The last million-selling comic book in North America? It’s Batman vs. Pokémon for the title

Diamond Comic Distributors releases its sales reports for April 2014 orders from comics shops in North America soon, an it is widely expected that Marvel‘s Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1, the second relaunched version of that long-running series, will be a blockbuster. Its many variant covers — including a large number specially designed for specific individual comics stores—is likely to give it a high place on the Top Comics of the 21st Century list, which currently is topped by Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 1 #583, the Barack Obama inauguration issue. That issue had orders of at least 530,500 copies across several printings in early 2009 — and more, if newsstand sales are included.

But wherever the 2014 offering lands, its single-copy sales are unlikely to hit seven figures: as Marvel no longer has appreciable newsstand sales, that would require comics shops to have average orders for the title in the neighborhood of 400 copies each. Million-sellers were easier to achieve in a day when there were two or three times as many comics shops —which was why we saw several in the early 1990s. So the question is raised: what was the last million-selling comic book? In answer, it’s probably not what you think.

First off, some definitional constraints. The goal with the “best-selling comic” category has been to find a definition that recognizes strong rack sales, and not to capture the total ultimate readership for a comics story; sales in collected editions, trade paperbacks, and digital venues aren’t included. As for what is included, Star Wars #1 in 1977 set the practice of counting reprinted comic books published within the same year or so as part of overall sales for an issue, so long as the interiors were identical (except for a note in the indicia as to reprint status). Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1 in 1989 added variant covers to the practice, although again, the interiors were identical. This way, the category captures collector’s edition covers, variants, and snap reprints without allowing in repackagings like “Marvel Must Haves.”

The last million-seller on the strength of comics shop sales is very likely Batman #500, cover-dated October 1993 and on sale in August 1993, just before the market collapse. We can see from the 1993 overall chart at Diamond that the “Return of Superman” issues and Turok: Dinosaur Hunter #1 all ranked higher at the end of the year, but those all came out before Batman #500. Capital City Distribution‘s sales for Batman #500 were known to have been 318,450 copies. Since Capital City’s share of comics DC sold to the Direct Market was likely lower than 31.845%, that means that the overall Direct Market sales were over 1 million copies. (And newsstand sales would have taken it even higher.)

None of the rest of 1993’s top monthly sellers appear to top 1 million. So the next later likely suspects would have been 1994‘s top sellers — Spawn/Batman #1 at Diamond and Generation X #1 at Capital City, neither of which approaches a million copies ordered. That takes us into 1995-96’s dead zone for data when Marvel took its sales to its own distributor—but we can tell from other sources that nothing we know about in that era gets anywhere near a million. Finally, starting in late 1996, monthly sales data begins again and doesn’t stop. No million-sellers there, either.

So Batman #500‘s the last million seller, right? No, probably not—because the Direct Market isn’t everything when it comes to some publishers. I remember consulting with Viz at the time on the following press release from 2000, which appears only on but which I include the opening of here for posterity:

San Francisco, CA—Viz Comics announces that issue #1 of Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu, already the bestselling comic in America
over the course of 16 printings, has now printed over 1 million copies.
Adding up all issues of Pokémon currently in print, over 7.25 million Pokémon comics have been printed since November 1998.

Pokémon‘s sales are the highest of any manga (Japanese comic) in the U.S. Total sales for all reprints and distribution for Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu #1 are now 1,001,000 copies, outselling any other single comic released since 1993.

Pokémon #1 now joins the “comics 1
million club,” which includes Superman #75 (the “Death of Superman”
issue), Batman #500, and Spawn #1. Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu #2-4 average 950,000 copies each, and Pokémon: Pikachu Shocks Back #1-4 average 680,000 copies each. Pokémon
is sold in more retail outlets than ever before, including 7-11,
Babbages, Blockbuster (Canada), Kay-Bee, K-Mart, Target, Toys ‘R’ Us,
Wal-Mart, Warner Bros. Studio Stores, and Wizards of the Coast stores.

I remember consulting with Oliver Chin, then Viz’s head of marketing and at the time, a columnist for Comics & Games Retailer magazine, which I edited, on the press release. As the release indicates, there was heavy availability in toy stores: they were sold in sets in places like the defunct K•B chain, which explains the lack of variation in the sales figures for #1-4. Pokémon #1 didn’t even break 10,000 copies in its initial offering in the Direct Market: preorders were 9,322 copies in the first month, ranking in 162nd place. But as with the popular trading card game which made no splash at all initially in hobby game stores before suddenly becoming a big hit, a lot of Pokémon comics were sold once the phenomenon got underway. (As I understood it, it’s not possible to tell between the printings of those issues, but that may have changed later in the run.)

It’s reasonable to assume that, with Pokémania having some distance to go yet in 2000, the other three issues of the initial miniseries probably topped 1 million; it’s also a safe guess that the second series, at the reported 680,000 copies an issue at the time of the news release, probably didn’t.

So within the comics shop market, Batman #500 is a good guess at the last million-selling comic book, while in the North American market overall, Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu #1-4 are all likely candidates for the most recent million-sellers—with #4 the most recent, but only technically, since almost all of the copies of the four would have been sold in sets, much like the distribution pattern for most of the copies of Star Wars #1-6.

There may be more possible candidates out there, as we get into these newsstand versions: I remember hearing stories that Ultimate Spider-Man #1‘s various newsstand versions had approached a million sold, but I seem to recall some were packaged in differently sized offerings that might not be classed as traditional newsrack comic books. Certainly, as you begin bringing in other versions, like trade paperbacks, there have been quite a lot of comics stories that have been sold more than a million times! Stricter categories will point to different titles.

The title for best-selling comic book in American publishing history, of course, continues to belong to X-Men Vol. 2 #1, with its more than 8 million copies sold. Read about it here. That’s a record I expect won’t be challenged in my lifetime, but you never know…

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