Superhero Comic Reader Stats

Let’s keep beating the horse:

When I worked at DC Comics in the mid-90s, I had access to reader studies they’d commissioned. Before I get to the data, here are the caveats.

1. These figures date from 1995. A lot has changed since then. They’d done previous studies in 1990 and 1992, and based on survey ads they’ve run in their comics since then, I believe they’ve done at least two since then. I would love to know what they said, but I doubt I’ll have access to more current figures any time soon (unless a handy anonymous source wanders by).

2. I think these studies were done in order to have information to demonstrate to potential advertisers in order to convince them to spend money. That’s based on titles like “studying the lifestyle and purchasing habits of affluent, highly educated young men”. They were trying to pitch their products as reaching an audience that’s known as being hard to target effectively with advertising. So science likely took second place to marketing.

3. This was all based on under 1000 answered questionnaires out of 3200 inserted in comics. The incentive to answer the packet was a free copy of Zero Hour #0 autographed by the editor (my hubby) KC Carlson.

So, on to the study. The introduction pitched the DC comic line as intended for an educated, mature audience… primarily young men brought up in affluent households, highly educated and beginning their professional/managerial careers. That suggests they have lots of income to spend on hobbies like comics and products like games, audio/visual equipment, and cars (some of the mentioned target products). That beginning thing is also considered important to advertisers, since it means companies have a chance to establish brand loyalty.

Customers buy an average of nearly 50 comic books a month.

DC’s single-issue audience was more than 5.2 million. (I believe this incorporated a significant pass-along multiplier of at least three people assumed to read each comic.)

92% of DC readers were male.

80% of them were ages 18-39, with a median age of almost 29.

Just over 70% attended college.

Just over 60% were single (never married).

37% spent $100 or more on comics in a month.

The average time spent reading one typical comic was 45 minutes. That’s the one that gets me — I knew I was a fast reader, but four times as fast?

There was also a comparison to the previous studies, which shows that male readers were always over 90% of the audience, that the audience was getting older, and as they aged, they were less likely to live with their parents and more likely to live with a spouse or partner.

43 Responses to “Superhero Comic Reader Stats”

  1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    Any media buyer with a couple of hours of experience knows to take these types of surveys with a grain of salt, if not reject them out of hand, as they typically reflect, and often serve to reinforce, preconceived notions about one’s audience, which is then presented to advertisers as “evidence” of the quality of that audience.

    In the context of the current discussion, though, this 12 year-old data is completely irrelevant. You can better suss out Marvel and DC’s [perception of] their core (aka superhero) audience by looking at their slate for the past and upcoming year, as well as the new/recent initiatives they’ve launched/tweaked like Minx, Marvel Adventures and Dabel Brothers.

  2. Johanna Says:

    Nice dash of cold water, Guy. :)

    Bearing in mind their age, I presented those because some were saying that they wouldn’t consider the argument that the producers consider superhero comics for males until they saw them saying so. Well, ok, here’s them saying so.

    And I’m not sure what you’re implying Minx and Dabel Bros. comics (projects firmly outside the traditional superhero imprints) say about superhero comics? That projects for a female audience should be positioned outside that genre?

  3. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    There’s a lot of good points being made on both sides of this discussion that are getting lost, and I think the fundamental problem has been the apparent assumption that there’s some monolithic “female audience” to which Marvel and DC can appeal to uniformly.

    It’s akin to the ridiculous “Top ten comics for your girlfriend…” articles that pop up from time to time and always seem to include Sandman and manga, neither of which would appeal to my wife, who “hates” superheroes but enjoyed Fade from Grace, Batman Begins and Unbreakable. Go figure.

    Minx, Dabel Bros. and Marvel Adventures all indicate DC and Marvel’s recognition that there’s a larger readership than their core business can (or should attempt to) accomodate, because while much has changed in the past 12 years, it’s still a predominantly white male audience that reads superhero comics and superhero comics are the primary product for the direct market which is DC and Marvel’s bread and butter. Anyone that suggests otherwise is looking at the situation from a rather myopic point of view.

    I think people also tend to forget that Marvel and DC are relatively small publishers who target a very specific niche — too much so, I’d argue — and are not able to make the kinds of drastic moves some have called for. Something like Minx, a no-brainer effort to some pundits, is a huge undertaking for DC that comes with a level of risk they’re not accustomed to taking. It’s a good thing internet chatter doesn’t dictate the ultimate success or failure of such efforts, no?

  4. Dave Lartigue Says:

    Well that settles it. There’s no argument that’s more compelling than “Well, that’s the way it’s ALWAYS been.”

  5. Erech Overaker Says:

    “The average time spent reading one typical comic was 45 minutes. That’s the one that gets me — I knew I was a fast reader, but four times as fast?”

