). The best way to evaluate trends and individual performance using our approach is to compare events to one another in a relatively limited span of time. With the final sales numbers for both War of the Realms and Heroes in Crisis now available, it made sense to focus on these series and their most recent counterparts: Dark Knights: Metal, Doomsday Clock, Infinity Wars, and Secret Empire. The resulting collection highlights the last several years of events with enough samples to notice possible trends and outliers.

We are also only examining sales for the first printings of each series, as large releases like these usually generate multiple printings spread over several months with various incentives attached. We are not excluding the #1 sales that would typically be excluded as outliers, however. These enormous launch sales are part of the event model, providing large revenue streams for publishers and possibly retailers. Observing both the sales of #1 issues and the rest of the series offers valuable insight into how events function. With all of that considered, these are the units sold for all six of Marvel and DC’s most recent events.

Superhero Event Sales - Event Sales

Despite the variance in overall sales, a shared narrative quickly emerges from this collection. The sales arc for all but one of these events can be characterized as a large launch with sales consistently higher than 100,000 copies and sometimes rising above 200,000, followed by a standard drop and relatively little subsequent attrition. Most events lose approximately 42% of sales between issues #1 and #2 within a very limited range of 40-45%. The only exception to this pattern was War of the Realms, which lost approximately 60% of total units sold with issue #2. This is most likely due to more ambitious retailer incentives than the market norm, resulting in even greater orders for #1 than would be normally expected, rather than a factor of quality leading to a greater decrease. It’s also worth noting that Secret Empire was able to essentially double its initial revenue by releasing an issue #0 with ample retailer incentives and necessity to its plot, resulting in 162,718 units being sold and showing that the initial bump can be extended when provided with sufficient resources (e.g. discounts, incentive covers).

These events break into essentially two tiers with both Dark Knights: Metal and Doomsday Clock consistently outselling other events in the same set of years. It’s difficult to assess exactly what led to both of these titles experiencing about 100% greater sales than the other four listed events. Uniqueness and creator involvement both provide possible factors as each series provided a notable new element to DC Comics shared narrative (i.e. the Dark Multiverse and Watchmen characters) and featured creators not seen on other series (i.e. Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Scott Snyder, and Greg Capullo).

No matter how where in these tiers various events land, there is a consistent expectation of a sales floor, rather than the steady loss of sales to attrition over time. All of the series experience relative sales stability following the release of #2. Only Doomsday Clock has shown signs of attrition, but that also includes lengthy delays not seen on any other recent events, a self-inflicted wound.

There are some limited signs of reader fatigue within the Marvel events, all of which feature in the lower tier. Civil War II would have featured in the top tier with 6 digit sales throughout its run, but no recent Marvel event has achieved that same success. While there are distinct ranges of event sales, the event model itself is still one of the greatest sources of revenue in comics, overall. These recent examples show that even a moderately successful event is still a great success compared to other direct market publications, and that comes before any consideration of crossovers and tie-ins.

Examining Crossovers

By our definition, an event does not exist (or profit) independently from all other releases. Part of the event model is the inclusion of crossovers and tie-ins, two distinct categories worth differentiating. Crossovers are issues of independent, ongoing series that feature a narrative tie to the plot of an event comic. Each of the six events displayed above featured at least one crossover, even Doomsday Clock with the very limited, but very successful story “The Button” in Batman and The Flash. Both the crossover issues featured in the 2019 events of War of the Realms and Heroes in Crisis provide some clear insight into how events impact their crossover titles.

We looked at a total of nine ongoing Marvel Comics series that featured at least two crossover issues with War of the Realms. These series varied wildly in their previous sales, style, and issue number resulting in sales charts that look scattered when assembled together. However, the impact of the two or more crossover issues when studied individually reveal some patterns.

Taken as a whole, averaging the sales of the two issues prior to the crossover and first two issues of the crossover, there was an overall increase of 6.3% in unit sales. That general increase itself is notable because it runs counter to the consistent trends of attrition (i.e. steady declines over time) found in ongoing superhero series. Any increase in sales, or retention of existing purchases even, is valuable for publishers.

