By Andrew A. Smith
The launch of DC’s “The New 52” in September 2011 was a huge gamble and a huge controversy. Arguments will rage on about various aspects of “The New 52” until we’re all old and gray, but there’s one thing that few fans question: It worked.
Sales: Up, up, and away
DC Senior Vice President Bob Wayne told CBG, “We consider the first year of ‘DC Comics — The New 52’ a big success, exceeding even our most optimistic projections.” While that might sound like hyperbole, a look at the numbers bears out that opinion.
Before “The New 52,” DC routinely lagged behind Marvel in monthly comics in both of the major ways Diamond Comic Distributors measures pieces of the pie: dollars spent and units sold. In July 2011, according to John Jackson Miller’s Comics Chronicles site (www.comichron.com), Marvel enjoyed 43.59% of all units sold, to DC’s 34.76%. In dollars, Marvel trumped DC 39.43% to 30.55%.
The next month wasn’t much better for DC, despite the release of the first “New 52” title, Justice League #1 (which sold more than 170,000 copies in its first printing and went on to eight printings). In August 2012, Marvel took units 42.47% to 34.84%, and dollars 37.34% to 30.72%.
But what a difference a month — and a complete revamp of a comics line — makes! DC virtually swept September 2011, when it launched the remaining 51 titles of “The New 52.” For the record: DC won units sold 43.04% to 37.88%, and took dollars 35.74% to 35.37%.
But the sales list was eye-popping in other ways. For example, DC took eight of the Top 10 spots on Diamond’s Top 300 list — and 17 of the Top 20! The worst-selling of “The New 52” was OMAC at #82 — allowing only 29 Marvel titles and one lonely Dark Horse title to squeeze into #1-81. To put it in perspective, as many wags have: Aquaman #1 (#16 on the Top 300) outsold every Marvel title except Fear Itself #6 (#8) and Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 (#9)!
All of the “New 52” titles sold out, and, by the second week of September, 10 titles had passed the 100,000 mark. Action Comics joined Justice League by zipping past 200,000, with the latter title far and away the best-seller of 2011.
And it got even better for DC the next month, as buzz grew on the relaunch. No doubt bolstered by all the titles that went back to press, DC held a stunning 20-point lead over Marvel in units sold, 50.97% to 30.29%! (DC’s dollars victory was less but still impressive, 42.47% to 29.10%.) And, while one “New 52” title sank to #87 (Men of War #2), DC took a stunning 17 spots of the Top 20 — with six titles easily clearing the 100,000 hurdle (Justice League, Batman, Action, Green Lantern, Flash, and Detective).
It would be December before Marvel recovered to win dollars and units — barely. Even so, DC still held eight spots in the Top 10 list. And, to rub it in, Aquaman was still selling better than Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America, Fantastic Four, Invincible Iron Man, Mighty Thor, New Avengers, Secret Avengers, Wolverine, Wolverine and The X-Men, X-Men — well, you get the point.
In 2012, Marvel and DC remain neck and neck. Marvel won February, March, April, and May, while DC took June and July. (They split in January, with Marvel taking dollars and DC winning units sold.) DC still held 10 of the Top 13 spots in July, and, while Aquaman dropped to #27, it still beat many of Marvel’s best-known titles.
Also, now that the “New 52” titles are being collected, DC has become a major force on the hardcover/trade paperback list. Justice League Vol. 1 topped the list in May, a month in which DC took six of the Top 10. While not a “New 52” title, Batman: Earth One HC was #1 in July, with “New 52” titles taking four more of the Top 10 spots, making DC the clear winner.
But, while DC has done well since “The New 52” made its debut, something unexpected happened: Many, many others have done better, too.
Diamond Marketing Communications Writer Allyn Gibson told CBG, “DC Comics’ ‘New 52,’ to quote a George W. Bush malapropism, ‘made the pie higher.’ The dollars spent in comics shops increased in the year since Justice League #1, but not just to DC Comics’ benefit. While it’s not obvious from the monthly market shares (because there are more dollars being spent on comics than ever before), publishers across the board saw their sales improve in the wake of ‘TheNew 52’.”
