The Critical Angle: Marvel’s next top writers, by the numbers



Using past to predict the future.

With Brian Michael Bendis departed and a “refresh” upon us, it’s natural to ask which writers will step up and lead Marvel Comics through 2018 and beyond. You can prognosticate based on personal taste or gut feelings, but we here at AiPT! are analytical. Let’s take a look at nitty gritty sales numbers to see who’s already moving that paper, and who might really catch fire if/when they’re given the right opportunity.

Donny Cates

Venom #1 is still fresh in our minds, and for good reason. It’s been universally praised as a groundbreaking take on the character, and while it’s too early to be sure how many copies were initially ordered by stores, we do know that it’s been a tongue-lashing monster in advance reorders, indicating reader interest has grown quickly and recently.

Maybe that’s because everyone figured out how awesome Cates’ Thanos is. So awesome that the series’ final issue, just published last month, sold almost as many copies (a little more than 50,000) as the first issue, by Jeff Lemire. And after the book dropped to only 22,500 copies of #12, just before Cates took over — all in only six issues!

That kind of audience (re)building is all but unheard of in the modern era. You can say that Thanos is just a hot commodity right now, but it’s been shown time and again that a character’s film visibility has little to no effect on direct market, single issue sales, and I defy you to find data to the contrary.

Jason Aaron

Aaron’s been hanging around, doing critically-acclaimed Marvel work forever, before getting the big Avengers job, and it’s pretty clear he’s the right man for it. He recently had the first really successful Doctor Strange run since the ’90s, and while it didn’t exactly burn the charts down, his final issue, #20 in June of last year, still pushed out 36,000 copies, more than respectable for a run that deep on an ancillary character.

But of course Aaron’s real feat is what he’s done with Thor. He took the character over from Matt Fraction in November of 2012, after the Odinson had slipped from 53,000 copies to 35,000 in two years. Thor: God of Thunder #1 sold over 110,000 copies, but Aaron’s version suffered a nearly identical rate of decline. Attrition is something all books face, and the degree is usually pretty predictable.

Contrary to the whinging assertions of “men’s rights” goofballs, the brilliant use of Jane Foster as Thor changed all that. October 2014’s Thor #1 sold 151,000 copies, and in the same two-year period only dropped to 40,000 copies, outstripping not only the previous writer’s run, but Aaron’s own work on dude Thor. A year later, in September of 2017, The Mighty Thor had actually gone up to 43,600 copies.

The following issue was the legacy-numbered Thor #700, which may have something to do with the increase, but in that case we shouldn’t ignore the story-induced bump in Aaron’s final issue, last month’s #706, which clocked in at 56,600 copies. People show up for his stories, and being the only Avengers book on the stands currently, the sky’s the limit for this latest volume.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

This one probably seems obvious, but it’s actually counter to the data — if all you look at is Diamond sales numbers, as we’ve done until now. The journalist and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient stunned many when it was announced he’d be writing a Black Panther series for Marvel Comics, and the first issue in April of 2016 scored a mind-blowing 253,000 copies. Yet two years later, it’s down to 26,000 copies (within spitting distance of the rule-of-thumb cancellation level of 20,000).

But here’s the thing. The Diamond charts only measure what’s sold to specialty stores, the “FLCS.” While this has most recently been the the main marker of success, times are changing and, perhaps improbably, the bookstore channel is becoming an increasingly large part of overall comics revenue. Where Wednesday Warriors might not be flocking to a historically hard sell like Panther, Coates’ credibility makes the book Marvel’s bestselling trade in Barnes and Noble and related venues. There’s a very important conversation to be had here about “market segmentation” and publishers’ reluctance to address the plain fact, but that’s an analysis for another time.

The point here is that Coates is clearly pleasing plenty of readers, and with continued buzz (for better or worse) around the subject of his next ambitious project, Captain America, the man who many turn to for his opinions on race relations could start making converts of the oldheads, too.

Tom Taylor

His Hunt for Wolverine tie-in might be off to a shaky start, but Taylor’s work on Logan’s clone, X-23, could be the most impressive thing of any of this. Beginning right after the OG’s death, November 2015’s All New Wolverine #1 sold 120,000 copies to comic stores. Unsurprisingly, that number fell to less than 36,000 monthly within a year’s time.

A year after that, it was down to 27,000. But think about that. Tom Taylor, whose previous claim to comics fame was DC’s digital-first Injustice: Gods Among Us, was selling a female copy of a dead character better than a widely-known, public intellectual could produce for an Avengers mainstay. Five months later, in April, All New Wolverine #33 actually sold almost 5,000 copies more.

That’s two and a half years’ worth of rock solid, attrition-proof stability on a character you usually wouldn’t expect to last eight issues. If Cates’ resurrection of Thanos is remarkable, Taylor’s maintenance of All New Wolverine (with a lot fewer variant covers) is borderline miraculous. He’s clearly able to capture an audience, so it should just be a matter of landing him on the right, high-profile project to start his skyrocket. Is that book X-Men Red?

The Avengers: No Surrender Crew

If they stayed together, anyway. A lot of readers were complaining of “event fatigue” by the time the 16-issue, weekly series started in January of this year. The first issue, Avengers #675, still pulled down a tidy 80,000 copies, but halfway through the story, stores cautious about over-investing in something unproven that comes so fast had reduced their orders in half, to less than 40,000 copies.

The wide-ranging, fast-paced tale of cosmic action that highlighted tons of different characters resonated with readers, though, so much so that the penultimate issue in April shipped almost 47,000 copies, and the denouement did 5,000 better than that.

To keep the trains running on time, No Surrender utilized a writing team of old hat Mark Waid and relative newcomers Al Ewing and Jim Zub, whose individual efforts haven’t exactly been sales juggernauts. Was this a case of creative alchemy, or will the Avengers rub give Ewing’s Immortal Hulk and Zub’s Champions the jumpstart they need to perform at a high level?

A notable omission?

Wait, where the hell is Matthew Rosenberg on this list? We all love him, he’s got so many assignments that Marvel clearly loves him … what’s taking readers so long to come around? Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey was a big success, but it always would have been. Luckily, it also showed great plotting and heart-breaking character work, so here’s hoping that stage exposed Rosenberg to people who don’t read Punisher or Secret Warriors, so they’ll show up for Multiple Man and Astonishing X-Men.

We’re allowed ONE gut feeling, right?

The Critical Angle is a recurring feature that uses critical thinking and skepticism to analyze pop culture phenomena. Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Rather than repeating the same old assertions, we put them to the test.