Are superheroes still the “mainstream” of comics?

iPad and newspaper

Updated on December 10, 2021

The Walking Dead #1
Art by Tony Moore.

There’s been a lot of words written online lately about who “real” comic fans are, spurred by comic book illustrator Tony Harris’ recent sexism-filled rant against women “cosplayers” (i.e., those who wear costumes for fun, particularly for comic book conventions) as not “true comic fans.”

The sexism aside, much of the rant seemed to be based on the assumption of DC and Marvel’s superhero comics being the “mainstream” of comics as a whole. Which led me to wonder, and investigate, just how much actual space superheroes take up in comics these days, versus their non-Spandex cohorts. While this isn’t a thorough or scientific analysis by any means, the following does give some interesting insights…

The New York Times

First, I looked over the New York Times’ current best-seller list (as of the time of this writing).

For paperback “graphic books”:

  1. The Walking Dead Compendium, vol. 2
  2. The Walking Dead Compendium
  3. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
  4. Red Hood and the Outlaws, vol. 1
  5. Ninjago: Kingdom of the Snakes
  6. Drama
  7. Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe
  8. Smile
  9. Amulet: Prince of the Elves, vol. 5
  10. The Red Pyramid: The Kane Chronicles, Book One

For hardcovers:

  1. Superman: Earth One, vol. 2
  2. Totally MAD: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity, and Stupidity
  3. Building Stories
  4. The Flash, vol. 1
  5. Spaceman: Deluxe Edition
  6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Book 1
  7. The Walking Dead, Book 8
  8. Scott Pilgrim, vol. 2
  9. The Walking Dead, Book 1
  10. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time

So as of this week, it looks like superheroes only make up two of the 10 slots in the paperback best-sellers (and coming in at #4, behind “Walking Dead”/”Calvin and Hobbes”). Hardcover side also only sees two superhero entries, though “Superman: Earth One, vol. 2” is #1.

As for a broader view, while 2012 statistics aren’t fully available, there’s 2011’s statistics. Comics Alliance assembled this infographic outlining what did well last year. Basically, the dominant titles last year were “Walking Dead” and “Scott Pilgrim.” DC and Marvel combined only occupied 21% of the best sellers last year, with “Watchmen,” “Blackest Night,” and “Fables” the best DC/Marvel sellers.

So, per the “New York Times,” the general public likes zombies, “Scott Pilgrim,” and “The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen From the Future” (a children’s book from the “Capt. Underpants” folks), but less so superheroes. The superhero titles that did best in 2011 was a storyline dating from the Reagan administration (“Watchmen”) and a then-recent storyline (“Blackest Night”) that’s inscrutable to anyone but the most die-hard superhero fans. A few random superhero books are indicated as debuting at #1 before dropping off the charts entirely, which doesn’t sound encouraging.

Moving onto my next source…

Looking under the best-selling comics and graphic novels entry, the top 20 entries as of this writing:

  1. The Third Wheel (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, book 7) (hardcover)
  2. How to Tell If Your Cat Is Planning to Kill You
  3. The Walking Dead Compendium, vol. 2 TPB
  4. The Walking Dead: Compendium One
  5. The Third Wheel (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, book 7) (Kindle version)
  6. Cabin Fever (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, book 6) (hardcover)
  7. Dork Diaries 5 (hardcover)
  8. The Wimpy Kid Do-it-Yourself Book (Diary of a Wimpy Kid)
  9. Darth Vader and Son
  10. Building Stories
  11. Totally MAD: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity, and Stupidity
  12. The Ugly Book (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, book 5) (hardcover)
  13. Diary of a Wimpy Kid Box of Books (1-5)
  14. Dilbert 2013 Day-to-Day Calendar
  15. The Walking Dead, vol. 17 TPB
  16. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir
  17. Dog Days (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, book 4)
  18. The Walking Dead, Book One
  19. Dork Diaries 4
  20. The Walking Dead, Book Eight (hardcover)

The first superhero-related entry is DK’s Marvel Encyclopedia, coming in at #22. The first actual superhero story is “Avengers vs. X-Men” at #27. “Superman: Earth One” at #33 and a Spider-Man Little Golden Book (at #37) round out the top 50 for superheroes. (“The Killing Joke,” another Reagan-era superhero story, ranks just outside at #51.) That’s no entries at all for superheroes in the top 20, and only four entries for the top 50 (two if one doesn’t consider a Little Golden Book or encyclopedia as “counting”).

But what of graphic novels, listed separate from all the scene-stealing children’s books, comic strip compilations, and whatnot? Superheroes…don’t do much better. Most of the above listed titles dominate here, as well, with “Walking Dead” taking the top two spaces. The “Marvel Encyclopedia” comes in at #11, while “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” (a book analyzing the history of Marvel from a non-company viewpoint) ranks #13. “Avengers vs. X-Men” (#14) and “Superman: Earth One, vol. 2” (#19) are the sole superhero stories in the top 20. Superheroes (or Batman, anyway) do better in the 21-50 rankings: “The Killing Joke” (#26), “The Dark Knight Returns” (#31), “Batman, vol. 1: Court of Owls” (#38), “Batman: Year One” (#41), “Marvel Avengers: The Ultimate Character Guide” (#45), “Batman: Earth One” (#49). That’s 4 entries in the top 20 (two if excluding the nonfiction/encyclopedia material), or 10 entries in the top 50 (seven counting only actual stories).

So based on, “Walking Dead” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” (book 7 in the series currently ranks as the top selling book on Amazon, period) reign supreme, along with webcomic “The Oatmeal” and other independent comics.


Overall, superheroes still obviously dominate comic book shops, and the world of single-issue “floppy” comics that dominate at said shops. However, as far as the general public and mainstream stores like Amazon/Barnes and Noble are concerned, superhero comics sell no more than one out of every five comics (about 20%) at the most. It’s pretty obvious the general public, including children, still like comics (from how highly “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” ranks)…just not superhero comics. The superhero comics that do sell apparently tend to mostly be older titles like “The Dark Knight Returns” or non-canonical entries like “Superman: Earth One.”

I suppose I have to conclude that the “New 52” reboot and other DC/Marvel antics ultimately won’t matter much for comics’ future, unless one’s running a comic book shop—and even comic shops aren’t doing tremendously well these days. (The “Wall Street Journal” recently took a look at how badly superhero books are doing, without holding back much criticism.) If anything, with the rise of webcomics/digital comics, various independent comics (such as Alison Bechdel’s graphic novels), and the presence of manga (though not as hot as it was a few years ago, it’s still a prominent influence), the world of comics is stronger than ever.

Anthony Dean

Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.

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