Batman: Dark Knights, Detectives, and Sales Figures

Batman Sales Figures - Cover
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

Several weeks ago it was officially announced that Tom King would be departing Batman at the end of 2019 with issue #85, much sooner than expected. Prior to this announcement, rumors swirled, suggesting both that King would not finish his original plan for a 100-issue run on Batman and a lot of reasons as to why this might be. Some of those rumors were much more believable than others, but one of the most persistent ideas was that King was being asked to depart the title due to declining sales. Unlike hearsay, sales numbers are (somewhat) public and verifiable, which allows us to see how much truth this particular rumor might hold.

That’s why we’re digging into recent sales trends on Batman this week, both to test the veracity of this particular rumor, but also to better understand how a popular juggernaut like Batman changes over the long term. It’s unique status in superhero comics makes it a difficult and worthwhile focus for analysis.

Recent Trends

One upside of bi-weekly shipping on a series like Batman is that it provides lots of data in a short amount of time. It has released 22 new issues since June 2018, enough to easily visualize trends across the past year. In this graph of recent sales, only Batman #50 (a.k.a. the wedding issue) had to be excluded as an outlier due to both it’s event status and a large number of retailer incentive covers spiking sales interest (you can find more on how we define outliers here).

Batman Sales Figures - Short Term

The past 10 months of sales reveals a slow decline following the release of Batman #50. This does not just reflect a drop following the build up to the much-anticipated wedding event either. In the year prior to Batman #48, the lowest sales of any given issue in the direct market was 91,649 units with average sales slightly greater than 100,000 units per issue. It’s worth noting that even with this observable decline, Batman remains one of the best-selling comics in the direct market each month. The decrease, depending on how you choose to define and measure it, is only about a 10% drop as well. Yet the decline remains, which poses a much more important question: why are the sales of Batman decreasing?

Finding Comparisons

As we’ve explained before, it’s important when analyzing sales to not do so in a vacuum. Points of comparison and long-term trends are essential to understanding the why behind any observation. This also makes analyzing Batman a uniquely challenging proposition. Batman is a property with unparalleled popularity in the modern comics market. The character’s main ongoing series has been in the top 10 for sales almost every single month for more than a decade. Combine that with bi-weekly shipping in the Rebirth era at DC Comics, and there are no series in existence with the same combination of factors deciding its success. However, there are multiple points of comparison that help to consider both of these elements.

While it has never sold as well as Batman in the New 52 or Rebirth era, the current iteration of Detective Comics features Batman, ships bi-weekly, and was relaunched at the same time as Batman. That’s why comparing recent sales between the two provides an excellent starting point (keeping in mind that the "issue #" reflects the number of issues into the Rebirth run).

Batman Sales Figures - Detective Comics

Detective Comics has been remarkably steady in the same period that Batman saw a decline in sales, even increasing before and after the release of Detective Comics #1000 (excluded as an outlier). Changes in the creative team and new focuses in storytelling suggest some possible reasons why Detective Comics has not suffered a similar decline in sales as new readers have been offered a number of reasons to add the series to their pull list as it evolves.

Detective Comics challenges a narrative that all of the ongoing bi-weekly titles at DC Comics are bound to suffer a slow loss in readers after almost a full three years in publication. One comparison does not make the point, though. There are a few other remaining titles that launched at the same time as Batman, have maintained a bi-weekly publication schedule, and feature other prominent character. Adding The Flash and Wonder Woman to this chart helps build a more complete picture.

Batman Sales Figures - Rebirth Bi-monthly

The Flash shows a similar decline to Batman with an even greater 20% decrease, approximately, in sales over the same period. Wonder Woman on the other hand has remained remarkably steady, featuring some fluctuations boosting it above average sales near 35,000 units. Taken as a whole these four series show that being a part of the surviving bi-weekly Rebirth cohort does not guarantee success or failure. They are all relatively stable in sales, but capable of both steady increases and decreases. There is one additional thing to consider: both of the series that saw decreased sales over the past 10 months, Batman and The Flash, have retained the same writer since they relaunched in 2016. This suggests a plausible explanation that maintaining the same writer on a series for multiple years will inevitably lead to a loss in sales. Both Detective Comics and Wonder Woman have seen a change in writers during the past year.

All of these series still make for imperfect comparisons though, as they are all definitely not Batman. There is a relatively recent version of Batman that maintained the same writer for more than three years, making Scott Snyder’s run on the previous volume a valuable comparison as well. For the sake of this comparison between a monthly and bi-weekly series, we have maintained the release of issues and charting their sales against the number of months since the series launched. This means that the Snyder issues below include Batman #10-35, while the King issues include Batman #20-69.

Batman Sales Figures - King and Snyder

Comparing overall sales isn’t useful in this graph, as the number of issues being sold each month are doubled for King’s run on the title. However, the overall trends in readership tell similar stories. It’s clear that Batman is a reliable sales juggernaut, with both volumes charting into six figures and remaining stable overall. Taking the long view on King’s run makes it clear just how small the recent decline in his overall sales are. Both series do suffer a decline in their second and third years, though, losing some small percentage of readers as their Batman sagas continue. This further substantiates the idea that any writer is bound to lose some popularity after several years on the same series.

What’s Happening?

So what does all of this tell us about the rumor that Tom King was removed from Batman due to poor sales?

Even in the most generous reading of this idea, it can only be part of the story. While it is true that sales numbers were slipping on Batman, this loss was both predictable and seemingly unrelated to King’s take on the character. Similar declines have been seen in prior, well-received runs on the character, which would make one believe that DC Comics editors should have expected this trend. Additionally, even more substantial losses have been seen in The Flash, a series where there was no promise of a 100-issue run, without the removal of its writer.

However, that this trend was both predictable and seemingly unrelated to quality does not necessarily mean that King’s removal from the series was unrelated to sales. As Wonder Woman and Detective Comics help illustrate, changes in a writer might help boost or stabilize sales for an ongoing series. With that in mind, it’s worth taking a brief look at one other Batman title that has been outselling Batman for all of 2019: The Batman Who Laughs.

Batman Sales Figures - Batman Who Laughs
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Miniseries, generally speaking, do not outperform core titles, but that has not been the case for The Batman Who Laughs. Even after its first issue with various incentive covers, it has sold more than 100,000 copies to the direct market, not including second printings. The initial sales on each issue have also stabilized between issues 3 and 4. It is a monthly series featuring Bruce Wayne in continuity with similarly popular creators, and it is outselling Batman.

If there is a sales-related reason for why Tom King is leaving Batman, it’s not that he was driving sales down, but that a new creative team would almost assuredly boost sales. For as much as readers might bemoan the loss of multi-year runs in superhero comics, the market does not share this affection. Even Batman, whether in its Rebirth or New52 incarnation, lost some readers over time. Miniseries like The Batman Who Laughs and changes to Detective Comics and Wonder Woman suggest that those sales are recoverable, but only with a new talent to invite lost readers back for a new direction. For better or for worse, Batman will almost certainly gain readers in 2020 not because of a change in quality, but simply because it is changed.