With the overwhelming success of Marvel as not just a comic book company, but as an overall entertainment Juggernaut, it’s hard to imagine a time when they were just a mediocre, struggling player in the comics industry. But in the early 1960s, Marvel – run by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – was trying to compete with the industry giants such as DC (who already had Superman and Batman on their roster), Archie Comics, and Dell Comics (who owned the rights to Mickey Mouse, Uncle Scrooge, Felix the Cat, and all of the Disney characters).
In the very early part of the Silver Age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Marvel chose to try to position themselves with horror and western comics, with marginal success. It wasn’t until Marvel began experimenting with superheroes in the early to mid-1960s that they began to take significant chunks of market share away from DC and other comic producers. At the time, it was an incredibly risky strategy – I mean, how can you possibly compete with freaking Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman? It wasn’t until Marvel unlocked the creativity of Lee and Kirby that they would begin to uncover the secret that would astonish and amaze (puns intended) comic readers for decades to come.
Based on data posted at Comichron, we can for the first time get a glimpse at Marvel’s strategy and how their shift away from horror and western led to them overtaking the market as the calendar flipped into the 1970s. Below is a glance at Marvel’s best selling title in each year of the 1960s, including highlights of those books and what the competition was doing in parallel. Hopefully, Comichron releases data for the 1970s soon, and we can see the full takeover of the market during Marvel’s dominant Bronze Age.
[DISCLAIMER: The Comichron site points out on several occasions that there are surely discrepancies and errors in this data from 60 years ago. From issues such as DC rounding up their sales figures to the nearest thousand to Marvel failing to pull sales records for their earliest superhero titles, it’s hard to imagine that it is 100% accurate. But it is still overwhelmingly useful to discover trends and market preferences when looking at the year over year sales numbers.]
1960-1961- Tales to Astonish (1960: 43rd overall, 1961: 40th overall)
Highlights: The first thing one notices about the year 1960 is how dominant DC and Disney were in the market as each of the first 13 spots of top sales were by DC or Dell comics. Even characters such as Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane who had earned their own books all populated the top 12 for the year. Marvel’s Tales to Astonish title barely makes a dent, showing up at 43rd overall in sales. Tales of Suspense (TOS) checks in at 45th, but it is clear that DC heroes, westerns, and even war comics were all the rage. In 1960, Tales to Astonish (TTA) was entering its second year as purely a horror/sci-fi magazine. TTA issues 7-14 came out that year, including perhaps the most famous TTA title from this early Silver Age, #13 – the first appearance of Groot. Still a long way from being a part of Marvel’s superhero roster, he wouldn’t appear again in an original story until Incredible Hulk Annual #5 in 1976.
In 1961, Archie Comics makes a couple appearances in the top 15, but TTA barely makes a move. Coming in at 40th in sales, the magazine did sell almost 20,000 more copies in 1961 than in 1960. Most of that can be written off to the simple fact that there were 12 issues of TTA in 1961 as opposed to seven in 1960, as TTA was still purely a horror-sci-fi magazine. TOS came in right behind at #41, moving up slightly due to the popularity of some of the experimental characters introduced such as Elektro, Colossus, and Metallo (Iron Man prototype) who would all eventually become more signature Marvel characters. Fantastic Four #1 was introduced at the very end of 1961, so even if Marvel had tracked sales of this first issue, it likely would not have moved the needle for the year as a whole.
1962 – Millie the Model (44th overall)
Highlights: I bet you could win a bar bet with this piece of trivia. Millie the Model was Marvel’s most successful humor magazine that ran from 1945 to 1973 and it had an outlier of a successful run in 1962. TTA and TOS dropped back a little to the late 40s/early 50s, but this year saw Strange Tales (47th) and Journey Into Mystery (48th) make their first appearances on the list. Thor first appeared in Journey Into Mystery (JIM) #83 that year and continued for the rest of the year, likely driving those sales up.
In January 1962, TTA published issue #27, the first appearance of Ant-Man, but he would not appear again until 1963 when he became more of a regular in the title. Most interestingly for this year, Fantastic Four published a full year’s run and Amazing Fantasy #15 came out in August of that year, but Marvel decided not to record or publish sales data for those magazines, a trend that would continue for some unexplained reason until 1966. Also in this year, the Incredible Hulk debuted – seemingly a crossover between the sci-fi and superhero genres – but it famously ended after six issues due to uneven stories and poor performance.
