Funny Business:A History of the Comics Industry
by Mark Carlson
Sales drive any business. Comic books are no different than any other industry in that regard. But unlike other businesses, the particulars of comic sales are rarely discussed, let alone put into perspective. Publications about comic books will talk about this “hot” title or that one, but with little real historical sense of what “hot” really means. Today, many a “hot” title would have been cancelled because of poor sales in 1945 (or even 1975, for that matter).
Many of today’s collectors don't know how much humor titles sold far better than those featuring super-heroes or horror for most of the industry’s history. It is rarely mentioned that Mad Magazine was the best-selling comic book for nearly thirty years. Or that, in the early fifties, Porky Pig sold as well as all three EC horror titles combined. Or in the nineties, that the pocket-sized Archie Digest Magazine regularly outsold both Superman and Batman? If any of this comes as a surprise, you owe it to your comics education to read on. Super-heroes haven’t always dominated the industry. If the sudden rise in Japanese manga is any indication, they may not dominate it five years from now.
In future installments, I hope to discuss industry trends across the decades, including the role of paper shortages in the forties, strong-arm tactics by distributors in the fifties and the emergence of underground comix in the sixties and seventies. But, first, an overview of comic book sales across eight decades!
Prior to 1960, for the outside observer, comic book circulation figures were hard to come by. My interest in the topic has led me to search out some obscure sources with some interesting results. Even so, figures before 1960 are only available on selective titles. What follows are several snapshots of per issue paid sales figures for various titles every six to eight years. (The number of total copies printed is a less reliable figure given the role of returns.) Glancing at them will give a quick sense of just what a powerhouse industry comic books once were.
A Quick Business History of Comic Books: Part One (1934-1960)
The first regular published comic books appear in 1934, with the first issue of Famous Funnies. Much as its title suggests, Famous Funnies was comprised entirely on newspaper comic strip reprints. Sales turn out to be surprisingly strong, prompting a few publishers to try all-new material and characters. While Detective Comics (without Batman) first appeared in 1937 with all new stories, a year later the comic strip reprint format would still be the dominant one in the industry.
- King Comics 380,419
- Famous Funnies 376,585
- Ace Comics 247,295
It took the introduction of colorful costumed heroes, for “new material” comic books to really distinguish themselves. Superman in Action Comics #1 (in June 1938) and Batman in Detective Comics #27 (in May 1939) are the first “super-heroes” to take off. For some titles, sales double in a matter of months. Superman, in his own title, was probably the first comic book to surpass sales of a million copies per issue. But within a few years, Superman is joined by newcomer Captain Marvel in the same stratospheric territory. With sales more than tripling on some titles, it’s easy to see why so many publishers of both pulp and slick paper magazines rushed in to try and grab their share of this new market.
- Captain Marvel 1,000,000 plus
- Superman 1,000,000 plus
- Walt Disney Comics and Stories 1,000,000
- Batman 913,000
- Captain America (peak sales, circa 1942) 900,000
- All-Star Comics 440,800
- Shadow (1941) 400,000
- Ace Comics 279,163
- King Comics 256,653
- Blue Bolt Comics 200,490
In 1942, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories is the first humor title to earn a million plus smile. Even minor titles regularly sell over 200,000 copies a month. With America’s entry in World War II, paper restrictions keep the size of the average comic book down, and restrict the total number of titles that can be published. But as a wartime escape, the comic book itself cannot be repressed.
Immediate post-war sales really boom. Walt Disney Comics and Stories becomes the best selling comic book in the industry circa 1945, a distinction it won’t relinquish until approximately 1960. Archie joins Batman as the latest characters to enter million-plus sales territory. And while comic book critics fretted over the popularity of Crimes Does Not Pay, its popularity never exceeded that of the most popular crime-fighters. Crime pays, it turns out. Just not as well. Even so-so titles now regularly sell half a million copies per issue.
- Walt Disney Comics and Stories circa 1,800,000
- Superman 1,672,169
- Batman 1,451,053
- Archie Comics (1947) 1,135,324
- Captain Marvel 873,820
- Crime Does Not Pay 811,087
- Whiz Comics 674,106
- Topix 600,000
- Suzie 586,780
- True Comics 572,753
After 1947, sales for super-hero comic books drop precipitously, while the antics of Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and the like take off. Far more than crime and horror comic books, romance titles such as Sweethearts, published by Fawcett, and Young Romance by Prize show remarkable strength. Educational and religious comic books like Classics Illustrated, Topix and Treasure Chest also produce surprisingly robust circulation figures. EC’s adaptations of the Bible have sold over a million copies by the mid-fifties.
- Walt Disney Comics and Stories 2,850,000
- Sweethearts (Fawcett) circa 1,000,000
- Young Romance circa 800,000
- Classics Illustrated 670,000
- Romantic Adventures (ACG) circa 650,000
- Adventures into the Unknown (ACG-1953) circa 550,000
- Tales From the Crypt (EC-1953) 400,000
- Treasure Chest 329.903
- Mad (EC-1953) 325,000
- Two-Fisted Tales (EC-1953) 225,000
Forget EC. Dell Comics rule the decade. By 1954, while Dell’s total number of comic book titles is only 15% of those published, it controls nearly a third of the total market. Dell has more million plus sellers than any other company before or since, including Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Looney Tunes, Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig, Tom and Jerry and Little Lulu. A one-shot film adaptation like Peter Pan prompts over three million and a half purchases alone. Sales in more “suspect” genres such as crime, romance and horror, drop markedly with the establishment of the stifling Comic’s Code Authority in 1955. There is only one subversive survivor from the EC line of comic books. No longer, a color comic book, Mad is repackaged as Mad Magazine, a black-and-white magazine. It also expands its satiric scope to make fun of domestic life and a wide range of movies and television shows. Mad Magazine, as much as Playboy, is one of the most notable publishing successes of the fifties.
- Mad Magazine 1,048,550
- Uncle Scrooge 1,040,543
- Walt Disney Comics and Stories 1,004,901
- Donald Duck 930,613
- Superman 810,000
- Dennis the Menace 800,000
- Bugs Bunny 615,552
- Mickey Mouse 568,803
- Woody Woodpecker 537,773
- Batman 502,000
- Lone Ranger 408,711
- Casper the Friendly Ghost 399,985
- Blackhawk 316,000
- Adventures Into the Unknown (ACG) 192,500
I don't have exact figures for Archie Comics in 1960, but it was probably just over a half a million per issue. This was how the industry looked just as the successful launch of Marvel Comics and the Silver Age of DC heroes was getting underway. Even so, humor and romance comics remain highly viable. But by the seventies, the industry will have fundamentally changed. But that’s a story better left for the next installment.