Marvel Star Wars #1 sales to top 1 million, matching title’s 1977 feat; some historical context

Marvel’s Star Wars #1s in 1977 (left) and 2015 (right) topped 1 million copies

Marvel has confirmed this morning a report from that its Star Wars #1, releasing in January, has orders of more than 1 million copies, which would make it the best-selling print comic book in North America since at least 1999 — and possibly since 1993, depending on the final tallies.

Marvel Senior Vice President of Publishing David Gabriel confirmed to the site that the order total for Star Wars #1, releasing January 14, had passed a million copies, saying in an interview that the figure comes from a variety of channels. “There are a number of new outlets that we’re working with here in terms
of the folks purchasing and selling a large number of exclusive covers,” Gabriel said,
“which in the end means that this very large number of comics will be
sold in places where we haven’t necessarily had comic sales.” The RebelScum website has a list of variants, many of which are exclusives with individual comic shops.

Diamond Comic Distributors releases its sales reports for January-shipping items in early February, so we won’t see figures until then — though we know that it topped the advance reorders chart released last week. As noted here in the past when publishers have announced sales figures, the Diamond figure will almost certainly not be the same; the Diamond totals only include what it shipped to North American shops in a particular calendar month. (Read a primer about the Diamond figures here.) If some of the special market sales didn’t pass through Diamond, they won’t be reflected. This is completely normal: the Diamond charts aren’t a scoreboard, but rather a tool for North American comic shop managers to use in placing future orders based on what other comic shops in their geographic marketplace are ordering. Comichron, however, is in the business of recording both that information and any other print circulation data which comes to light — and there, the Marvel report is of major significance in the recent history of comics sales, even as it has an interesting echo to the past.

When Amazing Spider-Man #1 was released this April, I had
occasion to study the past to see what the most recent million-copy sellers were. No title in the 2000s had done so at the time of Amazing Spider-Man’s release, and while ASM went on to be the top-selling comic book of the century so far, it appears to have topped out somewhere below 600,000 copies. The book moved 532,586 copies to the Direct Market in its first month, and charted again with 13,240 copies in May and 10,631 copies in June; that totals 556,457 copies. We may assume that there were additional sales in July and later that did not reach the charts — but we know where the bottom of the charts is, and that gives us the 600k ceiling. The issue won’t appear on Comichron’s Top Comics of the 21st Century list until 2014 ends and Diamond’s final reports are released, but it will take the #1 slot. At least until Star Wars #1 replaces it, in early 2016 when the 2015 titles are added (presuming nothing even bigger comes along). I figured back then in examining the Spider-Man case, the most recent million-copy seller before now would have been Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu #4, the final issue of the 1999 mini-series from Viz; all four issues topped a million copies in sales, according to the publisher. Released in the heat of the Pokémon video game and collectible card game craze, most of the sales of those comic books were not in comics shops, but rather in bagged editions sold in department stores and other mass-market outlets. Each issue was reprinted many times, as well. something sold primarily — but not entirely! — in comic shops, one has to go back to 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, and 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. Newsstand sales would have taken it even higher. So it’s over a million copies, but we don’t know exactly how much over.

There were several million-plus and multimillion sellers before that issue during the boom of the early 1990s. The title for best-selling comic book in American publishing history belongs to 1991’s X-Men Vol. 2 #1, with its more than 8 million copies sold. Before that stretch, however, was a long period likely without any million-sellers — with a particular and familiar island in the middle: Star Wars, in 1977.

I have written a lot about the history of Star Wars comics in the past (including having written quite a few of them myself), and the million-copy mark bears a particular historical importance for the line. Star Wars #1 in 1977 was the first comic book since Dell‘s Uncle Scrooge in 1960 to top a million copies sold. Star Wars #1 did that in 1977 not through its initial sale to newsstands, but also through a newsstand reprint and at least three waves of bagged reprints offered to department stores through Western Publishing‘s Whitman arm. Sales of the bagged editions of the movie adaptation were so strong, according to former Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter, that Western temporarily suspended its program of printing variant editions for other Marvel titles to focus solely on Star Wars reprints in late 1977. At least the first three issues of the 1977 series all would have topped a million copies, and possibly more.

So a million-copy sale for the issue today would replicate the feat of the first Star Wars comic book in 1977, which Shooter has said saved Marvel Comics during what was otherwise a disastrous decade for publishing. Comics cover prices tripled over the course of the 1970s, even as story page counts dropped for several publishers — and the newsstand market shriveled, making things like the Whitman distribution program necessary for both Marvel and DC. Star Wars didn’t turn the tide for the market — the DC Implosion was to follow, and more pain was to come — but it was an important burst of revenue for Marvel at the time and helped it survive until the growth of the comic shop market revived the business in the 1980s. (The title also kept a number of customers in the field, including this writer; I write a bit about my personal experiences as a reader of Star Wars tie-in comics and books here.)

Comics today are on a much better footing than they were then, of course, but strong winter offerings never hurt. Comics sales in January have been weak historically not so much because of the weather but because publishers have tended to offer fewer high profile projects then; when major events have been launched in winter, such as “Age of Apocalypse” or “DC vs. Marvel,” they have tended to make an outsized impact. So if we know nothing else about 2015, we now know it begins with at least one likely record-setter.

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