    Yeah, that doesn’t seem right, even by heavy caption/worded comics of the 90’s standards.

  6. david brothers Says:

    45 minutes over 22 pages? That’s nuts. Ten minutes, tops.

  7. Rob S. Says:

    During the 90s, it sometimes took me a good half-hour just to get my eyes to stop bleeding. A typical Extreme Justice experience: Read a page, wait for clotting. Another page, wait for clotting. Two page spread, apply tourniquet…

  8. Tommy Says:

    I think another point they’re missing is the average casual reader isn’t even going to fill out the survey. Only the guys like me who read way too many books a month are even going to respond. Even the incentive of a free comic autographed by a pro isn’t enough to get the 12 year old who bought his Superman comic at 7-11 to mail in the survey.

  9. ryan_cf Says:

    I wound up taking an online version of this survey when monkeying with DC’s online subscription page. They’re still pulling these surveys, even if they aren’t placed in print any more.

    It took forever.

    In response to Guy’s reaction to the statistics, the data is old, and probably not entirely accurate, but can a 92% rate (and a steady return at that rate) not tell us anything, even if ad folks don’t use them? Even if they’re 20% off, the core audience still skews wildly to the young male audience one stereotypically associates with comics.

    Further, looking at that slate suggests that DC continues to still seek that elusive audience that isn’t interested in superheroes but would pick up a comic. It does not suggest anything to conflict with Johanna’s original point regarding the notion that the Big 2 companies may be catering to a known audience.

    To dismiss a demographic trend, as Dave L suggests doing, is a bit baffling. I understand that the numbers may not be 100% accurate, or even 80% accurate, but surely any reasonable person would be able to see a trend.

  10. Stuart Moore Says:

    The data isn’t irrelevant — it’s pretty obviously intended for advertisers in the existing (mostly superhero) DC comics. I doubt the demographics on those have changed too much, though we can always hope for diversity. The Dabel Brothers and Minx lines are, equally obviously, attempts to reach out to new audiences. Where’s the contradiction?

  11. Lyle Masaki Says:

    ryan_cf, I don’t think Dave was dismissing the statistic as irrelevant, he was dismissing the idea that a snapshot of where the market has been recently (and probably still is) should dismiss attempts to challenge the status quo.

    I have to admit, the more I read this thead, the more I feel troubled to think that DC’s basing their marketing strategy on something as unreliable as optional surveys. I know it’s expensive to try to get a representative sample, but an optional survey (even with incentives) should be taken with a grain of salt, even if that’s the only data you have.

    Then again, it’s my sincerity that prevents me from becoming a marketer.

  12. ryan_cf Says:

    I don’t think anyone who visits this site would believe that Johanna is dismissing attempts to change the status quo. Quite the opposite. It seems that a fairly simple concept regarding women as a minority among superhero comic readers has become about a lot of issues that don’t reflect any actual data and have a lot more to do with emotion than evidence.

    I don’t agree that an optional survey should be taken with a grain of salt. Surely the numbers are representative of something. Logically, by denying the results of the survey there’s a suggestion that the survey thusly represents that female readers do not respond to optional surveys. Can that be right? Do women really want to avoid a copy of Zero Hour #0 that much?

    I have no doubt the numbers are a snapshot and that the survey was done as cheaply as possible, but 90+%? I’m not sure you can take those numbers with a grain of salt because they don’t match up to how readers would like to see the numbers.

    I reiterate that even if they’re off by 20 (or even 30)%, the demographic skews toward the fanboys who, anecdotally, I’ve seen in my 20+ years of comic purchasing.

    That is, until stores began stocking more Manga.

  13. ryan_cf Says:

    I like to use a lot of “I’ statements. I need to stop that. I think it’s poor writing.

  14. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez Says:

    Reread my comment: “In the context of the current discussion, though, this 12 year-old data is completely irrelevant.”

    Focusing on the inarguable fact that, regardless of the percentage, males are the predominant buyers of Western superhero comics and as a result, Marvel and DC target the majority of their content (and marketing) towards them. It doesn’t, however, change the other inarguable fact that female readers — who are not anything resembling a monolothic entity with easily categorized likes and dislikes — have every right to voice their concerns about, gripes over, and objections to the content of their preferred genre.

    As many others have noted, the tone of Johanna’s two initial posts were somewhat condescending and her follow-up comments have been rather defeatist. And this post was an unnecessary stirring of the pot with irrelevant data being presented as proof of a moot point that ignores the more important issues being raised and debated in the other two posts.

  15. david brothers Says:

    Do women really want to avoid a copy of Zero Hour #0 that much?

    All good people, men and women both, want to avoid it that much.

