In September 2011, DC Comics relaunched its line of superhero comic books. Eight months later, the numbers have settled down. Time to take a look at the big picture.
When the first issues of DC’s much-publicized “New 52” relaunch debuted last year, retailers greeted them enthusiastically. “To quote one comic store owner,” a gushing Forbes piece said in September, “‘The New 52 is the biggest game changer in comic books we’ve seen in 30 years.’”
Eight months on, the sheen is off.
As of April 2012 (the respective “DC Month-to-Month Sales” column should show up at The Beat any day now), sales have settled into familiar patterns, and six of the lowest-selling “New 52” titles were cancelled at issues #8. A Nielsen survey among initial “New 52” customers finds that 93% of participants were male, 95% were current or “lapsed” comics readers and 98% were aged 18 or older. And a recent article at The Wall Street Journal suggests a “failure of the big publishers to take advantage of the public's obvious fascination with men in capes.” It doesn’t even mention the “New 52.”
From “game-changer” to “failure” in eight months?
Let’s look at some long-term month-to-month graphs, based on the first-month comic-book sales estimates provided by ICv2.com, which, in turn, are based on the chart and index information provided by comics distributor Diamond.* (Please click on the graphs to enlarge them.)
Starting with average sales, September 2011, the month when 51 of the “New 52” debuted, marks the high point in the 110-month history since March 2003 that we have consistent data on. Prior to the “New 52,” the peak month was May 2006, which had the launch of the weekly 52 series and the conclusion of the high-profile mini Infinite Crisis, with an estimated 59,505 units sold of the average DC Universe title. In September 2011, the first month of the “New 52” relaunch, it was 67,411 units—a whopping 40,000-unit increase per title versus August 2011; so, purely in terms of initial interest by retailers, the relaunch indeed delivered.
The “New 52” boost to the average number did not prove to be very sustaining, however. Between April 2005 and December 2007, average DC Universe sales never fell below 37K units. But by March 2012, they were down to an estimated 33,229 units, less than half of the September figure.
In April, there’s a slight improvement, to be fair. Thanks to the conclusion of various low-selling titles in March, average DC Universe sales went up to 35,264 copies. And, with six of the “New 52” titles being replaced with new launches in May, that trend will probably continue. Overall, the DC Universe figure is well ahead of the weak first eight months of 2011, but broadly in line with the figures from 2008 through 2010.
Zooming in on the last three years, average DC Universe numbers ranged from 41,218 (July 2009) to 24,321 units (January 2011). The 2012 numbers, between 37,145 units in January and 33,229 in March, lie in the upper half of that spectrum, and they’re well above the figures from January through August 2011, which never cracked 30K.
In December 2010, the low-selling WildStorm imprint ceased publication, and its last remnants—a number of licensed TV and video-game adaptations that were absorbed into the DC Universe line—largely ended with the “New 52” relaunch. Consequently, DC’s overall comic-book figures are noticeably up over the last three years in 2012, despite DC Universe and Vertigo figures being relatively consistent.
With DC Universe dollar sales, the picture is similar. Prior to the “New 52,” the high point was, once again, May 2006, with $9.1 million. In this case, though, the new record was not set in September, but in October 2011, with $11.5 million. From October 2011 through April 2012, the number dropped to $6.9 million, which is within the established spectrum and would not have been unusual in the period from 2005 through 2010.
(The reason dollar sales did not peak in September is twofold. For one thing, Justice League #1, the flagship of the relaunch, did not come out in September, but on August 31; for another, 10 additional, non-“New 52” DC Universe titles came out in October that were not on sale in September.)
The low point for DC Universe dollar sales was April 2003, with $3.1 million. Overall, the imprint did not crack the $6-million mark until May 2005 and has largely remained between $4 and $8 million since; within that spectrum, though, it’s been fairly erratic, thanks to the “event”- and gimmick-driven nature of the comic-book direct market.
Viewed over the last three years and the relatively weak first half of 2011 in particular, the “New 52” has certainly given DC’s periodical department a much-needed boost, in terms of dollar sales. Even if the initial increase turned out to be a fairly short-lived spike, the March and April 2012 figures suggest that the publisher may have raised its bottom line to a level comparable with 2009 and 2010 again.
Looking at unit sales, the DC Universe imprint is still in one of its stronger periods. Among the 110 months covered by these statistics, October (3.7 million units) and September 2011 (3.4 million) rank at No. 1 and 2, respectively, and though there has been a steady decline since, April 2012 (2.1 million) still ranks at a solid No. 34. The low point in the chart’s nine-year history, to date, is March 2009 (1.1 million).
In the more recent context of the last three years, the April 2012 performance holds up especially well. There was a four-month period from July through October 2009 during which total DC Universe unit sales ranged from 2.2 to 2.3 million, but those four months aside, the “New 52” relaunch—beginning with August 2011—elevates the figures above the rest of the period since April 2009. The low points during this period were January and May 2011, with 1.3 million units each.
The number of new DC Universe comic books is fairly erratic from month to month, but has grown overall since March 2003. Prior to September 2007, for instance, the imprint never cracked the 60-title mark; the record month for this period is November 2006, with 56 new periodicals.
Starting with October 2007 (69 titles), however, the DC Universe imprint has frequently crossed that mark. The high point, to date, is August 2011, when—presumably in a rush to clear the decks for the “New 52” relaunch—there were 80 new periodicals. The overall low point is March 2009, with 36.
All combined, the DC Universe, Vertigo and (prior to 2011) WildStorm imprints saw their lowest number of new comic-book releases in January 2004 and May 2011, with 59 new DC Comics periodicals each. The record number, to date, is October 2007, with 96 new comic-book releases.
And while there is a perception—partly put forward by DC Comics representatives—that the DC Universe imprint now publishes fewer titles than before the relaunch, that’s not quite true. In fact, the “New 52” has increased the number of DC Universe titles in the market. Between October 2011 and April 2012, the number of titles has ranged from 67 (in December, February and March) to 60 (in April), which is higher than in the vast majority of months in the last nine years.
Among the 110 months covered by our statistics, October 2011 through April 2012 all rank in the Top 20, in terms of the number of new DC Universe titles released.
September 2011, the month when the relaunch happened, is an exception, with only the 51 new “New 52” titles on sale; that’s because all other DC Universe releases were delayed for marketing purposes, however.
So, in the grander scheme of things, DC’s current numbers are solid, if not spectacular. Viewed over the 110 months we have consistent data on, April 2012 is No. 63 in average DC Universe unit sales, No. 34 in total DC Universe unit sales and No. 30 in total DCU dollar sales. Compared with DC's boom period from about 2005 through 2007, these numbers are low, but they hold up well against weaker years like 2003 or the first half of 2011. All told, the “New 52” seems to have stabilized DC’s sales right in the middle of the spectrum.
Whether or not that's good or bad, given the massive logistical and promotional efforts and incentives that went into the “New 52” relaunch (limited returnability, deep discounts, multiple variant-cover editions) is a matter of interpretation. The good news is that DC managed to boost and stabilize its line after a very tough couple of years. The bad news is that DC took its best shot and it bought them a reset to 2010, basically.
Pick your narrative.
(* Post script, in response to a question that was raised in the comments: Diamond only reported 90% of the sales of some of the “New 52” titles, as they sometimes do, to compensate for the fact that they were made returnable by DC if retailers met a specific quota. Since Diamond’s way of accounting for the incentive seems fairly arbitrary, I’ve re-added the missing 10% for those books to get a more accurate picture. The same goes for any other cases in the past years in which Diamond applied the same principle.)