Why You Can't Sell 1,000,000 Comics in the Direct Market

Last month, Marvel Comics’ Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski made a claim on Twitter that he had a [...]

Cebulski Marvel Sales - Cover
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Last month, Marvel Comics' Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski made a claim on Twitter that he had a big idea that could sell 1,000,000 copies of a single issue. This calls into question, what does it even mean to sell that many copies of a single issue? Since most of us don't spend our days staring at direct market sales figures, it's worth applying a little bit of analysis to this topic, especially since it appears to be a problematic claim after a quick review. Following our method of focusing on trends and the stories behind the numbers, we decided to take a closer look at whether it was even possible to sell 1,000,000 copies in 2019.

2018 Best Sellers

One of the best ways to get a sense of what is possible in the present is to reflect on the recent past, which means direct market sales from 2018 in this case. The best-selling single issue to appear last year was Action Comics #1000, which sold just over 500,000 copies. There were larger claims made about the sales of DC Nation #0, but we'll get to that later as there's no actual sales data to back it up.

Action Comics #1000 was a massive anniversary issue, the first ongoing series in the direct market to ever hit 1,000 distinct issues since it launched in 1938. It took a lot more than the anniversary and evergreen popularity of Superman to reach that high number, though. Action Comics #1000 featured a who's who of DC creative talent, received an enormous amount of marketing, and came with too many incentive covers to be worth counting. We've covered before how these sorts of covers can artificially inflate sales by requiring retailers to buy more copies than they expect to sell in order to then sell rare copies at a hefty mark-up. Needless to say, it looks like DC Comics pulled out every trick it could to make Action Comics a sales bonanza. And it succeeded.

The next few highest-selling issues of 2018 only came within about 100,000 copies of Action Comics #1000, often employing all of the same tactics. Batman #50, the much anticipated (non-)wedding issue, sold about 412,000 copies. Amazing Spider-Man #800, the capstone of Dan Slott's titanic run on the series, arrived at about 410,000 copies. Fantastic Four #1, the sort-of-long-awaited return of Marvel's first family, sold about 369,000 copies. Keep in mind that these are only the number of issues sold to stores, making it impossible to say how many were actually purchased by readers or collectors. All you have to do is sift through back issue bins at any comic book store to see that it wasn't even close to all of them.

The highest-selling comic of 2019 is almost an exact replica of Action Comics #1000, as Detective Comics #1000 sold at the same price point, with the same sort of appeal and array of variants, landing it about 526,000 units sold. Both of these comics make the upcoming Marvel Comics #1000, which some have suggested is the 1,000,000 issue idea Cebulski was referencing, look like a virtual clone with a slightly higher price tag.

Based on this recent history, it appears that the ceiling for individual sales in the direct market is just north of 500,000 copies. Yet there are some comics in recent years that claim to have sold above the golden number of 1,000,000 copies that Cebulski is claiming. So the better method to understand how someone could reasonably expect to reach this figure may be to reverse-engineer those specific instances. So let's take a look at those issues.

Cebulski Marvel Sales - Star Wars #1
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Case Studies

DC Nation #0

This was the one comic that supposedly sold 1,000,000 units in 2018. It was essentially a preview package featuring samples from multiple upcoming DC Comics series sold for only 25 cents. That price point, and the issue's function as preview, suggests it resembles a Free Comic Book Day giveaway more than anything that DC Comics or their competitors are actually selling in the direct market. Furthermore, it's impossible to verify the number of units sold on this issue as there was no data included for it in Diamond's comparative charts. Generally, when someone is unwilling to provide you with the math to back up their solution, it's a good idea not to trust the solution. With both of those factors taken into consideration, this is one claim of selling 1,000,000 issues that ought to be dismissed. DC Comics can still take pride in selling more than 500,000 copies of a single issue in both 2018 and 2019, though.

