Then, when I looked a little deeper into the circumstances of Marvel's ascendency - that of a brilliant and effective subterfuge on the part of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman - I began to have some misgivings about the accuracy of the legend as it's been reported over the decades ...
THE DC vs MARVEL SALES WARThe story I've read in many different histories of American comics is that Marvel finally overtook DC in sales after a Machiavellian trick by Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. This story has been reported on WIKIpedia (mis-quoting Les Daniels' Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics) and in Sean Howe's Marvel: The Untold Story (HarperCollins, 2012), among others.
"As 1971 drew to a close, publisher Martin Goodman initiated an ingenious sales strategy," wrote Daniels, "a complicated series of changes in the size and price of the standard color comic book, that gave Marvel a commanding lead in overall circulation ... in November1971 the standard comic book price jumped to twenty-five cents. Rival DC made the same change simultaneously ... after only one month of the new prices, in December 1971 Marvel dropped back to thirty-six pages at the price of twenty cents ... Goodman [was able] to offer a larger percentage of the retail price to his wholesale distributors. As a result .... circulation increased."
"Martin Goodman hatched a devious plan to conquer DC once and for all," wrote Howe. "When Marvel and DC agreed to hike the price of comics ... their handshake deal called for the books to expand from 36 to 52 pages - but at a whopping 25 cents apiece. But after a month, Goodman immediately cut back to fewer pages at 20 cents, and offered newsstand proprietors a bigger cut of the profits, ensuring that Marvel would get better rack space. The slow-footed DC tried to make a go of their higher-price, thicker comics, but they took a bath on the manoeuvre, and by the time they crawled back to the 20 cent price point, they'd lost the battle and the war. For the first time in its history, Marvel Comics was the number-one comic book company in the world."
The Great American Novel website even adds a reason why DC stuck at 25 cents for a year: "In October 1971 Marvel used a sneaky trick: they raised their page count and price. DC heard in advance and did the same. But DC had to buy their paper a year in advance so were locked into the higher page count. The next month Marvel dropped their pages and prices again, while DC had to keep theirs high. For the whole year Marvel grabbed market share, kept a lot of it even after DC went back to normal."
The problem is that almost none of the above is true. Here's some reasons why I have issues with that story:
- Martin Goodman didn't hatch the plan, Independent News did.
- DC raised its page count and price first, with the August cover-dated issues (on sale June). Marvel raised their price on the November cover-dated issues (on sale July)
- DC and Marvel having a handshake deal to raise prices across the board is anti-competitive and highly illegal. It's conceivable that Goodman might've agreed to something like that but I don't think corporate DC would have
- Even if DC did buy their paper for the year ahead, it seems unlikely that the corporate leaders of Kinney would allow DC to continue on such a suicidal path, just to save a few bucks by bulk buying.
|Here's some of the more obscure Marvels that went to 25 cents for just one 52-page issue (a couple lasted two issues) around November 1971. There's a full list further down the page.|
According to Carmine Infantino, who was DC's publisher at the time, the idea to raise the price for more pages "... was Independent News' idea. They made that decision ... When we went to 25 cents, we gave the distributor a 40% discount. Marvel goes in and cuts the price 20% and gives the distributor 50% off. They were throwing our books back in our face! The price structure was set up by [Paul] Wendell [National's President], [Mark] Inglesias [Kinney's accountant], and [Harold] Chamberlin [who ran Independent News]."
|DC Comics, on the other hand, went to 5p-pages for 25 cents with the August 1971 cover-dated issues. Here's a selection of some of the lesser-known DC titles that came out at the new price that August.|
Let me just break that down for you. Back in the day, when I worked at Marvel UK, the deal we had with Comag was that we got 50% of the cover price for each comic sold. Unsolds we didn't get anything for. Out of our half, we had to pay for editorial, production (neg films of the pages, etc) and printing. Out of the distributors' half, they paid for marketing (ha, right!), logistics (usually by truck) and gave the wholesalers 25% discount on copies sold. The wholesalers handled transport to the retailers and typically gave the newsagents 15% discount on copies sold. Those percentages might vary slightly depending on how good a negotiator you are.
That's for a Sale-or-Return model, common in the US and adopted pretty much across the board in the UK by the 1980s. So Martin Goodman's idea of giving the distributor 50% discount reverberated down the decades and was still affecting magazine distribution right into the 1990s, maybe even until now.
