Look, don’t bust me on the math, I’m writing this late and I’m tired.

§ August 13th, 2021 § Filed under retailing § 14 Comments

So Image Comics sent out a press release ballyhooing the immense order numbers for the imminent release of King Spawn #1:

“The recent launch of Todd McFarlane’s new monthly comic book, King Spawn #1, has shattered sales records. With just under a half-million pre-orders by comic stores retailers, this marks the single largest new superhero monthly title launch in the comic book industry in the past 25 years based on the standard sales formula of the comic book industry (non-returnable, non-retailer exclusive sales).”

Hi! I’m a comics retail critter what lived through the excesses of the 1990s. I’ve got a few words to say about this event.

Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, is quoted in the release thusly:

“‘The numbers that came in were much higher than what I had projected. With sales that now have a historical impact in our industry. It proves that the character Spawn and the world he lives in still resonates to fans almost thirty years after I first introduced him.'”

If I may offer a counter conjecture…I believe the high sales (nailed down to 497,000 elsewhere in the release) can be primarily attributed to the 1-in-250 edition of the book signed by McFarlane. In other words (for those new to this) a store has to order 250 copies of the normal covers in order to have the option to purchase the autographed copy.

Looking at recent-ish Spawn sales on Comichron, it appears sales on the title are generally in the 35,000 range, though #293 at the beginning of 2019 was about 25,000. Now, #300 topped over 260,000, driven by multiple covers and, at least in my experience, duplicate purchases of those covers. This issues also seemed to be one of those at least lightly targeted by the current and mercurial speculator market, given the number of advance orders I received from customers for specific, and multiple, covers. Plus, it was a three hundredth issue, heavily hyped, which can boost not just retailer orders, but actual customer purchases.

The following issue, #301, was also hyped as a special issue, which goosed the sales a bit as well (about 186,000). Oversized issues, multiple covers, supposedly surpassing Cerebus‘s number of issues (though technically Cerebus only had 299 individual issues in its run, with “#112/#113” being a single publication…let the nit-picking pedantry begin!). EDIT: BobH points out Cerebus had another double-issue, so that’s 298 individual publications in the main run.

Orders remain higher than normal for 302, at over 50,000, but was back down to the normal 35,000 or so range afterwards. So, under normal circumstances, that is about our normal level for orders on Spawn. I suspect most retailers are ordering just about what they can sell on each regular issue, with not much variation from month to month (outside the outliers noted above). Each issue of late has had three to four covers, and there is a non-zero percentage of fans who buy more than one cover (something I’ve been going on about in detail in my variant cover-age series of posts, starting here).

From all this we can guesstimate the number of actual readers (or at least collectors) who consistently pick up Spawn. And it ain’t a half million people.

Spawn’s Universe #1, released a couple of months ago and the first of this new line of Spawn spin-offs, also had order numbers much higher than your typical Spawn issue. The press release states that “the first issue of King Spawn beat that number [of Spawn’s Universe #1 orders] by two and a half times,” which puts Spawn Universe at just shy of 200,000.

A look at sold eBay listings shows Spawn Universe #1, which has a cover price of $5.99, regularly selling for less than that…several in the four to five dollar range, the occasional copy for $1.99, and yes, a few for about $7 or so, with the occasional outlier in either direction. That tells me this is a comic unburdened by scarcity. Retailers ordered high (given the number of variant covers, and no idea which one would be the “hot” one of choice, it’s no surprise) and likely had copies left over. Hence, you get what is effectively clearance prices online, trying to move excess stock…not premium pricing in a seller’s market, where demand drives up pricing on limited supply.

This post is basically a long, winding road to say “there’s gonna be a shitload of King Spawn #1s in the marketplace.” That’s not to say it won’t sell an enormous number to customers. There are multiple covers, many sales will involve the purchase of more than one cover, and more people will be attracted to this new first Spawn issue than normally read Spawn.

But like I said above, the main impetus for these sales is almost certainly the 1-in-250 edition signed by McFarlane. Going by the provided order numbers, that’s just under 2,000 copies to which ol’ Todd has to apply his John Hancock. And I’m sure the cost of 250 copies (or the balance of 250 copies above what a store was already ordering) is probably worth it to get their hands on that signed comic, which will be slabbed and put up for sale for thousands of dollars.

Did I take the bait, and get one o’them signed funnybooks? I wasn’t planning to, but I had a customer who had to have it, and we knocked out a deal where, without going into too much detail, the numbers and money involved worked out for everybody. Does this mean I’m going to have way more King Spawn #1s than I planned on being able to sell? Yup…look, I’m a small comic shop, surrounded on all sides by other comic shops, some of whom I’m sure also bit the bullet and got themselves a signed copy. There’s going to be no shortage of King Spawn locally. Do I have a plan to unload them anyway? Sure I do…I mean, I suppose I could have made the guy ordering the autographed copy take a bunch, but…nah, he didn’t really want them, and I can use ’em, I think.

I’m sure I’m not the only store that did this, though I’m sure there are plenty of stores in bigger cities or with more robust mail order divisions who sneer at a mere 250 copies, and can move them easily. But overall, given what we’ve seen in regards to current market tolerance for special issues of Spawn…we’re probably looking at a couple hundred thousand more copies at least than can be easily absorbed.

