Star Wars comics sales history: A 40th anniversary look back

It’s the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars: A New Hope — known to those of us who saw it then as just-plain Star Wars — so here’s an update of a post from a couple of years ago on what the movie meant to comics in the 1970s.

Given that much of my professional comics and fiction output has been associated with Star Wars, it’s perhaps surprising that I haven’t gotten around to doing a circulation spotlight on the original 1977 Marvel series — especially since I’ve had all the Statement of Ownership, Management, and Circulation postal forms from the title on hand for years. With Star Wars back in the news for some reason, it seems like a good time to remedy that. Click to see the detailed circulation history of the original 1977 Marvel Star Wars series, according to the company’s postal reports.

When the first Star Wars movie was adapted by Marvel in 1977, early issues of the comic book were released before the movie came out. The first issue appeared in two different first printings, both newsstand editions for Curtis Circulation; one was a special rare (and now valuable) variant with a test-marketed price. Beginning with the second issue, first printings of #2-4 were also included in one of the bagged releases for Western Publishing‘s Whitman three-pack program.
(Nick Pope‘s excellent site catalogs the bagged Whitman Star Wars configurations found in the wild.)

Star Wars bagged editionOnce the movie was released and retailers knew they had a blockbuster on their hands, multiple printings of the early issues were ordered, both by Curtis Circulation — and, most consequentially, by Whitman for use in special Star Wars three-packs. The result was that the early issues of the title were the first comics to exceed 1 million copies per issue in sales since Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories in 1960. According to Jim Shooter, later Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, “Star Wars saved Marvel” in the late 1970s.

Demand was so high for the reprints of the adaptation that Whitman only ordered Star Wars three-packs from Marvel for several months, perhaps explaining why there are no Whitman variants of other Marvel titles for a period in late 1977, corresponding to early 1978 cover dates. (That fact also helps explain why the “fat-diamond” versions of Marvel’s comics in 1977-78 are better referred to as Whitman or special-market editions rather than Direct Market editions. Regardless of whether comics retailers got shipped copies from those print runs — and some reportedly did — those variant printings only existed because of the arrangement with Whitman, something Shooter confirmed to Comichron here.)

No circulation data was required to be published in the first two years of the series’ existence, but Star Wars was certainly the #1 title in the industry in 1977, and very likely in 1978, too, as the Whitman Star Wars three-packs continued throughout the year.

In 1979, Marvel filed its first Statement of Ownership for Star Wars with the postal service, meaning it began publishing sales figured. By this point, the Whitman copies were no longer much of a factor. Yet the series still had combined newsstand and comic shop sales of nearly 280,000 copies a month, making it likely the industry’s #2 title, not far behind Amazing Spider-Man and just ahead of Incredible Hulk, which was boosted at the time by its CBS TV show.

Sales of the Star Wars title declined every year after that, though 1984’s sales were very close to those of 1983, when Return of the Jedi came out. That movie’s adaptation appeared in its own stand-alone mini-series, so new stories weren’t suspended for the duration of its run, as was the case with The Empire Strikes Back, which appeared in #39-44.

By the last full year of the title’s initial run, it was a lower-tier book at Marvel, selling less than a third of the copies of the market-leading Uncanny X-Men. In all, the 107 issues of the regular series and its three annuals likely sold close to 40 million copies altogether. This doesn’t count international versions, nor any of the collected editions released by Marvel, Whitman (Treasury editions), Ballantine (mass-market paperbacks), and later licensee Dark Horse.

Many years later, bringing things full circle (or is that “The circle is now complete”?), when Star Wars returned to Marvel in 2015 with a new title simply named Star Wars, it repeated its initial feat, with the first issue selling more than a million copies. Star Wars’ return to Marvel wound up adding more than $31 million to the Direct Market alone in 2015.

Check out our other Title Spotlights here.

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