Here’s another look at some sales figures, these ones from the Direct Sales marketplace of comic book specialty shops in June of 1990–the month in which Todd McFarlane’s SPIDER-MAN #1 launched. This document was compiled by Carol Kalish, then the head of Marvel’s Sales Department and an important and largely-forgotten figure in comic book history. Carol passed away suddenly at the age of 36 a year later, in 1991, but without her influence, the Direct Sales Marketplace would have at least had a much tougher time growing into a self-sustaining entity as it is today.
These numbers represent only the portion of the print run of a given title sold into the Direct Market. Most Marvel books were still on the Newsstand in those days, and 40-60% of the sales on a given book might come from those outlets–so all of these numbers are not absolute, they’re all low. The big difference, of course, between the Newsstand and Direct markets is that on the Newsstand, you typically needed to print three copies of a title in order to sell one, with the other two being shipped, displayed, pulled, returned and destroyed, a woefully-inefficient system that is still employed today for mainstream magazines. Orders into the Direct Market, on the other hand, were sold on a non-returnable basis–meaning that if Kalish reported that 217,500 copies of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN had been sold, that was both the quantity that was printed and an indicator of how much revenue was made. There was no significant waste. (There’d be a small amount of overprint to account for books that were damaged in shipping and the like, but nothing like the Newsstand Marketplace.)
If nothing else, these figures show what an absolute monster McFarlane’s SPIDER-MAN series was when it launched. This was right at the beginning of the speculation boom of the 1990s, when individual issues, particularly of titles launching with popular creators at the helm, would sell ridiculous numbers of copies, far more than there were readers. But this spectacular success grew the market, provided a platform for the launch of Image Comics just a couple of years later, and eventually crashed in such a major way as to almost destroy the marketplace completely. We’re still dealing with some of the after-effects of that collapse decades later.