Will Obama save January?

The release of Amazing Spider-Man #583 with the Barack Obama appearance and its attendant press is old news by now — and while presidents in appearing comics isn’t new (as many including myself have observed), the timing of the press push and the historic nature of the inauguration have already paid off for comics retailers. You can take your pick of stories about the release this week in the mass media — this one from the Detroit Free Press is one of several to invoke the media attention surrounding the “Death of Superman” issue, Superman Vol. 2 #75, from November 1992.

That comic book was released a couple of weeks after the 1992 presidential election, a slow time in the news cycle — presidential transitions started a good deal later in the calendar back then — and in that vacuum, the news broke wider and farther than anyone imagined possible. My calculations based on reports from the time were that the release day was the single biggest day dollar-wise, in the history of comics: a $30 million day was by best guess. Only a portion of that went to Superman #75 — you had spillover sales into other things available — but if correct, it’s a huge number, comparable to blockbuster movie openings of the day, with five-figure sales at many stores.

It’s a certainty that the Spider-Man numbers will not come remotely close to the Superman numbers: the nature of the event is different, surely, but more importantly, there simply aren’t the number of outlets with the cash flow we had back then. That issue came six months before the peak of the early 1990s comics boom, when we had individuals — not stores, but customers — buying copies in the hundreds for resale. But that difference, too, may be what makes this event particularly well timed for the comics industry now: As I’ve written here recently, January is a cruel month for comics, almost always blunting sales momentum built up in the previous year. The years when we’ve bucked that trend have been those when something significant, by design or accident of ship-date, came in to be the tent-pole book, to use a box-office analogy. Civil War in January 2007 is the most recent example, sparking a 20% jump in unit sales over the previous year.

The important question for the year, of course, will be whether the new dollars coming into stores in January have been entirely localized around AMS #583 — or whether retailers have been able to successfully direct some of that new traffic to other products as well, converting some of this attention into customers who’ll come back. I would suspect that the retailer base in 2009 is more experienced at making such conversions than was the case in 1992, but we’ll see. But even if it’s just a localized event, January may be less cruel than imagined. A quadrupling of the sales of the single issue roughly would offset a 3% drop in unit sales on everything else, a quintupling would offset 4% drop, and so on.

(On that score, I’m curious to hear the degree to which AMS #583 experiences out there varied by locality. The Wisconsin shop I visited on release-day Wednesday directed no attention to the issue’s presence, by word, signage, or local media — and none was paid it. It seemed like any other Wednesday. As we’ve already seen, there were shops in other areas that got more mileage out of it.)

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