In the dog days before “The New 52,” negative numbers were the norm. Reading the numbers at Comics Chronicles for July 2011 was a depressing drumbeat of doom: The Top 300 comics were down 1% vs. the same month the previous year, and down 20% vs. the same month five years earlier. The Top 300 were down in dollars by 5% vs. the same month the previous year — and 10% vs. the same month five years earlier. All comics were down .52% vs. the same month the previous year, down 6.46% year to date, down in dollars by 4.27% vs. the same month the previous year, and down 7.26% vs. the same month five years earlier. Even sales of Diamond’s Top 300 trade paperbacks were down 22% compared to July 2010.
That was a lot of numbers to wrap one’s head around. But, obviously, the operative word was “down.”
But then “The New 52” happened. And, suddenly, a rising tide at DC lifted all boats.
Just looking at units sold in the Top 300, September was up 20% vs. the same month in 2010 — and up 10% vs. September 2006. The Top 300 sold 7.27 million copies in September, more than a million copies more than just two months earlier!
The next month was even better, with the Top 300 selling 7.59 million copies. That represents an increase of 31% over October 2010, up 24% over October 2006, and up 18% over October 2001! Needless to say, all the metrics for the month — such as dollars — were equally impressive.
Amazingly, June 2012 had eight issues sell over the 100,000 threshold on Diamond’s Top 300 list — four “Before Watchmen” titles started and bolstered Batman, Justice League, and two Avengers vs. X-Men issues. Collections did well, too, with Walking Dead Vol. 16 and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 2009 topping 20,000 in sales and the evergreen Watchmen selling another 11,369.
The buzz over “The New 52” — and the extra feet it brought to comics shops — had to cool eventually. But the numbers for July were still pretty good. Once again, just looking at units for the Top 300, Diamond reports 6.9 million sold, which is up 17% vs. July 2010, up 10% vs. July 2006, and up 14% vs. July 2001. In dollars, that’s up 23% over July 2010, up 4% over July 2006, and up a whopping 46% over July 2001.
Also, there were five titles over the 100,000 mark — and, interestingly, only two were from DC. The Walking Dead #100 led with 335,082 (a number sure to rise with extra printings), followed by Avengers vs. X-Men #7 (179,208), Avengers vs. X-Men #8 (174,910), Batman #11 (127,210), and Justice League #11 (123,971).
Opinion: Winners and losers
One guideline we have is cancellation — and on that score, “The New 52” has seen ups and downs. In the first year, 10 titles — roughly 20% — have been canceled: Blackhawks, Captain Atom, Hawk and Dove, Justice League International, Men of War, Mister Terrific, OMAC, Resurrection Man, Static Shock, and Voodoo.
The demise of two war titles (Men of War, Blackhawks) surprised almost no one, although DC deserves kudos for attempting to revive that moribund genre. Some fans registered concern about the loss of two African-American headliners in Mister Terrific and Static Shock, leaving only Batwing and Fury of Firestorm (sorta) which are themselves on shaky sales ground.
On the other hand, all the canceled titles are being replaced, to maintain the description “The New 52.” New titles — called “Second Wave” and “Third Wave,” for some reason — include Batman Inc., Dial H, Earth 2, G.I. Combat, Phantom Stranger, Ravagers, Sword of Sorcery, Talon, Team 7, and Worlds’ Finest.
G.I. Combat, retooling The Haunted Tank and Unknown Soldier, shows that DC hasn’t given up on war series.
Earth 2 and Worlds’ Finest arrived to great acclaim, with writer James Robinson (Starman, The Golden Age) reviving the popular Earth-2 concept.
Sword of Sorcery, starring Amethyst and Beowulf, shows there’s room for fantasy in the new DC Universe.
Dial H takes the venerable concept first seen with teenager Robby Reed in the 1960s House of Mystery into more of a horror milieu.
The only surprise about Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc. — which, like its “Old 52” predecessor, posits Batmen of different nations — is why it wasn’t part of the original launch.
Ravagers is another super-powered-teens-on-the-run book. (See: Runaways, Harbinger, et al.)
Team 7 integrates the old WildStorm black ops group into DC’s history.