From the other end of the chain, the numbers of comics that ended up on the newsstand's spinner rack was usually determined by the local wholesaler. Depending on the size of the business, newsstand would be allocated a bundle of comics of a certain number of titles. The following month's allocation would be based on the returns from the previous month. The wholesaler would mix and match titles to achieve the best outcome for each newsstand. However, all that said, comics were a low-profit, high-volume venture, and often retailers (and sometimes wholesalers) wouldn't even bother to put the comics on sale, preferring to give rack-space to magazines that made them a higher profit.
But aside from all that, I keep coming back to the question, Why did DC Comics, market leader for over twenty years, decide to raise their cover price to 25 cents in the first place? For an answer to that, we need to go back to the beginning of the 1960s.
At that time, the big players in the comic book market were Dell, Archie and DC Comics. DC's top seller was Superman, at number three in sales charts, probably because of the Adventures of Superman that was still running on syndicate tv channels across America. (It was outsold by Dell's Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, both at around one million each.) Batman was in sixth place after Superboy and Mickey Mouse. Marvel - then not even identified by the "MC" box on the covers - barely cracked the top 50, with Tales to Astonish at number 43.
However, it's important to bear in mind that these were Statements, made by the publishers, to satisfy a demand of the US Post Office that the postal service was being used to distribute genuine publications that the customers had bought, and not junk mail that they hadn't, and so wouldn't qualify for second class post. No one checked whether the numbers were true or not. And some publishers didn't include the circulation figures in their Statements. Heck, DC didn't even print the Statements in their comics from 1963 - 1965. So those sales are a bit of a mystery.
And in an interview with The Comic Book Artist 1 (Spr 1998), Charlton and DC editor Dick Giordano said, "I wouldn't take the Publisher's Statement numbers to church. I'm not sure where they came from but I'll tell you one thing I know for sure - because I can't get in trouble. At Charlton, they just made them up."
However, even with those caveats in place, things were about to change.
The first change was that Dell raised their cover price in March 1961 - ironically, the same month that the Statement for 1960 was printed in - from 10 cents to 15 cents. A whopping 50% price-hike couldn't have gone down well with the little tykes who bought Disney and tv-tie in titles. The only rationale I can think of is that perhaps Dell believed their comics were a parental buy, and adults wouldn't see much of a problem in a five-cent bump. But they were wrong.
|DC's Superman family titles continued to rule the sales charts in 1962, holding the top four slots. Marvel's highest titles were Life (Modelling) with Millie and Tales to Astonish.|
|The highest sellers in 1963 were Dennis the Menace and Archie. A long way behind, Marvel's two top sellers were Rawhide Kid and Kid Colt Outlaw. Tales to Astonish had bounced back to around 185,000, about 10,000 copies behind the two western titles.|
So it's not like publishers didn't know that raising the cover price of a magazine was a sure way to shed a huge chunk of their readership.
And if any more proof were needed, look at the case of Classics Illustrated. The series had started out in 1941, adapting literary classics to comic book format. They would then reprint regularly, some editions staying in print for over 25 years. Despite the fact that they had no new script and artwork costs, they continued to raise the prices of their comics. In 1941, they were charging 10 cents for a 52-page package. Some time around 1958, they raised the price for the same book to 15 cents - three years before Dell's price-hike. Finally, in 1968, the price of a Classics Illustrated comic went to 25 cents. It was a step too far, and within months Classics Illustrated was out of business.
AND ... BACK TO DCBy 1965, DC was beginning to report on sales again. Superman was still top of the heap with reported sales of over 800k, but the other DC titles that disclosed sales were starting to look shaky. Yes, they held eight of the top ten slots, but Gold Key were in severe decline and Marvel's split-title comics were gaining ground, up about 50,000 copies per month to around 230k each. Fantastic Four and Spider-Man had no Publisher's Statements that year, but they were almost certainly doing better.
But more important than this was the sell-through rate.
As described above, comics were on sale-or-return. This meant that any comics that weren't sold by the retailers could be returned - sometimes just the torn-off logo - for credit. Typically, a comic needed about a 50% sell-through to stay in profit. Below that, and the title was in trouble.
"Marvel was doing very well," Carmine Infantino told Comic Book Marketplace in 2000. "We knew it because DC - Independent News - was handling Marvel at the time and their numbers were coming in. Marvel had books like Spider-Man coming in at 70, 80, even 85 percent sales. And we had books coming in at 40, 41, 42 percent. Something was wrong and they [the management] didn't know how to fix it."
Even though it wasn't terribly difficult to identify what was different about Stan Lee's approach to comics, the DC editors either couldn't see it or didn't care. "[They] were so institutionalised, coming off all these wonderful accomplishments, taking credit for the invention of the superhero and maintaining it, and acting like no one else could do a superhero as well as they did," explained DC editor Joe Orlando in Comic Book Artist 1 (1998). "They were getting their asses kicked in by Marvel at the newsstand, and they were not reading the Marvel books, never analysing or trying to figure out what the competition was doing. They treated their competitor with total contempt." Orlando had tried - and failed - to do comics with Stan Lee a few years earlier, so he should have been able to explain it to the DC brass. There's no record of him trying.
