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Do Comic Book Anthologies Really Sell? | Indignant Online
Indignant Online

Do Comic Book Anthologies Really Sell?

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Everyone talks about how the problem with comic books is how they’re too thin and a nice big thick anthology (ala Shonen Jump or another native manga magazine) is what we need to save comics.

That’s an interesting thought. After all, most comics were 64 page anthologies when comics started in the 1930’s and ’40s. But they haven’t been anthologies since. The last attempt at such a thing was probably the Marvel Knights Magazine reprint anthology. This may not be the best example, as it was reprinted content aimed solely at the newsstand market and fizzled too quickly for a circulation statement.

Taking postal circulation statements from the Standard Catalog of Comic Books, 2nd Edition (highly recommended and worth the money), I’ve compared some of the anthology books with their source material to see if anthologies are really such a good idea, historically.

After the passing of the 64 page comic in the late 40s, the first attempt at dedicated, extra-length anthology comics were the “Dollar Comics” from DC in the late 70s. Two of them were straight brand/franchise extensions. Superman Family merged the Jimmy Olson, Lois Lane, Superboy (whose book was being taken over by the Legion of Super Heroes by then) and Supergirl (who always seemed to have trouble holding down her own book). Batman Family released a few Dollar-Sized issues before being merged into Detective Comics with Batman as the lead feature and sundry characters like Robin and Bat-Girl in their own features.

Two other books took more of a classical approach. World’s Finest, for which there sadly is little circulation data available, had its traditional full-length team-up story of Superman and Batman, then had short strips with second tier characters like Hawkman, Green Arrow, Shazam/Captain Marvel and Black Lightning.

Adventure Comics mixed short strips of The Flash and Wonder Woman, who had their own titles, with the Justice Society and Aquaman, neither of whom could hold down their own title.

Let’s look at the sales numbers in comparison to the other franchise books for the characters involved.

 

Detective

Batman

Brave and the Bold

1978 (prior to $1.00 size)

129,792

168,164

121,563

1979

79,874

166,640

153,034

1980

64,635

129,299

109,180

1981 (no longer $1.00)

89,710

110,997

92,847

Essentially, the Dollar anthology format trashed sales on Detective. Even when the format was abandoned, it did not initially return to the second-best-selling Bat-book. Batman team-up title Brave and the Bold was keeping a lead in popularity. It would seem to have sold half as well as Batman, the best-selling Bat-book.

 

Superman Family

Action

DC Comics Presents

Superman

1977

141,557

179,714

Didn’t exist

235,430

1978

117,594

183,601

n/a

223,222

1979

76,693

160,928

135,657

?

1980

82,076

118,752

132,411

?

1981

68,561

111,729

127,399

148,637

Again, we see the anthology selling half, less than half by the end, of the main Superman title.

 

Adventure

Flash

Wonder Woman

1978 (partially normal sized)

131,076

115,716

124,296

1979 (Totally $1.00)

83,642

102,297

158,678

Adventure used a different formula to produce sales, pulling in a variety of different characters. The circulation drop from regular format to Dollar is significant. Prior to the anthology format, Adventure was running a Superboy strip, and while the annual circulation drop was a bit over 35%, with the format change coming mid-year, the actual drop was probably much higher. Comparing the 1979 numbers to the Flash and Wonder Woman circulations, we find that the strategy of combining franchises seems to have fared slightly better than the line extensions for Superman and Batman. While at slightly over half of Wonder Woman’s circulation while Linda Carter raised the character’s profile on television and about 80% of Flash‘s circulation, it still wasn’t a great seller.

Adventure quickly changed formats back to the normal size, though it never really settled on a lead feature and continued to sink towards its eventual cancellation.

World’s Finest, using both Superman and Batman as its tent pole, and featuring back-ups of characters closer to the top of the second tier ended up as the longest-lived Dollar Comic, lasting into 1982, before returning to a normal size and sticking with the Superman-Batman team-up as its sole feature.

 

World’s Finest

1976 – Prior to Dollar size

196,000

1977 – Dollar size begins

161,48

1981

73,475

1983 – return to normal size

88,982

Unfortunately, the available circulation information is limited. World’s Finest was definitely the hottest Dollar comic coming out of the gate, lost less sales and retained sales better than the others in the line. Unfortunately, it still lost sales upon switching format and had a sales up tick after returning to its normal size.

Action Comics Weekly was a bold, if ill-fated, experiment by DC in 1988-9, to emulate the Japanese model of a large, weekly anthology comic. Superman, who is most closely associated with Action Comics was turned into a 2-page spread similar to a Sunday comic strip. Green Lantern, a character who has seldom sold as well as fans believe, was given a lead slot, and a variety of features like The Secret Six, Blackhawk, Deadman, Wild Dog, and the Demon rotated in and out of the book. As this experiment lasted not quite a full year and the circulation statement isn’t listed, the decline of this experiment is tracked using initial orders from the Capital City Comics direct market distributor as a benchmark. This may not be exactly proportional to all other distributors numbers, but it should be close enough to make the point.

