Author’s Note: I researched, wrote, and published this article on other platforms in December 2019. I’m re-posting it here, because I believe it fits in nicely with the content and purpose of The STEM Sessions – to show anything can be explored with a STEM approach, even things like comic books. This research involved significant data analysis and examination of causation vs correlation – important skills for us to develop. I hope you find it educational. — Jarl Cody
It’s long been my contention that comic book movies have no economic impact on the sales of comic books in the direct market, i.e. comic book stores. My opinion has been supported only by anecdotal evidence from my time as the owner of a comic book store and by my observations as a reader and fan. But starting with this article, I’m backing up my claim with real statistics from the direct market.
Before we look at the numbers, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- I’m compiling data found on comichron.com which gets its raw data from Diamond – the monopolistic distributor from which all comic book stores order their books – and there’s always a possibility of introduced errors when you’re pulling from a secondary source.
- The numbers reported by Diamond are the number of copies ordered by comic book stores, not the number of comic book sold to readers.
- Comic book stores place their orders with Diamond roughly two months before the book arrives in stores. That means, the books a retailer orders in August will hit shelves in October.
- The “Final Order” in the charts is short for “Final Order Cut-off” or FOC. Barring issues at the publisher, printer, or distributor, a retailer will receive the number of copies he ordered at FOC.
- The “reorder” shown in the charts are additional copies ordered after FOC. The ability to reorder comics is dependent on Diamond having copies leftover. Reorders may be placed months after the book is released, but to simplify the charts, I’m ignoring that. The reorder data is likely incomplete, as Diamond only reported the Top 300 books ordered until recent years in which they expanded to the Top 500. Reorders are often outside of the Top 300.
- I’m only looking at Marvel movies in this analysis, because they are clearly the most popular comic book movies. DC and other properties will be looked at later.
- I’m also only looking at orders for on-going monthly comic books. Analysis of trade paperbacks and graphic novels will be performed at a later date.
Now, let’s determine what trends we should see in the data if comic book movies brought more customers to comic book stores.
If the retailer anticipates the movie’s opening, he’ll increase his order for that month and the next two months in anticipation of new customers. For example, if Iron Man opens in May, a retailer would increase his order for the May, June, and maybe July, all of which need to be ordered before the movie is released.
If his sales increased due to new customers, then orders for the subsequent months will also be increased. And the result will be higher average sales than before the movie was released.
In this option, the retailer doesn’t increase orders ahead of the movie. Instead, he responds to the extra demand by reordering copies in the months after the movie is released, and increasing his FOC order at the next opportunity.
If Iron Man opens in May, the retailer would reorder copies in May, June, and maybe July, and increase FOC in August (or maybe July) and all months going forward.
And as in option A, if sales increased because of new customers, then the average number of copies ordered after the movie release will be higher than before the movie.
Enough set-up. Let’s look at the numbers in chronological order of movie release. In the charts, the vertical blue dashed line represents when the movie was released.
Iron Man – released May 2, 2008
At first glance, this data appears to support both scenarios. Not only were orders increased for the month the movie was released, there are also reorders for those books. Plus, the post-movie average orders are roughly 25% higher than then pre-movie orders.
Yet, complicating the matter is the fact that Marvel decided to relaunch the Iron Man title with a new #1 issue the same month the movie was released. #1 issues always see a dramatic spike in orders and also typically see reorders. Therefore, the impact of the movie cannot be separated from the impact of the relaunch, and no conclusions can be made.
The data clearly shows increased orders the month the movie
Captain America: The First Avenger – released July 19, 2011
As with Iron Man, the Captain America data shows a spike in orders the month of the movie release, but without reorders. Unlike Iron Man, the average post-movie order is actually slightly less than the average pre-movie order. Further, Marvel again relaunched the title the same month the movie was released, which means a casual relationship cannot be decoupled.
You’ll notice I included three years of data here instead of two. That’s because in late-2012, Marvel AGAIN relaunched the Captain America title. And AGAIN we see a spike in orders, roughly 3x the previous month. And AGAIN, the long term average orders returned to the pre-relaunch orders.
This data set points to the relaunch having significantly more impact on orders than does the movie release.
The Avengers – released May 4, 2012
Here’s where it gets interesting. The Avengers, the biggest movie of Marvel’s Phase One, had no impact on the orders of the Avengers comic book. No increased orders or reorders are seen in the data. There is a very slight increase in the average order post-movie of about 20%, but that could be due to variant cover incentives or a new storyline, and despite the increase, you can still see the data trending towards pre-movie levels had it not been interrupted by a relaunch.
As with the other relaunches, the order spiked by roughly 3X, and then settled to around 20% higher than before. This is further evidence in favor of relaunches, not movies, increasing orders.
I also looked at the New Avengers title over the same period:
And the data shows the same. No increase in orders due to the movie, but the later relaunch of the title did increase the orders.
