Earlier this year, Marvel Comics held a retailer summit where executives David Gabriel and Axel Alonso did their best to blame a sales slump that began in October on pretty much everything in the universe other than Marvel Comics’ own business practices. In the course of two very unfortunate days where Alonso and Gabriel seemingly spoke candidly in the closed retailer meeting only to see their comments go viral after website ICv2 was allowed to document the entire thing, Marvel managed to blame readers not wanting any more diversity, creators going to Image, limited series being a “death knell” for comics, not being able to lower trade prices because it would reduce sales of existing more expensive ones, artists being late on super-mega-crossover events, the election of Donald Trump, event fatigue, artists not “moving the needle” on sales, and rival DC Comics for Marvel’s sales woes. How did things get to this point?
A redditor on /r/comicbooks has taken Comichron’s monthly sales estimates, which use Diamond’s rankings and math to come up with actual unit sales numbers for comic books sold to retailers in the direct market each month, and figured out that nearly thirty Marvel comics seem to be at or near what would be traditionally considered the cancellation mark. With Marvel shipping 93 comics in April, many of which are second issues of the same title shipped bi-weekly to spike sales, that ends up being more than a third of all of Marvel’s monthly offerings (if counting the double-shipped titles as single series). Here’s the list:
CA: Sam Wilson – #21 – 18,650
Gwenpool – #14 – 17,972
Captain Marvel – #4 – 17,893
US Avengers – #5 – 17,880
Ultimates 2 – #6 -17,350
Dr. Strange & Sorcerers Supreme – #7 – 16,887
Man-Thing – #3 – 16,199
Hawkeye – #5 – 16,031
Totally Awesome Hulk – #18 – 16,009
Spider-Man 2099 – #22 – 15,273
Elektra – #3 – 15,113
Silver Surfer – #10 – 15,041
World Of Wakanda – #6 – 14,547
Nova – #5 – 14,525
Silk – #19 – 13,524
Thunderbolts – #12 – 13,780
Kingpin – #3 – 13,765
Rocket Raccoon – #5 – 13,373
Power Man & Iron Fist – #15 – 13,055
Bullseye – #3 – 12,912
Star-Lord – #6 – 12,278
Squirrel Girl – #19 – 11,074
Occupy Avengers – #6 – 10,296
Unstoppable Wasp – #4 – 9,780
Great Lakes Avengers – #7 – 8,370
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur – #18 – 7,966
Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat – #17 – 6,943
Mosaic – #7 – 5,876
Now, eleven of these twenty-eight titles are already known to be canceled, or at least are not offered on Marvel’s July solicits. Those include Mosaic, Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat, Star-Lord, Power Man & Iron Fist, Rocket Raccoon, Kingpin, Thunderbolts, Silk, Nova, Black Panther: World of Wakanda, and Elektra. In addition, Bullseye and Man-Thing are mini-series, and thus set to end anyway, and probably some others were minis solicited as ongoings in an attempt to fool people into thinking they were more “important.”
It looks grim, for sure, but it’s also the natural progression of titles as far as Comichron’s estimates go. In March, there were 24 titles that sold less than 18,000 copies according to Comichron’s estimates, including Uncanny Inhumans, Deadpool the Duck, Doctor Strange Sorcerers Supreme, Ultimates 2, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Black Widow, Captain America Sam Wilson, Occupy Avengers, Hawkeye, US Avengers, Silver Surfer, Totally Awesome Hulk, Black Panther World of Wakanda, Spider-Man 2099, Silk, Nova, Doctor Strange Punisher Magic Bullets, Rocket Raccoon, Power Man and Iron Fist, Star-Lord, Thunderbolts, Spider-Woman, Unstoppable Wasp, Spider-Man Homecoming Prelude, Great Lakes Avengers, Prowler, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat, and Mosaic, with the lowest, Mosaic, selling an estimated 6,812 copies. That’s actually 29 titles, one more than April, though many titles overlap and some here are also minis.
But this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. According to Comichron’s estimates, there were 28 Marvel titles below 18,000, including Venom Space Knight, Agents of SHIELD, Contest of Champions, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Star-Lord, Web Warriors, Guardians of Infinity, Hyperion, Nova, Angela Queen of Hel, Illuminati, Drax, X-Men: Worst X-Man Ever, A Year Of Marvel’s Amazing, Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Hercules, Weirdworld, Red Wolf, Dark Tower: Drawing Of The Three Bitter Medicine, Haunted Mansion, Spider-Man/Deadpool, Starbrand and Nightmask, Marvel Universe Avengers Assemble Civil War, Marvel Universe Ultimate Spider-Man Contest of Champions, and Marvel Universe Guardians of the Galaxy. Of those, many, like Patsy Walker Hellcat, Nova, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Star-Lord are amongst the same titles on this year’s list, and they’ve lasted this long at that level. A number of them are also mini-series or titles geared outside the traditional Marvel superhero market, like Haunted Mansion or the Marvel Universe books, which are all ages books based of Marvel’s animated TV shows. A number of them, of course, were in fact canceled over the last year.
