Box Office Lexicon: Is Hollywood Today Really Driven By Comic Book Fans?

Comic book sales numbers tell an interesting story about modern moviegoing trends.

by | August 2, 2013 | Comments

We see references every day to, in one way or another, this being the age of the comic book fan. Six of this summer’s action movies (Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, RED 2, R.I.P.D., The Wolverine, and the upcoming Kick-Ass 2) were all based upon characters that originally appeared in comic books. Likewise, three of the top 10 grossing films of all time (The Avengers, Iron Man 3, and The Dark Knight Rises) hold that distinction. One group of facts and figures, however, suggests that the image of “comic book fan” dominance is far, far from a true reality.

Iron Man 3

We all know by now that Iron Man 3 opened on May 3, 2013 to ridiculous numbers, earning $174 million by the end of its opening weekend, and worldwide, the gross is over $1.196 billion. What is almost unreported is that for the same month, Marvel Comics did a big story reboot of the Iron Man comic book with issue #9, subtitled “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark.” These sorts of story events are fairly common, the idea being that, for the release of a big movie, the corresponding comic book will start a new story to attract moviegoers to start reading the comic. However, only 78,006 copies of Iron Man #9 (the April 2013 issue) were sold in North American comic book shops (AKA the “direct sales” market) (up from 43,974 copies the previous month). Figures for sales in non-direct sales stores (Barnes and Noble, etc) are not available. There is a shocking disparity between that number and the opening of Iron Man 3. The average ticket price for the first three months of 2013 was $7.96, but since Iron Man 3 was available in 3D and IMAX, let’s just add $5 and a few pennies to give us an average ticket price of $13 (you’ll see very soon why this math doesn’t really need to be precise). Taking that $13 ticket price into the $394.9 million that Iron Man 3 has earned in domestic box office, we get something around 30 million Iron Man 3 tickets sold, and 13.4 million tickets on opening weekend alone.

Admittedly, this is all a lot of math to process. And maybe that’s why the press doesn’t address issues like this often. Now that we’ve taken a short break from arithmetic, let’s dive back down into the mix. By now, it should be obvious that there is something seriously odd about the gap between Iron Man the comic book and Iron Man 3 the movie. Let’s say your local movie cineplex movie theater has about 300 seats. Each one of those 78,006 issues of Iron Man #9 represent about 172 of those 13.4 million tickets sold in the U.S. on opening weekend. So, if someone who actually went on to buy an actual copy of Iron Man #9 in a comic book shop looked around him in a movie theater filled to maximum capacity, statistically, there’s about a 50% chance that no one else in that movie theater would share that distinction. If his local theater had four screens devoted to Iron Man 3, and five screenings a day, amidst all those thousands of moviegoers, there were probably only about 20-30 people who went on to buy Iron Man #9 later in May. Of course, we’re just talking about opening weekend. The numbers get even scarcer when you apply the same math to the total domestic box office of $394.9 million, and the 30 million tickets they represent. The box office numbers get bigger, but we’re still only talking about 78,006 comic book sales. In those numbers, each sold copy of Iron Man #9 correlates to over 384 Iron Man 3 movie tickets.

Man of Steel

Ah, but you say, Man of Steel just opened to big numbers, and everyone knows that Superman is a much more popular comic book character than Iron Man. Back in 2008, after all, all the press was about how Iron Man was an obscure B (or C) level character. And Superman, well, he’s Superman. The math is quite similar: The domestic box office take for Man of Steel for the first four days (the three day weekend plus the Thursday night sneaks) was $128.68 million. We now have the comic book sales figures for the month of June, during which DC Comics dominated with the #1 and #2 comics both devoted to the character (Superman Unchained #1 and Batman Superman #1). The effort to tie in Man of Steel with those two comics was much more successful, bringing in sales of 251,456 and 143,457 issues, respectively, though there’s a good chance those comics were frequently bought by the same person. But just to prove a point, let’s add the figures together for a total of 394,913 hypothetical Superman comic book buyers in June. Using the same estimated $13 ticket prices, we arrive at something like 9.75 million tickets sold for Man of Steel domestically that opening weekend. So, doing the math again, we find that each of those copies that bear Superman’s name each represent about, at best, 24.7 tickets for Man of Steel. Of all of those people enjoying the Big Blue Boy Scout* and his colorful “based on a comic book” adventures this weekend, and in each crowded theater, probably only about a dozen of them, on average, actually bought one of the most recent Superman comic books.

