The last months of the two-distributor era

When Marvel took its direct market comics distribution to its own distributor, Heroes World, in 1995, it was no longer possible to look at a single distributor’s rankings to see a real top-seller list. From then until August 1996, the only public sales charts that reconciled all publishers’ titles were based on retailer reports, such as those that appeared in the “Market Beat” section of Comics Retailer magazine, as well as in Wizard. These surveys were self-selecting, of course — and while retailers eventually reported unit sales in the Comics Retailer survey, it wasn’t really measuring the same thing.

In September 1996, with the market down to two distributors following Diamond Comic Distributors‘ July acquisition of Capital City Distribution, I began a monthly tracking merging data from Heroes World with Diamond’s reported figures. The figures, partially posted here before the site crash last summer, are now online here in full, beginning with September 1996 and running to March 1997, when the Heroes World experiment ended.

It was the tail-end of the most tumultuous period in the history of the direct market. That summer, Capital had folded, unable to compete without its largest comics suppliers. Heroes World, a regional distributor not long before, continued to struggle to handle distributing to the entire nation of retailers — and wound up on the receiving end of an epidemic of customer service complaints.

Editorially, Marvel had handed four of its main titles — Avengers, Captain America, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man — to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, who had earlier left for Image. All four “Heroes Reborn” series were relaunched with new #1s, generating an immediate sales gain that soon dissipated. (Marvel would eventually seek to restore the numbering on several of these “legacy titles.”) DC married off Clark Kent to Lois Lane in an editorial event coinciding with a plotline on TV’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In March, DC gave Superman an electric makeover. Top Cow, which briefly left Image, returned to the fold in January 1997.

With the “Heroes Reborn” and wedding events, the end of 1996 didn’t look too bad — although we didn’t have much to compare it to from earlier in the year or the year before. But the comics recession was still in full swing. Unit sales between Diamond’s and Heroes World’s lists dropped a whopping 30% from November to February. Marvel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on December 27, seeking to restructure hundreds of millions of dollars in debt — and while much of that had nothing to do with comics, Carl Icahn‘s filing in January on behalf of bondholders launched an ownership struggle that would drag on for nearly two years. Finally, on February 7, 1997, Marvel finally announced it was pulling the plug on Heroes World and returning to the only major distributor left standing — Diamond.

I reported on the change at the time, and edited retailer comments about it all. Some evinced relief: “I’m glad to see Marvel back with Diamond,” one Canadian retailer wrote. “Our weekly shipping charges dropped 50% in the first week.” There was also concern about the one-distributor future, mixed with anger about what had come before. Some retailers, who had stopped carrying Marvel titles altogether, said they would begin again — although sales levels continued to trend lower throughout 1997, so you wonder how many copies those people represented.

The common theme to response at all levels appeared to be exhaustion — after so much uncertainty, many in the market desperately hoped for a period of stability. But while three years of change had ended, the trajectory remained. The bottom was still three more years away.

This is distributor data from before 2003, which means that it is all preorder data. As such, it means there are many comics in the listings that did not come out in the months listed. Some had their orders cancelled, so the totals overstate sales by that amount. Meanwhile, the listings also do not include reorders in this era, which means sales are underestimated by a degree.

Neither Heroes World nor Diamond reported indexed trade paperback sales, although Diamond did provide ratios for its various product areas, from which I’ve been able to figure minimum values for trade sales in 1996. Regard those calculations with a larger grain of salt than the later ones — but they’re what we have. Diamond’s Top 10 trades are listed at the bottom of each comics sales chart; they’re ranked by dollar value and not units, unlike the later tables.

This makes 97 months of figures on the site; only 55 months of figures in the Diamond age (mostly from 1999-2002) remain. Slowly but surely…

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