 

Action Comics Weekly (Capital City Orders)

#599 – last regular sized issue before anthology

28,600

#600 – anniversary issue (sales anomaly)

41,750

#601 – weekly anthology launches

41,700

#602 – coming back to reality

25,400

#608 – already below sales for old format

20,700

#612

19,000

#615 – sales freefall

16,600

#626

13,900

#636

11,150

#641 – rock bottom

10,350

#643 – back to monthly

35,100

Sales then normalize around 22,000; Adventures of Superman sells 16K-22K in the period, Superman 20-24K

As went the Dollar comics, so went Action Comics Weekly. Within a month, it had fallen under the sales level of the regular-sized edition preceding it, even with the coattails of a major anniversary issue and a big launch. By the time the experiment ended, it had lost 2/3 of the title’s circulation and was less than half of the best selling Superman title. Now, in this case Superman’s presence in the book, while a constant, was minimized and the bulk of the pages went to second tier characters. Green Lantern, not a huge seller (and without his own book at the time) was also not given a larger feature, such as when a full-sized Superman/Batman tale anchored World’s Finest.

As Action Comics Weekly was starting out, marvel decided to jump in the anthology market with Marvel Comics Presents. This was a slightly larger than normal comic, in that it had no ads, to make for 32 pages of comics, instead of 24, and rotated 4 8-page features.

 

Marvel Comics Presents

X-Men

Uncanny X-Men

Wolverine

Ghost Rider

1989

163,525

Didn’t exist

408,925

308,675

Didn’t  exist

1990

132,201

Didn’t exist

415,961

301,459

n/a

1993

433,492

672,175

731,425

396,958

322,642

Again, the circulation numbers are not as thorough for the run of the series as would be ideal, but there are enough to see why this was a more successful anthology. Initially, the series was anchored by a serial featuring a member of the X-Men, often Wolverine, and the other three serials being second or even third-tier features. Early features included revivals of characters not seen in their own features since the 70s, such as Man-Thing, Master of Kung Fu and Black Panther. In the first two years, MCP, predictably sold at half or less of the circulation of its tent pole feature. Mind you, the circulation was still decent because of the extreme popularity of its tent pole feature. When 1993 circulation rolls around, this has changed a bit. Wolverine and Ghost Rider have become dual tent pole features and in stark contrast to earlier anthologies, MCP is selling in greater numbers than either solo title, and at approximately 60% of X-Men‘s circulation. The title was cancelled in 1994, not surprisingly coinciding with the beginning of the Ghost Rider feature’s decline in popularity. It should also be noted that MCP, didn’t suffer from the same price differentiation as the Dollar comics did in their day. MCP, having those extra 8 pages, cost $1.50 in 1993. X-Men and Uncanny X-Men each cost $1.25. Wolverine and Ghost Rider, printed on thicker paper, each cost $1.75. This anthology had a lower price point than the solo titles of its tent pole features.

So what does history tell us about anthology comics?

1) Circulation on an anthology is based on the circulation of the tent pole feature.

2) If the anthology is a line extension for a franchise, expect circulation to be one half the circulation of the most popular title in the franchise.

3) It seems to work better to start out with a tent pole feature and add non-franchise features around it, although third-string features will not necessarily add to circulation.

4) Adding multiple tent poles seems to get better results.

5) Drastically increasing cover price and adding an anthology component is detrimental to circulation and can hurt the title’s brand.

Do anthologies work? With American super hero comics, the numbers suggest that they do not, when compared with single-feature publications. The one instance where results look favorable, would be the 1993 run of Marvel Comics Presents where the anthology improved on the numbers of its two tent pole features’ solo titles. This anomaly is likely partially related to a price point that was different than DC’s anthology attempts, as well as a better mixing of popular features.

Is this to say an 80 page anthology of 4 full-length, 20-page features (say Spider-Man, Captain America, Hulk and Fantastic Four) would be a failure? U.S. superhero anthologies have not traditionally had full length features (excepting the lead story in World’s Finest, which was the longest lived anthology), so it’s hard to say. There are factors both for and against it. If the other books sell less than half of the circulation of the most popular feature, then perhaps. There is a possibility, should fans of two of the franchises be rabid for material, as seems to have been the case for MCP, that the overall circulation goes up, but one incident does not a rule make. It would however, be best to launch such an anthology as a new title, a switch to anthology format has been demonstrated to damage existing titles.

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2 Comments

  1. Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  2. I was on Yahoo and found your blog. Read a few of your other posts. Good work. I am looking forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Tom Stanley

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