By Benjamin Nobel, November 8, 2015
In 1979, something happened in comics that would change everything — Marvel made its first sales of distinct direct edition comic books to specialty comic shops, at discounted prices but on a non-returnable basis. That was a major development, because outside of some non-returnable comics produced for Whitman/Western Publishing starting in 1977, the prior primary distribution method for comic books was the newsstand model: unsold copies could simply be returned for a refund.
Returned for a refund? That’s exactly right… Historically, the unsold comics themselves were literally shipped back. How inefficient is that!? The shipping cost alone cut deeply into profits, not to mention the cost of manufacturing more comics than actually sold through (not knowing how many would sell, and not wanting to under-produce, it was common on average to publish three comics for every one that ultimately sold).
Then at some point they figured out they could save on the return shipping cost by permitting just a torn off cover as evidence of an unsold copy. While this was an improvement over shipping back entire comics, there was still the large administrative cost to manage this process and issue credits for returns.
As comic shops started to grow in popularity, the idea came about to sell copies of comic books directly to the shops on a non-returnable basis. Not only would this eliminate the administrative costs to accept returns, but Marvel could publish a more precise number of copies instead of over-producing each issue. These savings would enable Marvel to offer the shops a hefty discount to cover price, in exchange for the guaranteed sale.
And it worked, but there was an initial hiccup: at first, there was nothing to distinguish a direct-sold copy, from a returnable newsstand copy. And some shops were buying with their discount at what was supposed to be a non-returnable basis, but since the copies could not be told apart they were returning them through the newsstand channel and pocketing the spread. Clearly, this could not continue; there needed to be two distinct print run batches, so that direct sold copies could be told apart from returnable newsstand copies.
The first distinction introduced to close this loophole was the barcode strike-through:
Shown above are two copies of Amazing Spider-Man #201, side by side. At left, a direct edition copy; at right, a returnable newsstand copy. To close the loophole where some comic shops were returning their non-returnable copies through the newsstand channel, a strike-through was placed over the bar code for direct sold copies — the strike-through meant that copy could not be returned for a refund. Although this did solve the problem, comic shops did not like the look of that bar code box with an odd line through it. But Marvel came up with a solution: The Spider-Man Rectangle! Here’s the subsequent issue, #202:
It amazes me to this day how many collectors don’t know — nor even think about — why some copies of comics have the bar code and some have the Spider-Man Rectangle (or some variation of it). But that’s the “origin story” of that rectangle… it appeared in connection with closing the loophole to keep non-returnable comics distinguishable from returnable comics. Comics with the Spider-Man rectangle were direct sold to comic shops on a discounted but non-returnable basis, while over on the newsstands, unsold copies with UPC codes could be returned through the traditional newsstand channel.
In later years, Marvel would replace the Spider-Man Rectangle with a UPC code — but a different code. This made them look identical at a glance to the untrained eye. But look closely and you’ll see that direct edition copies say “Direct Edition” in small type along the bar code, while returnable newsstand copies say something else (such as “Amazing Spider-Man”) and may also contain a “display until” date. Below are a couple of examples:
At this point you may find yourself thinking: so what? This is all very fascinating, but should it have any impact on how I collect modern comics? Let me answer your question with a question: if the number of copies sold of each type were different, then would it make a difference to you? And when I say “different” what I mean can be illustrated in the following table of estimates published by industry insiders including Chuck Rozanski:
Although these are estimates (also see: Newsstand Rarity Discussion & Estimates), what this chart above clearly shows, is that what began as a good idea — to start making non-returnable direct edition sales to comic shops in 1979 — absolutely exploded into Marvel’s primary distribution method. That first year, just ~6% of their total distribution was direct sales to comic shops (and said to be over 10% for more popular titles like X-Men), but by the 1985/1986 time-frame it was an even 50/50 split. Talk about a successful idea! By the 1990’s newsstand sales had dwindled to a mere ~15% of the total. That’s absolutely remarkable. Remember when I posed the question: if the number of copies sold of each type were different, then would it make a difference to you? Suppose you are looking to collect a comic book published in the 1990’s. Given this estimated data of an approximate 85/15 direct/newsstand split, would you rather have a Near-Mint (NM) copy from the direct edition print run, or an NM copy from the newsstand edition print run?
Before you answer that question, keep in mind that in contrast to comic shops which were careful to keep their copies in pristine condition, newsstands had no staff training to protect condition and the comics were treated like magazines or other competing publications, with the notion that the buyer didn’t care about condition — they just wanted to read the thing. And that’s true: newsstand purchasers did want to read the comics they bought. Those newsstand buyers tended to be readers. A collector buying from the newsstand was the exception, not the norm. So a NM copy from the newsstand print run, logic would dictate, would be the exception, not the norm of typical condition.
