Heroes Reborn vs. Heroes Return: Tale of two restarts

After doing some research yesterday for my post on restarts inspired by the big news that DC is restarting much of its line at #1, I realized a clarification was necessary to a conversation I had with ComicBookResources’ Kiel Phegley before all this news broke: specifically, relating to the differences between the sales tracks for “Heroes Reborn,” the 1996 replacement of Marvel’s Avengers, Captain America, Fantastic Four, and Iron Man with continuity-rebooting new titles by Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, and “Heroes Return,” the 1997 renumbering and restoration of those series to the mainline Marvel universe.

As I noted here yesterday and in Comics Buyer’s Guide #1614, it was “Heroes Return” for which we saw orders returning to where they were before the renumbering rather quickly; “Heroes Reborn,” in fact, we do not have the “before” numbers for because September 1996 was when I began getting reports from Heroes World, Marvel’s exclusive distributor. There is no source for direct market sales for those titles before the reboot. I appeared to conflate the two in the quote on CBR, which I correct here now.

While sales did fall dramatically from the first-issue highs on the “Heroes Reborn” books, I do believe, looking at the Statements of Ownership that are available, that the titles did maintain sales levels substantially higher than the titles they replaced for their whole one-year runs. We are correct in saying that the Volume 3 “Heroes Return” titles soon went back to pre-renumbering sales (when compared to Volume 2), but not so for the Volume 2 “Heroes Reborn” titles (when compared to Volume 1). Here are the known numbers, for all to peruse:

Issue # Avengers Captain America Fantastic Four Iron Man
1995 AVG* 85,165 82,285 103,573 82,469
1996 AVG* 123,581 79,676 105,506 64,717
Sep-96 Vol. 2, #1 276,734 274,070 313,980 277,464
Oct-96 Vol. 2, #2 130,961 131,863 162,475 139,986
Nov-96 Vol. 2, #3 125,234 124,614 154,609 138,675
Dec-96 Vol. 2, #4 118,622 117,733 153,255 133,364
Jan-97 Vol. 2, #5 113,922 112,391 152,651 132,583
Feb-97 Vol. 2, #6 120,151 116,580 155,710 136,794
Mar-97 Vol. 2, #7 118,560 109,134 153,457 133,706
Apr-97 Vol. 2, #8 120,937 114,669 154,912 130,696
May-97 Vol. 2, #9 107,567 107,765 142,321 122,436
Jun-97 Vol. 2, #10 114,896 108,861 143,952 121,622
Jul-97 Vol. 2, #11 110,084 101,897 136,545 113,263
Aug-97 Vol. 2, #12 114,787 109,169 137,192 116,881
Sep-97 Vol. 2, #13 109,464 102,516 130,090 110,453
Oct-97 Heroes Reborn: The Return #1-4 (160,000-143,000)
Nov-97 Vol. 3 (#1) 197,885 (#1) 209,793
Dec-97 Vol. 3 (#1) 194,439 (#2) 142,765 (#2) 157,735 (#1) 186,328
Jan-98 Vol. 3 (#2) 138,884 (#3) 108,292 (#3) 121,664 (#2) 129,906
Feb-98 Vol. 3 (#3) 111,036 (#4) 98,005 (#4) 110,539 (#3) 99,903
Mar-98 Vol. 3 (#4) 112,318 (#5) 95,968 (#5) 106,446 (#4) 96,977
Apr-98 Vol. 3 (#5) 116,641 (#6) 95,929 (#6) 108,066 (#5) 95,685
May-98 Vol. 3 (#6) 112,322 (#7) 91,880 (#7) 102,259 (#6) 89,752
Jun-98 Vol. 3 (#7) 114,806 (#8) 93,528 (#8) 100,666 (#7) 91,438
Jul-98 Vol. 3 (#8) 108,860 (#9) 85,837 (#9) 94,278 (#8) 81,609
The first two figures are the Statements of Ownership for the two years leading right up to the start of “Heroes Reborn”; those figures represent not just direct market sales, but all sales, including newsstand. Everything below is direct market preorders — Heroes World until March 1997, Diamond thereafter.
It’s clear that the “Heroes Reborn” titles bounce very high in the beginning, and tail off after that: Liefeld’s titles (Avengers, Cap) a little more quickly than Lee’s (Fantastic Four, Iron Man). Liefeld is off his titles by issue #8. If the Statements from 1996 are correct, we can say that all four “Heroes Reborn” titles sold better than their precursors for the entire year of the experiment.
“Heroes Return,” meanwhile, picks up a similar big bounce on relaunch — but those figures are beneath the 13th issue levels of the “Heroes Reborn” titles by #3 for Iron Man and Fantastic Four, by #4 for Captain America, and by #8 for Avengers. All were still above probable pre-Reborn sales, but that would not be the case for much longer, as the entire market continued declining.
As noted yesterday, every relaunch is different, with creator teams making a big difference. Kurt Busiek, who took over the Reborn-era Iron Man and Avengers, fared better in holding onto (and improving, for a while) sales on Avengers than on Iron Man, which had been a Wildstorm-produced title with Lee art in several issues. External factors were also at work. The “Return” relaunch started right into the “Dead Quarter,” when sales normally go down. And Marvel spun off Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty just as the Return series was getting going, possibly dividing that title’s sales.
The takeaway (besides the fact that Heroes Reborn and Heroes Return are still easy names to confuse after all these years) is that while we can get some lessons from past relaunches, there’s enough different in all of them that it’s important to drill down. Execution matters, creative teams matter, who’s distributing and selling the comics matter. And the relaunch of an entire line, as in DC’s case, is almost certainly going to show different results from something like Marvel did in 1996 and 1997, which focused attention on four specific titles. Issue numbers may repeat themselves, but history tends toward variety!

UPDATE: Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, in a conversation with me on Twitter, both said they were told direct market sales of the “Heroes Reborn” titles were at 30,000 copies before their run began. While the Statements of Ownership show average issue sales twice as high or higher for 1995 and 1996 (which would not have included but maybe one issue September-shipping Heroes Reborn books), we can see from the drilldown of the Statements for Iron Man that newsstand sales were still very substantial, with 58,000 copies being returned every month in 1995. That would leave room for more than half the title’s sales to be newsstand; throw in subscription sales, and 30,000 for the Direct Market squares up.

While thirty thousand in the Direct Market may sound low for these marquee titles in the mid-1990s, it’s important to remember that, as big as they seem now, the “Reborn” books were not always on top of the charts, as they tend to be today; back then, X-titles and Spider-titles were always on top. The particular attention to the four titles did, in large measure, change that situation thereafter.
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