Someone who did try was Doom Patrol scripter Arnold Drake. The writer had crafted a memo to DC publisher Irwin Donenfeld in February 1966, warning the DC brass of the danger posed by Marvel Comics.
Drake's memo made a brave attempt to get his publisher to understand why Marvel was making inroads, but still missed the mark. He described how Marvel was aiming at an older demographic, and suggested that DC introduce three tiers of comics - Weisinger's Superman family titles would be for the little kids; Julius Schwartrz's Green Lantern and Flash books would be for the pre-teens, and Doom Patrol and other titles like it would be for the high school and college crowd. But this still failed to analyse how Stan Lee was appealing to a wider audience than National ... and how DC could replicate it.
Even so, the DC management were dismissive. "You're full of shit as a Christmas turkey," was Donenfeld's reply, according to Drake. "We outsell them 3 - 1!" Yet Roy Thomas and John Romita both have said that DC management was having meetings about Marvel, trying to figure out why they were gaining sales so fast, as early as the summer of 1965.
DC/National "had decided that Marvel’s secret was the 'bad drawing' of guys like Kirby and Ditko," said Roy Thomas in Alter Ego 17. "The fact that Drake’s memo was given short shrift even half a year later shows much about the mindset at the time."
In the end, DC Editorial Director Irwin Donenfeld must have conceded that something was wrong, because he ordered that, as of the February 1966 issues (on sale December 1965), DC would sport an identifying banner across the covers - the Go-Go Checks.
"What a ridiculous thing," Carmine Infantino told A Complete History of American Comic Books. "It was the stupidest thing we ever heard because the books were bad in those days and that showed people right off what not to buy."
And there, Infantino hit on exactly what the problem was. DC books "were bad in those days". And with all the evidence readily available, this seems like it was on DC's radar by the second half of 1965 at the latest. So though Donenfeld stated that DC were "outselling Marvel 3 - 1", in February 1966 ... that should have been based on the numbers for 1964, as he wouldn't have had 1965's sales figures at that point.
Carmine Infantino told The Comics Book Artist (1998) how publishers got their sales figures. "The first numbers would come in after three months. Then at six months you'd get final sales figures, and one year later, you'd get final, final sales." So Infantino - publisher of DC Comics - is saying he wouldn't know the full results for a year until the end of the following year, because wholesalers would still be finding comics to return down the back of the sofa, or wherever.
So, all of these sales numbers quoted above - taken from the Publishers' Statements - aren't hugely reliable. Because they're not the sales figures. They're publishers' estimates. How can you report the sales figures for 1965 in the April 1966 comics? It can't be done, because at that point, you wouldn't know.
It certainly wouldn't be what advertisers would use when booking ad space. If you're an ad agency, looking to reach a certain number of people for your client's advertising dollars, you want to know for sure how many readers will see your magazine ad. Because your client is going to ask you.
And that's where ABC figures come in.
SO, HOW MANY COPIES DO YOUR COMICS REALLY SELL?In the magazine business - where I spent half my working life - advertising is a significant source of income for publishers. And how much you can charge for your advertising space hinges largely on how many copies you sell. There are other factors, too ... like demographics (who buys your magazine, broken down by age, income and so forth). But mostly it's copies sold.
Now, an advertiser isn't just going to take your word for it. They need some third party to verify your sales, so they can be sure they're reaching the numbers of their target audience they need to to sell their product. You know, like some sort of Bureau that Audits Circulations. Then, when you've got all that information, you could publish it in some sort of British Rate And Data directory, so that advertisers could refer to it.
And that's exactly what we had. The Audit Bureau of Circulations gathered all the sales information and then published it in a guide called BRAD. They also included the magazine's advertising rates and page sizes, so that the agencies would know what dimensions their print ads should be made up to and how much they would be paying for them. Both ABC and BRAD are online now and you can find them easily via Google.
Likewise, the United States, they too had an Audit Bureau of Circulations, though their directory was known as N.W. Ayer and Sons Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals, which also contained circulation information.
The key difference was that the numbers circulated by the ABC, through trade publications like BRAD and Ayer, were were audited. That means an independent accounting firm looked through all the numbers and determined what a magazine's actual sales were, then affirmed it in a legal document. Because, to claim your sales were higher than they were would be fraud and, in both the US and the UK, you go to jail for that kind of thing. Mostly.
