DC Comics maintained their positions at the top of the sales charts with the majority of the items at the top the comic book best seller list in December 2011. The strong sales of "Justice League," "Batman," "Action Comics" and "Green Lantern" continue, while "Avengers: X-Sanction" and "Defenders" are the latest first issues to keep Marvel in the top ten.
Despite landing two titles in the top ten, Marvel had no titles sell over 100,000 units to retailers in December. In November, the "Point One" one-shot, "Avenging Spider-Man" #1 and "Uncanny X-Men" #1 all topped 100,000. In December, "Avenging Spider-Man" #2 dropped by 45.89%, from first issue sales of an estimated 112,114 units to approximately 60,682 units. "Uncanny X-Men" #1 sold about 109,902 units while #2, which also shipped in November, dropped by a little over 34% to about 72,479 units. In December, "Uncanny X-Men" #3 sold an estimated 64,112 units which amounts to a drop of another 11.55% from the second issue.
Marvel's December drops are not unique. "Incredible Hulk" #1 was the top selling Marvel title in October 2011, selling around 106,472 units. In November, the second issue fell 24.74% to an estimated 72,479 units with the title dropping another 42% to around 46,446 units with the third issue. "Avengers: X-Sanction" #1 selling around 93,380 units and the new "Defenders" #1 launching at an estimated 85,969 units illustrates the difficulties Marvel is having placing titles in the upper end of the charts. It wasn't that long ago that Marvel had a firm lock on the top of the comic sales charts.
If we take a look at the way the top ten comics typically shake out during the final order era (which started in March 2003 when Diamond first started reporting invoiced sales to retailers instead of what stored had pre-ordered), Marvel has traditionally had the most items in the top ten slots:
Whenever a top ten spot is filled by Marvel or DC, it is usually done at the expense of the other. In January 2005 and January 2008, DC wasn't able to place a single item in the top ten slots. Marvel has always had at least two items in the top ten, and in January 2005, it took all ten slots.
Over those 106 months, only 15 items not publisher by DC or Marvel have cracked the top ten. Dynamite's "Project Superpowers" #0 in January 2008 was the strongest performer, with around 113,104 units. The lowest selling of the 15 was "Spawn" #200 in January 2011 with an estimated 65,448 units. The majority of top ten comics not released by Marvel or DC are various issues of Dark Horse's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8."
Getting into the top ten is not easy. But the number of items in the top 10 slots is only part of the picture. The more interesting chart is how many units those items equated to:
As the black dotted line shows, the total number of units sold by the top ten comics fluctuates from month to month. The top ten in May 2006 sold over twice as well as the top ten in February 2011. Notice the shift in how sales for the top ten used to be mainly at Marvel and are now shifting over to DC. Late 2006 and early 2007 should serve as a cautionary tale for DC, as they were seeing a clear upswing in 2005 and 2006 only to see Marvel dominate the top ten throughout 2007 and 2008 with hits like "Civil War" and the relaunch of the Avengers titles. Having been relaunched again in 2010, and given the current sales levels of the Avengers line, odds are good that we may see yet another relaunch of the franchise at the end of the "Avengers vs X-Men" event.
If we pull back a bit and look at the split of top 100 by items and units, we see the way the mid-list titles influence the bigger picture:
The differences between the high points and low points still exist, but are not as pronounced. This estimated unit sales chart implies a downward trend for comics in the top 100 not published by DC or Marvel. But, we see a much more even sales trend for the comics not by DC and Marvel if we pull back and look at the full list of the top 300 comics:
From this vantage point, what had appeared to be a mirror image trend in the top 10 and top 100 is gone. There are still usually more items not published by DC or Marvel on the top 300 list than is published by either of those two companies. These smaller publishers may not be sales juggernauts by themselves, but they have to potential to compete as a group against Marvel and DC. It is all a matter of perspective.
Another matter of perspective is who "won" December 2011. DC had 42.94% of the total unit sales for the top 300 comics compared to the 39.72% for Marvel. So, by that yardstick, DC won. Diamond reported Marvel had 34.43% of the overall unit share (which included comics, trades and items not listed on the top sellers charts) compared to the 33.74% for DC. Each of these different yardsticks results in a different winner. Both pieces of data have value, but only if they are understood for what they are. Neither is more "right" than the other -- they simply measure different things, but both yardsticks indicate the competitive nature of the current market.
Neither DC nor Marvel clearly dominates over other right now, and that is a good thing because it forces both to actively compete against the other. Hopefully this will bring out the best in both companies. That ,in turn, will hopefully bring out the best from the other publishers as well.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email me at John.Mayo@ComicBookResources.com.