  16. kalinara Says:

    I admire that you’re so open about the caveats and flaws of using this sort of data.

    I’m not sure what it proves though. Especially as even 3200 seems like an exceedingly small sample of superhero comic readers. Where were they sent? Which stores? (I know the comic book shop in my hometown does indeed see smaller female traffic than the shop where I go to school, for example, so if more surveys were sent there than to MY comic book shop, that would definitely skew the data). For that matter, which comics were they inserted in? Peter David’s Supergirl would have a considerably different response percentage, I’d imagine, than say Beau Smith’s Warrior.

    Not to mention that considering more than 2000 surveys were unaccounted for, there’s no telling who got them. I know I have never filled out a consumer survey on anything I’ve bought, though I’ve encountered a few.

    Honestly, while these stats are really interesting to read, they seem far too prone to sampling error to be remotely useful for either argument or counter-argument.

  17. Johanna Says:

    David: Hey! The proposal was good, although it turned into something else in execution. My favorite thing about that part of the story is that KC doesn’t remember signing those issues. He says it’s all a big blur to him now.

    Kalinara: The surveys were randomly inserted into issues of comics across DC’s entire line at the time, in numbers proportional to the readership of the titles. So it wasn’t based on locations but on publications.

    As for what it proves… I’m the one who believes their comics are for guys, and I never would have guessed that the numbers were that high. So I found it surprisingly monolithic. If you don’t get anything out of it, all I have is a polite unsurprised shrug.

    Me, I have filled out their online surveys every time I’ve come across ads for them, because I like to have a voice and show them a non-typical reader.

  18. kalinara Says:

    That’s honestly my point, Johanna. Random can lead toward startling coincidences, like standardized tests with six answers in a row that are “A”. That’s why I’d want to see exactly which comics the surveys ended up going out in. What percentage ended up going out in particularly “guy-oriented” comics, and which in comics like Supergirl or Young Justice, because that sort of thing DOES skew results. To get any sort of useful results, the analysts would have had to keep track of what comics were randomly selected, what destinations were randomly chosen, to weed out error as much as possible.

    And honestly, 3200 is still much too small to get an adequate, unweighted sample. It’d be like polling 25 students on a campus of hundreds or thousands asking them what they think about certain changes.

    You’ll get interesting results, but no sane analyst would use it to draw sweeping conclusions without a LOT more corroborating data.

  19. Johanna Says:

    There was a page of statements about how the surveys were randomized based on percentage of sales compared to overall print runs, so it seems that the firm conducting the survey took your point into consideration. And I’d assumed that DC hired a firm good at this — they tended to do that when going with outside contractors.

    If you want to believe it, there’s evidence for that. If you don’t, I’m sure there are holes you can pick in it. That’s why I started the way I did, because I wanted to beat to the punch those looking for reasons to write off answers they didn’t like.

  20. Ragnell Says:

    Even if these stats WERE current and reliable (which they are not), you’ve still offered nothing that justifies the continuation of the criticized aspects of superhero comics, nor any evidence that superheroes wouldn’t appeal to a majority of women if properly marketed to them.

    I don’t know what happened to you when you worked for DC, but it was years ago. Time to let those of us who are attracted to their comics discuss them without bringing your grudge into it.

  21. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » May 11, 2007: Freakish outliers Says:

    […] offers a reaction to the argument in a follow-up thread, then returns again with some demographic statistics from the genre’s final heyday in the 1990s. It’s interesting reading, all […]

  22. Johanna Says:

    Ragnell, why would I offer something I don’t believe in? You and others continue to criticize strawmen, I can only assume because you don’t want to engage what I’m actually saying. If you really believe that a majority of women would be drawn to superheroes, it’s up to you to prove your assertion; I find it implausible at best, based on sales and history.

    And your amateur psychology is laughable as well as misguided. Only in comics fandom does direct experience working for a company make some consider you *less* reliable in talking about the way they work.

  23. Paul O'Brien Says:

    How was the “average time” question phrased? The 45-minute answer makes a lot more sense if respondents thought they were being asked to provide a total time, including re-readings.

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  25. James Schee Says:

    Paul, I kind of wonder how many of those that responded did so because they had an axe to grind. Sort of like those cards at restaraunts that only get filled out if someone is unhappy.

    Back in that time period I saw many fans with certain agendas, Green Lantern fans for one, who would pick apart a book panel by panel to talk about how awful it was. Which maybe was part of the time allotted? Because otherwise, then wow so much for comics helping readers improve reading skills.:)

  26. ryan_cf Says:

    If the survey was anything like the one I filled out through DC’s subscriptions page (and I bet it was), any axe to grind with the content of a comic would be irrelevant. It doesn’t actually ask you if you like the comic. It asks you about what kind of products you currently own and would plan to own in the future.

