For the last 30 years or so, Archie digests have consistently been the only comics available at the supermarket checkout line. The Japanese manga anthology, Shonen Jump (until it went all digital in 2011), Mad Magazine and a few random others show up in the magazine aisle, but not at point of sale. Archie has a complete hold on that market and no one else has even tried to compete.
The comics sales figures you commonly see on comics fan sites for periodicals are only direct sales listings. While Archie Double Digest often cracks 100,000 in sales, they don't even make the list. But in reality, Archie digests are right up there with the top sellers at Marvel and DC.
Here's 2009's Archie sales figures.
And that's for a typical month.
While here are the direct sales rankings for the bestselling issues of that same year.
For some reason a single issue of Archie the regular periodical still lists on as a respectable 60,600 (though this was the top seller, not the average) but the digests aren't listed, even though Archie reported average sales of 103,639 per issue of Archie Double Digest alone.
So the digest titles should be listed in the top 100 comics of the year, a few within the top 40, but they don't chart at all on the direct sales charts. (Note that The Spectacular Spider-Man issue that reached in excess of 500,000 that year was the issue that featured Obama at the height of his popularity, so that skews the figure a little.)
Why does this matter?
A Casual Readership
I think that middle class kids often get books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Bone, and manga as gifts, or check them out from the library. Your typical manga are black and white and can run as much as 10 dollars or more for about 200 pages, while Archie Double Digest and similar Archie digests are in color, have 160 pages and retail at 3.99. Then there's Mad Magazine, at 5.99, with only 56 color pages plus ads.
When I was a kid every grocery store had a spinner rack that displayed Marvel, DC, Archie and Harvey comics, with the occasional Charlton or Gold Key title. The Archie digests were often at the check-out stand. I grew up with Archie and Richie Rich, but eventually started buying Marvel and DC, and then independent and small press titles. My comics habit continued, but migrated to the direct sales comics shop as I got older. There were Harvey digests for a while, but Harvey disappeared from the racks in the early 80s, and sometime in the early 90s Marvel and DC moved from grocery stores to direct-sales comics shops exclusively.
When they began, comic shops catered to kids and teenagers who bought comics with their own spending money, as well as a few adult fans who developed the habit in childhood. Now that I'm 40, most of the people buying comics at the direct sales comics shops are around my age. Marvel and DC abandoned the kids market to concentrate on an ever dwindling adult audience, but Archie didn't. The Archie digests never left the racks.
Shonen Jump found an audience where Marvel and DC had decided there was none, and Archie continues to get a steady flow of readership. I don't have statistics on this, but I'm guessing that many of these Archie sales are based on impulse and occasional readers rather than a regular dedicated fan base. I think a fan base exists, but Archie doesn't cultivate and depend on it like Marvel and DC, or even Shonen Jump's Viz.
So what does Archie have that Marvel, DC and other major comics publishers don't? Casual readers. Marvel and DC have no casual readers and depend exclusively on their dedicated fan base to survive. Marvel and DC may sell more comics than Archie, but there's no easy point of entry.
While there are a number of casual readers of graphic novels and trade paperbacks, there are few casual and younger readers of periodicals. Archie Comics is the point of entry.
Archie Comics: The Great Equalizer
for comics to thrive, they need to have a casual readership like other media. Part of that is access: you need to be able to easily sample a comic without having to hunt it down, and without having to make the commitment of spending 10 dollars or more on a book. Digital media will fill in this gap eventually, but right now Archie Comics serve an important role: to introduce kids to the medium who may not have easy access to comics by other means. For the price of a TV guide, a kid can discover the medium on their own. Not that 4 dollars is easy for every kid to come by, but computers and libraries are less accessible than we'd like to think. That 4 dollars is a lot cheaper than a computer, and to a lot of working class kids who grow up in families where reading isn't a priority, libraries can be intimidating places.
Archie Comics are cheap, accessible, and widely available. They help to familiarize casual readers with the medium, reach where other comics can't, and most importantly, create future comics readers. While print periodicals may not be long for this world, right now and for as long as they last, Archie Comics matter.