By Benjamin Nobel, April 5, 2016
Collectors of later bronze age and earlier copper age comic books may have encountered cover price variants when seeking out keys like Amazing Spider-Man #238 and #252, X-Factor #6, Thor #337, Wolverine Limited Series #2-4, New Mutants #1, Uncanny X-Men #201, and Secret Wars #8 to name a few. This post is aimed at helping inform those collectors looking for more information about just what these cover price variants are, how they came to be, and whether they are deserving of the market premium given to them. For the answer to these questions, I first need to explain two key pieces of background information:
(1) Newsstand Comics Versus Direct Sales
At the end of the 1970’s, non-returnable direct edition sales to comic shops began at Marvel as an alternative to the newsstand distribution model of returnable sales. Before this, any unsold comics could be returned for a refund and destroyed (a major waste of money and paper, and time to administer the returns process). Read more about the history of the newsstand distribution channel in my post entitled Comic Book Newsstand Editions: Understanding The Difference, but the cliff notes version — as relates to the topic of cover price variants — is that the publisher needed to print distinct print runs for each distribution channel in order to be able to tell the returnable copies apart from the non-returnable copies (that way, they could refuse refund to the direct edition copies). When you see Marvel issues with the Spider-Man rectangle (or in later years the words “direct edition” next to the bar code), you are looking at a copy that was sold directly to a comic shop on a discounted but non-returnable basis. Meanwhile, the other copies, the ones sent to newsstands, had a bar code (“UPC” code – UPC stands for Universal Product Code) on the cover instead (or in later years next to the UPC it read “Newsstand” or the comic’s title, instead of “Direct Edition”). But when the price variants occurred between 1982 – 1986, Marvel actually split the newsstand copies into distinct print run batches for the U.S. and for Canada, each produced with a different cover price. Why would they do such a thing? Here’s why:
(2) U.S. Dollar to Canadian Dollar Exchange Rate
Referring to the below chart, the U.S. dollar to Canadian dollar exchange rate bumped around near parity during the 1970’s, meaning that for most of the time during that period, if you had one US dollar and wished to exchange it into Canadian currency, you’d get just about 1 Canadian dollar give or take for your U.S. dollar (and vice versa going in the other direction), depending on the exact exchange rate at the time. But overall, it was close to parity. So if you were a U.S. publisher selling comic books into Canada, during the 1970’s you probably didn’t pay that much attention to the exchange rate – sometimes it was a little in your favor, sometimes the other way, but for a very long time it averaged out to pretty much even (or close enough to even that it wasn’t a concern warranting change). But now look what happened in the 1980’s:
In the 1980’s, the exchange rate spiked dramatically and didn’t reverse; it just kept on moving. So now what do you do if you are a U.S. publisher selling into Canada? That exchange rate was just eating away into profit margins when revenues were exchanged back into U.S. currency, and the discrepancy was not reversing course back towards parity as it had done in the past. Something had to be done; something had to change. The solution? Prices had to be higher when comics were sold for Canadian dollars.
That’s How 75¢ Variants Came To Be
Now that you have the background, for the remainder of this post I will take you through the reasons this should be of interest to you as a collector, I will take you through an investigation of the window during which these variants occurred by examining the Uncanny X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man titles, and following that exercise I will highlight several key comics published during the price variant window that are particularly worthy of consideration for our collections (all of the price variants are arguably interesting but it is the major and minor keys that should be of primary focus). I’ll also show you CGC census data comparing the relative rarity of these to one of the most highly valued 35 cent variants of 1977, a data comparison which absolutely blows my mind relative to the market price premiums presently applied.
Let’s Walk Through The Publication Window…
At the time Marvel addressed this currency exchange rate problem, the cover price of a typical Marvel issue had been 60¢. Direct edition copies had been labeled with both 60¢ and 25 p (25 pence, for U.K. sales). So for direct edition copies (the non-returnable ones) it was just a matter of making the Canadian price different and adding that alternate price into the mix. Which is exactly what they did, at 75¢. You will notice that 75¢ is exactly 1.25x the U.S. price, which makes perfect sense referring back to that exchange rate chart.