This trend was not distributed evenly amongst the series. Three titles, Venom, Fantastic Four, and Superior Spider-Man, all lost sales as crossovers began. They are all relatively high volume series, selling at least 25,000 units prior to the crossover. Both Venom and Fantastic Four are top-sellers at Marvel Comics, which suggests that their pre-existing popularity was incapable of being bolstered by the inclusion of a new creative team or disconnected plot. These series only saw average declines between 2% and 7%, which roughly correlates with stand attrition rates, suggesting that they were not harmed by the crossover issues either, simply left unaffected.

Three other high volume series, Tony Stark: Iron Man, Avengers, and Thor all saw much greater increases in their crossover issues, ranging between 9% and 33%. Two of these series were notably written by Jason Aaron who also penned War of the Realms.

Low volume series, those selling less than 20,000 units prior to the crossover all saw a large, positive impact. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Champions, and Asgardians of the Galaxy received an average increase of 23.5% in unit sales, the largest average change within these three groups.

There is a clear narrative in this collection of varying results. Popular series are unlikely to be negatively affected by crossovers, but might still see sales gains approximately half of the time. Less popular series are almost certain to see a sales increase. Based on that assessment, it appears there is no harm to be done when publishers include a large number of crossovers within their events. The pair of crossover issues in Batman and The Flash connected to Heroes in Crisis bears out this narrative.

Superhero Event Sales - Heroes in Crisis

Issues #64 and #65 of each series featured a crossover story and the impact upon sales of The Flash are obvious, almost doubling between #63 and #64. This is likely based on both the readership of Batman and Heroes in Crisis, both the value of a crossover remains. The increase of Batman’s sales are much more limited, providing the best unit sales of this period, but only a minor overall increase of about 5%. However, Batman has proven to be a sales juggernaut that looms large even over many events.

Examining Tie-Ins

The event tie-in provides a very different standard for success than the crossover. Tie-ins are new miniseries, often associated with existing properties, that exist primarily to expand upon the narrative offered in an event series. We identified six total tie-ins that lasted more than a single issue related to War of the Realms and they provide a very consistent appearance in overall sales, despite featuring different properties and numbers of issues.

Superhero Event Sales - War of the Realms Tie Ins

Excluding Agents of Atlas #1, which featured notable retailers incentives that mark it as an outlier, the War of the Realms tie-ins all sold 24,500 and 32,000 with their #1 issue and declined an average of only 23.5% in sales of issue #2. That decrease is smaller than the industry norm for new superhero titles and the stability of sales across the remaining issues also bucks general trends of attrition, finding a comfortable floor around 20,000 units sold (or a bit higher).

Tie-ins function as miniature events unto themselves. The total sales are much slower, but they also feature a reliable range of sales and limited declines after reaching issue #2. Journey Into Mystery and Agents of Atlas reflect just how reliable these sales are as they either remain roughly even or slightly increase with issues #4 or #5.

These tie-ins don’t sell as well as standard Marvel Comics debuts. Uncanny X-Men and Journey Into Mystery was only the 7th and 9th best-selling Marvel #1 issues from April 2019 (with 31,940 and 30,803 units sold, respectively). However, those sales figures would make any publisher beyond the Big Two jealous and provide a reliable stream of revenue for several months, especially when increased by a factor of 6 unique tie-ins.

The Direct Market’s Cash Cow

When considering event comics in 2019, it quickly becomes clear that it’s not a matter of whether these series are successful, but how they are successful. There are some indicators of decreasing returns, specifically with Marvel Comics’ event sales, but that only shows these events to be somewhat less successful than they have been in the past. The success of both Dark Knights: Metal and Doomsday Clock may indicate that readers are more selective when offered several events each year, creating a two-tiered system of event success, one that still doesn’t find any failures.

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The event has been the cash cow of the “Big Two” for more than a decade and its sales model is still functioning well in 2019. The main events sell well, crossovers consistently bolster sales, and tie-ins provide adequate sales that could not be created otherwise. Even if these events risk crowding out smaller publishers or disconnected series, the reliable rewards far outweigh any risks for the two companies who can publish this sort of comic. Excluding any radical changes to the market, events will continue to be sold at their current rate as to do otherwise would mean leaving money on the table.

That is the biggest lesson to be found in studying event comics. Comics publishers, just like every other for-profit business, seek out reliable streams of profit and a brief review of events clarifies just how profitable and reliable these comics are. They not only offer a staggeringly high floor for sales somewhere above 50,000 units, but also seem to guarantee growth in existing titles and higher-than-normal sales for a miniseries. Events aren’t going anywhere for a long time to come.

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