The complete Mad Magazine sales history, 1960-present: Over 2 million copies per issue in 1974

Reports began circulating the evening of July 3 regarding Mad magazine (the latest is that new content is ending and that the title is leaving newsstands), so I’ve responded by doing something that’s been long overdue: I’ve posted the full postal-data sales history of the title since 1960 in our Title Spotlights section.

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The main reason it hasn’t happened before now is that — alone among all publications with a majority-comics content — Mad was the only publication still running circulation statements as required by the United States Postal Service. But it was worth doing in any case, because the numbers connected to it dwarf any other comics series: counting copies just of the main title beginning in 1960, Mad sold more than 400 million copies. The overall figure since 1952, reprints included, is probably past half a billion.

A part of American pop culture for more than half a century, William Gaines‘ humor periodical Mad began as a comic book in 1952, before switching to magazine format with #24. That act had the dual results of protecting the publication from the oversight of the Comics Code Authority, while also giving it a better position than the comics shelves, where newsstand sales of those books were declining.

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Mad had already run several years’ worth of Statement of Ownership filings when the U.S. Postal Service changed the rules in 1960, requiring actual sales data. On reading the form in issue #61, the world of comics readers discovered that Mad was selling in excess of a million copies an issue, just slightly more than the top-selling comic book, Uncle Scrooge. But the sales figures thereafter went in opposite directions, with no American comic book topping a million copies sold until Star Wars #1 in 1977 — whereas Mad‘s sales went upward, nearly steadily, through the 1960s.

An on-ramp to the counterculture for younger readers, the title became a staple of Baby Boomer life in the 1960s; it topped 100,000 subscribers in 1969, a number never seen for any other comics periodical. The title reached its peak circulation in 1974, the culminating year for Watergate, with average sales per issue of 2,132,655 copies. (Perhaps the title’s most controversial cover, #166’s upraised middle finger, thus landed at the absolute height of the magazine’s popularity; many retailers refused to stock it.) Mad’s imitators were many over the years, three of which — Cracked, Crazy, Sick — ran postal circulation statements, but none was in Mad‘s league when it came to sales.

 See eBay listings for this issueBut even though Mad‘s position on magazine racks gave it a relatively safer position than comic books had in the newsstand market, the channel was in overall decline. The last year the title had sales over 1 million copies was 1982, perhaps not coincidentally when coin-operated and home video games were dominating youth culture.

The growing comics shop market didn’t do much business in Mad, which was largely seen still as a newsstand and subscriber-targeted product. Still, sales hovered near three quarters of a million copies through the second half of the 1980s, with a six-year peak of 784,206 copies in 1989. That year saw the title buoyed in part by an issue and a special parodying Batman, a property owned by its then-parent company, Warner.

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A television show added to Mad‘s brand in the 1990s, and the publication moved from its longtime eight-a-year schedule to monthly. But the decade saw the magazine’s circulation drop down below 300,000 copies, more than 100,000 of which were by subscription. Subscription sales would pass dealer copies in 2005, and they would continue to be the largest portion of sales until 2014.

By that time, sales of the now-bimonthly issues were below 140,000 copies, only slightly exceeding that number in 2018 when Mad moved its production from New York City to the West Coast and rebooted its numbering in 2018.

Mad is the last majority-comics periodical still publishing Statement of Ownership reports. It was also the only one to report, only occasionally, digital circulation in its forms. So it’s very much the last publication standing among titles in our Postal Data Repository; cancellation or an end to Periodical Class subscriptions would bring to a close (possibly temporarily) a data source that had first become available in 1960.

Whatever happens, no postal record is longer than the one for Mad, so be sure to check the full data out.

Comichron founder John Jackson Miller has tracked the comics industry for more than 20 years, including a decade editing the industry’s retail trade magazine; he is the author of several guides to comics, as well as more than a hundred comic books for various franchises. He is the author of novels including Star Wars: KenobiStar Wars: A New Dawn, and the Star Trek: Prey trilogy — and, releasing on July 30, Star Trek: Discovery – The Enterprise War. Read more about them at his fiction site.

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