In anticipation of Rebirth, I thought this would be a good time to revisit the business side of things through the comic book sales numbers of DC, Marvel, and Image comics. Here is a graph that I compiled using industry statistics from Comichron. It plots the gross sales (in millions of dollars) for each of the three publishers, 1991 to 2015.
A big question is whether the 2011 New 52 relaunch from DC Comics was successful. Very often the conventional wisdom online seems to be that is was a decent idea but a failed effort overall. I don't really read the stats that way. In fact, I read the 2012 upswing in DC's numbers as largely attributable to the New 52 and it marks the only time in the last 10 years that DC approached Marvel's market share.
To better make sense of the rises and falls, here is the same graph but with several historical events overlayed.
It is now much easier to see major factors at play. For example, the big upswing in 1992-1993 was brought on by the Death of Superman event and the influx of non-fan speculators, which led to the crash in the late 1990s and Marvel's bankruptcy. After that there was a period of steady increases with Marvel surging to a market lead even before the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ironically, Marvel actually saw a couple years of declining sales as the MCU took off. Image, meanwhile, has had steady growth since The Walking Dead TV series began airing on AMC.
In 2011, DC's New 52 relaunch is clearly visible in the sales chart. DC made a big jump upward in 2011-2012. The other good thing for DC is that the jump to above $250 Million in sales has stayed above $250 Million even as Image and Marvel have made substantial gains. (It would have been easy for DC to drop back down as comic book buyers picked up more books from the competition.) The other big event in the recent years on the sales chart, besides the New 52, is Marvel printing the Star Wars universe books beginning in 2015. Those books have consistently been in the Top 20 best sellers, sending Marvel to new heights ($350+ Million).
My sense is that the New 52 was a good business move for DC. (It's a separate question of whether it was a good creative move. I have liked most of what I've read, but certainly not all, and I tend to see it more positively than others on the internet.) Without the big move that was the New 52, all the major forces were working against DC and I think it would have been very likely that Marvel headed toward a 50% market share with Image pulling in 15% and DC maybe hanging on to 20%. Instead, with the New 52, DC ran neck-and-neck with Marvel for 2011-2012, at the height of the MCU popularity, and Marvel has only pulled away because of their Star Wars books.
In 2015, Marvel's Secret Wars bested DC's Convergence, but I think DC's Rebirth in 2016, if it capitalizes on the success of their TV properties and what looks to be an amazing movie universe, and if it allows for diverse readers and young readers to get on board, could put it back on track toward a 30% market share in a growing industry.