Watchmen's sales rankings in its initial release

A look back at the performance of the blockbuster graphic novel
during its initial serialization

by John Jackson Miller

Originally released in comic-book form in 1986 and 1987, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons debuted to a comics market that was in better shape than it had been in years — partially due to the distribution network known as the "direct market." 

Through the end of the 1970s, most comic books reached readers through the newsstand distribution system, whereby distributors sold copies through grocery stores, convenience stores, and drugstores. The stores did not own unsold copies outright -- rather, they stripped the covers off unsold copies and returned them for credit. Retailers exercised next to no control over what comics were sent to their stores, so selection changed at random. And the comics in the system were generally subject to Comics Code Authority approval, limiting their content.

In the 1970s, a number of startups began distributing comics for the major publishers to the handful of comic book stores in existence -- on the condition that the retailers buy the comics outright. This was no problem for comics shops, which had the ability to sell back issues on the secondary market -- and the fact that retailers could order the specific comics they wanted and actually get them proved to be a major advantage. Further, the comics they purchased were not bound by the Comics Code, and thus could address more adult topics.

These elements proved a major comparative advantage for comic book stores -- and in the early 1980s both comic book stores and the new "direct market" distributors flourished. Major publishers including Marvel and DC began publishing titles specifically for the direct market, avoiding the newsstand -- and found that reader appetite existed for limited series, new formats, and experimental price points. By the spring of 1986, the direct market had already made major successes out of Crisis on Infinite Earths and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. DC's Watchmen, released into the comics-shop market May, would continue that trend.

Today, Watchmen is one of the most reprinted comics series in history -- but where did the comic book series rank at the time it came out? There are challenges in answering that question. First, many competing comics still had heavy newsstand sales and sold subscriptions, whereas Watchmen was a limited series principally targeting the direct market. Second, its sales were spread out across a variety of direct-market distributors that did not report their sales. Only the sales of one of the larger ones, Capital City Distribution, are known to Comichron — but those original orders are known exactly from internal records, as is the ranking of each issue at Capital that month, versus other titles.

Watchmen was marketed at a price point twice the going rate for the best-selling comics of the day: $1.50, versus 75 cents. That fact, in part, may have prevented it from placing higher in the unit sales charts — although in dollar terms, it obviously did much better. We see the Capital City sales and the rankings for each issue of Watchmen here:

IssueCover DateShip DateCapital City ordersCapital City rank#1 book that month at Capital City
Watchmen #1Sep-8613-May34,1005thClassic X-Men #1
Watchmen #2Oct-8620-Jun38,35010thThe Man of Steel #1
Watchmen #3Nov-868-Jul38,00010thThe Man of Steel #3
Watchmen #4Dec-8612-Aug40,5008thThe Man of Steel #5
Watchmen #5Jan-879-Sep33,15011thSuperman Vol. 2 #1
Watchmen #6Feb-8714-Oct32,70015thSuperman Vol. 2 #2
Watchmen #7Mar-8711-Nov30,150 n.a.Prob. Uncanny X-Men #215
Watchmen #8Apr-879-Dec28,150 n.a.Prob. Uncanny X-Men #216
Watchmen #9May-8713-Jan28,15015thUncanny X-Men #217
Watchmen #10Jul-8710-Feb26,85013thUncanny X-Men #218
Watchmen #11Aug-8719-May28,30013thPunisher #1
Watchmen #12 (cancelled)Oct-87 31,9009thUncanny X-Men #220
Watchmen #12 (resolicited)Oct-8723-Jun34,1506thUncanny X-Men #221

The figures above represent preorders, and do not include reorders. Reorder availability in the 1980s was at a far earlier stage than in later years, when publishers became able to adjust print runs late in the game to respond to advance reorders close to the print date.

Also, Watchmen #12 was actually solicited twice by Capital City. Orders were taken for it for April 1987 — but the issue was rescheduled for May, after #11 — which had been initially scheduled to ship March 17, 1987, was rescheduled twice. #12's orders were still ranked by Capital in April, however, as if it had come out then; and even though the issue came out in the first week of June, it was ranked once and for all with the May-shipping books. We see that the extra month boosted preorders by 7%, giving #12 more initial preorders through Capital than #1 had. Rankings are not available for #7 and #8. Shipping dates above come from Comics Buyer's Guide's "Comics In Your Future" column, which itself compiled the dates that distributors said they expected the books from the printer. (The ship date is not the in-store on-sale date, but precedes it by a few days depending on the distributor and the comics shop involved. My own records indicate I purchased #5 on September 13, 1987, which would be "New Comics Friday" at the shop and three days after it hit the distributor, if these dates are to be trusted.)

Watchmen #4 was the title's best-seller by far through Capital City, and is likely the singe issue available in greatest supply today because of it. The reason likely owes to seasonality, which was a major factor for comics shops in the 1980s (and far more so than it is today). The industry phrase "Black September" referred to the dropoff in orders that always followed the return of kids to school after summer; here, it clearly had an impact. Many of Watchmen's core readers were actually college age -- and actually more likely to be near a comics shop in the fall -- but perhaps not enough to blunt the impact of something affecting all comics sales.

Watchmen never topped the charts at Capital City in unit sales -- again, that $1.50 price point. Watchmen #12 sold just slightly more than half the copies that Capital sold of its top issue that month, Uncanny X-Men #221. Contrast also the Capital orders for Watchmen #2 with The Man of Steel, the Superman relaunch title. Man of Steel #1 moved 125,400 copies of its direct market edition and 51,500 copies of its newsstand edition through Capital. And in all cases, the top-seller for the month was also available on the newsstand, so the gap is probably wider. 

What part of Watchmen's sales did Capital City represent?

That information is known only to DC, but we can make some guesses. Comparing Capital sales versus numbers in postal Statements of Ownership in DC titles, Capital in 1986 and 1987 represented approximately 10 to 15% of the sales of the average DC title sold on the newsstand. But for a direct market phenomenon like Watchmen, Capital's sales would be expected to be a larger part of the orders, perhaps twice that level, with other comics shop distributors also selling more than their typical share.

Another element impacting Capital's orders was that Glenwood Distributors, one of the major players in the direct market boom of the mid-1980s, ceased operations on March 20, 1987. Several hundred retailers were left with unfilled orders. "Coupled with order reductions done by most retailers and distributors in the first quarter of this year," wrote Milton Griepp in Capital's Internal Correspondence, "this disruption has produced some genuinely scarce books recently." So it's possible that for issues #11 and #12, Capital's share is even larger than it is for earlier months. Glenwood's last DC shipment was March 17, after #10 shipped. Part of the Capital jump at the end of the run almost certainly comes from Glenwood's lost accounts.

While not topping the direct market charts in its initial release, Watchmen's penetration in those charts is remarkable for a title at double the going the price point — and involving no established franchise characters. Top-ten appearances for such projects are rare to be found then or now; Image and Valiant in the early 1990s regularly broke into the top ranks, although not at such a high price point. Watchmen's initial performance may be singular in that regard.

Finally, Capital City records do include some information on the very first trade paperback collection of Watchmen -- the format in which the vast majority of its readers have found it since. Initial orders for the first printing were 7,650 copies at Capital, with the second printing getting initial orders of 2,335 copies. Solicited at 384 pages for $14.95, Capital referred to it in May 1987 as the "best price-point marketing DC has done yet." That edition released on Sept. 8, 1987 and was the first of many; today, Watchmen continues to sell and sell.

—Updated Oct. 18, 2017