To show this difference in what appeared on the cover, first look below at Uncanny X-Men #161, the issue published just before the introduction of the 75¢ price variant. As you can see, just one price of 60¢ covered both the U.S. and Canada, with an alternate 25 pence price listed for the U.K.:
The next issue, #162 was the first to be published with a 75¢ variant cover. The publication date was 10/1982. And now at this point, you will see just how these came to be… because the direct edition of #162 just has all the prices together (60¢ in large type, then the UK, then 75¢ CAN underneath). But…
But instead of doing the same thing on newsstand copies, they printed distinct batches for each different price. Here is an example newsstand copy distributed in the U.S. (note the 60¢ cover price with no alternate price included):
And now, an example copy of the same issue, but from the batch printed for Canadian newsstands (note the 75¢ cover price):
For Canadians this must have felt like a huge price hike: one issue they’re paying 60¢ and the next they’re asked to pay 25% more? Our countries and cultures are so intertwined; kids growing up watching baseball in New York and Toronto all tuned into the same games whenever the Blue Jays played the Yankees, and both sets of kids grew up reading Amazing Spider-Man and other comic books. Imagine how the kids in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada felt when their comic book buying power suddenly fell by 25%!
Huge Population Disparity At Play Here
At this point I want to point out that the population of the United States in the 1980’s was almost ten times the population of Canada. One source I found listed the population of the U.S. at 235.8 million in 1984, and the population of Canada at 25.7 million. Meanwhile, for contrast, the population of California in 1984 was 25.84 million. The population of California alone is already larger than all of Canada.
What this disparity should mean for the comparable rarity of the 75¢ cover price variants should be fairly obvious: by simple logic, drastically fewer of these were produced, to satisfy the demand of a drastically smaller market. A drastically smaller market that just got slammed with a 25% price hike. What’s also an important consideration is that the newsstand distribution channel was the only way to get the variants… because the comic shops across the U.S. and Canada all got the same direct edition copies with both prices listed. So we’re not just talking about a small market, we’re talking about the subset of that small market that was buying comics on newsstands instead of comic shops. And when it comes to condition of surviving copies, newsstand comics are notorious for being read to death, not to mention often discarded. Plus, to the staff of newsstands they were treated just like magazines (preserving condition for collectible value didn’t enter into their minds, for newsstands this was just another publication meant to be read, so they just tossed them right into those metal racks).
How Long Did These Variants Last? Were They Always Priced 75¢?
Clearly these 75¢ cover price variants are rare; a next logical question a collector may want to know is: during what time periods of publication can we find them? Let’s continue our look at these cover price variants within the Uncanny X-Men title. I showed pictures of issues #161 (immediately preceding the 75¢ variants) and #162 (the first 75¢ variant in the title) earlier. From there, how far out did these go before they stopped? Let’s check! Let’s look at issue #170 next, and then move up by 10’s until we hit the end of the publication window where these existed.
So the 75 cent variant phenomenon continues to 170; let’s continue up by 10 and see if it is still there at 180, 190, and 200:
As you can see, although issue #200 was double-sized and priced higher, the price variant phenomenon it is still going. But that’s about to change. Here is a direct edition copy of issue #210:
As you can see, the cover price has now jumped to 75 cents in the U.S., and the Canadian price has jumped to 95 cents. So do we still have Canadian newsstand variants at this point? Let’s take a look:
See what they did there? By issue #210 there is now one batch of newsstand copies printed for both the U.S. and Canada, with the two prices both listed on the cover (“95¢ CAN” in smaller type beneath “75¢ US”). So by merging the two previously distinct newsstand print runs into one, separate price variants have now ended. Was it the further price hike (to 95 cents) impacting demand on newsstands in Canada? Was it the steady decline of newsstand sales overall, with direct edition sales surging and taking over the market? Was it a bit of both? Probably. But at this point, one thing was clear: it no longer made sense for Marvel to print out a whole separate batch of newsstand copies for Canada. So they stopped, combining the print run and showing both prices. So from that point forward, U.S. and Canadian newsstands both got copies out of one large batch (just as they had been doing for the direct edition print run during that whole period). So if price variants are still going on at issue #200 but are over at issue #210, when was the last one? X-Men #208 is the last one:
So as you can see, although we started with 75¢ variants published for newsstands in Canada, at the end there we had 95¢ variants (and I’m even aware of a $1.00 variant in the Secret Wars title which I’ll get to in a bit).