So, while casting around for ABC numbers for Marvel and DC, I came across a bit of research by Jon Hoyle. He had applied to the ABC in the US and got ABC figures for Marvel and DC from 1950 to 1987. I'm only concerned here with the years 1965 - 1968, as this is when I think the tables turned for DC and Marvel. Now granted, he could have made them up - and it would cost me $50 per half year to order the same data from ABC to prove it one way or the other - but why would he? Besides, I was able to find some page scans from the Ayer guide for 1963, and they confirm Jon Hoyle's figures.
|Here's the two relevant pages from the N.W. Ayer & Sons Directory, 1963 edition. On the left, National Comics Group, and on the right, Marvel Comics Group. Click on the image to enlarge.|
And here's a snapshot of Mr Hoyle's numbers, as posted in rec.arts.comics.dc.universe. The "Full Year Average" and "Difference" columns I added myself, the Difference being how many more comics per month Marvel was selling in percentage terms (obviously a negative percentage signifies fewer copies sold).
|1st HALF||2nd HALF||FULL YEAR AVERAGE||DIFFERENCE|
The circulation figures for both companies match the scans from the N.W. Ayer Guide for the first half of 1962. Consequently, I think we can safely assume that the remaining numbers are also accurate. So when DC publisher Irwin Donenfeld hair-dryered Arnold Drake back in the February of 1966, his information was out of date. DC might have been out-selling Marvel 3 - 1 ... in 1960! But it doesn't look like they were doing anything like so well by 1965.
So, what does all this prove? Well, nothing, really. I'm sure that there is some fundamental difference between the way the Audit Bureau of Circulation arrives at its figures for how many copies of all its magazines a publisher sells in a given month and how the publishers themselves estimate it. But I don't have enough insight into their processes to offer an informed explanation. But what I do know is that there enough evidence here to throw some reasonable doubt on the story of how Martin Goodman reversed his price rise decision and threw DC Comics into disarray. That, I don't think is true.
|Daniel's 1991 book carries a notice in the imprint that all material in it (meaning not just the reproduced artwork) is copyright Marvel Entertainment Group. So ... not the unbiased impartial account you might think it to be.|
Even though we now know that it was DC that initiated the price hike to 25 cents for 52 pages, both companies had been experimenting with the 25 cent cover price for anything up to a year before, but Marvel tried it first.
|Why did Kid Colt Outlaw go to giant-size for three months in 1966? Perhaps Martin Goodman was testing the waters. But in 1970, he tried again with a couple of 25 cent titles, both also reprint.|
|Like Martin Goodman, Carmine Infantino was trying out bigger, more expensive comics with some of his b-list and c-list titles. These must have sold okay, because within a few months DC had upped its entire line to 52 pages for a quarter.|
|The first three DC 100-Pagers were part of a stand-alone run. All reprint, but a hundred pages for 50 cents seemed like a pretty good deal.|
It would take Marvel until 1974 to respond with their own line of Giant-Size comics - 68 pages of mostly new material for 50 cents. Giant-Size Man-Thing remains a favourite to this day. The experiment wasn't a success and the final Giant-Size issues became reprint. None lasted beyond six issues.
|Here's the two Bullpen Bulletin Pages, if you want to read the full text yourself ... |
just click on the image to enlarge to reading size.
|I wonder whether this was some sort of try-out for the combined Iron Man / Daredevil title that Stan mentioned in the Bullpen Bulletins.The timing seems to make sense as the lineup change kicked off in Oct 1970 and ended in Nov 1971.|
Then, two months later, Stan was forced to print a retraction. He brushed it off as having to do with financial matters that we Marvelites wouldn't understand or care about, then went on to say that the new try-out titles, Marvel Feature, Marvel Spotlight and Marvel Premiere would all be giant-size 25 cent titles. Except Marvel Premiere wasn't. And it was announced that Astonishing Tales and Amazing Adventures would feature full-length stories of Ka-Zar and The Inhumans respectively. They didn't.
Confusion was rife in the Bullpen, and it seemed that nobody knew what the plan was supposed to be. If this truly was the first time Marvel began to outsell DC, then it was more dumb luck than design. Because it certainly didn't look like Martin Goodman knew what he was doing.
However, there does appear to be strong evidence that Marvel's sales may have overtaken DC's even earlier than this. Especially give Carmine Infantino's assertion that no publisher knew the final sales figures of a comic until at least a year after its on-sale date.
After all this number-crunching, I'm going to tackle something lighter with my blog entry for May ...
Next: My Top Ten favourite DC Silver Age comics