Wolverine's Death, Spider-Man's Relaunch: What Sold Best in 2014's Comics

Death of Wolverine Variant Cover - P 2014
<p>Death of Wolverine Variant Cover - P 2014</p>   |   Skottie Young/Marvel Entertainment
Marvel dominated the comic book market over the last 12 months

When it came to the North American comic market, 2014 belonged to Marvel without a shadow of a doubt. In fact, of the top 10 comic books of the year, only one wasn’t published by the Disney subsidiary — and even that solitary exception only ended up on the list thanks to a special distribution deal that I’ll get to soon enough.

Here, with sales estimates from John Jackson Miller’s invaluable ComicChron website, are the top 10 comic books of January through November, 2014 (December’s sales data will not be released until mid-January):

Amazing Spider-Man No. 1 (532,586), April
Walking Dead No. 132 (326,334) October
Rocket Raccoon No. 1 (293,913) July
Death of Wolverine No. 1 (261,975) September
Death of Wolverine No. 4 (165,582) October
Thor No. 1 (150,862) October
Original Sin No. 1 (147,045) May
Death of Wolverine No. 3 (141,567) October
Avengers and X-Men: Axis No. 1 (138,966) October
Amazing Spider-Man No. 9 (135,280) November

There are, of course, some things to point out before we go any further. First, these are sales estimates not to readers, but to comic book stores — and only to those within North America, because that’s the only information Diamond Comic Distributors releases publicly. This means that the data can be — and, in fact, is skewed by a number of factors, not least of which are ordering incentives put in place by publishers that require that a certain number of copies are ordered by stores in order to achieve a specific discount, or bulk purchases on behalf of a third party, as is the case for both the second- and third-best selling comics of the year.

Both Walking Dead No. 132 and Rocket Raccoon were part of the Loot Crate promotions for their respective months, meaning that orders were bumped by however many subscribers that month’s crate had. (The content of crates isn’t disclosed ahead of time; as the company responsible describes it, each crate is “a themed mystery box” of goodies.) In other words, it’s not as if retailers across America collectively suddenly decided to up their orders on the 132nd issue of Walking Dead by a couple of hundred thousand copies, only to drop it again the very next month.

Despite the above, there’s still much to be drawn from the above list. Firstly, Marvel is crushing the competition when it comes to big, splashy launches. If you took the Walking Dead and Rocket Raccoon issues out as skewed data because of the Loot Crate connection, the list would still remain 90 percent Marvel dominance (Death of Wolverine No. 2 and Batman: Futures End No. 1 would take the ninth and 10th spots, respectively), which is genuinely impressive. It’s worth focusing on the word “launches” there, because of the 10 titles, six of them are first issues. “New,” it seems, is still enough of an attention grabber for retailers to gamble their dollars in hopes that customers will want to sample the series.

Or, at least, quasi-gamble. Look again at the list: every single one is centered around an existing property that has significant media presence already (Original Sin, which might look entirely unfamiliar, was a Marvel event series that featured the Avengers, Wolverine and Guardians of the Galaxy). The same is true for each individual month’s top 10 titles; the only titles to appear on a top 10 throughout the year that don’t center around transmedia properties are Sandman: Overture — which is in the process of being adapted into a movie — and The Multiversity, which includes appearances by alternate versions of Superman, Batman and the Justice League. (Interestingly enough, promotion for both titles centered around their writers, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, both of whom might be considered the known media properties for the projects.)

Read more Heat Vision's Top 10 Films of 2014

It’s worth noting that next month’s Star Wars No. 1 is not only set to be the biggest launch in comics for the last decade — Marvel has confirmed that orders for the issue have topped a million — it is seemingly the perfect storm of current comic order trends: a Marvel title, a new launch and one of the most known media properties around. All that is needed to complete the set is for it to appear in January’s Loot Crates … and, let’s be honest, it’d almost be surprising if it doesn’t show up there sooner or later.

So what can be said about the comic market in 2014, judging by its biggest hits? It’s conservative, sure, but also in step with larger cultural trends — had Marvel put out as many movies as it did comic books in the last 12 months, who’s to say it wouldn’t dominate the box office in a similar manner? As unhealthy as its reliance on any one publisher may be (and it is, worryingly so), the ease in which the system can be gamed — by third parties like Loot Crate, or even publishers themselves — is more dangerous.

What would happen if a third party decided to order a million copies of a randomly-chosen, obscure independent title for three months in a row — would that create a new market leader as other retailers started upping orders to keep up with perceived demand, or simply disrupt the system? It’s difficult to say, but for any multimillionaires out there looking to break Marvel’s stranglehold on comics in 2015, there’s one simple way to find out. …