Star Wars #1

The release of Star Wars #1 in 2015 is backed up with data showing a total of approximately 1,073,000 units sold on the first printing. This is a bona-fide hit that initially appears to tower over all of the biggest sellers from 2018 and 2019. It was half of a titanic year for Marvel, one that also saw Secret Wars #1 sell about 550,000 issues. There is a giant asterisk next to the sales on Star Wars #1, however. Somewhere between 350,000 and 450,000 of the issue's sales were made directly to the company LootCrate in order to be included in randomized packages filled with assorted "geeky" materials. If you deduct the high estimate from its total sales, then the sales to the direct market (meaning actual retailers and intentional buyers) would be about 623,000 units. This is still a stunning sale, but nowhere close to the number 1,000,000, and much more similar to the previously observed ceiling found in every other best-selling issue from the past five years. While it is technically true that the LootCrate sales are sales, it seems unreasonable to include a bulk purchase for giveaway purposes when making this claim. That's not so much apples-to-oranges as it is apples-to-TIE Fighters.

X-Men #1

You have to look into a long, long time ago before you find the next comic to hit seven figures. It was only in the late '80s and early '90s that superhero comics were regularly selling in such large quantities. This includes the record-breaking X-Men #1, which sold approximately 7.1 million copies, alongside many others like X-Force #1, Adventures of Superman #500, Superman #75, Spawn #1, Spider-Man #1 that all broke the 1,000,000 unit marker with ease. It's also easy to notice that this trend suddenly stops after 1993. That moment in history marks the end of the speculation bubble in comics, a time when buyers would purchase multiple copies (sometimes hundreds) in the hopes that they would appreciate similarly to classics like Action Comics #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15. Once it became clear that this was a farce, the bubble popped, sending hundreds of retailers and many publishers out of business, and beginning Marvel Comics' descent towards bankruptcy. Even in 1991, X-Men #1 was selling 7.1 million copies to a far smaller group of collectors.

Cebulski Marvel Sales - X-Men
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

The One-Million Unit Mark

So what does it mean to sell 1,000,000 comics in 2019? Well, to be perfectly frank, it means you're willing to fudge the truth a whole lot, even in the most charitable interpretation.

Again and again, the direct market has shown that the ceiling for sales through comic book retailers rests somewhere slightly above 500,000 units. Even in the best case scenarios experienced by comics like Detective Comics #1000 and Secret Wars #1, that was where they landed. The only two issues to claim that number of sales in recent history were either partially or entirely giveaways. It is simply dishonest to tell creators, retailers, and readers that you expect to sell 1,000,000 units.

There's a proud tradition of editors-in-chief at Marvel Comics acting as hype men for the publisher. Stan Lee himself perfected the form. But there's a big gap between claiming you have the "hippest characters around" and tossing around bogus sales numbers; it's the difference between good-natured fun and plain old bull. There's a potential element of harm in this claim, as well. A company spokesperson claiming they are selling 1,000,00 units suggests a market that is much larger and healthier than the direct market really is. Comics, specifically the superhero comics sold directly through local stores, are a niche product in spite of their popular adaptations on the big screen. Throwing around numbers that large suggests there's a market to match, and that's simply not true.

None of this is to say that C.B. Cebulski and Marvel Comics are incapable of selling 1,000,000 issues of a single comic. Quite the opposite, in fact. The only problem is that doing so in an honest fashion won't occur in 2019 and will require a lot of hard work, dedication, and ingenuity. In order to sell 1,000,000 comics, you have to expand your consumer base well beyond 1,000,000 customers and, therefore, expand the reach of the comics medium as a whole. This is a momentous task, one that will involve expansion into the young adult market, public comics education, growing international markets, and a lot of other elements that most of us likely haven't even imagined. It means aspiring to compete with book market giants like Raina Telgemeier, instead of the same competitor from the past six decades.

The prize for pursuing honest sales of 1,000,000 copies also comes with much greater rewards, though. It means expanding the superhero comic, which all of Marvel's dedicated fans, collectors, creators, and even this critic know to be an amazing thing from a small niche to a central focus of American popular culture. It's a big and bold idea, just the sort of thing the House of Ideas really needs in this moment.