Guardians of the Galaxy – released August 1, 2014
Again, no impact from the movie in terms of orders or reorders. But the later relaunch did increase the order for the #1 issue by roughly 2.5X. However, orders for issues 2 and 3 fell back to the pre-relaunch levels.
Ant-man released June 29, 2015
The data for Ant-man is a bit confusing. Ant-Man #5 sees nearly a 3X increase in FOC compared to issue #4, plus another 25% in reorders. The movie hit theaters the month after Ant-man #5 was in stores, so it’s possible retailers were ordering in anticipation of the movie.
To rule out the possibility of Ant-Man #5 being a special issue, I looked up the solicit (what the publisher and distributor use to sell the book to retailers), and here’s what it says (from Marvel.com)
“The explosive first arc finale! There aren’t actually any explosions – but there IS a big showdown with our poorly lit villain, and plenty of heartbreak to go around. Nothing will be the same again! Except you’re still aging. That’s not going anywhere.”
That solicit alone does not explain an FOC increase of that magnitude. So perhaps retailers were anticipating the movie? There was also a four or five month gap between Ant-man #5 and the relaunch of Astonishing Ant-man #1, and oddly, the relaunch had a lower FOC than the previous issue. The relationships just are not clear.
What is very clear, though, is the average order post-movie dropped below the average order pre-movie, so if any new readers existed, they certainly didn’t stick around.
Doctor Strange – released November 4, 2016
This time we see a spike in FOC for issue #12 in stores two months before the movie. This may be due to the solicit:
““BLOOD IN THE AETHER” STARTS NOW! After the Empirikul destroyed almost all the world’s magic and nearly killed Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme must try and build himself back up. Witness the return of BARON MORDO! But what effect did the Empirikul attack have on him?!”
The beginning of a new arc could warrant increased orders, but then the orders immediately drop to levels below the prior storyline, and continue to drop even after the movie is released. The downward trend continues until the “legacy renumbering” causes a one-month increase in orders.
Thor: Ragnarok – released November 3, 2017
The spike in order for the month prior to the movie release is almost certainly attributed to the legacy renumbering gimmick, because the orders return to average in the following months. The increase for #705 is due to the “Death of Thor” solicit, and, of course, the relaunch into Thor #1 produced increased orders.
Black Panther – released February 16, 2018
Even a cultural cinematic milestone such as Black Panther – one that tapped into new demographics – didn’t bring a new audience to comic book stores. A relaunch was required to increase orders, and even then orders immediately returned to average in subsequent months
Captain Marvel – released March 8, 2019
Similar to Black Panther, the new demographic allegedly captured by Captain Marvel did not make it into comic book stores. The new #1 issue, launched two months before the movie, did exceptionally well, but orders for the following issues fell dramatically to roughly 35% of the first issue.
Curiously, the Captain Marvel title saw a higher number of reorders than other books over a longer time period. Given that FOC were consistently in the 30,000s, I’m not sure to what we attribute the reorders. Perhaps retailers were apprehensive to increase their FOC; instead, relying on reorders to fill demand.
Avengers: Infinity War – released April 27, 2018
Avengers: Endgame – released April 26, 2019
Avengers: Endgame (release date indicated by the blue dashed line between issue #18 and #19) is the heavyweight champion of the box office, yet it did NOTHING for comic book sales.
Avengers: Infinity War, released the year prior (indicated by blue dashed line between issue #690 and #1) preceded a 2.5X increase in orders. But that is most likely the result of another well timed relaunch of the comic book. There are high number of reorders after the movie was released, but there is also an equivalent number of reorders of issues #675 thru #684, released well before the movie. Therefore, I don’t believe the movie is responsible.
In examining 11 of the 23 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Infinity Saga and their corresponding comic books, I see no direct evidence to support the claim that box office success translates to increased comic book sales in the month a movie is released or in the two or three months after. Not for insanely popular movies like Avengers: Endgame. Not for demographic expanding movies such as Captain Marvel and Black Panther. Not for the lesser known properties like Ant-Man. And not for any of the “Trinity” – Iron Man, Captain Marvel, and Thor.
All spikes in orders for the month a movie is released is most likely due to Marvel relaunching the title with either a new #1 issue or a legacy renumbering issue. There are numerous examples above of a relaunch increasing orders without a corresponding movie release by the same factor as seen with a corresponding movie release. This tells me the relaunch is the driver.
There is also no direct evidence to suggest comic book movies expand the customer base of the direct market. In fact, there is evidence against this as the post-movie average orders are very similar to the pre-movie average orders, which means there are no new customers.
Again, this study only looks at the Marvel properties and Marvel monthly (on-going) comic books. We still need to analyze the data for Marvel trade paperbacks and graphic novels, and the properties of other publishers. However, I think the trend is clear: Comic book movies do not increase the sales of comic books.