Sunday, May 20, 2007

Legion sales figures, 1960-2007

Every now and then, between my review recaps, my animated news briefings, and my trivia contests, I try to provide some original content. Here's something I've been working on for the last few months off and on: sales figures for the regular Legion books going all the way back to 1960 when the Legion took over the lead spot in Adventure Comics. I just wanted to see what it looks like. (Previously: Sales 1996-2007 and just the current title. Relatedly: Superman and Batman vs Marvel in the 1980s at Captain Custard)

(In the works: overlaying this data with some other DC titles like Superman and Batman as a check, and to see if the Legion really was one of the top titles in the 1980s like we've always heard.)

This chart combines all the titles that the Legion was in since 1960, either as regular stars, regular backups, or semi-regular backups. At this point I don't have pre- or post-Legion data for Action Comics, or pre-Legion stuff for Superboy. That's for another day. The plot does not include any spin-offs, side projects, or miniseries except for Legion Lost and Legion Worlds which, although miniseries, were really the main Legion title at the time. To help, I put the writer and/or the creative team along the bottom.

So here's the chart. Things look bleak, huh? Well, if you look at it from pure numbers, sure, but you can't really do that since the market is different now than in decades past. You can only look at trends (which I discuss below the plot). Click to enlarge the plot.

The analysis:

  • For the Legion, sales peaked in 1965 and have gone downward since. It doesn't look like sales were affected by the huge spike that Batman got in the late 60s due to the TV show.
  • Look at the early 70s. With "old school" writers and artists like E. Nelson Bridwell and Win Mortimer, they lost 80,000 readers from 1971-72, then another 50,000 from 1972-73. But then something funny happened - the "new school" writers and artists came on board, like Cary Bates, Dave Cockrum, Mike Grell, and a reinvented Jim Shooter. Sales went up in 1974 when Bates and Cockrum came in, and stayed up through 1976. Either the departure of Grell in early 1977 or with the arrival of new writer Paul Levitz caused sales to drop by 30,000, and then the price (and page) increase in 1978 - from 30 to 60 cents, at the time of the DC Implosion - cost another 43,000 readers. Dropping the price back to 50 and then 40 cents gained back 20,000 of them.
  • In hindsight, it's explainable why sales dropped at first when the Legion spun off into their new book: Gerry Conway.
  • The increases in 1982 and 1983 where the Levitz/Giffen years. They picked up 50,000 new readers in those two years, only to shed some in 1984 due to (presumably) Giffen's new art style.
  • Starting in 1985, we have data on individual issues, but due to a crude way of estimating sales based on Capital Cities data through 1997, it's suspect. Unfortunately sales for all of v3 here can't be trusted due to that way of estimation - for example, the huge drop in 1987 doesn't exist when you look at the data, it's just that that was a transition point for determining a "fudge factor" for that year. All we can use are general trends, nothing specific. What we can conclude here is that sales went down from 1985 to late 1989 at the end of v3. What's significant in here is that this is where the direct market starts becoming more influential, and newsstands start to fade out. Perhaps that decline coincides with the drop in sales.
  • Then v4 comes along and overall, the trend continues in nearly a straight line from 1990-97. We see three bumps in the data: late 1991 was the Quiet Darkness story which also featured then-popular Lobo; another in mid 1993 which I can't figure out why (approximately issues 41-46) probably due to the introduction of the new Legionnaires series; and Zero Hour and the reboot in late 1994.
  • But the reboot only slowed down the rate of decline. The Legion title hit rock bottom in late 1999 just prior to Abnett and Lanning taking over.
  • Under Abnett and Lanning, sales rose steadily for the first time since the early 80s (not counting v3, which I can't tell what it did).
  • The new reboot, though declining, still has sales higher than at any point in at least a dozen years.