So not only do you have a distribution disparity tilted dramatically in the direction of direct-edition prevalence and newsstand rarity, you also have a condition disparity (surviving direct edition copies tending to be in better condition, surviving newsstand copies tending to be in poor condition). So let me re-ask my question another way… If I offered you the choice of two copies of a 1990’s-era comic book you were looking to collect: in my left hand I held a NM copy from the direct edition print run (purchased from a comic shop), while in my right hand I held a NM copy of the same issue but from the newsstand print run, which copy would be more desirable to you, now that you know the difference in rarity at just ~15% of copies being newsstand, and also knowing the typical condition disparity?
But to blow our minds even further, as we move down that chart, we see that by the year 2000 the estimated Marvel newsstand percentage is down to just ~5% — think for example of Amazing Spider-Man #36 (all black cover, 9/11 issue), where newsstand copies would therefore have on the order of 1-in-20 rarity if these estimates are on target [by the way: a Marvel VP has described a 1999-era decision to walk away from the newsstand channel]. Move to 2003 and the estimated Marvel newsstand percentage is down to a mere 4.25%. Move to 2013 and the newsstand percentage is down to single digits industry-wide and by one estimate for Marvel, just one percent — think for example of Amazing Spider-Man #700, the final issue, where newsstand copies would therefore have 1-in-100 rarity.
After 2013 by the way, Marvel decided to just shut down newsstand sales altogether. When newsstand sales through the last remaining bookstore outlets carrying Marvel’s newsstand comics ended in 2013, Marvel’s David Gabriel revealed that Marvel had actually ended newsstand sales to all of its other newsstand outlets years earlier — which we can conclude would most certainly have put their newsstand sales percentage below the rest of the industry in the later years of their newsstand distribution.
Can you see now why understanding the newsstand versus direct edition difference is must-know information? In my opinion this is not just food for thought, but information that should shape the way collectors approach modern comic books.
And if Marvel was down to sub-15% newsstand distribution in the early 90’s, what was going on at newcomer Image Comics when they made their debut in 1992? It turns out Image’s newsstand sales were so small as to be next-to-invisible, causing some to even conclude Image was exclusive to the direct market. However, that’s not the case — newsstand copies of Image comic books do indeed exist, albeit being incredibly difficult to find out there as they are buried under a mountain of direct edition copies. According to Chuck Rozanski, Image Comics distributed 99% of their comics via direct sales. So they did succeed in selling comics on newsstands, but it was a minuscule fraction of their total sales from the get-go…
But equally interesting about Image, is that the challenging and competitive nature of newsstand distribution led Image to elect manufacturing choices for their newsstand print runs that in some cases were different from their direct edition print runs in order to save money. Some common choices: excluding centerfold posters, choosing cheap newsprint interior paper, and in one case I’m aware of — Spawn Batman — using card stock for the cover of the direct edition print run, but regular paper for the cover of the newsstand print run.
These manufacturing differences may sound at first like just an interesting bit of trivia, but they have an important implication when it comes to studying data comparing direct edition and newsstand relative rarity: CGC treats these comics with manufacturing differences as variants for census and labeling purposes. Look up any “typical” comic book and CGC will make no distinction in the labeling or on the census to track newsstand copies versus direct edition copies… so the data — the official count of surviving newsstand copies that have been graded, versus direct edition copies — is lost for the vast majority of comic books.
But for these special copies with manufacturing differences that lead CGC to track them separately, that precious data, that precious information, is right there in the census numbers for all the world to see. Below is a table of seven Image Comics titles where CGC is known to label newsstand copies with the variant “Newsstand Edition” attribution, and thus separately tracks the count for those variants on their online census:
To explain the table above, in the first column is the title and number of the comic — starting around issue #8, Spawn comics were manufactured with newsprint interior pages, and for issues #8, #9, and #12, Newsstand Edition variants appear on the CGC census; WildC.A.T.S. #1 has newsprint interior; WildC.A.T.S. #2 had a prism cover for the direct edition but a regular paper cover for the newsstand edition; Savage Dragon #1 in the table is the Limited Series, with newsprint interior paper for the newsstand edition; and Spawn Batman had a thick card stock cover in the direct edition but a regular paper cover for the newsstand edition. The second column in the table lists the CGC census numbers as of this writing for the regular edition, the third column lists the CGC census numbers for the variant “Newsstand Edition” copies, and the final column totals the two to get the total graded copy count for that issue. A grand total is presented at the bottom.