    Ad execs don’t know and don’t care about the content within the comics. They want to know about what sort of items the people likely to buy the comic might also likely buy (thus the questions about: do you own a CD player? Are you likely to buy a new CD player in the next six months?). It’s all very NOT comic related, which is why the return rates of the surveys are often so low. And probably why DC incentivized people for returning surveys, lest they get NO response for their efforts.

  27. Lyle Masaki Says:

    I don’t think that’s what’s meant by axe to grind. I take it as the people who responded to the survey were motivated to have themselves counted as DC readers. I go ahead and take any optional survey like this I encounter (including a few for DC) because I know I’m making a small influence on the product by representing myself as a consumer (since I fit in several desirable demos).

    For example, there have been a couple times DC did these surveys over the web with a house ad announcing them. I made sure to come through the Vertigo site because I wanted to make my traits representative of Vertigo readers.

  28. Alan Coil Says:

    Statistics are an odd thing. They are incredibly accurate if measured properly. Yet they sometimes seem illogical.

    I had training through work about 20 years ago. The trainer said if you survey 1000 people, the chances are that the results would be the same if you had surveyed 10,000 or 20,000, etc..

    Illogically, the trainer also said that in a room of 25 (23?) people, chances were fairly good that there would be 2 people with the same birthday. There were 17 of us in the room and 2 were born on Christmas Day.

  29. Paul O'Brien Says:

    I wouldn’t assume that people fill in these forms because they have an axe to grind, but it’s certainly true that you have to allow for the self-selecting sample. By definition, the “don’t cares” are massively underrepresented in this sort of survey, because they don’t care enough to fill it in.

  30. James Schee Says:

    Yeah that’s what I meant, that only those who wanted to make have themselves counted for one reason or another. Probably took the time to do all of this, hence my GL fans analogy since I remembered a number of them feeling at the time (Hal fans at least) that felt they weren’t being acknowledged.

  31. J. Eric Miller Says:

    I have little experience with market research, but would like to have a better grasp of it, particularly where comics are concerned, so I was very happy to come across this site and your posting, Johanna, in particular. Although you’re discussing superhero comics specifically (I haven’t read the earlier post by you yet), doesn’t what you say apply somewhat to comics as a whole? In other words, what percentage of comics do superheroes account for at this point? In terms of the majors, Vertigo would be the principal exception, I expect, but I wonder what their readership demographics are. The majority of Vertigo’s output -horror and crime (and even westerns)-traditionally seem to have a primarily male audience as well. I would think that the major exception is Sandman (and possibly BoM); do you know anything about that title’s readership demographic?
    I think I understand why DC would guard this information, so that they can market to specific advertisers, but would they not be able to market just as successfully to advertisers whose target customers were in the same actual demographic groups as their readership if they had accurate marketing info? Do they expect the revenues from those advertisers they are trying to attract to be that much better than those they might attract with accurate demographic info?
    As for your point, which seems to be simply that most (superhero) comic readers are male, I find it laughable but not surprising that anyone would contest that. I realize that my lifetime of anecdotal evidence is worthless from a scientific standpoint, but the occasional times I encounter a woman who reads, say, Justice League, are remarkable for their rarity. I would ask the one guy who said women could be an audience for superhero comics if they were marketed to them correctly, how exactly is that? One only needs to LOOK at superhero comics to see that they’re being marketed to men. I happened to look at a recent issue of Supergirl, and I saw this characer, a dark-haired man in an outfit that looked like a black version of Powergirl’s costume, complete with a chest window, wherein we could see-instead of her cleavage-his chest hair. It looked so ludicrous that it could only draw further attention to the contrived costumes and ridiculously exagerated anatomy of almost every female character. Men are NEVER sexualized in s.h. comics the way women are almost ubiquitously. Even comics with strong female characterization-of which there are more than there were 12 years ago-suffer from this (it’s hard to take the women in BoP seriously when Ed Benes draws them with Double D’s, halter-tops and fishnets).
    Lastly, I might mention, that the incentive DC offered in the marketing research you talked about does seem a little lame. How hard would it have been to at least offer a copy autographed by the writer and artist? No disrespect intended to your husband, but there aren’t many editor-driven titles out there.

  32. Johanna Says:

    Your question is difficult to answer, because it depends on how you define comics. If you include all bookstore formats, including graphic novels and manga, then superheroes are a much smaller percentage than you might expect and likely still decreasing. (Sandman always reportedly had a very high female audience percentage, but I don’t have any specifics on that.)

    (And yes, I totally agree that most people don’t care about the editor — I suspect his was the signature on the gimme only because he was in the office, thus no mailing costs or delays to get the signatures.)

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