You might have heard that there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle over what was actually the bestselling comic last month—but the real question isn’t whether it matters if Marvel’s first issue of Secret Empire or DC’s special issues of Batman and The Flash came out on top. It’s more like, why is it so hard to get accurate figures for comic book sales?
Over the weekend, Diamond Comics Distributors—the primary distributor of comics into the direct market (i.e, comic book stores) across America—revealed its top 300 best selling comics for April 2017. The month saw Marvel launch Secret Empire #0, the opening issue of its blockbuster summer event, and it was number one on Diamond’s list. This was good news for Marvel, which has been in the midst of concerns over declining sales over the last year or so, and a jolt in the arm in the wake of harsh criticism over Secret Empire’s plotline.
Meanwhile, DC’s much anticipated special issues of The Flash and Batman, which kick off a small arc promising revelations about Watchmen’s role in the DC universe, came in behind Secret Empire #0 to place in second, fifth... and seventh, and eleventh.
For a very long time, it has been practically impossible to get solid details on actual comic book sales. Diamond never releases hard numbers—just a top 300 based on the amount ordered, and two lists of publisher rankings measured by the share of individual units ordered in a month and the dollar value of units ordered in a month. But this is also further obfuscated by the way variants of the same comic are counted by Diamond.
Most comics have multiple variant covers, as an enticement for collectors to purchase the same material several times to get different covers or collect a certain set of them. Usually, those variant issues are all bundled as one item on Diamond’s list, because they all cost the same despite having different covers. The reason Flash and Batman had two entries for their #21 issues is because there were special lenticular covers for both; unlike typical variant covers, they cost a dollar extra than their non-lenticular counterparts. So despite still being the same comic, stores had to purchase the lenticular and non-lenticular versions as if they were separate products, leading to the sales for Flash #21 and Batman #21 to be split in Diamond’s final rankings.
John Jackson Miller’s Comichron website made estimates for the overall physical sales figures of Secret Empire #0, Batman #21, and Flash #21—and if you combine his estimated figures for lenticular versions of Batman and Flash with their normal versions, it actually paints a different picture. Secret Empire #0 wasn’t the best selling comic. It wasn’t even second. It came in third. Now, we should stress that Miller’s figures are explicitly estimates rather than hard data—because, as we mentioned, Diamond is pretty much the de facto comics distributor in the U.S. and does not release exact numbers—but then, it makes actually figuring out what sold the most a bafflingly arcane and cumbersome prospect, and one fraught with doubt as we’ll never know truly accurate figures.
And all this doesn’t even begin to factor in the digital sales of comic books. Although it’s estimated that digital sales only make up for a fraction of the comics sold in a year, those sales still matter to the overall industry—and frustratingly, are even more difficult to get figures for than even physical comics already are. The digital sales could flip Secret Empire #0, Batman #21, and Flash #21's positions even more, but we won’t ever know.
So what was the bestselling comic book of April? No one really knows other than people at Marvel and DC. The wider public certainly doesn’t. What we do know, is that it’s pretty ridiculous that it’s so impossible to get solid sales numbers for comic books in a world where we can get them for pretty much every other entertainment medium around.