To recap the window of time during which these cover price variants occurred:
First price variant: Uncanny X-Men issue #162, published 10/1982
Last price variant: Uncanny X-Men issue #208, published 8/1986
And the 10/1982 starting point and 8/1986 ending point held for other titles as well, for example, Amazing Spider-Man. In 10/1982 they were up to issue #233. Here’s the issue immediately before that, just to double-check that it was still 60 cents and there weren’t earlier variants for ASM:
It was. And now, here is issue #233:
As you can see, the 75 cent cover price variants have begun, with the same 10/1982 start date as in the Uncanny X-Men title. And just like in the Uncanny X-Men title, the final Canadian price variant was published 8/1986 (and here too it was 95 cents).
And then with issue #280 and on, Marvel switched to one newsstand batch to cover both countries, with both prices listed.
Our Window: 10/1982 to 8/1986 Is The Publication Date Range For These Price Variants
With this same pattern established across the two main titles, we can conclude that our window as collectors to look for these variants is any Marvel comic published 10/1982 through 8/1986 (a note here that this post is about Marvel but the same cover price variant phenomenon exists at other publishers such as Archie and D.C. which had different dates to their own price variant windows — D.C. Comics “Canadian Editions” lasted two years longer than Marvel’s… an example “key” outside of the end date of Marvel’s window is D.C.’s Legends #3 published in 1987 where a $1.00 price variant exists; this issue features the 1st New Suicide Squad appearance). Any key comic published within this cover price variant period should definitely be on our radar screens. Here are a few examples that stand out among the keys of this time period:
(1) Uncanny X-Men #201
In the Uncanny X-Men title, there are a number of very cool issues during our publication window, including a comic considered a “key” with X-Men #201 (first appearance of Cable as baby Nathan). Pictured below are the direct edition, U.S. newsstand edition, and Canadian newsstand edition for #201:
(2) Amazing Spider-Man #238
In the Amazing Spider-Man title, the first appearance of Hobgoblin is in issue #238 which falls squarely within our price variant window:
What also makes this issue doubly hard to find in high grade is the fact that it included free “Tattooz” inside and the book is considered incomplete (Qualified label at CGC) if these are absent. So to find a 75 cent variant with the Tattooz intact and the book in high grade condition, we need to be looking for the copies that were carefully plucked from the newsstands and stored away by a collector (a reader was likely to have ripped the Tattooz out and used them). Finding a complete newsstand copy with Tattooz intact is not such an easy feat… And the rarity shows up in the CGC census numbers, where as of this writing a grand total of 3,666 copies have been turned in by collectors to be graded. And of those, only 33 copies are the 75 cent Canadian Edition variant (and includes the ones that are in the Qualified column). That’s a little under 1%, essentially a “1-in-100” variant based on the census numbers, which are shown below from a screen-capture taken at the time of this writing:
Given this rarity, is the current market price premium warranted? I’d argue heck yes, and in fact, I think the current prices are an absolute bargain! Here’s what the popular online price guide ComicsPriceGuide.com shows for the comparable values:
As you can see above, this price guide values the 75 cent price variant at a 50% premium to regularly priced copies. At the time of this comic’s publication, the relative quantity of U.S. newsstand distribution copies versus direct edition copies may play a part in the price guide’s determination of equal value for the direct edition and U.S. newsstand edition. Although newsstand copies have a much lower survivorship rate than direct edition copies, it was not until the 1985/1986 time-frame that direct sales had grown to an even 50/50 split of the total distribution.
