This week, I’ve decided to take a look at the number of Star Wars comics that have been sold over the past few years. The inspiration for this analysis came once again from the various Star Wars forums, where certain users have commented on how Star Wars comics seem to have shifted away from ongoing monthly comic series (e.g. Empire, Knights of the Old Republic, Legacy), instead focussing on mini-series (e.g. Blood Ties, Crimson Empire III) or collections of mini-series under one over-arching title (e.g. The Old Republic, Knight Errant, Invasion). Some have asked if a noticeable increase in sales have resulted from this shift. I thought it would be interesting to take a look.
The main resource I used for this analysis is The Comic Chronicles, found at www.comichron.com. This website looks at the month of release of every single comic distributed by Diamond Comic Distributors, ranks them by number of issues sold, and publishes the top 300 each month. Information is gathered oddly enough by John Jackson Miller, author of the Knights of the Old Republic comics, the Lost Tribe of the Sith ebooks, and the Knight Errant novel and comics. Comic Chronicles began in 1995, although the numbers I use start in April 1997, since their reporting pre-1997 used an Order Index system to rate comic sales. This system defined one comic as a reference point (note: this comic could vary from month to month), defining it as 100%, and then rated the sales of all other comics that month in comparison to the reference point. A comic that sold twice as many books had an Order Index of 200, and one that sold half as many had an Order Index of 50. Starting in April 1997, after Marvel Comics started using Diamond as their comics distributor (from 1995 to 1997 they had an exclusive arrangement with Heroes World Distributors), the Comic Chronicles stopped using the Order Index system, choosing instead to simply rate the books by gross number of issues pre-ordered by comic book shops in that month. For clarity, I’ve assumed that the number of issues pre-ordered by comic book shops is comparable to the number of issues sold by comic shops.
I used the Comic Chronicles to gather information on number of comics sold in the opening month and rank overall in the top 300. I also took note of the price of each comic, and extrapolated based on those data (e.g. number of comics sold overall and gross revenue). I specifically excluded Trade Paperbacks and other collections, since they were tracked differently and often did not appear in the top-tier. The only exception to that are Star Wars: Jango Fett and Star Wars: Zam Wesell, which I personally believe are more closely related to issues than to TPBs, regardless of their publishing medium.
I’ve taken the time to analyze a few trends in comic sales, and include a few graphs below.
First, one of the factors gleaned from the Comic Chronicles is their ranking system. The top 300 best selling comics are ranked every month. I originally recorded the rank position for all Star Wars comics. It was rather depressing. The average Star Wars comic ranked 94.099, with a standard deviation of 28.265, which is quite a large range (65.384 to 122.364). The single highest rank any Star Wars comic ever reached was #4, which was in May 1999, with the first issue of the comic adaptation of Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Note that the entire four-issue run of Episode I was published that month, and the lowest-selling issue was still 11th overall. That’s incredibly good for Star Wars. Another important note was that, of the highest-ranking Star Wars comics per year, 40% of them were Issue 1 of a series or miniseries, and for many of the 60% that weren’t, their Issue 1 had higher sales but a lower ranking in a previous month (Marvel/DC/other comics in that month outsold the Issue 1, forcing it down in ranking). Another important note is that these ranking systems are not necessarily interchangeable one month to the next. A comic selling 19,000 units in January may be #50, but the next month a comic selling 21,000 units may be #75. As a result, the usefulness of this data is incredibly limited.
Some more fun facts derived from observing rank: with the exception of one month (March 1998), Star Wars comics outsold Star Trek comics every single time. While I personally find Star Trek to be just as interesting as Star Wars, I admit I haven’t sunk nearly as many resources into Star Trek collections. I only own two TPBs, both of which tied into the 2009 film. But some Star Wars fans find Star Trek to be terrible, and so I thought this might amuse them.
Another fun fact: note that my data comes from a top-300 list. I assumed when gathering my data that all Star Wars comics would find themselves in the top-300. This was so from April 1997 until April 2005, when I noticed some holes in my numbers. It turns out that some Star Wars comics sell terribly. The miniseries Star Wars: General Grievous sold under the top-300 for 3 of its 4-issue run. Only issue #2 ranked within the top-300, selling only 1,333 units and ranking 276/300. This is the lowest-ranked Star Wars comic that is still within the top-300. Other issues that sold too few to be ranked were Republic #75 and Dark Times #7.