Talon is something of a surprise but indicates that DC can think on its feet. The lead character is one of the bad guys from Scott Snyder’s “Court of Owls” story, which was the debut story in “The New 52” Batman and successfully grew into a Bat-title crossover and a huge, new element in Gotham City history.
Phantom Stranger has a surprising element, as well; DC refused to set the character’s past in concrete in his original incarnation, but DC’s Free Comic Book Day offering suggests he is now Judas Iscariot, whose punishment for betraying Jesus is to roam the Earth forever apart from humanity.
The addition of those 10 series brings DC’s “New 52” back to 52 titles — not that DC has ever held itself to specifically that number. In June, DC launched the controversial but best-selling “Before Watchmen” series of mini-series, which, while not “New 52” titles, were super-hero comics of a sort. And DC has launched numerous “New 52” mini-series in the last 12 months, including Huntress (since revealed to be an Earth-2 title), Legion: Secret Origin, My Greatest Adventure (starring Garbage Man, Robotman, and Tanga from the Old 52’s Doom Patrol and Weird Worlds titles), National Comics (an anthology), Night Force (reviving the old Marv Wolfman-Gene Colan mystery title), Penguin: Pain and Prejudice, Phantom Lady, The Ray, The Shade, and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.
However, the focus in the first year of “The New 52” has been where you’d expect it to be: on DC’s roster of iconic super-heroes. And DC spared no effort to make them the best it could.
The first book, Justice League, was headed by DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns — two of DC’s best talents. The Bat-books boast such creators as David Finch, Snyder, Peter Tomasi, and Judd Winick. Brian Azzarello on Wonder Woman and Morrison on Action Comics are fandom dreams come true. Johns, whose efforts on Green Lantern keep it a Top 20 title, tackled Aquaman. All of these titles are, in fact, not only widely praised but selling well.
But “The New 52” has had its share of surprise hits, as well. Gail Simone is a fan favorite, but few expected her Batgirl to do as well as it has. Both Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man and Snyder’s Swamp Thing have been breakout hits, even crossing over in August. J.H. Williams III has been doing the best work of his career on Batwoman, which is surely headed for some award or other. And did anyone think Aquaman would be one of DC’s top-tier titles, even with Johns writing it?
Crystal Ball: The future of “The New 52”
DC is celebrating the one-year anniversary with a “zero” month in September, with all the “New 52” titles shipping a “zero” issue set before last September’s first issues. Not coincidentally, as was the case with last year’s relaunches, the zero issues are another jumping-on point for new or lapsed readers. Maybe fans won’t be lining up for midnight sales, as they did for last year’s Justice League #1, but it’s another remarkable effort by a publisher that’s been racing its engine for 12 months already.
Not all of the successes are obvious on the surface. DC won’t reveal digital sales, but Lee and others have mentioned in public that they are setting records and are likely to continue to do so, as that market grows. (Lee told ICv2.com that 40% of digital readers of Smallville at comixology were new readers.) And one quiet improvement for retailer budgets has been Co-Publisher Dan DiDio’s efforts to enforce a no-late-books policy.
After the zero issues, readers can look forward to a number of crossovers. The Joker returns for a Bat-title crossover called “Death of the Family” — a play on the story “A Death in the Family” in the “Old 52” — which will involve Red Hood and the Outlaws, and another Bat-peripheral, Suicide Squad (with Harley Quinn). The much-foreshadowed “Rise of the Third Army” will consume the Green Lantern titles in 2013, while “The New 52” Green Arrow and Hawkman will meet for the first time in their respective series in November. Finally, the upcoming “Trinity War” — foreshadowed in the Free Comic Book Day book — will pit the “Trinity of Sin” (Pandora, Phantom Stranger, the new Question) against pretty much everybody.
There have been a few bumps in the road, which continue to this day. For example, Rob Liefeld announced in August that he would leave Deathstroke, Grifter, and Savage Hawkman, leaving those titles’ future in doubt. But, for the most part, “New 52” has, as Wayne said, outperformed expectations. It may not be possible to keep sales at the outstanding level established by the first year of “The New 52” — but DC is clearly determined to try.