The Avengers

Ah, you say, but neither of these movies was as successful as The Avengers, and that movie had some of Marvel’s most popular heroes, all in one. However, the fact that The Avengers enjoyed such a bigger domestic opening weekend ($207.3 million) actually just reinforces our point. Let’s turn the way-back machine to April, 2012, when Marvel Comics was deep into their “Avengers vs X-Men” event. Let’s be very generous, and include the top ten comic books that month that featured the Avengers, or even the individual members in the movie: Avengers Vs X-Men #2 (158,650), AVX Vs #1 (103,436), Avengers #25 (65,664), New Avengers #24 (64,533), New Avengers #25 (61,950), Avengers Assemble #2 (53,024), Secret Avengers #26 (49,842), Incredible Hulk #7 (42,135), Captain America #10 (41,474), and Secret Avengers #25 (38,466). (The top selling comics starring Iron Man and Thor didn’t even crack the top 50 that month.) Adding the number for those ten comics together, we get a grand total of 679,174 comic books. And at $13 a ticket, we can estimate something like 15.95 million tickets sold for The Avengers on opening weekend. So, in this very accommodating approach, we can say that each copy of the ten most popular Avengers-related comics that previous month represented about 23 movie tickets for The Avengers. That would seem much closer, except, it’s extremely unlikely that one can presume a one-for-one ratio between comic books sold and actual purchasers. The average person who bought one of those comics probably bought at least a few others as well (though, again, we have no way of knowing for sure). So, it might be more accurate to say that each person buying one or some of those comics represents about a hundred people who saw The Avengers on opening weekend. Our hypothetical moviegoer in this scenario isn’t by himself on opening weekend now; he’s with maybe one or two other people… surrounded by 297 people who didn’t buy any of those comics. Not that much more reassuring.

What It All Means (If Anything)

So, what does this all mean? Breaking news! People don’t actually buy that many comic books. It’s not a thriving industry in comparison to movies, television, or video games. Comic book publishing today is a teeny tiny little business. How do we explain, then, the success of movies like The Avengers, Iron Man 3, or Man of Steel? Is it correct to call the millions who saw those movies in theaters “comic book fans?” Or is it far more accurate to say that they are “superhero fans?” There’s obviously something also to be said for those who are just “Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man fans” or “fans of big bombastic action scenes,” as seen in Man of Steel. And yet, the myth of the “comic book fan” is pervasive in pop culture today. There’s a cachet inherent with identifying oneself with being a comic book fan; it’s cool to do so. The lead characters on the CBS hit comedy The Big Bang Theory regularly mention that they enjoy comic books, for example. Earlier this month at San Diego Comic-Con, huge crowds of good looking young people dressed up as popular characters from movies, cartoons, and yes, comic books. In the year 2013, it’s quite de rigueur to say that you’re a comic book fan. However, as the numbers at a site like ComicChron suggest, there’s a disconnect between perception and the realities of publishing statistics.

So, what’s the take away from all of this, really? Comic books are not what people are really fascinated by when they go see a movie like this past weekend’s Man of Steel, or last year’s The Avengers. Perhaps, quite bluntly, people need to stop saying that any of those movies’ success has anything to do with comic books. If people want to discuss the popularity of superheroes, that’s actually a completely valid — but separate — conversation to have. The myth, however, that there’s some sort of wave of comic book reading people (well, guys, it’s always a male stereotype) out there driving the success of movies, isn’t true, and may never have been true. In the end, it might just be that technology has finally caught up. We can now see in live action what used to be only possible springing forth from the imaginations of a small group of artists working with pencil, ink, and paper.

Most of the sales figures for this column came from ComiChron, a comic book sales tracking website run and written by John Jackson Miller, a comics industry historian and analyst, author and comics writer. His latest prose novel Star Wars: Kenobi comes out August 27, 2013. You can contact Greg Dean Schmitz on Facebook.

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