Here's the boring stuff on my methodology and data collection.
  • You old fogeys out there (myself included) will remember the annual Statement of Ownership that used to be in the back of some issue, which was required under postal laws and told (among other things) what the average annual circulation was. John Jackson Miller has the 1960s data on line at ComiChron (but note that DC didn't print the Statements for 1963 and 1964, that's why there's a blank there). Following Adventure Comics, the Legion went to Action Comics for about a year, then they became backups in the Superboy book in 1970. From there, Superboy became Superboy and the Legion which became Legion v2 in 1980. Unfortunately (for me), in 1984 as the Legion started its new volume 3 title, DC stopped publishing the Statement of Ownership in the direct-sales-only books, of which Legion v3 was one. Thanks to Tim Stroup and Tony Rose of the Grand Comics Database for looking up the rest of the data in Miller's "Standard Catalog of Comic Books" (which neither my library nor my local bookstores have).

  • Old-timers might also remember that prior to Diamond's monopoly, Capital Cities Distribution had a good chunk of the market. Capital published their sales data, but since they only had a fraction of the market, how do we scale their numbers to reflect total sales? The generally accepted way of doing this is to divide CC's sales figures by a fudge factor that represents what percentage of the marketplace as a whole they had that year, but nobody (except DC) has the actual numbers for each title. Unfortunately that skews the books with higher than average sales numbers downward, and the lower sellers up - which totally hoses the plot of the v3 sales, supposedly the second-highest seller for DC for at least some point in the 1980s (which I want to revisit later). Furthermore, the fudge factor is calculated over the entire year, not just for a month, which messes things up even more. This subset of data covers all of v3 and the first 7 years of the v4 title. Capital City was devoured by Diamond in late 1995/early 1996 as fallout of the speculation wars. Thanks to Tim and Tony for this data too.

  • After CapCities went away, Diamond has pretty much had the market to themselves, so that's their data starting around then. The Diamond data on this chart covers the last three years of v4, the Legion Lost/Legion Worlds/The Legion set, and the new v5 title. The Comics Buyer's Guide has the Diamond data from Sept. 1996 to present.


murrfox said...

Really cool information. I'm going to have to come back to it a little later on with some deeper thoughts. I hope that you do get a chance to look at the sales of Action before and after Legion. Ditto Superboy.

lizrdprnce said...

One suggestion that might explain the second sales bump (LSH vol.4 41-46) is these issues came out shortly after the debut of the Legionnaires series and may have benefited from that. I have several friends who I couldn't get them interested in Legion until Legionnaires, and most became hooked on both books, after I had caught them up on Legion continuity.

Very interesting stuff! Good work.

Michael said...

On my list of sales-figure related stuff:
* what happened to sales of Adventure when the Legion was replaced with Supergirl, and the interesting story behind why that switch was made
* what sales on Action looked like before and after the Legion backups
* what effect (if any) the increasing use of Legion backup stories did to sales of the Superboy title

As for the Legionnaires bump - that probably explains it. For this plot I was only looking at sales of the main book as it evolved over time. I have the Diamond (post-1997) sales of all the Legion-related titles but nothing before that. I'd be curious to see what sales of the various spinoffs and miniseries prior to that are (from the v1 reprints to Karate Kid to Cosmic Boy), but they weren't there long enough to get a Statement of Ownership.

Dave Van Domelen said...

Might be worth also having a graph of total DC circulation to compare the downward trends. Or maybe total circulation divided by total titles, to get average circulation.

Jim D. said...

If you poke around in the rec.arts.comics archives from the early 1990s, you should find sales reports figures from Matt High. He took known sales figures from Ninja High School and other Antarctic titles and their % numbers from the distributors (% of sales of Batman or X-Men or such such) and was able to get the value of 1% point and thus extrapolated sales numbers on other titles. Assuming that tables with Legion values from those days are available, it should be possible to get more accurate numbers from that.

Michael said...

Dave - that's what my next project is, to compare it to a couple of DC mainstays like "Superman" and "Batman". I'll see if I can find some total circulation numbers to get average numbers.

I just ordered a copy of the Standard Catalog so maybe I can manipulate the information there.

Jim - I did look up "AP's Matt" data last week, actually, and it pretty much matches up with the CapCities data from the Standard Catalog for the early to mid 90s. For all I know, that's where the Standard Catalog got its numbers.

I was really surprised to see very little change in sales drop after the Zero Hour reboot. The change in slope at the beginning of 1996 is in all likelihood due to the change in data collection methodology from CapCities to Diamond.