I also want to note that Hobgoblin later appeared in ASM #244 and interestingly for this issue the same price guide only applies a 25% premium for the price variant:
The smaller percentage premium for #244 versus #238 may have to do in part with the destruction rate of the #238 Tattooz in newsstand copies versus direct edition copies, but it also makes sense that the more sought after the key issue in question, the more awareness there will be out there among collectors about a more rare variant version. And ASM #238 is simply more sought after than ASM #244.
And to give an example of an even more sought after issue than ASM #238, consider Iron Fist #14. The 35 cent variants of Iron Fist #14 (also see the 35 cent variants of Star Wars #1-4 for another example) from 1977 when Marvel tested a price increase with a small batch of copies, are given a drastically higher value versus their regularly priced counterparts. For example — that same price guide gives a value of $5,000 for a NM 35 cent variant of Iron Fist #14 as compared to just $300 for a regular price copy of the same issue.
That’s about 17x the value ascribed to the variant over the regular priced copy. Meanwhile, for reference, on the CGC census there are 2,908 total graded copies of Iron Fist #14 and 43 of them are the price variant. That works out to 1.5% of the total. So a 1.5% rarity price variant translates to 17x the price, for Iron Fist #14.
(3) Amazing Spider-Man #252
First appearance of the black costume, and an Amazing Fantasy #15 cover swipe!
[ 12/13/2016 update: Also see my separate post specifically focused on this issue: Amazing Spider-Man #252 75¢ “Canadian Edition” Variant: CGC Census Rarity Over Time ]
This issue has an even higher count of total census copies at 6,906 as of this writing, with 118 of those or 1.7% being the 75 cent cover price variant.
(4) Wolverine Limited Series #2, #3, and #4
With issue #1 of the Wolverine Limited Series, we just miss the price variant window, with issue #1 published 9/1982. But issue #2, published 10/1982 has the 75 cent variant, as do issues #3 and #4.
I find these especially neat because of Wolverine’s debut as “The World’s First And Greatest Canadian Super Hero” which ties in so nicely with Canadian newsstands as the origin of the 75¢ price variants.
(5) New Mutants #1
Price variants for any comics outside of the “major” titles like X-Men and Spider-Man, are noticeably harder to find out there, and New Mutants #1 as an example of that phenomenon seems to be very scarce. There are no price variant copies on the CGC census at the time I wrote this blog post, not a single one is listed, despite the known treatment by CGC for other 75 cent price variants consistently being given the “Canadian Edition” variant treatment! But for New Mutants #1, not one single copy appears on the census!
Note that New Mutants #1 is credited by CGC as the second appearance of the New Mutants. For the 1st appearance of the New Mutants, there is a Canadian cover price variant out there to collect too [ see this separate post: Marvel Graphic Novel #4 — $5.95 Cover Price Variant (1st New Mutants Appearance) ].
(6) X-Factor #6
Published in July of 1986, X-Factor #6 contains the first full appearance of Apocalypse, and is an example where the cover price variant was 95 cents (with regularly priced issues being 75 cents).
The newsstand copies sent to Canada carried a 95 cent cover price:
For X-Factor #6 I want to walk through a print run analysis exercise — because 1986 is one of the years where insiders have specifically discussed the state of the two different comic book distribution channels and even given estimates for the distribution statistics at Marvel. Specifically, Jim Shooter has cited 1986 as the time-frame where he was battling the “brass” at Marvel to try and save the ailing newsstand distribution channel; and another industry insider, Chuck Rozanski, has pegged 1985/1986 as the time-frame when direct edition sales would overtake newsstand sales. (Here are some quotes from Shooter and Rozanski about what was going on in this time-frame).