The publisher that produces the most bestselling comics in a given month is Marvel Comics, which published 62.9% of Number One comics between April 1997 and February 2011. The second top selling publisher was DC Comics, with 27.5% of Number Ones. Less familiar publishers Image and Dreamwave each had 5.99% and 3.6%, respectively. Shifts in top publisher tend to coincide with the release of important series; Dreamwave’s six months on top in 2002 coincided with its acquisition of the Transformers line from Marvel. Other important trend-stealing comic events were the Civil War and Secret Invasion (Marvel) and the Infinite Crisis, the Blackest Night, and Brightest Day series (DC). Note that Dark Horse Comics, publisher of not only Star Wars, but also many other licenses such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Indiana Jones, Alien, and Predator, not once appears on the chart.
Dark Horse Comics sold the most comics in the year 1999. 1999 was a year of Star Wars rejuvenation. Episode I: The Phantom Menace had just been released, and Dark Horse started publishing a monthly series known at the time only as “Star Wars“. It was the first monthly long-running series since Marvel lost the license, noting that both Tales of the Jedi was a collection of miniseries and and X-Wing Rogue Squadron was often treated as such. 1999 also saw the publication of Star Wars Tales, which was considerably thicker and more expensive and published every three months.
A quick fun fact with these numbers. Since April 1997, Dark Horse sold over 13 million issues worth of top-300 comics (in the month of release), totaling over $40.8 million dollars.
History of Monthly Series
1999 to 2001 were characterized by the one monthly series and several miniseries. Sales of Star Wars monthly gradually decreased over time. In 2002, we fans were introduced to a second monthly series. As a result, the original Star Wars was retitled Star Wars: Republic and the new series, which focussed on the original trilogy era, was titled Star Wars: Empire. Miniseries were mostly phased out. Sales of Republic barely peaked in 2002, but climbed slightly higher in 2005 with the release of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
Empire started out strong, but also gradually decreased over time. In 2006, both series were cancelled and replaced with four new monthlies, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), Rebellion, Legacy, and Dark Times. This period was slightly different. After the release of Episode III, publishers believed that no more Star Wars films would be released. These four new series spanned eras, in an attempt to appeal to as many fans as possible. Knights of the Old Republic appealed to fans of the video games of the same name, as well as to those who enjoyed the ancient era. Dark Times followed directly from the end of Episode III, in a period almost completely devoid of source material. Rebellion acted as a direct sequel to Empire, repackaged and starting at Issue 1. And Legacy brought us to the distant future, where no stories had ever been told, and nothing could be anticipated.
KOTOR sales, oddly, did not follow the norm. They started slightly weaker, and then gradually became more popular. This peaked in 2008 with issues 25-28, which started the Vector arc, a cross-over between all four series. Following Vector, sales began to decline, and was cancelled in 2010 after its 50th issue. Legacy on the other hand was the strongest monthly series in Star Wars history. Going back to Figure 1, one third of top-ranked Star Wars comics were from Legacy, from 2006 to 2010. Unfortunately, Legacy also slowly decreased in sales over time (increasing again briefly for Vector), and ended at Issue 50. However, Legacy‘s lowest sales were still comparable to average Knights of the Old Republic or Empire sales.
Dark Times had the unfortunate problem of weak scheduling. The vast majority of issues were delayed by sometimes several months. This made its release difficult to predict. This was most evident with Issue 7. Issue 7 was scheduled for release October 24th, 2007, but did not hit the shelves until December 19th, 2007. As a result of this delay (and possibly other factors), Issue 7 did not make the Top 300 sales of that month. The #300-selling comic in December 2007 sold only 2,248 issues, which means Dark Times #7 sold less than that (whereas Issue 6 sold 25,095). I admit the possibility that the people gathering the numbers merely missed Dark Times; without the raw data that Comic Chronicles used to gather their numbers, I cannot verify anything. Dark Times peaked slightly in 2008; Issues 11 and 12 were part of Vector. Dark Times was put on hiatus following issue 12, freeing space for The Clone Wars. It was brought back in 2009, but still suffered from delays. It is temporarily on hiatus, but plans to return in the summer of 2011.
Rebellion began its run as a strong contender. Its opening arc followed immediately after the final arc of Empire, but as with all other series, sales began to decline. They peaked briefly in 2008, issues 15 and 16 were part of Vector. It was put on hiatus following Vector, but since its sales were so much lower than the other monthlies at the time, it was decided that Rebellion would not be reinstated. In its place, Dark Horse began publishing Invasion, which covered the immensely popular New Jedi Order era, which has been largely ignored since 2003. Early issues of Invasion sold comparably as well as the other series, but like all comics began to decline. It is currently on hiatus until the summer of 2011, when its third arc will be published.