For these seven examples, as of this writing a grand total of 2,545 copies have been sent in to CGC for grading, and out of that total, 2,483 copies or 98% were from the Direct Edition print run, while 62 copies or 2% were from the Newsstand Edition print run. Rozanski indicated 99% direct sales, the CGC census data across these seven examples shows 98% — that’s pretty much right in line: so an industry expert as well as the cold hard CGC census data itself, shows that Image newsstand edition comics really are at a rarity level that can only be described as “extreme” versus their direct edition counterparts… We’ll see how this data fills out in the fullness of time — I personally hope to inflate the newsstand numbers for some of these with my own submissions to the extent I can find good grading candidates! 🙂
Knowing all of this information, if you were to want to collect the first appearance of Angela (Spawn #9) or the first full appearance of Spawn (Spawn #1), or the first full appearance of the Savage Dragon (Savage Dragon #1 Limited Series [See Graphic Fantasy #1 for the first appearance of the “original” Savage Dragon from 1982]), or the first full appearance of the WildC.A.T.S., your preference without hesitation should be a newsstand edition copy over a direct edition copy.
And when thinking about the relative numbers, knowing the total sales we can then extrapolate the count of just the newsstand edition variant copies. For Spawn #1 or Spawn Batman, both widely believed to have come close to the 1 million copy mark, a ratio of 99% direct edition to 1% newsstand would imply on the order of 10,000 Newsstand Edition copies of each. For Spawn #9 at sales of approximately 700,000, the ratio would imply on the order of 7,000 Newsstand Edition copies. For Savage Dragon Limited Series #1, Erik Larsen was quoted as saying the first issues sold “hundreds of thousands of copies” — let’s up that to a full half million for sake of argument — which extrapolates to on the order of 5,000 newsstand edition copies.
But another consideration in all of this is just how difficult newsstand competition was for different characters. These comics were competing side by side with Superman and Amazing Spider-Man. How many newsstand readers grabbed a Savage Dragon? A post by Erik Larsen gives us a hint at just how difficult newsstand sales actually were:
With the newsstand channel, the level of returns determined the difference between making money or losing money. For Savage Dragon comics, with this distribution channel losing money, by 1996 Larsen made the decision to stop distributing Savage Dragon comics on newsstands altogether. The final attempt made at newsstand sales was issue #30, the newsstand edition of which was tweaked to try and attract more customers, labeled as “Spawn/The Savage Dragon #1” (instead of “Savage Dragon #30“) and having an “as seen on TV” logo on the cover as well to try and attract eyeballs.
So: how many copies of Savage Dragon #30 were sold in total? Although Comichron doesn’t have monthly sales data going back quite as far as issue #30, they do have monthly data going back to issue #32 which should be within the same general neighborhood. Here’s how the numbers look around issue #30:
Savage Dragon #32: 33,956
Savage Dragon #33: 33,299
Savage Dragon #34: 34,427
Savage Dragon #35: 33,077
So we’re in the neighborhood of 34,000 around these issues. Suppose having Spawn on the cover provided a 15% sales boost for issue #30… that would put us at about 39,000. Let’s round up to an even 40,000 for total assumed sales for Savage Dragon #30. A ratio of 99% direct edition to 1% newsstand would imply on the order of just 400 Newsstand Edition copies of issue #30 (i.e. 400 copies of Spawn/The Savage Dragon #1). Even if we were to generously estimate total sales of Savage Dragon #30 all the way up at 50,000, the 1% newsstand ratio would still imply just 500 copies of Spawn/The Savage Dragon #1!
Any time you can find an interesting comic book, that has on the order of merely several hundreds of copies sold, that’s one to consider collecting, and the reason newsstand editions are a recurring theme in this blog (here’s yet another example where the newsstand rarity math lands in the hundreds: Venom/Deadpool: What If #1 copies with $3.99 cover price), and in my Spawn and Savage Dragon blogs. And for many of these comic book examples, it takes an understanding of the difference between Direct Edition and Newsstand Edition copies, before you can truly appreciate just how collectible some of these rarities are.
[8/31/2016 update: in addition to manufacturing differences like those in some of the Image newsstand comics I mentioned above, I’ve now become aware of two additional “special situation” categories where CGC recognizes newsstand copies as distinct variants on census, i.e. tracking the count of graded copies separately from their direct edition counterparts! Read about this further, here: Newsstand Variants, $3.99 Newsstand Editions, and The Doc Collection]
Happy Collecting! If you enjoyed reading this post, also check out: 75 Cent Variants (Canadian Newsstand Editions)