All of these numbers must come with an asterisk of course, as Comichron’s estimates are just that, estimates, and according to Bleeding Cool Rumormonger-in-Chief Rich Johnston, often inaccurate. Johnston says numbers are off by about 15% on average, and notes that they don’t include digital or international sales, or the potential for sales in the bookstore market (which is high for many of these titles), and that the numbers aren’t even inaccurate consistently, making it difficult to compare them month to month. The comic book industry doesn’t typically release actual sales numbers, preferring to keep things secretive with Diamond’s index (the numbers Comichron bases their estimates on) ranking titles sold only in the direct market to retailers, and publishers keeping things like digital sales or non-Diamond bookstore market sales as secretive as possible.
Of course, occasionally, a publisher like Marvel will reveal sales for an individual issue, but that usually only happens when the sales are very good, doesn’t include an explanation of what markets are included in those numbers (though we can probably assume all of them, including copies sent to comic creators moms on the comp list), and can be trusted to about the same extent that you can trust Donald Trump if you ask him how he’s doing as president — “Great. Really, really, very very great. Bigliest sales you’ve ever seen, believe me.”
So are Marvel’s April numbers cause for panic, or not? Well, yes and no. Obviously Marvel is worried about its sales in general. Otherwise, Axel Alonso and David Gabriel wouldn’t have said all those embarrassing things back in March. And in many cases, Marvel has already course corrected, with a big X-Men relaunch earlier this year and plans for Marvel Legacy and Make Mine Marvel planned for later this year, after Secret Empire (whose Captain Nazi storyline and vitriolic defense from Marvel staff on social media certainly has nothing to do with low sales, right?), bringing back to prominence many of Marvel’s classic heroes while supposedly continuing to promote all the new ones as well. We’ll see how that goes.
It’s probably not healthy for a third of a publishing line to be constantly on the verge of cancellation, but that’s been the case for a long time, and so far, the industry has managed to push forward by sheer force of will using constant super-mega-crossover events, #1 issue relaunches, price gouging, overshipping comics to retailers, and sales-spiking gimmicks like incentive variant. That these are the same factors that likely kill longterm readership has never seemed to click, but who looks beyond the next six months when running a comics publishing business?
Some might say that Marvel publishes more comics each month than the market can sustain, and others will point to the fact that comic books always suffer from attrition and there’s nothing you can do about that other than relaunch with a new number one every 18 months or so. That’s why some of the oldest comic book series, like Action Comics, Detective Comics, Batman, Superman, Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Avengers, and their ilk were all canceled and rebooted by 1969. Oh wait, that didn’t happen. Well, it’s the accepted industry paradigm today, for better or for worse.
Back to the topic at hand, it’s not a good thing that almost thirty Marvel comics are in the cancellation danger zone, but it’s also not particularly worse than it was a year ago. In fact, it seems to be the natural progression of Marvel’s strategy, which often seem to be geared more toward flooding competitors out of the market and spiking market share numbers than with actually building long term readership. If you believe Marvel, they’re trying to turn everything around later this year, but that’s also what our Uncle Jim told us about his drinking problem, and we all know what Uncle Jim’s word is worth these days, don’t we? Why won’t you let the people who love you help you, Uncle Jim?! You’re breaking our hearts!
So does the number of Marvel titles selling at or below the traditional cancellation mark mean anything, or not? The answer depends on how you look at it. If the goal of comic book publishing is to build and grow a long term sustainable readership, the mainstream superhero comics industry hasn’t really been doing that successfully for several decades. If the goal is to keep corporate paymasters appeased with increasing profits, Marvel has somehow managed to keep doing that for years by selling more comics art higher prices to the existing readership. If the question is whether Marvel will cancel and relaunch a crapload of titles this year, well, that was always going to happen anyway. Except this time it’s an anti-relaunch relaunch, returning to legacy numbers instead.
But if we’re hoping to use Comichron’s sales estimates to guess which books will be canceled, that’s not the best way to do it. Marvel is as likely to cancel an X-Men book selling 60,000 copies because X-Men should sell more than that than they are to cancel Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, which by the way is still not canceled despite selling below the “cancellation level” for more than a year. Marvel has other factors than estimated direct sales single issue figures to compute. Basically, we just don’t know what factors into the decision for Marvel to cancel a book, and anyone who claims they do without actually working for the beancounters at Marvel, including Marvel editors on Twitter, is just talking out of someplace other than their mouths.
But there are more reliable methods than sales estimates to see which books Marvel have decided to cancel. Amazon trade listings give a pretty good indication. When a listing goes from a “Volume 1” to a standalone, when two extra issues are suddenly added to a collection or the collection is two issues bigger than the previous one for no apparent reason, that’s the best sign a book is being canceled. Another good sign is when Marvel starts messing around with artists two issues before the end of an arc. “Ch-Ch-Changes. Comboman #7 will no longer be drawn by an artist we’ve heard of but by five south American artists we haven’t/currently work for Boundless.” Yeah, that book is so canceled.
One more thing before we go, though. It’s worth noting that, as of this time, DC has not canceled a single Rebirth title. Take from that what you will. Oh, and one more takeaway. Outside the direct market, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur must be a license to print money, and that book will probably live forever.