Do I want it to sell well? Of course I do. Maybe a half million people will suddenly decide they need to see this new Spawn comic. Or maybe ~71,000 customers will buy each of the seven standard variants (and ~10,000 people will buy the 1-in-50 variants). Or maybe not. But certainly it’s going to sell outrageous amounts to customers.

And even when sales dip back down to regular numbers, that’s still four (yes, four…there’s another Spawn spin-off coming) comics instead of one, possibly a net gain. You know, minus the people who say “look, I could follow one Spawn comic, but not four, I’m dropping everything.” Think that doesn’t happen? I’ve been in this business 33 years…I’ve seen it happen. Plenty of times. Over and over again.

Anyway, that press release of Image’s doesn’t look like the crowning achievement they seem to think it is. It looks like the 1990s, where Marvel trumpeted their X-Men #1 orders, and their X-Force #1 orders, without mentioning how many ended up being warehoused, buried in storage lockers and occasionally being dragged out into daylight and into shops like mine to unload. I am sure no one’s hoping for that fate, but…well, let’s be realistic. They claim success, but retailers can’t help but see the cloud in that silver lining.

14 Responses to “Look, don’t bust me on the math, I’m writing this late and I’m tired.”

  • Tim says:

    You know what this reminds me of?

    In Australia, the AFL Grand Final is our equivalent of the Superbowl, and would sell out the 100,000 capacity several times over.

    Each of the teams in the competition (there are 18) gets a complimentary allocation of 1,000 tickets.

    To circumvent the anti-scalping laws, the clubs sell a ‘package’ for $1,000.00+ which includes a breakfast, a speech and a Grand Final Ticket.

    But everyone knows that they’re basically selling a ticket, and the overhead on the rest is just a written-of cost.

    Similiarly here, Todd is basically saying – for the wholesale cost of 250 comics, you can get a signed copy to onsell. But he’s not *actually* selling 250 comics in the meaningful sense of the word.

  • Matthew Murray says:

    I’ve talked to retailers who’ve said they wish they could order the number of copies to get the incentive covers but only actually receive what they’ll sell. Like, they’re happy to order the 250 to get the autographed copy, but they’d rather only get 50 (or whatever) copies even if they paid for the ones they didn’t receive. A very strange situation!

  • BobH says:

    Just to nitpick further, there was another double issue of CEREBUS in the last year (https://www.comics.org/issue/175261/) so it was really a 298 issue series.

  • ArghSims says:

    “It proves that the character Spawn and the world he lives in still resonates to fans almost thirty years after I first introduced him.’”

    He resonates so much that nobody even bothers putting data in about the books on the Grand Comics Database now. Check out the credits in the mid-200 issues. None listed, just cover scans and editor listed (McFarlane)

  • Brian says:

    An origami artist clearly needs to get a hold of all the extra copies floating around to fold into a functional King Spawn Throne…

  • Jack says:

    So would you say then that Todd McFarlane’s signature is…advantageous?

    I’ll see myself out.

  • …Only logging in to comment that I read that as “King Prawn”…

  • Thom H. says:

    I read an interview with McFarlane recently where he described how he’s going to overtake the Avengers’ popularity by creating a Spawn superteam: King Spawn, Gunslinger (Spawn with guns and 10-gallon hat), Lady Spawn (Spawn as a woman, I guess), and presumably regular-flavor Spawn. He’s apparently going the “superhero universe” route, but only with different versions of the one character. He must believe his own PR and think everyone wants this?

  • misterjayem says:

    I’m holding out for a Legion of Substitute Spawns.

    — MrJM

  • JohnJ says:

    The action figure business must have taken a hit recently if Todd’s concentrating on the comics again.
    Either that or he’s got his eye on some baseballs someone hit over a fence recently. Remember, when he invested in all of those “steroid balls”?
    Maybe he has to raise some capital to pay off the settlements he lost to Gaiman??

  • Thom H. says:

    @MrJM: Arm Fall-Off Spawn, Chlorophyll Spawn, Porcupine Spawn…

  • Magilla Gojira says:

    “Variant covers are one thing, but some of the incentive requirements for current comics border on ridiculous. They put a lot of undue pressure on retailers, and as with the retailer exclusive covers, they don’t actually grow sales. There’s always going to be a certain amount of speculation, that’s just the nature of the marketplace, but feeding into that with things like 1-in-5,000 sketch covers or incentives that require stores to increase their orders by as much as 150% to get variants borders on taking advantage of retailers and collectors alike and again, it doesn’t actually grow sales in the long run” – Eric Stephenson, Publisher of Image Comics, from a Bleeding Cool interview in 2015.

  • Andrew Davison says:

    Could you expand in a post on how being “surrounded on all sides by other comic shops” affects your business plans?

  • Snark Shark says:

    “It looks like the 1990s”

    It looks EXACTLY like the 90’s! And I still see copies of X-Men #1 & X-Force #1 EL CHEAPO every now and then.

    Also, that 5.99 cover price? YIKES.