1963 – Rawhide Kid (23rd overall)
Highlights: In 1963, Marvel makes its first significant move in the sales market, holding down every spot from #23-#30 among top overall books. Interestingly the top two titles were Rawhide Kid (#23) and Kid Colt Outlaw (#24), with their sales likely bolstered by TTA, TOS, and JIM all now fully embracing superheroes including Ant-Man, Thor, and Iron Man (who had stories in 10 of 12 TOS issues). 1963 would also see the introduction of Spider-Man’s solo issues in March, including six new mega villains that still define the Marvel universe today. Still, we are three years away from Marvel collecting sales data for Spider-Man or any of their solo heroes. So strange.
Almost as strange is the fact that DC chose not to record sales data for this year, so the Dennis the Menace comic holding down the top spot as well as Marvel’s move up should come with several grains of salt.
1964 – Strange Tales (35th overall)
Highlights: With DC reentering the list after recording some of its sales data in 1964, Marvel still held strong with their four longest-running books all in the 30s: TTA, TOS, JIM, and Strange Tales. But despite having comics now dedicated to Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, X-Men, and Daredevil, these were not recorded in sales so Marvel has no solo superhero books in the top 60 units sold. Both Rawhide Kid (43rd) and Kid Colt Outlaw (44th) had massive drops this year as superhero mania began to sweep over the entire comic landscape.
Elsewhere on the list, TV shows began to influence the popularity of books on the list. The Flinstones show up at number five for the year while The Three Stooges (#9), Bugs Bunny (#10), and Tom and Jerry (#15) help propel Gold Key Comics to eight of the top 15 spots.
1965 – Journey Into Mystery (50th overall)
Highlights: By the year 1965, Marvel’s superhero titles have undoubtedly become the flagship books of the company, but without any sales data published, it looks as though Marvel takes a massive dip. JIM, still featuring Thor through issue #125 in February 1966, would be Marvel’s highest recorded book. TTA lost Giant-Man to the Avengers in 1965, and while it began to feature Sub-Mariner and Hulk, they couldn’t recreate the popularity of the Ant-Man/Giant-Man/Wasp combination. TOS remains the most curious case in 1965, as it ranks 58th despite featuring the combination of Iron Man and Golden Age hero Captain America in every issue. One can only hypothesize that the other Marvel hero titles were so strong, including Avengers, that these two-story books began to be drowned out.
With their reporting back to full force, DC retains its dominance over the market in 1965, holding onto 13 of the top 20 spots, although it would be very interesting to see how these would rank up against popular Marvel books, which all had one to two years of growth under their belts by this time.
1966-1969 – Amazing Spider-Man (1966: 16th overall, 1967: 14th, 1968: 12th, 1969: 7th)
Highlights: In 1966, Marvel finally gets their heads out of their collective rear ends and begins reporting all sales data. In their first year of doing this, they place five titles in the top 31 spots: Spider-Man (16th), Fantastic Four (19th), Thor (recently renamed from JIM, 23rd), Avengers (30th), and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos (31st). For good measure, X-Men shows up at #40 on the list as well. While DC is still the giant Marvel is looking to take down – they take 11 of the top 12 spots – the trends begin to look more sustainable with Marvel’s most popular franchises.
By 1967, Marvel takes nine of the top 45 spots. In 1968 they have 11 of the top 40, including additions such as Dr. Strange (#32) and Daredevil (#23) for the first time. By the end of 1968, DC still has eight of the top 10, but they are looking extremely vulnerable for the first time as only two of the top 12 titles are now humor magazines, further solidifying a superhero takeover.
On the eve of the 1970s, Marvel’s dominance gains steam in an unstoppable way. In 1969, Marvel holds down nine of the top 26 spots, including cracking the top 10 for the first time with Spider-Man. The site points out that DC raised its prices to 15 cents much earlier in the year than Marvel, which led to sharp declines to its most popular books – Superman, Batman, and Action Comics – with Marvel not taking as much of a hit. While they still hold seven of the top 10 spots, all DC’s major titles see a decrease in sales culminated by Archie toppling Superman for the top overall spot and Spider-Man beating Batman in sales.
The early 1970s would see Marvel continue to churn out hit after hit: Werewolf by Night, Luke Cage, Blade, Shang Chi, Iron Fist, and Moon Knight were all introduced by 1972, expanding the Marvel universe that would eventually transform into the phenomenon it is today. In less than 10 short years, Marvel would evolve from a middling horror mag to a superhero factory that would lead the industry for years to come.