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This is the one-hundred and sixty-third in a series of examinations of comic book urban legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous one-hundred and sixty-two. Click here for a similar archive, only arranged by subject.
COMIC URBAN LEGEND: At one point, Crime Does Not Pay was selling five times as many copies as the highest sales Superman ever had
The other day, I received an interesting e-mail from a reader named Seth who asked:
For years I’ve seen talk about how Captain Marvel and Superman both sold a million copies per month during the 1940s and that was always treated as if not the tops close enough to being the tops for comics, but recently at a convention I saw an old copy of Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay and on the cover it said “more than 5,000,000 readers monthly”! That is way more than Superman and Captain Marvel was selling! Is that for real?
Like I said, it’s an interesting question, Seth, and as you’re right to be incredulous, because it is not, in fact, for real. At least not in the way you’re thinking (and I imagine many others would think).
First off, Crime Does Not Pay (the creation of Charlie Biro and Bob Wood – Wood, you might recall, tragically found himself the focus of a previous installment of Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed) WAS a very successful comic book. It was a modest hit right off the bat when it debuted in the early 1940s, but after the war it really took off, and by the late 1940s, it was selling, by most estimates, about a million copies a month, which is outstanding (and most likely, at the time, more than what Superman was selling and certainly, by the late 40s, more than what Captain Marvel was selling).
It was around this time that Crime Does Not Pay began boosting on its covers “More than 5,000,000 readers!”
Heck, later on that year, it went from 5,000,000 to 6,000,000!!
The trick is, as you might have already guessed, is that they don’t say 5,000,000 copies sold, only 5,000,000 readers. They came up with their numbers under the theory that for every copy of their comic that was purchased, it was passed around to at least six other people, so if they were selling one million copies, they actually had 6,000,000 readers.
It is highly doubtful that that was actually true (although, yes, the book surely did have more readers than just the purchasers of the comic themselves), and it is extremely doubtful that the good folks at Lev Gleason put much more thought into the market research than “I bet it’s about six times what we sell” and went with it.
So no, Seth, Crime Does Not Pay was never trouncing Superman in sales. In fact, while I don’t have the exact figures, I wouldn’t be surprised if Superman hung tough, comparatively, with Crime Does Not Pay in the sales charts of the late 1940s (not the Big Red Cheese, but the Big Blue Boyscout held strong well into the 1950s as the one superhero comic that kept selling big numbers).
By the by, it would be kinda interesting to see a modern comic use this approach, especially factoring in the theoretical “bootleg” downloads of new comics, the actual readership of each issue could easily be argued to be significantly higher than the actual issue’s sales!
I think someone should randomly come up with the multiplication for it, like, “Let’s say, ten times actual sales” and begin marketing!
“Uncanny X-Men – Read by 1,000,000 readers monthly!”
Go for it, Marvel and DC!
Thanks to Seth for the question!
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