And because X-Factor #6 was published right smack in the middle of the year 1986, this lets us very reasonably make a 50/50 split between direct edition and newsstand when estimating. We can cut the Canadian market right in half between the regular direct edition copies and the rare 95 cent price variants… making for some extremely easy ballpark math when analyzing the number of copies that were likely to have been our rare price variants (we don’t even need a calculator!):
Step 1: First we need to get an idea of the total sales of the comic as a starting point — a search turned up a print run of 340,000 copies for X-Factor #6 (according to this source).
Step 2: Ballpark the Canadian market size — based on the 1986 population statistics with Canada at 26.2 million people and the U.S. at 240.1 million people, that puts Canada at 9.8% of the combined market for comic books by population (for the entire price variant window this 9.8% figure holds by the way). Let’s round that up to 10% for easy math because that lets us simply move a decimal place. In other words, in this step we chop a zero off of the total from step 1. That means our ballpark math is 34,000 total copies sent to Canada (which would be inclusive of both direct and newsstand).
Step 3: Out of those 34,000 ballpark copies sent to Canada, we can now split those up by direct/newsstand. Based on the discussions by industry insiders, if we use the 1986 statistic being 50/50 direct/newsstand, that means our math is extremely easy: just chop that 34,000 in half… 17,000.
Conclusion: by these estimates, there may be only 17,000 copies of X-Factor #6 out there with the 95 cent variant cover price. For a key first appearance, this is already a very nice low number, but it is only the starting point estimate at time of distribution. Where did the typical high newsstand destruction rate take the numbers from there? As of 2016, the CGC census shows a mere 15 copies out of 3,438 total graded copies… putting the cover price variant at census rarity of 4 tenths of one percent, suggesting that the percentage of “CGC-worthy” survivor copies out there may be very low indeed.
“Rule of Thumb”
This estimation technique comes in really handy as a very quick and easy “rule of thumb” to estimate a ballpark count for the cover price variant numbers for any of these comics published closer to 1986 — first take the total across the issue number (inclusive of variants) as the starting point, then move the decimal place one to the left (or chop off the last zero, same thing), and then halve the resulting value. And of course, this is all estimation, but estimates can be useful.
(7) Secret Wars #8
Amid the chaos, there comes, a costume–! What is especially interesting about the price variant for this key, is that in the example before this one of X-Factor #6 — and for all the examples I showed earlier exploring the X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man titles — when they got to 75 cents U.S., the Canadian price variant became 95 cents. But for Secret Wars #8, Canadians were charged a full $1.00 [related: DC is believed to have test-marketed a nickel price increase with their $1.00 variants]. And being outside of a major title like Spider-Man or X-Men, I found that the variant for this one was also very difficult to locate when I went looking for a picture.
And if you were impressed by the under 1% CGC census rarity of the ASM #238 price variant, and the 0.4% CGC census rarity of X-Factor #6, wait until you see the comparable number for Secret Wars #8. Out of a total 7,919 copies sent in to CGC, there are a grand total of 25 copies of the $1.00 price variant Canadian Edition listed at CGC, or 0.32% of the total.
Remember too, that the 1.5%-rarity Iron Fist #14 copies are valued 17x higher than their regularly priced counterparts… and the astronomically-valued Star Wars #1 35 cent variant shows up on the CGC census with 3.2% rarity. So get ready for the bargain of the century because ComicsPriceGuide.com values the $1.00 Secret Wars #8 variants at a premium of… wait for it… equal to regular copies.
That’s right, no premium, not even the 25% premium given to ASM #244. Huh? And seeing this leads me to believe that maybe, just maybe, collectors don’t actually know very much about these variants. Maybe the price guide people don’t know very much about these either? Because no premium for this unbelievably rare price variant is ludicrous! Now that you’ve learned all this information about these price variants, wouldn’t you agree??
Thanks for reading, and Happy Collecting! Canadian newsstand comics are one of what I now know to be several “Special Situations” where CGC “breaks out” newsstand copies as distinct variants. Learn more about the other special situation categories which include “Newsstand Variant” comics (“incorrect” UPC codes), “Newsstand Edition” variants (manufacturing differences), and $3.99 Newsstand Editions (which carry a $1 higher cover price).