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Fact Check: Did Demon Slayer Really Outsell All of American Comics?

posted on by Kim Morrissy
We don't know American comic sales numbers for 2020, but Demon Slayer was behind in 2019

In January, an article by independent blogger Andy Matrix claimed that Koyoharu Gotouge's Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba manga "outsold" the entire American comics industry. Earlier this week, screenshots of the article's headline resurged on social media and Reddit; it was also sourced by Nerdbot.

It's a compelling and attention-grabbing claim, to be sure. However, a closer examination of the article's sources and arguments indicate a lack of research and rigor. It states that "Demon Slayer has sold 100 million copies while American comic books altogether have only sold 15 million units," but does not state a specific time frame for comparison.

It is important to contextualize where these numbers came from to begin with. Matrix cites Otaku USA, which in turn cites Anime News Network. The ANN article in question is about Demon Slayer's sales in Japan for the October 19-25 week in 2020, according to Oricon. Though not part of the headline story, the article states that the series had 100 million copies in circulation (including digital copies, which Oricon does not count), not sales, as of the 22nd volume's release on October 2.

Neither ANN nor Otaku USA reported on American comic book sales. The video version of Matrix's article indicates that his source for the "15 million" number is a Sankaku Complex article, which in turn cites comic book blog The Beat's analysis of NPD BookScan data for 2019. It should be noted that the analysis is restricted only to the top 750 titles, so the 15 million figure applies only to that selection. It should also be noted that BookScan only represents a selection of retailers, and is not representative of the entire market.

That said, even the 15 million figure from The Beat's limited-scope analysis is a lower amount than Oricon's reported sales figures for Demon Slayer in 2019: 12 million copies. That figure is also disputed; publisher Shueisha reported that the manga sold 10.8 million volumes that year. So Demon Slayer clearly didn't outsell the American comics industry in the same frame of time. By conflating Demon Slayer's lifetime circulation numbers with yearly sales and stacking them against partial sales numbers in the American market for 2019, the numbers provided in Matrix's article paint a misleading picture.

If we shift the year to 2020, however, it's a more complicated story. Estimated sales figures for the American comics industry aren't out yet, but it's hard to ignore the meteoric sales of Demon Slayer in that year. According to Oricon, Demon Slayer alone sold over 82 million copies, an order of magnitude higher than its closest rivals on the charts. (The second best-selling manga, Kingdom, sold around 8.2 million copies.)

Due to factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 also represented a rare year of growth for Japan's manga industry in general, which earned a record 612.6 billion yen (about US$5.77 billion), up 23% from the 498.0 billion yen in 2019. U.S. manga publishers such as Viz Media and Yen Press also noted that they enjoyed strong growth in 2020, even after the printing and supply issues earlier in the year.

In this context, the question of whether Demon Slayer did better than American comics as a whole in terms of strict sales numbers is a sideshow to the larger trend: manga's extraordinary growth compared to American superhero comics. Although the American comics market has seen growth on a year-on-year basis, especially with juvenile graphic novels, Marvel and DC Comics have been on long-term decline. Putting aside the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, what explains the poor performance of American superhero comics?

"Well, even for manga, Demon Slayers' sales numbers over the past year or so has been incredible. It surprised almost everyone how it blew almost all other popular series out of the water across the board. So much so that American pop culture industry watchers are just as, if not more, gob-smacked than their Japanese counterparts. But exact numbers or not, it's not hard to see that manga is doing VERY well nowadays in North America," Publisher's Weekly manga journalist and podcaster Deb Aoki said.

"Superhero comics nowadays are more like seinen manga—it's created by and for older male adult readers, but as we know, kids and teens love comics. The huge growth of kids' graphic novels proves this point. Shonen manga, even though it's appealing to adult readers, is primarily created with tween and teen readers in mind. One aspect of this is Demon Slayer's strong emotional content. They cry! They die! They struggle in a scary, often unfair world."

Meanwhile, American superhero comics come with baggage: lineage. Storylines often rely on years of continuity and it can be hard to parse where to start in any particular character's line-up, especially for new readers enticed by the massively popular films. When it comes to manga, that problem doesn't exist. Some series might be daunting when they are long-running with piles of volumes under their belt, but when it comes to starting? You start at volume one.

"It's just easier to get into, easier to follow," Aoki said. "The One Piece anime aligns closely to the One Piece manga. The superhero movies don't have that kind of easy cross-media continuity of story. So why do superhero comics not sell as well as manga? Superhero comics did it to themselves. They chased the older male collector market to the point where they lost the kids market."

Whether Demon Slayer outsold the American comics industry last year or not, its success offers some important lessons for publishers to chew on.

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