In August of 2008, fans were introduced to Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a movie and television series set in the titular war between Episode II and Episode III. The following month, the first issue of The Clone Wars monthly comic series was published. Originally slated to be a single six-issue miniseries, the first few issues sold sufficiently well to merit extension. However, sales declined a bit too steeply, and by Issue 12 sales were the lowest among any monthly at the time, selling worse than even the high-issue-number/low-selling Knights of the Old Republic. Dark Horse opted to cancel The Clone Wars, and focus instead on its other franchises.
Mid-2010 finally saw the return of significant numbers of miniseries. Following the cancellation of Legacy, Knights of the Old Republic, Rebellion, and The Clone Wars, fans were introduced to smaller stories such as Blood Ties (4 issues, completed), Legacy -War (6 issues, in progress), Darth Vader and the Lost Command (5 issues, in progress), and Jedi: The Dark Side (5 issues, forthcoming). Also, remaining and new monthly series took on the characteristics of clusters of miniseries, much in the same style as Tales of the Jedi or X-Wing Rogue Squadron. Invasion and Dark Times would cease being true “monthlies”, publishing one arc per year, and newer series like The Old Republic and Knight Errant would adopt a similar structure. As a result, we now have a significant number of stories told per year, but without much continuity between them.
Major Trends in Sales
In this graph, I picked one month per year and showed how well comics of each series sold. This was the best way to compare sales of monthly comics directly to miniseries, which is ultimately the entire point of this week’s column. With the exception of the excellent-selling Legacy series, miniseries from 1997 to 2002 almost always outsold monthlies from 1999 to 2011. And, unfortunately, the return to miniseries has not yet paid off; miniseries and monthlies arranged as miniseries have not sold nearly as well as those from pre-2002.
It is difficult to tell if the return to miniseries will pay off, although it should be noted that sales for most issues in January and February 2011 are lower than even the lowest sales when monthlies were sold. It is possible that fans have not yet mentally made the conversion to miniseries, and are still wary of these new arcs. It is also very difficult to ascertain just how much the economy affects comic sales, especially among less popular publishers like Dark Horse (compared to Marvel or DC). I sincerely hope that Star Wars comics begin selling better. I personally love my Star Wars comics. I find the stories to be thoroughly enjoyable, and the art is usually stupendous. I’m looking forward to comics like Jedi: The Dark Side and the new arcs of The Old Republic, Dark Times, Invasion, and Knight Errant, which were announced in the most recent Insider.
Remember that there is one useful advantage to miniseries instead of monthlies. Monthlies are fairly constrictive in the kinds of stories that can be told. Even with the best of characters, like Zayne Carrick or Cade Skywalker, there are limits to the type of stories that can be told with them. But with multiple miniseries, any story can be told with any character, old or new. Darth Vader and the Lost Command may tell one Vader story, without affecting Vader’s role in Dark Times. A single Qui-Gon Jinn story can be told, opening up his time with his apprentice Xanatos, and then six months later return to Satele Shan and the era of The Old Republic. It even allows for a return to old miniseries, and as a result we finally get Crimson Empire III. There are indeed benefits to both sides (monthlies have fixed, regular schedules, which some fans crave). It will be interesting to see how well this new model works.
In the end, looking at all data, there are a few concrete observations that can be drawn. First, it looks like sales were at their highest in 1999 and earlier. In this time frame, Star Wars comics consisted almost entirely of miniseries and collections of miniseries arranged in a larger series (Tales of the Jedi; X-Wing Rogue Squadron). December 1998 was the start of the first monthly series, which would begin a trend in which Star Wars sales would slowly decline. 1999-2002 featured both one monthly series and a number of miniseries, and kept sales fairly high. The number of miniseries began to decline from 2002-2005, and miniseries were almost completely absent by 2006. 2006 to mid-2010 consisted of three to four monthlies, and sales reached a major low, especially by 2010. In mid-2010, many of the monthly series, including the top-selling Legacy, were cancelled, and the remaining monthly series more closely resembled collections of miniseries, to the point where Invasion and Knight Errant begin each new arc with Issue 1.
Without any insider information on how much money it costs to create an issue of Star Wars, I can’t comment on actual profits. All I can determine from these numbers is how many Star Wars comics are preordered (assuming that all issues preordered by comic book shops are sold at some point) and how much each one costs, which tells me the gross amount of money brought in by the comic book shop. It’s possible that a comic costs less to manufacture now, or that the wholesale price has increased relative to the listed price.
To conclude, it looks like Star Wars comics sold best as miniseries, and worse as monthlies after they reached higher numbers (clearly observable in 2005 and 2010). Dark Horse may be attempting to restore those figures from 1999 by returning to one-off miniseries and collections of miniseries. It’s hard to tell the effect of larger factors like the economy, but I hope that Dark Horse’s plan succeeds, and sales and profits increase, allowing them to produce even more excellent works.